“Who here has used a clean toilet today?”

If you are like me, you probably said “Yes” to the above question.  We will revisit it later in this article.  When Auerbach and Vallabhaneni opened with that question to the audience little did they know that they would walk away with roughly $100,000 to help build their dream.  The event in question was the highly contested 21’st MIT $100K Business plan competition.  And so whats the big deal about a clean toilet anyway you may wonder.  Well atleast we don’t give it a second thought as we go through our daily motions – literally! But, there are folks in poorer nations for whom clean sanitation is a challenge.  Along with the denigrating aspects of having to relieve oneself in the open, the lack of proper facilities could lead to deadly diseases and maladies well avoided with simple mechanisms.  Atleast that is what Vallabhaneni & company seem to have had in mind.  And while they are at it they just don’t want to solve the problem at hand.  Why not go a step further and use the human generated waste if possible.  From amongst 280 other submissions Sanergy the brainchild of Vallabhaneni and his cohorts won the much coveted award for their submission which is a low-cost, energy-converting sanitation solution.

According to Sanenergy’s founders more than 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation especially in developing countries the world over.  As mention earlier, this leads to over 1.7 million deaths each year through water-borne diarrheal diseases, and Sanergy calculates an economic impact of over $84 billion in worker productivity.  For the initial phase Sanergy identified Kenya as the market ripe to demonstrate the power of their solution.  The solution itself is very simple and broken into three core pieces.  A networked approach to sanitation provides humans the dignity for that most odious of jobs we all have to do pretty much each waking day.  More importantly their system accounts for and collects the waste in a few central locations.  This is where the magic happens.  From waste to bio-methane and fertilizers, Sanergy is able to bring to full cycle a solution that contributes back to society.  This is really a ‘clean’ toilet.  Cleaner than yours or mine and you may be living in the most advanced country in the world right now reading this blog!  In terms of execution and growth within five years, the team hopes to provide facilities to more than 500,000 Africans, generating 7.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 11,000 tons of fertilizer.

When it comes to building companies, one cannot emphasize enough the wisdom of building a team with the right DNA.  Sanergy seems to have scored a home run here as well.  While a few of the founders (and for obvious reasons) are from the prestigious MBA program offered at MIT-Sloan, they have ensured that they have a well balanced team to go to market with.  Ella Peinovich is a masters student in Architecture.  Her work in terms of ensuring the right designs for the entire sanitation system feeds into the work of Joel Veenstra who is a senior in Civil Enginerring.    Other members of this team include Nathan Cooke a designer at D-Lab, Nathan Sharpe an alumni of Mechanical Engineering and Benji Moncivaiz a senior in Mechanical Engineering.

Surely your answer to the question the blog posed is probably ‘No’ at this point.  You and I  probably did not use a ‘CLEAN’ toilet today.  Sanergy is making it possible in Kenya.  For this they deserve their victory in the business plan competition and many more to come.

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Harvesting Organic Waste – Harvest Does it

A recent techcrunch article on a certain company turning organic food and yard scraps into energy amongst other things got me curious.  The fact the folks at Harvest the company in question had added an additional $6M to its series B funding efforts, definitely added to my interest in finding out what they do.

Harvest deploys best-of-breed technologies to produce renewable energy and high value soil and organic fertilizer products; all from what one would otherwise have considered “waste” materials.  The technologies include composting, anaerobic digestion, and biomass gassification.  in their view organic waste is not waste at all. Its a gold mine waiting to be tapped.  Their value chain relies on the following inputs to their processes and technologies – food scraps, yard debris, paper fibers, manure, crop, etc.  These are sourced from residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural entities.  Through various technologies such as composing, anaerobic digestion etc, they are able to convert these raw materials into many products in the following categories – soil products, renewable energy and engineered products.  What would normally have gone waste is converted into useful products and put back into circulation.

Harvest truly innovates when it comes to organic waste. Their anaerobic digestion, material recovery and biomass gasification technologies produce clean, low-cost energy in the form of biogas or syngas.   According to the company, this can be converted into electricity, heat and natural gas suitable for use in a variety of applications.  Similarly, Processed Engineered Fuel (PEF) and Hog Fuel (that comes from wood chips) is another good way for organics recycling.  Lastly, their technologies help produce high quality compost mulch, biochar that can be used to sustain agriculture, conserve soil and water, control erosion and mitigate climate change.

Harvest truly deserves every cent and more of their funding!

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Say Give Me a Tap When All You Want is Water

Editors Note: I just corresponded with Edwin Broni-Mensah of GiveMeTap.  To date they have sold over 800 bottles and that amounts to (a potential) 120,000 plastic bottles from going to landfills (using the approximation that on average a person consumes around 150 plastic bottles a year).

Say I told you that a few billion plastic water bottles end up in landfill every year.  How does that make you feel?  Sure we all get thirsty. And yes we are in a hurry.  Oh by the way we dashed out the door this morning and all we have is plastic in our pockets.  We reach for that debit card and that ice cold bottle of water in the corner store.  Thirst Quenched. Landfill well maintained.   2.7 Billion bottles a year.  That is worth repeating but I will spare you the dire predictions.

