Air Pollution in Austin

Global warming. Climate change. These terms make the problem of anthropogenic greenhouse gases seem kind of abstract: impossibly huge and far away in time and space.

moody sky

I live a pretty simple life. I don’t drive a car. I eat a vegetarian diet. My garden is organic and even includes native plants. I have a compost bin in the back. So, how much do I contribute to this problem? Can I feel even a little bit smug? No.

My impulse has been to blame other people for ‘peeing in the pool.’ They make an easy target those Heartland people like Marita Noon who feel good about standing in the warm glow of their own pee. Pee is what makes America great? Hope not.

As for fixing the problem I’ve often felt kind of hopeless. Because, what good can one person do? In those moments a terrible despair wells up in my heart: Why doesn’t someone do something about this?!?! But we aren’t princesses trapped in a tower. Waiting for rescue is the worst possible plan.

I have found it convenient to be oblivious — to not really know where I fit in this mess or what i can do to fix things. In that way I could shuffle the blame onto someone else and temporarily forget about it.

But pollution comes from somewhere; it doesn’t magically appear. And no community — no person — is innocent. So I looked around for more information. Specific information about where this pollution comes from. The answers were surprisingly easy to find.

Please click on this EPA link if you live in the United States and would like to know who is responsible for producing greenhouse gases in your community.

Here’s a map showing the locations of Austin’s bad guys. Actually, this is a map showing pollution sources for all of Travis County but as you can see they tend to cluster around the city.

austin polluters map
Austin Pollution Sources

First, Some Good News:

The third worst polluter (Decker Creek Power Plant) is supposed to be phased out by 2017. The City of Austin has a plan to convert this natural gas plant to 80% solar power.

And though Austin is booming our emissions have gone down in nearly every category since 2011. More people are creating less pollution. That’s something to celebrate. Yay, us.

Want to Do More?

This pie chart offers some clues. Follow the data as they used to say at school …

Sources Austin's AIr Pollution
Sources Austin’s Air Pollution

The two biggest sources of pollution in Austin come from generating electricity and rotting garbage.

We all know how to use less electricity. I can still hear my dad’s voice nagging across the decades, “Turn off the light if you aren’t in the room.” “Put on a sweater if you are cold.” Nagging has become a family tradition. I now say similar things to my son. “Close the fridge door.” And to my husband, “Let’s turn the AC off and go sit outside this evening.” Not wasting electricity is old news. Can I use even less? Probably.

The big surprise for me was how much our food system contributes to climate change. I understood the big picture. Depleting aquifers is bad. Trucking food across long distances is bad. Pesticides and herbicides are bad. Now I must add to the list: food waste is really bad.

Food mixed in with regular trash is estimated to make up about 40% of the trash in most landfills. And food waste releases one of the worst greenhouse gases of all: methane which is 72 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The Worst of the Worst

The purple slice representing Austin White Lime Company stands out. One company creates around 10% of all the pollution. Do they supply their own power? If not, then their footprint actually overlaps into the orange piece of pie. The “Other” category represents a handful of high tech manufacturers. Did you know they were so dirty? I didn’t. Can they do better? Let’s find out.

Zero Waste Heroes

There are many but for this post I think I will give a shout out to some of my neighbours: The Compost Pedallers. If you can’t or won’t make your own compost they will come to your house to take your kitchen scraps away. The scraps are given to local gardens and farms to be used to grow healthy local food. The ‘pedal’ in their name refers to the fact that they use bicycles instead of cars for pickup and delivery services. It would be great if they could expand their services across the entire city.

Why not just let the City’s solid waste services recycle your scraps? The problem is primarily one of size. Aerating huge quantities at the dump requires heavy duty machinery which burn fossil fuels. And as you can see from the light blue slice of the pie, that system simply isn’t working very well. Not only are they a significant point source for pollution but the trucks used to haul all that waste also contribute to the problem.


Whodunnit: Some Details of Austin’s Biggest Polluters

City of Austin Greenhouse Gas Emission Sources (in metric tons, 2013)

#1: Sand Hill Energy 601,180 (Power Plant) Burns natural gas to provide electricity

#2: Texas Disposal Systems Landfill 390,004 (Waste) Privately owned dump.

#3 Decker Creek Power Plant 360,049 (Power Plants) Burns natural gas to provide electricity.

#4: Austin White Lime Company McNeil Plant & Quarry 281,275 (Minerals) Lime products

#5: Samsung Austin Semiconductor 227,813 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#6: Hal C Weaver Power Plant 206,060 (Power Plants) Serves the University of Texas

#7 Freescale Semiconductor (2 sites) 176035 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#7: Sunset Farms Landfill 139,648 (Waste) Privately owned dump

#8: Texas Gas Service 92,682 (Petroleum and Natural Gas Systems) Supplies natural gas

#9: Spansion LLC 74,326 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#10: Waste Management Of Texas Austin Community Recycling & Disposal Facility 67,491 (Waste) Privately owned dump

#11: FM 812 Landfill 53,070 (Waste) Privately owned dump