Robots could make recycling cheaper and safer

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It makes sense to be wary of technologies designed to eliminate human labor. We’re humans ourselves, after all, and we can imagine how devastating it would be if bots could take over our jobs — if HAL or Siri or some other thing could saddle up to our standing desks and compose in-depth analysis, nuanced commentary, and scathing satire. But some jobs are so dangerous that we might be better handing them off to robots entirely. Or, at least, that’s what Boulder-based AMP Robotics is hoping. And it wants to make recycling cheaper — and more effective — while it’s at it.

Fast Company reports:

Working in a recycling facility is dangerous. Recent figures from the University of Illinois’s School of Public Health show that workers in a recycling plant are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 recycling workers died on the job in the U.S. …

AMP Robotics thinks it can cut the cost of running recycling by half, or even two-thirds, mainly from the substitution of machines for humans. It’s working on two robot systems, including a “cartesian-type” (which moves along an overhead gantry) and a “spider-type”(a swooping multi-pronged arm).

“The key part of [most recycling facilities] is people standing around a conveyor picking garbage out,” says founder Matanya Horowitz. “It’s a dangerous job and unpleasant, and expensive because you need a tremendous amount of manual labor. We hope to change the economics so recycling isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the economically superior choice.”

The robot systems are still in prototype form, but Horowitz says they’re teaching it to distinguish recyclable items and pick them out of the waste stream. “We use an array of off-the-shelf sensors, then we use a tremendous of image processing and machine-learning to recognize different kinds of object,” Horowitz says, describing something oddly similar to the human brain. But, hey, look at the silver-lining — while this technology may someday render our human recyclers obsolete, it also makes for cool video:


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology

Who are the rich Californians using millions of gallons of water a year? It’s a secret

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This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the midst of a searing drought, one home in this exclusive West Los Angeles neighborhood used an astonishing 11.8 million gallons of water in one year — enough for 90 households.

A lushly landscaped, mansion-studded enclave of wealth and celebrity, Bel Air has been home to Michael Jackson, Jennifer Aniston, and even former President Ronald Reagan.

Now, according to records obtained by Reveal, Bel Air has another distinction: Its 90077 zip code is also home to the biggest known residential water customer in California.

The city of Los Angeles won’t identify this 11.8 million-gallon user, whose water bill for the 12 months ending April 1 likely topped $90,000, according to the Department of Water and Power’s rate structure.

Nor has the city taken any steps to stop this customer — or scores of other mega-users — from pumping enormous quantities of water during a statewide crisis now in its fourth year.

It’s the same story throughout urban California.

Despite the drought, well-heeled residential customers in affluent neighborhoods are being allowed to use as much water as they want to buy, according to a review of utility records from the state’s biggest urban water agencies.

In all, 365 California households pumped more than 1 million gallons of water apiece during the year ending in April, the records show.

One million gallons is enough for eight families for a year, according to a 2011 state estimate, and many of California’s mega-users pumped far more than that. Of the total, 73 homes used more than 3 million gallons apiece, and another 14 used more than 6 million.

These mega-users live in San Diego’s posh La Jolla beachfront community, in affluent suburbs of Contra Costa County in the Bay Area, and especially in Los Angeles’ wealthy neighborhoods.

In addition to the state’s biggest user, Bel Air had 19 customers pumping more than 2.8 million gallons per year. In nearby Beverly Hills, the famously upscale zip code of 90210 had 32 customers using 2.8 million gallons or more.

The names of all these mega-users are secret. Los Angeles and all of the state’s other major water agencies declined to name any of their big guzzlers, saying that identifying a customer — even one using extraordinary amounts of water — would raise privacy concerns.

Reveal’s findings of wanton water use during the drought are “absolutely shocking,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica.

“Looking at the list that you’ve provided … I’m actually shocked by the amount of water that can be used in a single-family residence,” she said in an interview. “It’s appalling.”

While the water flows to the mega-users, the state’s urban water agencies have mounted a furious public relations campaign to persuade the public to cut water use in response to what they call “the drought of the century.”

In a barrage of public service broadcasts, emails, and fliers, Californians have been urged to rip out their lawns, stop washing their cars, and even limit their toilet flushing to save water. The conservation campaign has been pronounced a success: In August, the state said urban customers had cut their use by 31 percent.

But the agencies have shown little enthusiasm for restricting use by high-end customers who are consuming huge amounts of water. Only recently did two agencies — one in Oakland, the other east of Los Angeles in the Coachella Valley — begin imposing penalties on mega-users. Other agencies haven’t followed suit.

Instead, the agencies have fined hundreds of Californians for offenses such as hosing down their driveways or failing to replace broken sprinkler heads.

David Wilson, a homeowner in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, got slapped with $600 in fines for watering on the wrong day of the week and letting runoff flow into the street. He blamed a sprinkler malfunction.