Its one thing to ingest such news, quite another to do something about it. Well as the blog title says ‘Give me a Tap’ set out to do just that.  Their idea is very simple and quite scalable (today the service is UK focussed).  It goes something like this. You buy a branded ‘Give me a tap’ bottle from these folks.  It takes them about 5 days to ship the bottle to you.  They have arranged with other like minded eco-friendly establishments to provide you with water whenever you need it.  Clean drinking water at no cost.  Of course you better take their life time aluminum bottles with you and not a plastic bottle.   Restaurants and cafe owners sign up to provide clean and free drinking water.

I think this is a very innovative idea and its very well executed.  Their site even features an interactive map where one can very easily locate a water provider.  And, if that was not easy 70% of the proceeds go towards funding social, sustainable causes.  Take for example their work around All4One Namibia Water Project in conjunction with theKalahari Peoples FundAccounting4Africa and The Redbush Tea Company.  The idea is to drill a borehole that will eventually sustain the water needs of roughly 1200 people.

All in all Give Me A Tap has hit a home run with their idea.  Their message is “sustainability – to stay hydrated, reduce waste and save money. It’s time to think globally and drink locally.”  Very apt!

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These restaurants get it! Do you

The other day, I stood on the corner of a strip mall which has a PF Chang’s a Starbucks, a Pasta Pomodoro and a Chipotle restaurant.  As folks were making their friday dinner plans, I briefly interrupted some of them.  I had just one question to ask. It went something like this. “If you survey the restaurants in this complex you find quite a variety in terms of cuisine and dining environment and potentially service.  If I told you one of these restaurants was also eco-friendly and green would it matter in your decision of where you go eat tonight?”  That’s it a simple Yes or No answer.  No multiple choices, or exacting details or weighted probabilities to get to an expected value answer.  No this was not going to be an exercise in testing Mr. Baye’s conditional theorems in probability.  While the answer did not surprise me it was heartwarming nonetheless.  70% of those surveyed (ok the sample size was small at 10 and I know this is not the most of scientific surveys) said “yes it mattered to them and that if a restaurant was making efforts to be eco-friendly, they would factor it into their decision matrix”  Hurray for restaurants – well atleast for those who get it!  And that is the topic today.

A quick survey by one of my pals yielded the following list of eating establishments that have decided to take steps in becoming eco-friendly.  In no particular order these are:

Carinos Italian,  Rendezvous, MA,  The Grey Plume,  Ruby Tuesday,  Roots Gourmet,    Pizza Fusion

Now, again this is not an exhaustive survey of the landscape.   Clearly there are others with equal or more robust programs that we have not mentioned above.  There are potentially the bigger restaurant chains, or the smaller mom & pop restaurants (reach out if you are a mom & pop restaurant doing your little bit to be sustainable, we want to know).  We know this is not the complete list.  The point is the restaurants mentioned above get it.

Next we drilled down a few of these restaurants’ green programs to see what they were involved in.  Carinos for example has a cool roof program which uses high solar reflectance material to bounce back the heat so it requires less energy to keep its restaurant cool.  In Texas this chain claims that 30 of its restaurants get a part of their energy requirements met by using wind energy.  They also use energy star equipment and bulbs, as well as have a cooking oil recycle program.  Way to go Carinos!  Others have similar programs.  At Rendezvous a Cambridge Massachusetts restaurant the owners and employees walk to work or use some form of public transportation.  They religiously separate trash and encourage and have gotten their patrons to agree that bottled water is probably not such a good idea!  Roots Gourmet goes one step further.  It gives 10% off to diners if they ride their bikes to eat! Talk about building an appetite and watching your carbon footprint at the same time.  All of their coffee and tea is organic and fair trade obtained.  And the list goes on for others in many different categories.

As I closed out on my survey that evening,  I realized that a lot of folks get the trend.  A lot of dine out patrons want this to continue and blossom at their favorite dining places.  A lot of folks get it.  Yes, restaurants going green is a market embodiment of patrons desiring sustainable practices and choices in the places they prefer to put their dollar.  Both restaurants and you the readers and diners get it indeed!  Happy eating

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500 Gallons Interview with Aseem Das – Founder, CEO of World Centric

As part of the ‘We Salute You’ series of interview, the 500 Gallons crew had the opportunity to sit down with Aseem Das Founder, CEO of World Centric a Palo Alto Company.  What follows are clips from that interview.  Aseem who holds a master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Oregon started World Centric in 2004.  In addition to selling bio-compostable consumables, World Centric is also involved in acts of social justice, environmental education and protection, as well as in helping charities and other non-profits through financial means.   It’s a stated goal for World Centric to turn over 100% of its profits to grass roots social and environmental organization!

We spoke at length on a host of topics that gave us insights into his experience running World Centric, the initiatives he has been a part of, as well as his opinions and thoughts on sustainability, environmental protection and social justice

In Part I, Aseem talks about how World Centric got started, provides a glimpse into its history and transformation.

