Ditch Your Car for the Day and Take the Bus

Try it.

Taking the bus instead of driving your car is an eco-friendly inexpensive way to get around. It could actually be more convenient than a car, at least sometimes.

What went through your mind after reading the first sentence? “I already ride the bus to work.” or “Thanks for the reminder. I’ll look up bus schedules online right now.” or “Fine you take the bus but I do not want to.”

If it was the latter, I hear you. I am certain that I have had the same thought many, many times.

But the climate crisis has disrupted my thinking. I believe our society needs to change the way we live, significantly, even radically to live more lightly on Earth, now, not at some distant point in the future. To me, that means trying new things and doing things that are not in my comfort zone.

Sure taking the bus is not a revolutionary action but for me it is new and outside of my comfort zone (I’ll explain why later).

My spouse and I live in Cambria a small town (population 6,000) on the California Central Coast. San Luis Obispo (population 47,000) about 35 miles away is the biggest city in our county. We already walk a lot to get around and for pleasure. To minimize trips to San Luis Obispo in our gasoline-powered car we strive to combine errands, appointments, meetings, entertainment, and other activities.

We had not been on the bus in our county until a recent warm day in September. That day we took the bus to the “big city” to run errands. This post recounts our experience. I hope after reading it you will consider trying out the bus service where you live.

The brief overview below illustrates the significance of the transportation sector as it relates to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Transportation is the moving of people, animals, and stuff from point A to point B via cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, trains, ships, and other vehicles.

U.S. GHG Emissions by Sector in 2017 Pie Chart

As you can see from this chart transportation represented a whopping 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Over half of these emissions came from passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans. Source – U.S. EPA.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018, petroleum products (gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) accounted for 92% of the energy used for transportation in the United States of which 54% was gasoline.

U.S. GHG Emissions from Transportation 1990-2017
This timeline shows that there is a huge opportunity for improvement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in the United States. Source – U.S. EPA.

A small percentage of vehicles have transitioned away from petroleum products to natural gas (a “less bad” fossil fuel) or to biofuels which are made from plants grown on agricultural land that could be used to grow food. Electricity represents only 1% of the energy used for transportation.

Bus Alternative Fuel Transition Chart 2008-2018 - APTA
Most buses in the U.S. run on diesel and natural gas, but hopefully more and more rapid transit agencies will switch to electric buses.

Our Day on the Bus

If I was a more adventurous sort of person, I might have decided to try the bus on the spur of the moment. But I am one of those people who usually plan ahead and I like to have some idea about what to expect in new situations.

Therefore, I did some advance research on the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (RTA) website. I discovered bus service from and to Cambria is infrequent and that on the way to San Luis Obispo we would need to transfer to another bus in Morro Bay.

Deciphering the schedule was a bit challenging but I eventually figured it out. The legend on the route map indicated that there are timed stops where the bus always stops and untimed stops where the bus will stop if someone is waiting to get on or a passenger wants to get off. I learned about fares and that you can pay in cash on the bus (exact change only), use a smartphone app (my phone is too old), or buy passes online.

The RTA website had a handy video for first-time bus riders that showed how to plan your trip, pay on the bus, and to let the driver know you want to get off at an untimed stop which you do by pulling on the cord that runs along the top of the windows.

My spouse and I both work out of our home and have fairly flexible schedules. We decided to take the bus for a day trip to run errands in San Luis Obispo.

Waiting at Route 15 Bus Stop on Main Street in Cambria, CA

We opted for a mid-morning bus. The nearest timed bus stop is three-quarters of a mile from our house, but since I had done research ahead of time, I knew there was an untimed bus stop a quarter of a mile away. We arrived at that stop at 10:45 a.m. to wait for the bus.

Small San Luis Obispo RTA Bus

At 11:05, the small route 15S bus pulled up and we got on. There were seven people already on board. Photo – SLO RTA.

San Luis Obispo RTA Bus Pass

I fed $11.00 into the machine next to the driver and the machine spit out two paper passes that were printed on paper board with a readable strip. We would swipe these passes each time we boarded a bus that day.

We sat down in the front so I could talk to the bus driver and buckled up. I was surprised that the bus had seat belts. (I also knew that the front seats in a bus are designated for elderly or disabled people so I was prepared to move if needed.)

Our driver was a friendly man named Alan who seemed to know some of the passengers. When I asked him how long he had been driving the route 15 bus, he said 16 years. Before that, he had driven a tour bus at Hearst Castle. Alan joked that his son has told him that he is driving his life away. He said that he thought driving a bus was his calling.

The bus traveled along Highway 1. After the hilly terrain flattened out, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean for several miles.

We arrived in Morro Bay a few minutes beyond the scheduled time of 11:33 a.m. The full-size 12S bus was waiting for us so we walked off one bus and directly onto the other bus. We swiped our passes, found seats, and sat down (no seat belts on this bus). There were ten or so other passengers when we got on the bus.

At 12:08 p.m., we arrived just two minutes late at the outdoor San Luis Obispo transit center near City Hall. The county buses pull up in one section and the San Luis Obispo city buses line up across the intersection.

Hot Fudge Sundae from McConnells in San Luis Obispo, CA

Now we were in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo so it was easy to walk around completing our various errands. We treated ourselves to ice cream at McConnell’s (to be truthful I had a hot fudge sundae).

My understanding of the schedule meant that we needed to take the 12N at 2:33 p.m. in order to make our connection in Morro Bay with the 15N at 3:00 p.m. so we arrived at the Transit Center with about 15 minutes to spare.

San Luis Obispo County RTA Bus with Bike on Bike Rack
This photo of one of the full-size RTA buses shows a bike on the bike rack. Photo – SLO RTA.

We sat on one of the benches observing buses coming and going. I watched one man ride up on a bike and then hoist it onto the bike rack at the front of the bus. It is low to the ground but I doubt I could lift a bike up that far.

When the 12N arrived, we got on, swiped our passes, and found seats in the middle of the bus. This bus did not leave right on time because apparently, we were waiting for another bus to arrive. When it did, some passengers got off that bus and walked over to board our bus. We headed out at 2:36 p.m. with about 20 passengers.

The 15N bus with Ernesto at the wheel was waiting for us when we arrived in Morro Bay at 3:02 p.m. (2 minutes late). We swiped our passes for the last time and sat down among the handful of passengers already on board.

As we approached the untimed stop across from the one where we had started our journey, I saw three people waiting to get on. Ernesto let us off at 3:41 p.m. and we walked back to our house arriving at 3:50 p.m.

Whew, we had successfully taken the bus from Cambria to San Luis Obispo and back. Next time, perhaps we will try getting around San Luis Obispo on the city bus.

Bus Benefits and Drawbacks

Riding the bus that day was a good experience all around.

The buses were clean and comfortable. When I asked the bus drivers questions, they answered politely with varying levels of enthusiasm. The passengers ranged in age from college students to seniors and we did not encounter any obnoxious or unruly behavior.

Our trip was relaxing and hassle-free. With the bus driver handling the driving, we were free to sit back enjoying the scenery and talking with each other. In San Luis Obispo, we did not need to navigate a parking garage or search for street parking. We saved the cost of parking, avoided wear and tear on our car, and did not have to pay for gas.

We usually walk around downtown San Luis Obispo even when we drive our car there but the bus required extra walking between our house and the bus stops. I think this a good thing.

For us, the limited schedule is a major drawback. We could take the bus to San Luis Obispo to attend an evening meeting, which we do almost weekly, but we would have no way of getting back home. I doubt that expanding bus service to our small town is even on the county’s radar screen but I suppose I could try to find out.

Now that you have read this post you might be wondering why I even wrote it since it seems that we will not be ditching our car in favor of the bus for most trips to San Luis Obispo.

I wrote it because living more lightly on the planet requires changing how we live our daily lives. If we don’t try new things, how will we ever change? How will we figure out what needs to be done to make riding the bus a workable solution for more people?

Perhaps there is a wonderful bus service where you live. You won’t know unless you try it.

Featured Image at Top: This photo shows 69 volunteers, 69 bicycles, 60 cars, and one bus gathered in Canberra, Australia to recreate a world-renowned photograph taken more than 20 years ago to demonstrate the advantages of bus and bicycle travel in congested cities. Photo credit – Australia Cycling Promotion Fund.

