omaha, nebraska (402) 681 - 9458 | info@verdisgroup.com

Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


Recycling is getting a lot of attention in Omaha these days. The Omaha World Herald ran an extensive story (Why is Nebraska Recycling in the Dumps?) in the Sunday, July 12 edition that summarized the challenges Omaha and Nebraska more broadly speaking have had with recycling. The key indicator is the recycling rate, which has hovered around 11% in Omaha since 2006, a figure that’s well below the national average (34%) and lagging that of the surrounding states.

Let’s not kid ourselves, managing waste streams is more difficult than most people imagine, even at the residential level. I just took my family’s trash and recycling to the curb tonight, and while doing so pondered all the different streams that leave our house in a given week (landfill, mixed recycling, glass, plastic bags, reuse items, my daughter’s to-go applesauce containers (I think she’s addicted), and compostable waste). Each one of them requires a separate staging area in our house and/or garage. It’s no wonder that I conduct a monthly educational campaign at home to ensure we’re all on the same page.

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Moody family outgoing trash and recycling. The volume in those two (yes, we have two…ssshh) green bins is more than what’s in the black trash container. I suspect if most Omahans had the opportunity and were properly educated, the same would hold true. The EPA estimates that 75% of residential trash is recyclable.

There are unquestionably advantages to recycling more, and the good news is that there are benefits that excite both fiscal conservatives and tree-hugging liberals alike. The financial savings alone are noteworthy; if Omaha improved to a mere 26% recycling rate (a very achievable figure), the city would be saving roughly $1 million per year. Certainly not chump change.

So how can Omaha improve its recycling rate? The Verdis Team spent an hour kicking around a few ideas, some of which are offered below. First, a caveat: we have not studied the situation (but would love to!). The recommendations below are based on 1) our materials management work with all of our clients, 2) our experiences as Omaha citizens, and 3) the knowledge and information we’ve gained through community involvement with efforts such as Environment Omaha. When we’re given the opportunity (the power of positive thought, right?) to really study the issue, we would most certainly refine and add to these recommendations. OK, with caveat in place, let’s get to it.

  1. Deploy larger bins with lids. Everyone acknowledges that this would have an immediate impact. Let’s make it happen. (See the July 13 OWH story for more details.) And, yes, the up-front cost ($6 million) is a bit much, but as the OWH reported on July 19, there are funding alternatives such as the Closed Loop Fund. The City should also consider the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality grant programs as sources of funding.
  1. Overhaul branding and communication. There are multiple layers to this one, so let’s bullet them out:
    • Develop a sophisticated brand around Omaha’s recycling program
    • Reboot the website
    • Develop a one-page summary that’s easy for residents to review, pass around, print and post at home
    • Offer several materials in other languages, especially Spanish (the recycling rate per capita was worst in Southeast Omaha)
    • Rename and redesign the Wasteline publication that’s mailed to residences regularly
    • Do NOT over-emphasize the 11% rate. Doing so conveys a subtle social norm that only 11% of waste can be recycled and/or only 11% of people do recycle. Rather, focus on the fact that the majority of Omahans support recycling.
    • Messaging also needs to tap into multiple motivating factors – catching everyone from liberals to conservatives
    • Ramp up the social media platform (Verdis has more “likes” on Facebook, and we generally stink at social media)
    • Invest in other awareness and media efforts such as billboards, radio, and so on
  1. Start delivering bins again. Assuming that we really do need to wait five years before the large bins with lids are deployed, the City should reinstitute the program where the current curbside bins would actually be delivered to households that request them, which was in place several years ago. (Today, citizens must go to one of six locations to pick one up.) Partnerships could be explored with neighborhood associations, schools, a nonprofit such as Keep Omaha Beautiful, and maybe even churches to facilitate the distribution process.
  1. Connecting with the binless. We kicked around a handful of ideas to engage those households that don’t have a bin today. Here are a few:
    • Employe and send SummerWorks Omaha employees door to door on trash/recycling day. Have them contact (leave flyers or little yard signs) at every residence that does not have a recycling container out. Heck, give them a truck full of bins so they can distribute as the come across households that want one.
    • Automatically provide bins to all of Omaha with an opt-out alternative. With proper notice and an effective opt-out alternative, this could work.
  1. Ramp up recycling in public spaces. The City needs to walk the talk and deploy recycling containers in public areas with a goal to achieve a 1:1 waste to recycling container ratio in the city.
  1. Make recycling mandatory. Yes, I know this is a stretch and not likely to happen, but it still would be one of the single most effective means by which to increase recycling rates. In essence, recyclables would be banned from going into the landfill.
  1. Explore pay as you throw. A strong motivator for recycling more is charging fees for trash (known as a pay-as-you-throw system). Yes, there’s some concern about it being a regressive tax, but those issues can be overcome with a more sophisticated system design.
  1. Launch a composting facility. If the ultimate goal is reduce landfill tipping fees, then diverting food waste to a large-scale composting facility will have a huge impact. This is extremely complicated, and there’s a team exploring options now, as we understand it. But the implementation of as much would make a huge difference, especially for commercial customers.
  1. Address the gap in services to apartments. Renters like to recycle too, maybe more than homeowners. It would be great to address this gap in some way.