Wilson thought the fines were excessive, and he said he was shocked to learn that the city was publicizing his name and address because of the violation.

When a reporter showed him a list of mega-users, with names withheld by the city to protect their privacy, Wilson said, “That’s asinine. These are the people that people should be going after.”

Looking at the top user on the list, Wilson asked, “Is this 11 million gallons? How do they even do that?”

Drought or no, simply using a lot of water can’t get you in trouble in L.A.

As long as Angelenos follow the other usage rules, they can pump as much water as they can pay for, said Martin Adams, senior assistant general manager for the water system at the Department of Water and Power.

“There’s no ordinance on the books in Los Angeles to go after an individual customer strictly for their use,” he said in an interview.

In a follow-up email, he suggested that concerns about mega-users were overblown, noting that the city’s top 100 residential customers account for only about two-tenths of 1 percent of L.A.’s total usage.

“This underscores the importance of focusing on water conservation citywide,” he wrote.

But other considerations come into play when a conservation program is based on voluntary compliance, noted Jack Humphreville, who monitors water issues for The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council civic group.

“Are you sending the right message if some S.O.B. is out there using 11 million gallons?” he asked.

Keith Warner, a Franciscan friar and ethicist at Santa Clara University, said water agencies have an obligation to make sure all Californians share the burden of conservation during the drought.

“It’s ethically problematic” to do otherwise, he said.

Of course, residential water use forms only part of the conservation picture during California’s drought; the state’s agriculture industry uses four times as much water as its cities and towns.

For this story, Reveal set out to identify the top 100 residential customers at the state’s biggest public water agencies. All the agencies resisted providing the information.

For decades, utility data was a matter of public record in California. During a 1991 drought, an Oakland Tribune news story that identified water wasters by name caused an outcry.

In the end, the biggest water users were forced to reduce their use by 20 percent or the East Bay Municipal Utility District threatened to limit the flow of water to their homes.

But in 1997, the legislature weakened the state’s Public Records Act and gave utilities the legal right to keep customers’ names and usage a secret. The measure was pushed by the city of Palo Alto, citing the privacy concerns of Silicon Valley executives. Still, the revised law said utilities could reveal this information if they determined that disclosure was in the public interest.

Earlier this year, Reveal asked California’s 22 largest public water agencies to identify their 100 biggest customers for the 12 months ending April 1, arguing that the public has a right to know about water use during a statewide emergency.

All refused.

But eight big districts — including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco — agreed to provide usage data after deleting customers’ names and addresses. Three also identified the zip codes where their biggest users reside.

But 14 agencies, including Sacramento, Fresno, and Modesto, refused to give any information at all.

Some contended that the law doesn’t require them to provide data about customers’ water use. Others said they didn’t keep track of consumption by their biggest customers — a remarkable assertion in the middle of a drought.

Silicon Valley’s water data also was unavailable because the San Jose Water Co. is a private company, and thus not subject to open records laws. But the data Reveal acquired showed that the mega-users were clustered in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state. Here are the details by region:


In August, Mayor Eric Garcetti said L.A.’s water use had dropped by 21 percent during two years of drought.

But the city also has 92 of the top 100 residential water users known in California. On average, L.A.’s mega-users pumped 4.2 million gallons per year apiece. The mega-users live in neighborhoods favored by the rich and famous.

The towering green hedges that line the winding streets of Bel Air screen the expansive homes of actors, film executives, and a host of entertainment lawyers, real-estate developers, and plastic surgeons.

Also living in Bel Air: not just the state’s biggest known water customer, but four of California’s top five, with usage ranging from 7.4 million to 11.8 million gallons per year.

Another pocket of mega-users was in Beverly Hills’ 90210 zip code, namesake of the 1990s television series about the problems of the young and wealthy. It’s home to actor Tom Cruise, soccer legend David Beckham, and corporate farmer Stewart Resnick, who owns more than 100,000 acres of heavily irrigated orchards in the Central Valley.

Also residing in 90210: the third-biggest water user identified in the state. At 8 million gallons per year, the customer used water for about 60 families.

Yet another concentration of mega-users was in Brentwood. The sixth-biggest known water user in the state (7.39 million gallons, which is enough for 56 families) also lives in Brentwood, along with 13 other residents who used 2.9 million gallons or more.


Oakland’s East Bay Municipal Utility District says it has begun assessing “excessive use penalties” on customers who pump at a rate of more than 359,000 gallons per year.

In the meantime, the agency’s 100 biggest customers all used at least 1 million gallons apiece. Most live in the Contra Costa County suburbs: 18 in the exclusive Blackhawk subdivision, 17 in upscale Alamo.

The district’s biggest single user pumped 3.5 million gallons in a year. This customer lives in an unincorporated area near the Diablo Country Club, where some properties have vineyards or orchards. Nine other customers in Diablo used 1.1 million gallons or more.

Utility district board member Doug Linney wanted to know more about the mega-users.