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Anaerobic Digesters are Good for the Environment

Don’t waste your green waste.

An anaerobic digester can magically transform your yard trimmings and food scraps into electricity and other good stuff so please do not send it to a landfill.

A reasonable question is “What the heck is an anaerobic digester?” In short, it is a giant tube that uses an anaerobic (without oxygen) fermentation process to convert the contents of your green waste bin into renewable energy (electricity or vehicle fuel), liquid fertilizer, and compost.

Kompogas Anaerobic Digestion Process Infographic
Kompogas anaerobic digester plant process infographic – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

You cannot imagine my amazement and delight, when several weeks ago, I spotted a social media post from SLO Natural Foods Co-op offering a tour of the anaerobic digester plant in San Luis Obispo, CA. I had wanted to visit it for months, but I did not expect that my Co-op membership would be my ticket in.

My spouse and I were already scheduled for a long-awaited tour of the Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) the morning of the same day. Fortunately, the anaerobic digester tour was in the afternoon.

In the previous post entitled, All Americans Should Visit a Landfill, I covered our visit to the landfill and MRF. This post will focus on the anaerobic digester.

First, let’s talk about your green waste bin.

Green Waste Bin

The waste industry refers to the stuff you put into your green waste bin as organic waste because it comes from a plant or animal organism and contains carbon compounds. Examples include tree branches, leaves, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peelings, meat bones, coffee grounds, eggshells, and cooked, processed, and spoiled food.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not even have a green waste bin. If you do, you may or may not be allowed to put all or only some of the items listed above in it. Check with the company that provides waste removal services for your household.

U.S. Solid Waste Generation by Material 2015 Pie Chart

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015, organic waste (wood, yard trimmings, and food) accounted for a whopping 34.6% of the total solid municipal waste generated in the United States.

The purpose of a green waste bin is to keep organic waste out of landfills where it emits CO2 in the early stages of decomposition and methane after it is buried and deprived of oxygen. Methane is a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than CO2 and is a significant cause of global warming.

San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant uses the Kompogas® patented dry anaerobic digestion technology owned by Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI).

Aerial View of Kompogas Plant in San Luis Obispo, CA
This is an aerial view of the Kompogas Plant in San Luis Obispo, CA. The rounded rectangular building houses the anaerobic digester –source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

Bringing the anaerobic digester to San Luis Obispo County was a multi-year effort initiated by Bill Worrell, the former general manager of the San Luis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority. He first became aware of the Kompogas technology during a trip to Europe in 2010. At the time, the company that owned the patent was not interested in doing business in the United States.

HZI acquired Kompogas in 2014 and they did want to expand into North America. In 2015, HZI and Waste Connections collaborated on a proposal to build an anaerobic digester in San Luis Obispo.

Over the next several years, the project was approved, underwent environmental review, obtained grants and funding, and was constructed. It opened for business on November 15, 2018.

Revenue is generated from several sources.

  • 65% – tipping fees based on the weight of the green waste each truck delivers and dumps
  • 30% – electricity generated by burning the biogas produced in the anaerobic digester (enough to power about 600 homes)
  • 5% – liquid fertilizer and compost (that remain at the end of the process)

Touring the Plant

After my spouse and I finished our landfill and MRF tour, we stopped by SLO Natural Foods Co-op to grab lunch before heading over to the anaerobic digester plant.

Truck Carrying Green Waste on Weight Scale

While we were waiting for our group to assemble in the parking lot, this truck pulled onto the weigh scale. The plant receives about 100 tons of organic waste a day five days a week.

Thomas Gratz U.S. Sales Manager HZI at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Thomas Gratz, the U.S. sales manager for HZI was our tour guide.

He knows every inch of the plant and did an excellent job explaining its operations in a way non-technical people like me could understand.

Intake Area at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

In the waste receiving building, Thomas talked about how various machines screen out non-organic materials.

As you can see from this pile, most of the green waste currently received at the plant is yard waste (about 90%).

Green Waste Chip Storage and Automated Crane at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

After screening, everything is chopped into 2″ feedstock pieces and stored in concrete bunkers.

