‘How do they treat wastewater when they go into outer space?’

Hey there, I imagine that, like me, you may be giving thanks for less time on Zoom this week. (Yes, I’m sure you’re looking forward to spending time on video screens with your extended family, trying hard not to spill tofurkey on your laptop. Still …) Last week, however, I was feeling thankful for just the opposite. I got to spend three jam-packed days at a powerful virtual event the Fix team pulled together focusing on the future of climate and racial justice. We heard from Fixers of all stripes who are working at the forefront of equitable climate solutions — from a community-solar entrepreneur to a carbon-removal specialist, from a Grammy-nominated singer to a bike-justice advocate. We clicked from a documentary screening about public-lands access, to a healing session focused on honoring our ancestors, to a sizzling panel entitled “Hot, wet, and racist: Redlining’s impact on the climate crisis, and what to do about it.” The ideas shared and the connections made will help to accelerate solutions in the months and years ahead. Another thing to be thankful for: This month, the teamGrist launched a brand-new podcast about the intersections of climate, race, and culture: Temperature Check, hosted by Andrew Simon. New episodes drop weekly. (Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts.) When you’re not tuning into the pod, please zap me a note anytime and encourage your friends (and extended family) to sign up for Shift Happens, too. With thanks and fixins, —Chip Giller, Grist Founder and Creative Officer

Your new hero

MCarson Photography
At last week’s Fix gathering, I had the chance to interview Catherine Coleman Flowers, a 2017 Fixer who tackles what she calls “America’s dirty secret”: the lack of safe wastewater sanitation in rural America. As founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Flowers works toward health and economic equity through the lens of climate justice. She was recently named a MacArthur genius and is the author of a new book, Waste, which was published last week and excerpted in The New York Times (and on our site, too!). Flowers grew up in a home where activism was a part of daily life, and in recent years has started a discussion across the country and the world about some of the risks that rising temperatures pose to rural communities. A portion of our conversation is below; read more highlights here. (Edited for length and clarity.) Tell us about the challenge of wastewater, which has led to numerous health problems in rural areas. I grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, and I remember having an outhouse. I remember having what we called the slop jar — people from rural communities will know what I’m talking about. I remember when we didn’t have water, and people had to go to Miss Nell’s house to her pump and carry water away in buckets. I remember that. I thought all that had changed [when I returned home], but I realized that in some parts of the county, it hadn’t changed. We didn’t know the extent of the problem until we did a house-to-house survey, and found out there were common issues with people that had septic systems, and also people that had mobile homes. Mobile homes come with the plumbing inside. When you flush the toilet, you can get PVC pipe and straight-pipe the effluent out onto the ground or a pit. I didn’t realize how common that problem was. I also didn’t realize that the septic systems that the state and county health departments required people to use were so expensive. Most people in Lowndes County could not afford them. So we had people with no infrastructure for wastewater treatment, people with failing infrastructure, or towns on sewer systems that were also failing. In addition to helping people get functioning, affordable septic systems and requiring governments to ensure that sewer systems work, what’s your vision for new technologies that could make sanitation possible in these communities? I envision a type of technology that can treat wastewater to drinking-water quality, where it would no longer have to travel through pipes and go to a big treatment plant somewhere else. That it could be treated in the home. I envision this technology to be something that you could go to a Lowe’s or a Home Depot and buy — like we get an air-conditioning system and have a technician install it. I envision that it would not be part of planned obsolesce, where it breaks down so you have to buy a new one every four years. There are nutrients in our sewage that could be reused and recycled. And the technology could include sensors that would alert us if someone who uses that bathroom has an illness — diseases or bacterial infections — something that needs to be dealt with right away, before we get to the point where other people are infected or it potentially becomes an epidemic or a pandemic. That’s the technology that I imagine. Just think about it: How do they treat wastewater when they go into outer space? I want to actually partner with people from NASA who design the wastewater treatment for outer space. And hopefully, together, we can work on something that can be used beyond the U.S. — they’re also having problems in India, they’re having problems in South Africa, they’re having problems around the world.
Lowndes County
A yard flooded with sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama. Chip Giller