“I don’t know if they have a private golf course in their backyard or what, but it is a lot of water,” he said in an interview. “It certainly seems like it would warrant an investigation to send our team out there.”

Fremont’s Alameda County Water District had eight million-gallon customers — the biggest used 1.7 million. But in cool, foggy San Francisco, there were no million-gallon users at all. The biggest user pumped 781,000 gallons, enough for six families.


The city’s biggest user, at 4.6 million gallons, lives in La Jolla, the beach town where former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain keep homes. Two other La Jolla residents used 4.5 million gallons, and 29 topped the 1 million-gallon mark. Carmel Valley, a sprawling community north of downtown, had 36 customers who used 1 million gallons or more.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy

Fossil fuels may be causing some serious damage on “The Leftovers” — just like in real life!

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We’re back with a second season of The Leftovers, the HBO series that titularly compares a planet’s worth of humans coping with inexplicable tragedy to the lasagna at the back of your fridge. Underwhelming title aside, the show is a really fantastic piece of television with the kind of nuanced character development that makes one miss Mad Men at least slightly less. And if there’s anything I enjoy more than a wildly good-looking, brooding male protagonist intent on destroying everything good in his life, it’s a plotline that so much as hints at fossil fuels bringing about the destruction of mankind. Luckily, the second season premiere of The Leftovers delivered admirably on both counts!

Bear with me. The second season brings us away from the nice, troubled town of Mapleton, N.Y. to Jarden, Texas, a town that experienced none of the spontaneous evaporation of 2 percent of Earth’s population on a fateful October 14, and now enjoys a status as a national park and tourist site for gullible mourners. It’s also continually plagued by earthquakes large and small. The smart-ass Texas native watching the show with me had barely finished scoffing, “Texas doesn’t have any seismic activ–” when a grizzled onscreen bystander appeared post-tremor to remark, essentially, “Must be all that damn fracking.” Both topical and prescient, my friend!

And then — SPOILER — the episode concludes with a massive, house-rattling quake that somehow drains a vaguely mystical body of water outside the town, and swallows up three teen girls with it, leaving a whole lakebed full of suffocating fish. Does this count as another Departure? Or just another downside of fossil fuel extraction? Who can say!

This is not even the first time on the show that a possibly gas-related incident preceded an apparently supernatural one! Let’s not forget the penultimate episode of the first season, which is devoted to a flashback to the fateful October 14. Early in the episode, central hunk Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and all 12 of his impeccable abs are enjoying a brisk jog and a cigarette (as one does). When he wanders over to check out a quivering manhole cover on a gas line, he’s nearly decapitated as it explodes upward with a burst of flame. A few hours later, the town is driven into chaos as 2 percent of its residents disappear into thin air.

At this point, The Leftovers has departed (sorry) entirely from the book written by Tom Perotta. Plus, it’s co-produced and co-written by Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost, so the potential for its plot devolving into equal parts convoluted and nonsensical is high. No one knows what force, earthly or un-, is behind The Departed, so why the hell couldn’t it be natural gas? It’s certainly wreaking all kinds of havoc IRL. And if 2 percent of the population has to suddenly disappear from the Earth, might we suggest some of the people most in favor of perpetuating said havoc?

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living

This genius wants to make fuel from poop — no butts about it

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What if you could power your car with something you flush down the toilet?

It may seem like a dream (or a nightmare), but one genius hopes to make poop fuel a reality. Kartik Chandran, a Columbia University professor and environmental engineer, was recently awarded the prestigious MacArthur award for his work turning fecal sludge into fuel.

Chandran launched a pilot feces-to-fuel project in Kumasi, Ghana, in 2012, where a lack of wastewater treatment facilities means shit ends up in the water supply — and that’s not good for humans, or the planet. His hope was to convert fecal matter to biofuel that could be used locally. The pilot, however, needed work; Chandran and his colleagues were unable to extract enough fat from the poop to make fuel. The Washington Post reports:

Faced with an inefficient process and low yields, Chandran had to reconsider. “If we had just stopped there, we would have failed,” he says. Instead, he pushed forward, coming up with a process that relies on more than just the inherent fat content of feces. Instead of simply extracting fat from poo, the new method converts leftover sugars and proteins into fat as well, freeing up more for fuel.

“Ironically, one of the byproducts of our process is methane gas,” he says — biogas that can be used as fuel too. The process also leaves behind solids that can be turned into rich fertilizer with a bit of disinfection. And that’s just the beginning, says Chandran. His objective is not to compete with the existing biodiesel or biogas industries, but to use poop to fuel sanitation efforts in the developing world.

Chandran will use his $100,000 MacArthur award to continue this work, but he told the Post, “scientists can’t do it alone.” This effort will require public health officials, engineers, architects, government, and the public. And shit. The good news is, we’re not running out of that any time soon.

Filed under: Living, Science