Where does it come from? Where does it go?

Posted on February 4, 2011 by Anne Basye

In blizzards like this week’s, basic services matter. When snow fell in Chicago, I was always grateful that my heat, water, and light almost never quit.

Where those resources came from mattered less. But connecting to services in my new home in Washington State, I’m asking: where does it come from? Where does it go?  And what is its environmental impact?

Electricity was first. In Chicago, my carbon footprint was high even though I had no car, because so much electricity is generated from coal. Naively, I assumed that Puget Sound Energy electricity would come from hydropower in the mountains and the manure-to-power plant down the road. What a surprise to learn that 56 percent of PSE power comes from coal and natural gas. A big chunk comes from the Colstrip plant in Montana—the second-largest coal power plant west of the Mississippi!  On the plus side, by signing up for Green Power, I can help boost the proportion of biomass and wind power in the overall PSE power mix. Consider it done.

Next, cooking gas. For the first time, I have a propane tank. Checking into this, I’ve learned that more than 80 million barrels of this byproduct of natural gas and petroleum processing are stored in giant salt caverns in Texas, Kansas, and Alberta. Factoring in extracting, processing and delivering, propane produces slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas but much, much less than electricity, which “looks” clean when it is used, but, once you add in emissions released as it is produced, stored, and transported, is the dirtiest of all fuels. (Something to keep in mind if you are excited about owning an electric car.)

Water, supplied by the county, comes from a mountain watershed, is stored in a reservoir, treated, and then piped to homes like mine. But I’m not connected to the sewer system; my waste water goes into the septic system out back. The science of septic tanks is something else I’ll be reading up on.

My landlords take their garbage and recycling to the local transfer station themselves. With no car and no outdoor storage shed, this is not an option for me. But the most recent Skagit County Solid Waste Management Plan recommended that local scavengers support recycling and composting by offering every-other-week pickup of one trash can. Bingo! I signed up for that paradigm-shifting service. When my garbage leaves the transfer station, it will be sent by train to a landfill in Klickitat County, where electricity is generated from methane. My compost will go in the garden and the dry recyclables will be stored until I can join someone else’s recycling run.

What do electricity, gas, water, sewage, and garbage services have to do with hunger? Severing these resources from their context and system makes it easy to waste or denigrate them. Knowing where our resources come from can change our behavior. (Maybe I should rely more on propane and less on electricity that turns out to come from a Montana coal mine!) Understanding who delivers these services also builds respect in a climate marked by griping about taxes. (Thanks, Skagit County, for designing a system that will treat everything from construction waste to agricultural waste to the cans and bottles of people like me. Thanks, Skagit PUD, for the clean water.)

Wherever we work on hunger issues, it makes sense to identify and understand existing systems before pursuing individual projects. How many of us well-building Lutherans know about the context of Water Supply and Sanitation in Tanzania?  A little due diligence might persuade us to invest water funds in strengthening an existing water delivery system instead of building “our own” well from scratch.

We live out our days inside systems. Most of them are transparent. Can you see yours?!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal