Newsletter Stories

A Rabbit's Journey - Life of a Diesel Engine (March 2021)

It was the fall of 1981, and a shiny new Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup Truck was rolling off the assembly line at the Westmoreland VW plant, located a short drive from Pittsburgh. The Rabbit’s diesel hummed contentedly to itself, musing on the joy and happiness that it would bring to someone down the line.

First, get to the dealership, next, find a family, then time to get all 52 of her mighty horsepower to work! And work she did. After nearly forty years and 208,000 miles on her little diesel powerplant, the Rabbit felt that she had lived a fine life, hauling loads around Western Pennsylvania, enduring salty winters, sweltering summers, and springs that can produce enough rain to break the banks of the many regional rivers, the Rabbit thought that her life had entered an end stage. She looked back on all that she had done, and she was proud of the work. So many of her brothers and sisters that she knew from her first days were gone. Still, she kept the proud VW diesel tradition going. It was a good life. Little did she know, her life had only just reached a middle.
Not far from where the Rabbit was born, a young man by the name of Kevin Smyth worked for a company which focused on biodiesel technology. The Rabbit had never heard of Optimus Technologies, and biodiesel was something that the young kids were into. She wasn’t sure if it was something that would work for her. But Kevin, sensing that his motorcycle days were coming to a close, wanted to find a way to bring his passion for biodiesel into use in his everyday life. After a little searching, and a short bartering session, Kevin struck a deal with the Rabbit’s caretaker.

Though the Rabbit bore the scars and strains of a life in the rust belt, Kevin fell in love at first sight. He knew that the process might take some time, but he also knew that he could give the girl a second life of sustainability and pride that she hadn’t known was possible. New floor pans were a given. Some new wiring too. Perhaps some additional support and structure. As Kevin took the time to shore up some of her areas of need, he whispered to the Rabbit about a magical possibility of a new turbodiesel. Two hundred horsepower? Who had ever heard of such strength? Soon she was rolling down the street, a daily driver once again, and she rested in view of a sign bearing a gear logo along with the words; Optimus Technologies.

Inside that building, Kevin focuses his energies on making tech that reduces carbon emissions, and allows any diesel engine to run on fuels made from refined vegetable oils. And beef fat! The Rabbit had never dreamed that such a thing was possible. Forty years ago, when she was shiny and new, nobody else believed it either. Inside that brick building, however, men and women work diligently to make that which was once thought impossible available to trucks and tractors and fleets everywhere. The Rabbit looked at her new home, and pride swelled. She was going to be part of this! Oh, she might get some new parts, and some of her old seals and hoses and gaskets might get changed out, but she was used to such things. She was, after all, a forty-year-old piece of machinery. Maintenance was her birthright; it was her due. But she will still bear the weathered skin of someone who has lived a life of purpose, a life of service. As Kevin settles into the driver’s seat, he pats the cracking vinyl of the Rabbit’s headliner, and he thinks to himself, ‘Don’t worry old girl. I’m going to take care of you, and you will take care of me. And before we’re done, we are going to see another 200,000 miles together. We’re also going to help the world breathe a little easier, which is no small thing. Just you wait.’ Kevin turns the key, the Rabbit’s engine explodes into life, and as she sips her biodiesel, she knows that the miles which she has seen are only the prologue to this unimagined life in front of her. As Kevin and the Rabbit roll down the road, the future waits. It’s going to be an adventure!

Trouble in the Valley - An Earth Day Adventure (April 2021)

Penny ran down the mountain, looking for the source of commotion. Rumors and grumblings had spread like wildfire through the village that morning. Something was going on in the grassy field. What it was, no one was sure. But there was noise and shouts filling the air, and Penny wanted to know if she needed to worry, if everyone back at the camp was safe. Penny and her family had just moved north from Utah, and she for one did not want to move again. Not again. Not yet anyway.

On the edge of the clearing, Penny could see others furtively scanning the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of what was coming. “What news from the Valley?” Penny asked.

“A rumble in the distance. Sounds like trucks. And workers. Coming this way” replied one of the other onlookers. Trucks meant trouble. Trucks meant change. Most of all, trucks meant that the air was going to get rough. Penny could avoid people. But the air, that’s everywhere. And the heat, the heat just doesn’t stop! But Penny wanted to see with her own eyes. She didn’t want to bring her family bad news if she didn’t have to. They had been through enough of that over the last few years, and if Penny could spare them even a bit of worry, she would. With determination and trepidation, she continued to the edge of the valley.