Team Verdis had close to a dozen more ideas that I’ll leave on the shelf for now. Suffice it to say there are undoubtedly ways to improve recycling in Omaha, and we’re anxious to play a role in making that happen. Because, and let’s be honest here, it’s a little embarrassing that the city has hovered around 11% for ten years. Let’s right that ship, shall we?

Onward and upward.

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The mission statements of UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College focus on patient care, healthcare education, research, and community outreach. Transportation—moving people around—is not a part of any of their respective missions. However, to achieve those missions, their people (employees, students, visitors, and faculty) must be able to move from one location (e.g. home) to another (42nd and Dewey campus). Thus, as the institutions continue to grow their positive community impact and add new buildings, the demand for transportation increases. Typically, this means more cars.

So what are these institutions going to do about the increased transportation demand?

They basically have three options (the first one doesn’t count):

  • Don’t grow. Not an option for a national healthcare leader.
  • Build out. Build more surface parking, which requires tearing down buildings and creates sprawl.
  • Build up. Build more parking garages at over $20,000 per parking stall.
  • Get creative. Find ways to get people to campus without using their cars every day.

If transportation is approached with the assumption that everyone will drive, parking becomes the obvious solution (Option #2 or #3). But when an organization sees transportation as fundamentally about moving people, driving a car and the parking that is required as a result becomes just a solution of many (and an expensive one at that as reported in Parking Problems? Transit Programs As a Cost-Effective Solution). When this comprehensive view of moving people is combined with an increased emphasis on wellness, millennials driving less, and a new Dodge St. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), there is an opportunity to expand their positive impact without the burden of providing as much parking.

True to form in their leadership and innovation, UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College got creative. We partnered with key stakeholders from all three institutions to design their new TravelSmart program, which was launched in June. TravelSmart is available to all employees and students at Screenshot 2015-06-24 12.24.26UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College. The program promotes transportation options that will decrease parking demand, including activities such as walking, biking, carpooling, and taking the bus.

We helped design and implement a comprehensive employee input and engagement process to ensure the TravelSmart program met the real needs of the their employees and students. It included surveys, focus groups, forums, and more to select and refine the right components of the program.

One key finding from this process was that active transportation isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Some employees or students have limitations on how they get to work based on where they live or their schedule. However, there are enough people willing to shift their travel mode to active transportation when the infrastructure and programmatic support is in place. This group is large enough to reduce the need to build more parking.

As a result, there are several ways the TravelSmart program makes it easy for people to use active transportation options:

  • Free online service to help connect carpool partnersScreenshot 2015-06-30 12.00.51
  • Free carpool parking passes
  • Free Omaha Metro bus passes
  • Free secure, indoor bike parking and access to lockers and shower facilities
  • Free guaranteed rides home in emergency situations
  • Daily-rate flexible parking for the days a participant needs to drive alone to campus

Already, employees are choosing to become TravelSmart participants and leave their cars at home.

TravelSmart saves money for employees and the institutions, improves employee attraction and retention, supports a culture of active living, and improves air quality in the city. There are great benefits for employees and students that participate –  a healthier lifestyle, less stress, fewer costs associated with driving and parking, and improved environmental conditions. Employees and students are not the only winners: patients, families, and community members also benefit when these institutions use their property to carry out their core missions, rather than for parking lots.

 

 

 

 

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In early May, we announced our 2015 Small Business Sale to coincide with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce naming us the 2015 Small Business of the Year (did you know there are over 37,000 small businesses in Greater Omaha?!). Our hope was to return a little love back to all our fellow small businesses.

We’re taking this up (or down, actually, in price) a notch. The first small business to commit will get our suite of services for a mere $500, and the second small business in the door gets the entire package for $1200. Those are 94% and 85% off sales respectively. Kmart’s Bluelight Special doesn’t have anything on us.

This is a limited time offer. Act now.

Onward and upward!

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Just over a year ago (May 2014), we conducted our first Passion Projects. In a nutshell, all six of us are given a 24 hour period to do just about anything. At the end of that period, we convene at Fontenelle Forest and we each spend some time talking about what we did and what we learned. There’s no expectation or requirement that the activities directly align or relate to our work, although they always have.

We’ve since repeated the exercise in February 2015. Here’s a list of a few Passion Projects from the team:

  • Researched local ecological impacts of and potential policy solutions for climate change
  • Researched water issues specific to the Omaha region
  • Researched recycling behaviors for the apartment dwellers in our building (Tip Top)
  • Researched and prepared a list of the top 20 best practices for conducting an effective meeting
  • Researched biomimicry and how it relates to our work

I have an interest in and passion for Omaha’s physical design characteristics and how they impact our daily lives. My time spent on Omaha’s Urban Design Review Board really opened my eyes to just how much (or how little) our community cares about improving our urban environment.

The way we design and build our largest public spaces – our streets and the associated right of way –  have a huge impact on our community’s health, safety, ability to safely and enjoyably use active transportation, and our well-being. So I decided I wanted to measure the quality of six intersections in Omaha to see what I could learn about how our community’s urban form is faring.

I focused on intersections that are traditional main street environments, as I have a high expectation that they are the best, most-inviting places for anyone and everyone. I then created a scoring system after doing a little research and set out to take measurements and conduct observations. The results:

  1. 11th & Howard
  2. 24th & N
  3. 24th & Lake
  4. 50th & Underwood
  5. 64th & Maple
  6. 33rd & California

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Rather than diving into the details via this blog post, I think it’s easiest to offer an actual summary of what I did, what I learned, and where these intersections excelled and fell short. Here are the results: Passion Project: Assessing the Quality of Six Omaha Intersections.

As noted therein, this is not necessarily my area of expertise. As such, many experts in the field will look to the methodology and chuckle. I’m cool with that. My hope was not to conduct a highly rigorous analysis. Rather, I wanted to learn something. And if what I did and the manner in which I did it sparks a discussion or could be used in some small way to improve Omaha’s urban environment, I’ll consider it a win.

Onward and upward!

 

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(above) Students from Kearney Public Schools participate in a tree planting event to celebrate Arbor Day. (April 2015)

 

Spring is probably my favorite time of the year. The weather improves, nature becomes prettier, people seem more energetic and happy, and two of my favorite sports (track and field, baseball) are in full swing. Spring is also a time when we seem to pay more attention to the environment and environmental issues. Thank you, flowering plants and Earth/Arbor Day.

