Three saluted as Davis Eco Heroes

This was published in my local newspaper based on some interviews with three inspiring local figures

Reduce, reuse and recycle. Not only is that the mantra for the environmental movement, it's a good way of summing up the contributions of three Davis residents who will be honored next week as Eco Heroes.

The trio — Ben Pearl, Larry Fisher and Derek Downey — will be recognized for their efforts to incorporate sustainable practices into our everyday lives by the Cool Davis Initiative, a coalition of residents, community organizations and the city of Davis. The awards will be presented at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10, as part of the Cool Davis Green Festival at the Veterans' Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St.

The free event will run from 2 to 5 p.m. and is one of more than 4,000 events in 171 countries worldwide in support of finding climate solutions.

Pearl, 27, is a board member of the Solar Community Housing Association, which recently moved two historic homes from B Street to Third and J streets to be retrofitted using the highest possible standards of energy efficiency and green building practices. The houses are being worked on by a large team of community volunteers.

Pearl, who grew up in a family that worked in the construction business, says, “The environmental track record of building in California, particularly in the last 10 years of the housing boom, has been terrible. There is a serious disregard for how materials are sourced, and little thinking on how to integrate energy efficiency into building, and how waste can be recycled.”

By working on a green retrofit, Pearl hopes to model good environmental practices. The construction teams are separating out all waste materials from the old houses so they are recycled appropriately. They are using designs that minimize the use of concrete (as its production process involves high CO2 emissions) and other heavy-impact materials. They are renovating rather than rebuilding parts of the house, and investing heavily in areas like insulation to maximize energy efficiency.

One month in, Pearl is already feeling the weight of 60-hour weeks, but also is inspired by the enthusiasm the project has received from the local community.

“I have learned about the value of community both in the sense of what it can create, and also how much work is needed to create and sustain it,” he said.

Fisher is a modern-day inventor who works out of the limelight, reusing and converting the stuff we throw away into useful products. He then distributes these to networks of cooperatives, migrant workers, overseas charities and anyone willing to prevent another object from ending up in a California landfill.

Born in Fresno in 1949, Fisher grew up taking apart and fixing things. His home-based business in Davis as a repairman of washers and dryers was a natural progression. During a 1984 visit to Nicaragua, “I realized that the perfectly good food supermarkets throw away here would have been equal to or higher quality to the food I bought in markets in Nicaragua.” He decided at that point to no longer buy new things and to commit his time to reusing and recycling what others had thrown away.

While recycling is better than tossing old products, it isn't as good as reusing them, Fisher said.

“Recycling metal still has to be transported, melted down and recreated, all of which have environmental costs,” Fisher explained.

He brandishes a spade that he made by hand out of an old TV antenna and discarded shovelhead. He has donated more than 300 garden tools made entirely of recycled materials to community gardens and housing co-ops.

“This shovel is durable and one of quality and could last a lifetime,” Fisher said. “Compare that with a cheap spade, imported from China, that you buy for a few dollars. You would be lucky if it lasts a few months with heavy usage.”

Downey, 24, a 2009 UC Davis graduate in biological systems engineering, is dedicated to composting organic materials including food scraps rather than sending them to the landfill.

He was the director of the student-run Project Compost at UCD in 2005-07. With a staff of three other students, he assembled a team of 15 to 20 volunteers to perform daily collections of food scraps and other compostable materials from the Coffee House, all the dining halls, labs and 15 other locations on campus.

The team used electrically powered vehicles to collect and transport more than 250 tons of food scraps every year to the Student Farm where the students added straw and composted the materials, eventually distributing the finished compost to food gardens on campus.

Project Compost also provided free compost workshops every quarter and maintained a compost demonstration site. Downey, hoping to attract more people to these workshops, built a worm farm — at one point with an estimated 100,000 red worms — that provided free worms to anyone wishing to start worm composting.

Downey has helped the Whole Earth Festival and the Davis Farmers Market move toward zero waste.

“Composting is very important because it recycles nutrients back into the soil that have been removed when crops were harvested,” he said. “Besides other benefits to the soil, it also can reduce landfill waste by 30 to 60 percent. This can have a major impact on our greenhouse gas emissions.”


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