In Part II Aseem spoke to us at length about sourcing products from China, full cycle energy expenditure and environmental effects of sourcing harmful Styrofoam vs. bio-compost-able products.

Finally in Part III Aseem talks about how World Centric works to be a zero carbon footprint organization, as well as the DNA of the company and sums it up with some advise for would be entrepreneurs looking to enter the social, environmental space. 

We hope you enjoyed this edition of the ‘We Salute You’ series of interviews from 500 Gallons. If you  have questions, or recommendations or wish to participate in these interviews, please reach out to us at info@500gallons.com

Until next time….

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Pushing Green – Pushing the Needle on Green Savings

I had heard about Pushing Green (PG) from a few of my friends and I was really curious as to what it was all about. Recently, I went to their website to find out for myself.  The site claims 5133 total members, 295 challenges completed as of writing, $393K in energy savings, and 2207 tons of total carbon reduced.

‘Enter your address’.  With that simple piece of information it told me that my energy bill was around $257 which was fairly accurate.  What got me going further was that they said they could reduce it to $64 a month.  Of course I had to join the site to find out how.  A few inputs later (login, password, who to share photos and information with) I was a member.  Simple!

First stop to see how to reduce that energy bill.  I went to my profile and with no further input my estimated monthly energy bill had dropped down to $152, with a promise to reduce it to $38.  This differential remains a mystery as all I did between entering my address on the welcome screen and looking at my profile was to get a login account (no picture uploaded).  Clearly the folks at PG need to take a closer look at this. There must be an explanation I am sure!

There are many ways to go green and reduce your energy footprint. We all know that – we just don’t get around to it.  PG aims to get us going on this path in a fun sort of way.  The ‘Green Challenges’ section lets you challenge yourself and your friends (yes gratuitous Facebook blast included) and build a pyramid team – invite 100 Facebook friends who invite 100 of their friends and so on…Today there were about 25 challenges that were live.  These varied from decreasing the temperature of the water heater by 20 degrees to replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL’s to getting quotes on high-efficiency windows.  I decided to join the challenge of changing bulbs at an individual level.  10 incandescent bulbs switched to CFLS are supposed to save $150 per year, reduce my carbon footprint by 1.48 tons and get me 12 points on the PG scale.  Heck why not!  The challenges are based purely on an honor system.  Just to try it out I claimed I had changed bulbs around the house and the site congratulated me and told me that I had earned 10 points pushing my PG rating to 13.   Drilling deeper into the challenge itself, PG provides in-depth information on cost savings, energy savings, where to buy, and other information (in this case CFL) pertinent to the product.  And of course my honor-roll comment that I had changed the bulbs around the house found a place on the details page of the challenge.  Now we were social, and global!

Some enhancements that PG should consider are around claiming ‘Complete’ for a task or challenge.  There ought to be a way to back out the ‘Complete’ sticker.  Clearly, testing like I was doing is one use-case and there may be others. Maybe someone clicks it inadvertently.  Or, they are using PG as a green program management tool and there are different degrees of completion.  Hope that is on your feature-futures list guys!  Of course I had to go back to my profile to see if the energy savings as a result of replacing bulbs was reflected in my new estimated monthly energy bill.  I was hoping it would have dropped by say $12 a month (approximate savings of $150 a year thanks to changing the bulbs) and gone from $152 to $140 a month.  Instead, the original figure of $152 still stared me in the face… Digging a bit deeper I learnt that according to PG the energy bill savings were based on 7 product recommendations they had made for me (solar electricity, home energy audits, HVAC, Insulation, Window Replacement/Repair, Solar Hot Water Heating, Water Heaters – Electric and Tankless).  Obviously changing light bulbs and saving $150 a year did not factor into this.  Hopefully the real time ‘Challenges’ that one undertakes can be tied back into the profile to compute actual savings in a dynamic fashion.

Other areas of the site educate us on various initiatives one can engage in going green.  The ‘Products’ section lists out audits and service providers as well as products that will assist in living an eco-friendly lifestyle.  Getting a quote on home energy audits was as simple as providing a few details and then letting service providers reach out to me.  It was very easy.  Other sections include ‘Green News’ and ‘Forums’.  The forums themselves are well categorized and organized and cater to a host of topics from lifestyle, to politics, to products and technology discussions.

All in all a great concept and very well executed.  PG hopes to use the social, communal effect to help people become green aware and also embrace an eco-friendly lifestyle at one’s own pace.  Tying the various initiatives to measurable tangibles such as carbon footprint, and energy savings helps users directly correlate the benefit of the actions they take.  By riding on tactics such as Challenges, and peer-pressure the company hopes to leverage the social fabric when it comes to being eco-friendly.  If anything, eco-friendliness is about a coming together of everyone to do their little bit for the planet.  Clearly Pushing Green has hit a home run in identifying and capitalizing on this aspect of the green movement.  Good work guys!

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Is Your Choice of Restaurants Dependent on How ‘Green-Sustainable’ They Are?

Quick Mother’s Day Poll to see if being green and sustainable factor into how you choose where to eat out!  Happy Mother’s Day and thanks for taking the poll

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