As people check back in with the environment, I would like to take a few moments to allow you to check back in with our work. Here’s what’s new and exciting at some of our clients:

 

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium

Due to successful investments in sustainability projects during the past four years, the zoo’s revolving Green Loan Fund currently sits at an all-time high amount, and the zoo is avoiding energy and water costs of over $385 thousand annually. The zoo is also busy constructing its new African Grasslands exhibit, which will incorporate sustainable features that conserve energy and water. For example, the elephant barn floor will be made of sand and natural materials instead of concrete, thus requiring little or no water for cleaning.

 

Omaha Public Schools

The U.S. Department of Education recently named Wilson and Gomez schools winners of the 2015 Green Ribbon Schools award. Meanwhile, the district has established new goals related to energy, water, recycling, and emissions. New estimates indicate the district has achieved $4.9 million in energy savings over the past four and a half years.

 

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Since rolling out its Sustainability Master Plan several months ago, UNO has earned Omaha by Design’s inaugural Access & Mobility Award. UNO has also launched its online dashboard widget that showcases the university’s progress towards its sustainability goals.

 

University of Nebraska Medical Center & Nebraska Medicine

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine recently celebrated their 5th annual Earth Week to engage students and staff in environmental stewardship. In June, UNMC and Nebraska Medicine will launch the TravelSmart program. This transportation/parking demand management program will encourage/incentivize staff and students to bike, carpool, use transit, and walk to the 42nd & Dewey campus. The program will include subsidized bus passes and free rides home in emergency situations.

 

University of Nebraska at Kearney

UNK is currently finalizing goals for its Sustainability Master Plan and will soon begin prioritizing strategies for achieving said goals. While that planning is underway, UNK has started a Recycling Task Force to improve its campus recycling program. Recently, several campus groups partnered to conduct the annual waste audit, in which volunteers sampled UNK’s waste and recycling streams. Also, led by the student group Enactus, UNK is researching a bicycle sharing program.

 

Kearney Public Schools

Thanks, in part, to this school year’s Green Schools Challenge, the district has accomplished exceptional decreases in electricity consumption in most buildings and increases in measured levels of sustainability engagement.

 

We are so proud of our clients’ sustainability achievements. As spring warms into summer, I look forward to ice cream, and our Verdis Group team looks forward to continued success with the organizations we serve. -BR

 

 

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We are extremely excited to announce that on May 12, at the Greater Omaha Business Excellence Awards, we will receive the Greater Omaha Chamber’s 2015 Small Business of the Year Award. It’s a huge honor to be recognized with such an award; we are truly thrilled!

In the spirit of giving thanks and giving back, we’re offering small businesses a deep discount on our work. For a limited time, your small business (this includes you, nonprofits) can get our multiple-award-winning team of experts involved in quickly advancing your sustainability efforts.

Through our Small Business Sale, we’re offering the following scope of work. We will:

  • Facilitate a kickoff meeting with your project leads
  • Collect and analyze 12 months of data and other information
  • Conduct our proprietary Sustainability Engagement Index survey of your organization
  • Develop baseline performance metrics and recommended measurable goals in the areas of energy, water, waste/recycling, emissions, and employee sustainability engagement
  • Conduct two interviews with key personnel
  • Facilitate a two-hour workshop with select employees; includes pre-workshop reading assignment
  • Deliver key findings, goals, and sustainability recommendations (the deliverable)

It’s a streamlined scope of work that is comparable to what we’ve been doing for much larger clients like the University of Nebraska at Omaha, UNMC & Nebraska Medicine, and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. The end-result is a succinct and straightforward document that will provide your organization with a clear action plan for capitalizing on all the opportunities that sustainability presents.

All this for $3,000 – 5,000! Yes, you read that right. A similar scope of work would normally cost $8,000 – 10,000, but for a limited time, we’ve cut the cost and would love nothing more than to help several Omaha small businesses advance their sustainability efforts.

It’s pretty amazing that the business community recognizes the value that we bring, and we hope to graciously accept the award and turn right around and give a little back to the small business community.

