Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pothole Paranoia

This time of year we seem obsessed with potholes, often for good reason. I just returned from a short shopping trip, and spent most of the journey dodging about a dozen large cracks and crevasses in access roads and the state highway that covered most of the route.

Yes, we can fear them. I couldn't avoid one giant, deep pothole in a side street—cars were on either side of me as I turned onto the highway. Even at 20 m.p.h., the impact made me think both front wheels had separated from the car. Luckily, that didn't happen. However, a couple more jolts like that and the old family sedan will face a trip to a service station for an alignment, or worse, to straighten everything out. We had to do that last year following pothole season.

Local media are featuring potholes. Cartoonists are making fun of them in their creations. Potholes are very close (following comments about continuing bad “spring” weather) to being the No. 1 conversation starter when strangers meet.

The Governor of Michigan has proposed bold action. He wants to increase gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees to raise more than a billion dollars earmarked for road and bridge reconstruction and repairs. At the rate the public is bitching about the condition of our highways and byways, one would think the Gov’s plan would carry the day with room to spare.  Not so.

Led by conservative legislators in Gov. Snyder’s own Republican Party, opponents of the proposal so far have succeeded in blocking it.  Some version may yet pass, but anything that smells like a tax increase is going to face a rough road (pun intended).

Recent opinion polls show a big majority of voters wants the roads fixed, but many don’t want to pay one cent in increased taxes to do the job. A number of trite sayings might apply here. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” seems to fit as well as any.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Automate It and They Will Recycle

Previous posts (Sept. 3, 2009 and Oct. 2, 2011) discussed early recycling research at the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory. I had a special assignment to do technical editing for project personnel, and also to handle public information tasks. Recycling was a hot topic in the early 1970s. Handling media inquiries and responding to requests for presentations at schools and civic organizations kept me hopping.

To do my work well, I had to have a good understanding of the goals of the research and what was involved. To provide that understanding, Project Leader Wayne Carr spent many hours with me explaining his philosophy and why and how the Forest Products Lab group was working in the area they had chosen. Carr was a chemical engineer with experience in
Good words to live by
the pulp and paper industry. He also was a dedicated environmentalist. He taught me a lot.

Carr’s basic thesis was that despite all the good intentions of many people, recycling systems requiring much work by household members would never solve landfill problems.  Carr firmly believed that although some Americans could be motivated to clean and separate their household trash for recycling, at least as many would not participate even in the best-designed and publicized programs.

Carr saw the need for a new automated industry where homeowners could continue to toss all their garbage and trash into single containers for collection. The waste then would be transported to processing centers for separation and shipment to various manufacturing facilities to be remade into products.

We’re not there yet, but many American cities and towns are well on the way. In San Francisco, a city with serious landfill shortages, the mayor recently announced a goal of 100 percent recycling, with composting the garbage part of household waste as the final step.

Was Carr right about individuals making an effort to recycle? He was if recent history where we live is a good indicator.

Our home is in a rural township. When we moved here five years ago the recycling system in place was cumbersome.  We had to separate trash into cardboard (only small, flat pieces), paper, food cans, and very few plastic items, and then carry it in individual tubs to the curb for monthly pick-up. The majority of township residents ignored the program, and just continued to toss everything into one container for pickup and transport to a landfill.

At the start of 2012, the township changed the recycling program and the residents’ part in it became a whole lot easier. Each home got one 96-gallon container (more for an extra $20 each per year). We could toss all types of paper, cardboard, and metal cans plus many kinds of plastic containers into it and wheel it to the roadside for pickup and transport to a separation center. Weekly pickups of all else went on as before. Our typical “all else” now fills one very small bag, much less than half of what it was under the old system even though we had been conscientious recyclers.

What happened to participation? Under the old “tubs sort-and-carry” program only 35 percent of homes in the township recycled. After six months of the new single-container operation, 51 percent of households were recycling and the tonnage of material collected had increased by 108 percent.  By the end of the year, program growth forced the township to add a whole new collection route for recycling pickups.

Let’s hope the good recycling news keeps coming, where we live and across the nation. Unless immigration (legal and illegal) is drastically reduced or the reproduction rate drops dramatically, the population of the U.S. is projected to double in the next 70 to 80 years. Where will we find landfill space then? 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rolling Out Those Barrels . . . Again

Sometimes what goes around really does come around.

When I was a teenager quite a few small Wisconsin cities had their own breweries. That wasn’t surprising. German-Americans who enjoyed their lagers and pilsners were the largest ethnic group in the state. They still are—in the 2010 Census 42.6 percent of Wisconsinites claimed German heritage.

German-Americans founded big Milwaukee brewers—Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller.  German immigrants also brought their brew meister skills to the smaller cities. I recall some local brands--Oconto, Chief Oshkosh, Point, North Star, Old Style, Marathon, Feuerbach, Lithia, Leinenkugel, and Rhinelander. Of the small brewers I remember, only the makers of Point and Leinenkugel survived as independents whose products now can be found on supermarket shelves in Wisconsin and some nearby states

A recent University of Wisconsin history note says the state had 85 breweries in the 1930s. By the 1980s, only 10 remained. None of the 10 was considered “small.”