Penny heard the sound that they were talking about long before she saw anything. The rumble. That unmistakable sound of diesel engines laboring up a hill. Her heart sank at the thought of what those trucks might bring to the valley. As her eyes scanned the horizon, her eyes grew wide. She saw trees swaying in the distance, and they were getting closer! As the sound began to fill her ears, she realized what was going on. And a smile pulled at the sides of Penny’s mouth.

Up, out of the valley climbed 5 trucks, each laden with trees ready for planting. Beside the trucks, a throng of people, young and old, trooped along, carrying shovels, pickaxes, and all manner of digging tool to aid in the planting of the trees. One of the small people pointed straight at Penny and yelled, “Mom! Look, it’s a pika!”

“Why, so it is!” considered the bigger person. “You don’t need to worry about us, little pika. We’re here to do our part to make it a little cooler for you, to make it a little easier to breath. The trees that we plant today will grow tall and strong, give you plenty of shade, and maybe most importantly, they are going to pull loads of the carbon out of the air. But it’s going to take a while until these beauties are fully grown. Look right over there, and you can see what we are doing right now to help out even more than these trees will do.”

Penny looked to where the big person was pointing. At first Penny was confused. The lady was pointing at the trucks. Wait, no, the big one wasn’t pointing at the truck. She was pointing at the letters on the side of the truck. Runs on 100% Biodiesel! Penny’s eyes got big. She darted to the next truck, and the next truck, and the next! Every truck bore the words pronouncing that these trucks ran on 100% biodiesel! Penny scampered back to the Big and Little humans standing at the edge of the clearing. They could see that the pika was excited, hopeful, happy even.

The big one laughed, joy crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Aren’t you a smart one” she said. “I can tell that you understand. Those 5 trucks will offset more carbon than 20 acres of this forest. And they will do it year after year, for as long as they keep running. No one is saying that we don’t need trees! We’re here planting more of them, after all. But trees alone aren’t going to get the job done. We need to do everything that we can to reduce carbon emissions now. And big diesel trucks running on B100, well that’s a big step in the right direction there. Now, why don’t you run back to your family, little pika, and let them know that it’s going to be ok. We have to get to work planting these trees!”

Penny did just that. She scurried back up the mountainside, back to the camp where her family waited for news. As she ran, Penny thought about the other words that she saw on the big trucks. Optimus Technologies. Optimus. Well, for the first time in a long time, Penny felt something like that. A feeling long forgotten, but now bursting forth in leaps and jumps. Optimistic. That’s the word. Optimistic.

The Closed Circle - A Personal Perspective (May 2021)

It’s the dream of economists, of environmentalists, of activists the world over. The Circular Economy is, to many, the goal of what responsible business and industry should be. And yet, for others, we have no idea what that is, or what it looks like in the first place. So, before we talk about how we can make it work, let’s all get a better idea of what it even is, shall we? Put simply, it’s when a product is reused or repurposed in a new way. If that sounds like recycling, well that’s a big part of it. However, it’s not just about Reduce Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose. In a lot of ways, it’s about Rethink. When looking at waste, don’t think about it as garbage, think of it as potential. What could this become? And if you really want to close the circle, the waste from one activity is reused to make a product that facilitates the original activity. For example, a delivery truck brings cooking oil to a restaurant. The restaurant uses the oil to fry their food, and when they are done with it, they place it in a bin to be collected and recycled into biodiesel. That biodiesel can then be used to directly fuel both the delivery truck, as well as the oil collection vehicle. The grease that for so long was just viewed as garbage, destined for the landfill, instead has new life as a fuel that drives the hardest working trucks on the road. Trucks that come right back again next week, delivering more supplies and collecting more cooking oil. Round and round the circle goes, and the waste that was once thrown away creates new value as a new product. Let’s look at another example. A combine harvests soybeans. Those same beans are crushed, making it easier to process the rich protein found in the beans, and also releasing the soybean oil trapped inside. While the protein goes off to become food, some of the oil gets processed into biodiesel. That same biodiesel can then be used by the combine to fuel further harvesting activities, as well as fueling the trucks that transport the soy meal to its final destination. A closed circle. Thinking about a world with no waste, sometimes that’s too big, too impossible to conceive. Even the people that invented the concept of the circular economy recognize that it’s a pie-in-the-sky dream. So many things that we interact with each day are single-use items, because, let’s face it, they’re convenient. But a world with a little less waste, I think that we can all get behind that. So, I invite you to think about one place, just one, where you can make less waste, and do it. I can also find one place, and the next person can find one place, and then we can share the ways that we’ve reduced waste with our friends, our neighbors, our fellow church congregants. And maybe, if each person can find just one place to make less waste, we just might be able to reduce the gap so that our children can someday close the circle.