Interested? If so, give me a shout at craig@verdisgroup.com or (402) 681-9458.

Onward and upward!

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At Verdis we are all driven to reduce our impact on the environment; at work and at home. Everyday, we work with clients to develop and implement changes to reduce energy use, reduce waste, recycle more, and simply reduce our collective impact on the natural environment. Beyond working with our clients, all of us individually pursue our passion to make the environment healthier in other ways. Craig chairs the group Mode Shift Omaha working to broaden active transportation options in Omaha, and Daniel serves on the Metro Transit Authority Board. I’ve been working on my personal impact on the environment, and have been building my dream home in the most sustainable manner we could.

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What were we able to accomplish from a sustainability perspective on our new home?

 

My husband and I are quite proud of our HERS 32 Rating.  A Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating is a score that compares a home’s energy use to a modeled house that is the same as your house, but built to 2004 International Energy Conservation Code. For a HERS rating, the lower the better. A home that scores zero is a Net Zero home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses, typically through solar or wind power. Our HERS score of 32 means that our house is 68% more efficient than the HERS reference/modeled home. The U.S. Department of Energy determined that a typical resale home scores 130 on the HERS Index, so we are 98% more efficient than a typical resale home! My understanding is that only a handful of homes in Nebraska receive a HERS score this low on an annual basis, and once we add solar – net zero here we come!

 

Here are the highlights of changes we made from a typical home, which make our home more energy efficient and lessen our environmental impact:

Mechanical Systems

  • Open loop geothermal heat pump uses the 52 degree ground water temperature to heat and cool the home. We don’t need an air conditioner! And we expect our heating & cooling bills to be only $39 a month on average. The cost of this system is significantly supplemented by the Federal Tax credit.
  • Hybrid heat pump water heater uses the energy in our basement’s air to heat our hot water (along with electricity). This water heater is twice as efficient as a regular hot water heater (expecting to cost only $9 a month for hot water heating).
  • A variable frequency drive (VFD) on the well pump allows the pump to use only the energy needed to pump the amount of water needed at the time, instead of only having two options of “on full speed” or “off.”
  • A desuperheater transfers excess heat from the geothermal system to the water heater to preheat the water.
  • An Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) acts as the home’s lungs bringing fresh air into the house, while recovering some of the energy in the stale air before its removed from the house 

Construction Methods

  • rigid foam2×6 framing of the walls to allow for two extra inches of insulation (57% more), compared to traditional 2×4 construction
  • One inch rigid foam insulation used continuously on the exterior (instead of plywood) provides additional insulation and air sealing (see image at right)
  • Borate only treated blown in cellulose insulation in wall cavities, mainly used for health reasons, but also because cellulose is a great insulator and made from recycled paper. We used Green Fiber insulation made in Norfolk, NE
  • Energy efficient windows by Gerkin made in Sioux City, NE
  • Some Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood during construction, bonus from Millard Lumber – thanks!
  • Caulking the top and the sill plate before insulation to seal air gaps
  • Capillary breaks under and around foundation (plastic under the basement floor and waterproofing spray between the foundation walls and footings) minimizes the water that can enter the basement through the concrete
  • Passive radon mitigation system that allows radon under the home to exit through closed pipe that goes out the roof
  • Rough in for future solar, hopefully installed before the tax credit expirescarpet tile

Lighting, Interior Finish, and Other Sustainable Choices

  • LED lighting, we found screw in bulbs in traditional fixtures were the most economical, especially when bulbs were purchased in Council Bluffs.
  • A detached garage (attached garages often bring unhealthy air into the home)
  • East and south windows to warm the house in the winter, and larger eaves to keep the sun out in the summer
  • Energy Star appliances
  • No and low VOC paints/stains
  • Low flow water faucets, toilets and showers
  • Recycled carpet tile samples in our office / guest room (see image at right)
  • Products made close to home to minimize transportation emissions. For example, pre-finished wood floors are often finished in Asia with significant emissions from that transport; ours is wood floor from the United States and manufactured in the United States.