Your pick-me-up

  • Salmon-chanted evening. In a long sought-after victory for Native American tribes in the Klamath River Basin, as well as for environmentalists, California and Oregon are buying and demolishing four dams to restore salmon runs that are central to the tribes’ cultures.
  • Cre-mini skirt. Fungus fashion is on the way. A startup called Bolt Threads has developed a next-generation mushroom leather, Mylo, to replace both animal and synthetic leather. Adidas sneakers made from the material will go on sale next year, as will a set of Stella McCartney accessories.
  • Natural pass. Starting next June, San Francisco will ban natural gas in new buildings, including homes and commercial spaces. Natural gas currently accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s overall climate emissions and 80 percent of emissions from buildings.
  • Among bus. Barcelona is converting 21 of its downtown intersections to public squares with bike lanes, playgrounds, and green spaces. Meanwhile, Austin, Texas, is moving forward with a multi-billion-dollar plan to build a 31-station rail system, rapid-bus routes, bike lanes, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. The city hopes to avoid gentrification pitfalls by offering rent subsidies, building affordable housing, and providing financial assistance to home buyers.
  • A more perfect union. The interests of oil companies, automakers, and labor, long joined at the hip, are rapidly diverging. Exhibit A: President-elect Joe Biden matter-of-factly dropped climate knowledge upon leaving a meeting last week with automaker CEOs and union leaders. ‘We talked about the need to own the electric vehicle market,” he said. “We talked about climate a lot, building 550,000 charging stations, creating over 1 million good-paying, union jobs here at home.” (Just this week, GM took an abrupt step away from former oil allies.) Exhibit B: A set of automakers, electric utilities, and battery and EV-charging companies last week launched a lobbying group, the Zero Emission Transportation Association.
  • Time to reflect. Researchers from Purdue University in Indiana have developed a white paint that reflects 95.5 percent of sunlight and could dramatically offset the air-conditioning needs of many buildings, including massive data centers.

Your Thanksgiving activity

Life of pie Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. My ambitious 11-year-old son is making three pies this week — apple (using fruit from nearby trees), pumpkin (using sugar pumpkins grown by a friend), and key lime (using zero local ingredients). For pie crust, he’ll be following a recipe from our friend and cookbook author Emily Paster. INGREDIENTS
  • 7 ounces cold, unsalted European-style butter
  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup ice water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Cut the butter into small cubes and place half of the cubes in the freezer. Return the other half to the refrigerator until needed.
  2. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the chilled butter from the refrigerator to the dry ingredients and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  3. Add the frozen butter to the food processor and pulse until the butter is in small but still visible pieces.
  4. Combine the lemon juice and ice water and add six tablespoons of the mixture to the ingredients in the food processor. Pulse several times until combined. Pinch a bit of the dough and if it holds together, you do not need to add more liquid. If it is still dry, add more of the liquid, one-half tablespoon at a time. Remove the dough to a bowl or a well-floured board.
  5. Knead the dough until it forms a ball. Divide the dough into two and wrap each half well in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator to relax for at least a half-hour but preferably overnight.
  6. Begin by rolling out the bottom crust: remove one of the balls of dough from the refrigerator. If your dough was chilled for longer than thirty minutes, allow to soften for ten to fifteen minutes before rolling it out.
  7. Prior to rolling out the dough, strike it with your rolling pin to flatten. This will soften it further.
  8. Preheat the oven to 400 and grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate.
  9. Liberally dust a pastry board or mat and your rolling pin with flour.
  10. Roll the dough out, rotating it and turning it frequently and adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is the size of your pie plate and between ¼ and ⅛ of an inch thick.
  11. Carefully center the pie dough in the plate and press it into the bottom and sides. Trim or fold over any excess dough around the edges.
  12. Sprinkle the bottom of the plate with a teaspoon each of sugar and flour to prevent the filling from making the crust soggy
  13. Chill the dough in the pie plate 30 minutes.
  14. Pour filling into pie plate making a mound in the center.
  15. Carefully place top crust on top of filling and pinch edges of the top and bottom crusts together. Use your fingers to create a nice, fluted edge. Cut three or four tear-shaped holes in center of top crust to act as a vent.
  16. Combine the milk and cream and brush the top of the pie with the mixture. Sprinkle the top with Turbinado sugar if desired.
  17. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes.
  18. After 25 minutes, reduce heat to 375. It is a good idea at this point to cover the edges of the crust with tin foil or use a pie crust shield to prevent them from burning.
  19. Bake pie at 375 for 35-45 minutes until crust is deep golden and filling is bubbling.
  20. Cool on a rack completely before slicing.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘How do they treat wastewater when they go into outer space?’ on Nov 25, 2020.

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