The yellow automated crane (it reminded me of the claw in Toy Story) grabs chips and deposits them on a staging platform for a conveyor.

Chip Conveyor Intake Area to Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This is part of the conveyor that transports the feedstock chips from the intake building on the right to the anaerobic digester building on the left.

Pipe Feeding Chips into Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The black tube structure delivers the chips from the conveyor into the anaerobic digester.

The digester has a plug-flow design meaning that the chips being fed into the tube push the material down the digester.

Motor that Turns Agitator Blades in Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This motor, which is lower on the building than the tube above, turns agitator blades that run the length of the anaerobic digester to keep the contents mixed up.

I am sure Thomas told us the dimensions of the anaerobic digester but I did not record them. I estimate it is about 140 feet long with a diameter of 30 feet or so. This construction photo depicts its scale – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

Inside the anaerobic digester bacteria and heat ferment the feedstock chips turning them into biogas and digestates (more on this later).

Anaeraboic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant
This shot is from the door of the building that houses the anaerobic digester. The digester is the black structure running the length of the building.
Earthquake Footings and Heating Pipes for Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Thomas explained the seismic features of the digester like the footing show here.

You can also see some of the pipes and tubes that connect the heating system to the bottom of the digester to keep the bacteria happy during fermentation.

After walking up several flights of metal stairs, we reached the top platform from which we could survey the grounds of the plant and the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo.

The plant has several safety measures to ensure that no pressure builds up inside the anaerobic digester.

  • The first line of defense is a domed storage tank that can hold several days of produced biogas if for some reason it cannot be burned in the combined heat and power plant on site.
  • If the tank is full, then the excess biogas would be burned inside a concrete flare tube.
  • As a last resort, a gas overpressure valve would burst to release the methane-containing biogas into the air.

An environmentally friendly feature of the plant is that everything is surrounded by curbs and drains. Stormwater runoff is collected in stormwater ponds. Cleaning and wash down water are contained on site and reused in the anaerobic digester.

Combined Heat and Power Equipment and Pipes at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The combined heat and power plant burns the biogas (methane) produced by the anaerobic digester.

The heat is used to keep the inside of the digester at the proper temperature. Electricity not used to run the plant is sent to the electric grid.

Various impurities are removed prior to and after burning the biogas. For instance, hydrogen sulfide, a highly corrosive chemical compound is converted into sulfur that can be used to make fertilizer.

Tour Group and Conveyor to Compost Building at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The pipe on the right returns about 30% of the liquid digestate to the digester. The remaining liquid is stored in a tank for later sale.

The conveyor on the left moves solid digestate to the composting building.

Tanker Truck Pumping Out Liquid Digestate at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This tanker truck pulled up while we were admiring the back end of the anaerobic digester building.

The liquid digestate being pumped from the storage tank was destined for a local vineyard to be used as fertilizer.

Compost Bunkers at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The solid digestate is stored in these bunkers while it is aerated to create compost for sale.

Inside the composting building, it was extremely humid and the air felt heavy to breathe. Negative air pressure keeps any odors inside the building.

Tree Root Air Filter for Compost Building at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Microorganisms growing on this mass of tree roots absorb the volatile organic compounds (smelly stuff) in the exhaust air from the composting building.

Dan Kallal in our group took this photo.

Lastly, Thomas showed us how the plant is monitored 24/7/365 via an online system linked with the home office overseas.

My impression of the Kompogas Plant is that it has been carefully designed and constructed to safely take in green waste and food waste and convert it to biogas, fertilizer, and compost. The process is both straightforward and complex.

I know I barely scratched the surface of the anaerobic digestion process in this post, but hopefully, you got the gist. There is more information in the resources section.

A Few Words about Food Waste

I cringe whenever I read or hear the words “food waste.”

Growing, transporting, processing, distributing, and preparing food requires a tremendous amount of land, resources, water, energy, and people power.

Our first option should always be to eat the food we buy and to make sure everyone else has enough food to eat. Sending food to an anaerobic digester or a composting facility should be the last option.

You can do your part by eating the food you buy and putting your yard trimmings and food scraps in your green waste bin.

Featured Image at Top: this infographic shows the Kompogas process ecological cycle – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

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