Implementation Evaluationsblow door smallestestest

  • Blower door tests evaluated air sealing. We did this before paint, trim and floors were installed, to see if the house was sealed well at a point – it was!
  • Personal inspection of the items that were different from what our builder usually used, like the blown in cellulose insulation

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So with all of these great energy saving strategies – What can I tell YOU about saving energy at your home?

  1. If you have incandescent lights in your home, go to Home Depot in Council Bluffs ledsTODAY and buy LED light bulbs to replace all the lights in your home. REPLACE them TONIGHT.

If you have a large home, this could add up to a couple hundred dollars investment, but the investment will pay for itself in electricity savings over the course of a year or less if you are replacing incandescent bulbs. The payback if you are replacing compact florescent lights (curly cue ones) is not as good. This Home Depot has the best prices I’ve seen for LEDs; a 60w-equivalent bulb is usually $5-7 each. On sale for $3 a week or two ago… After the first year, you’re saving lots of money in electricity each year! Here is a handy calculator to see this savings.

  1. If you are building or want to do a more significant project in your home, air sealing and insulation are the most cost effective ways to save energy. I would suggest getting your home’s HERS rating calculated. Then I would talk to the rater that does this calculation to see what you could do to improve your specific home in a cost effective way. I used American Energy Advisors (AEA) here in Omaha for this, and was very happy with the work they did for us and the advice they provided throughout the building process.
  1. If you are installing new insulation, take the day off and oversee the installers. The installers my builder used had never installed blown in dry cellulose and were given insulationno instruction on how to do so. When the ‘finished’ insulation was reviewed by the manufacturer representative to ensure it met manufacturer specifications (at my special request), it was short about 25% of the needed material. I’ve heard of other installers in town just skipping entire wall cavities. My advice here is to get lots of references before you choose a company, spend 20 minutes learning what you need to on the internet about how things should be installed, and then be there while the job is happening to actively review the installer’s work.

At the end of the building process, when AEA brought their infrared gun to check wall temperatures on a very cold December day, I was happy with the temperatures on the walls at this point. We’ll see a few years down the road, whether the insulation settles or not, a check we can do with an infrared gun that reads wall temperatures.

  1. If you want to build a green home, make sure you find a builder in the area with some experience with this, and just as importantly, a builder that is interested and willing to learn. Based on my research and conversations with others in the green community, there doesn’t seem to be a go-to green builder in Omaha.

We asked Landmark Performance Homes to build for us, and the owner Steve Faller was great throughout the entire project. Whenever we had a green practice in mind that Landmark had never done before, we talked through it. Steve gave us his insight based upon years of building experience and together we chose the best path forward. This was critical to keep our costs under control and to ensure that best practices in green building were incorporated whenever possible. I found Building Science and Green Building Advisor to be the most helpful websites when sorting out detailed questions on what to do.

  1. If you are buying a new home, check out the HERS scores before you buy. Here is the Residential Energy Services Network’s (RESNET) database of all HERS scores. Also, keep an eye out in realtor descriptions for HERS scores; local builders are working to get HERS scores included as part of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) system where all realtors share listing information. If you are buying a home with a lower HERS score, this will save you money every month and should tip the scales when selecting between homes.

 

In the end, we love our dream home, and we are proud to have built a home that will stand for hundreds of years, making a small ongoing impact on our environment.

And if you wake up to this view everyday, how can you not want to protect our environment.

sunrise 11 inch

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Verdis Group is seeking an intern for this upcoming summer!

The full-time, paid intern will get hands-on experience at our sustainability consulting firm in Omaha. His or her specific responsibilities and projects will vary based on interests, needs, and priorities, but the intern should expect to gain experience related to sustainability practices, data analysis, communication, and project management.

Application deadline: February 28, 2015

Click here for more information and application instructions:

Internship Info & Application Instructions

 

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