Leading by Example 9

A Conversation with Dr. Bradley Layton about Living Sustainably

Professor Bradley Layton rides around Missoula on his bike pulling a trailer heaped with plastic bags of compost—at least 13 black bags, ballooning under their straps—illustrating his commitment to living zero waste and eliminating his carbon footprint, no matter the cargo. Missoula Valley Lifestyle wanted to interview Brad, the director of the Energy Technology Program in the Department of Applied Computing and Engineering Technology at Missoula College, because he really walks the walk of energy efficiency and zero waste in his own life.

At his home, Brad maintains the waste streams, keeping them separate so that recycling and composting can take place more efficiently. He and his family do not use trash cans or trash cans liners. Instead, he sorts like materials with like materials. To avoid clutter in the house, he has a little door similar to a library book drop between the kitchen and garage, where sorting occurs.

“Technosphere” waste gets separated from “biosphere” waste. That is, food goes into one of two food waste streams: chicken food or compost. And human-made items get recycled once they have been cleaned of food particles. Plastic bags go to the store to get baled. (By the way, HDPE (#2) plastic is now selling on the open market for $500/ton. In comparison, coal sells for $15/ton.) Food waste, however, is really the sticking point for Brad. He described his astonishment at seeing people throw away food, and then that wasted food driven to the dump in a truck that’s using fossil fuels.

His next goal at his home is to net positive for energy, water, and soil, and zero on carbon. In order to do this, Brad uses solar thermal and woody biomass as energy sources. Solar energy can be stored for wintertime heating. Slash piles that otherwise would go to waste are a biomass resource for energy.

Brad has been working with Patrick Brown in Missoula to combine woody and plastic waste as a fuel source. Part of his effort is to go off the fracking grid, but Brad is interested in developing a solution, not in protesting coal and oil. As part of his personal challenge, Brad doesn’t want to spend counter-productive time complaining about the status quo. He would rather focus on an alternative.

With North Americans using six times the amount of energy than the average person in the rest of the world, you might ask, why don’t we just build more solar and wind generators? Brad explained that the energy density of oil is vastly more than resources like wind and solar, and the political and economic complexities of oil production also play into our current fossil fuel dependency.

But we are now burning ancient carbon bonds stored in fossil fuels 10 million times faster than nature created them through photosynthesis tens or even hundreds of millions of years ago. This is an unsustainable trend, and one that inspired him to write his 2008 paper comparing energy densities of prevalent energy sources. Brad’s concern for educating the public so that they can make informed choices around energy policy is evident in his writing, teaching, and as a role model in our community.

Brad is acutely aware of the way he talks about how others can get involved in sustainable practices. He does not want to sound “preachy” and realizes not everyone can have chickens or a compost pile, or haul a felled tree with a bike trailer (as he once did) and that people undertaking a similar personal challenge will be a self-selecting group but his response to those first steps someone can take to decrease their carbon footprint is inspiring.

It begins with our communities, he said. People could get to know their neighbors and embrace the diversity in their communities, suggesting that if we help one another with our waste streams, we can have a large impact. For example, he takes a neighbor’s leaves for his compost pile. Other ideas include buying groceries in bulk and then sharing with neighbors. People can carpool, or borrow a tool that they need from a neighbor.

Imagine you were planning to ride your bike to work but then you had a flat tire. You’re out there in your driveway, tire unexpectedly flat, and you have to be to work in 15 minutes. The temptation to drive is strong. But if you have a neighbor with a bike pump whom you know and feel willing to ask for help, your community quickly solves the problem. Our sense of community grows when we embrace this spirit of cooperation, rather than of competition, he said.

Brad’s vision for what Missoula should or could be doing to increase its energy efficiency also involves community. First, though, he talked about the breadth of the possibilities in areas like waste management, building, and transportation. One suggestion he had was to prioritize eliminating stand-alone garbage cans. Missoula, he suggested, would benefit from having waste receptacles that include multiple waste streams, so that the waste gets sorted right away and can more easily be recycled or composted.

But he again came back to the idea of connecting with community. He suggested that we spend more time out of our cars, enjoying nature, walking downtown, supporting the local economy, and trusting our fellow humans. He sees Missoula as a microcosm of society at-large—a community where progress is possible and we can be a role model for larger cities and communities.

Many in Missoula would like to see a sustainable glass recycling program, but Brad said he would like to use glass bottles for water catchment rather than using energy to pump water uphill and store it. He suggested bottles and jars could be used for the catchment of gray water—water that could then be used to water gardens, used in home heating and cooling, or in toilets. With Missoula’s valley location, gravity is working in our favor. The snow is banked water. Empty wine bottles, for example, are vessels. “Let the bottle be the bottle,” Brad said.

Though he is a tremendously accomplished academic mind, Brad’s solutions range from practical, accessible practices to the highly technical. His openness and care for his community are palpable.

One of the most important questions about sustainability that people in Missoula are not asking, he said, is “What will the Last Best Place look like in 200 years?” The answer, “More extensive use of biomass, many greenhouses, self-driving electric and hydrogen cars. Many more bikes and boats!” In looking out over the Clark Fork River, and at the faces that make up our community, Brad’s vision is one Missoulians can embrace.