Local breweries gradually disappeared because the large operators mechanized operations
Nowadays, name it, and someone is brewing it.
and exercised superior advertising muscle. As elsewhere in corporate America, mergers and buyouts reduced the number of big breweries. Miller is the only national brewery operating in Milwaukee today.

I remember when the Chicago Tribune, our family newspaper, published tabulations on the business page reporting the competition (in millions of barrels) between Schlitz and Budweiser for the honor of being the biggest beer producer in the world. Schlitz, which at the time proudly proclaiming it was “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” dropped out of that competition in the late 1950s and declined until it finally ceased to exist as an independent.

As Wisconsin natives, beautiful wife Sandy and I occasionally enjoyed the benefits of having breweries close at hand. When we lived in the Milwaukee area, we took advantage of public tours offered by Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz. Blatz was the smallest of the three, but many Milwaukeeans thought it brewed the best beer.

All Milwaukee brewers provided free beers and snacks at the conclusion of tours. At Pabst, tourists could guzzle four glasses of the company’s products. That certainly gave visitors a happy feeling about their hosts. Nowadays, it might get you a DUI citation on the way home!

Although each brewery had something unique in its operation or history, the most unusual brewery feature we learned about was not found in Milwaukee. It was 18 miles from my hometown in Rhinelander, then a city of about 9,000. When we visited The Rhinelander Brewing Company, it had not produced beer for many years and the name was changed. A prosperous doctor had acquired the property and converted it into a winery.

The original owner was a German-American who incorporated several old-world features into his operation. One was a little park behind the brewery where employees could sip the company’s product on breaks, at lunch, or after work. The park was still there when we visited, but small samples of cherry wine were served elsewhere. Other breweries were known to provide free beer to employees, so the Rhinelander “beer garden” probably was not unique. The one-of-a-kind feature of the Rhinelander brewery-winery was an archway entrance to a large tunnel in the basement of the main building. Our tour guide explained:

“The original brewery owner loved his beer, and he wanted it handy anytime he was thirsty. He had the tunnel dug from the basement of his house across the street to the basement of the brewery so he could quickly make a trip to get a fresh beer even if he woke up thirsty in the middle of the night.”

Ah, the privileges of an old-time brewery owner. The beer tunnel long ago fell into disuse, but “Rhinelander” beer is back. The brand now is produced by one of 30 microbreweries in Wisconsin. The micros sell less than 15,000 barrels each per year. The big Milwaukee brewer, Miller, has annual production exceeding six million barrels.  Between those extremes are seven Wisconsin breweries classified as “regional.”

In addition to the 30 micros, my old home state now has 31 brewpubs. There was no such thing as a brewpub when I was a young man living in Wisconsin. As do the micros, they produce an array of “craft” beers and ales.

Small breweries have been opening everywhere in the U.S. since a brewing comeback started in the 1990s. The Brewers Association, which represents 2,400 breweries and brewpubs, said craft beer set production and sales records last year, and the number of locations continues to grow.

My new home state of Michigan now has 120 breweries, 19 of them added last year. California, the growth leader, gained 56 new brewers in 2012. The national growth rate was 12 percent.

You can’t walk through a tunnel in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, to get your favorite brew, but you can find one to suit your taste just about everywhere else.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Mechanically Challenged Motorist Gets a Break

The geezer knows how to check the oil in a car and change a flat tire. And that’s about it. For all else I seek out good service places. They can be hard to find.

A couple of weeks ago the battery in our aging, but still reliable, Pontiac entered the sixth year of its projected five-year life. That told even me a replacement was in order. I mentioned it to our son, and he recommended a course of action that savvy members of his generation would follow.

“Check the owner’s manual to see what kind of battery you need,” he said. “Then spend a little time searching the internet to find out a fair price for a good product and who in your area sells and installs
the better brands. Make a few phone calls and find the best deal.”

That sounded like a lot of trouble, but the computer search wasn’t. I quickly determined that a reasonable price for a good-quality battery and installation would be $100 to $110. The car needed an oil change, so I took it in for that at a familiar full-service garage. It was a chance to confirm my need for a new unit and get one local price at the same time. I asked them to test the battery. They did that for free.

The service manager appeared a few minutes after I settled in at the waiting room. “You sure do need a battery." he said. "We’ve got one in stock, and can fix you right up.”

“What’s the cost?” 


“Go ahead with the oil change, but I’ll pass on the battery for now."

I waited longer than usual for the oil change.

The manager returned, looking a bit sheepish. His question surprised me: “What would you say if we get that new battery in your car for $81?”

“I’d say, put it in,” I said.

“I’m glad, because our mechanic screwed up and already has it installed. Your old battery has been trashed.”

The savings was nice, but I’m still probably far in the red from paying exorbitant charges that creative mechanics have foisted on me over the years. But it was good to win one for the mechanically challenged for a change.