The U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement with a Houston company on alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act. Photo via Getty Images

Officials have reached an agreement with a Houston-based company over alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

Under a proposed settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Derichebourg Recycling USA Inc. will prevent the release of ozone-depleting refrigerants and non-exempt substitutes from refrigerant-containing items at its 10 scrap metal recycling facilities in Texas and Oklahoma. Derichebourg also will pay a $442,500 penalty.

Derichebourg Recycling USA’s parent company is France-based Derichebourg SA, an operator of scrap metal recycling facilities.

A complaint filed in federal court alleges Derichebourg Recycling USA failed to recover refrigerant from appliances and motor vehicle air conditioners before disposal, and failed to verify with the supplier that refrigerant had been properly recovered before delivery.

The complaint focuses on alleged Clean Air Act violations at three Derichebourg scrap metal recycling facilities in Houston: 7501 Wallisville Rd., 8202 W. Montgomery Rd., and 1 Wharf St. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections in 2018 led to the complaint.

Derichebourg operates three other facilities in the Houston area: 3515 Almeda Genoa Rd. and 6648 N. Eldridge Pkwy., both in Houston, and 13319 FM 1764 in Santa Fe.

“To continue protecting stratospheric ozone, we need companies like Derichebourg to comply with the Clean Air Act when recycling appliances and motor vehicles containing harmful refrigerants,” Todd Kim, an assistant U.S. attorney general, says in a January 7 news release.

The refrigerant, R-12, is one of the most destructive ozone-depleting substances and has a global warming potential greater than 10,000 times the power of carbon dioxide, according to the news release.

“Refrigerants that are not captured properly can be damaging to the earth’s ozone layer and are known to increase greenhouse gasses, which leads to climate change,” says Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator of the EPA.

The agreement, called a consent decree, still requires approval from a federal judge in Houston. The consent decree is signed by two EPA attorneys and the CEO of Derichebourg Recycling USA, Philippe Leonard.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Photo via Getty Images

Houston continues its reign as the top city using renewables, per the EPA

seeing green

The City of Houston continues to electrify the country when it comes to the use of green power.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks the city first among municipal entities for the highest annual consumption of power from renewable sources. The list features participants in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership.

The EPA pegs the City of Houston's annual use of green power at a little over 1 billion kilowatt-hours. That's enough electricity to power more than 94,000 average U.S. homes in a year's time. No other municipal entity uses more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of green power per year.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Among all users of green power in the U.S. that participate in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership, the city ranks 19th.

Since July 2020, all City of Houston facilities have been powered by 100 percent renewable energy derived from solar and wind sources. Houston-based NRG supplies the electricity for those facilities.

In an August 11 news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the EPA recognition is "great news for the city of Houston and, by extension, for the rest of the world. We are going big to set the example for cities around the world. If 100 percent renewable energy can happen in Houston, it can happen in any other city."

The news release points out that green power helps offset damage from ozone, acid rain, haze, fine particles, and other harmful pollutants. Fine particles come primarily from exhaust produced by vehicles, as well as from the burning of coal, wood, and heating oil, and from forest fires and grass fires.

The City of Houston isn't the only municipal outfit in Texas that shines on the EPA list. Here's are four others among the top 30 municipal users of green power:

  • City of Dallas, ranked second, 701.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ranked fifth, 450.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Austin, ranked sixth, 325.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Irving, ranked 30th, 24.9 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Nationally, these five Texas businesses rank among the top corporate users of green power:

  • Dallas-based AT&T, ranked seventh, 2.36 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Irving-based Kimberly-Clark, ranked 18th, 1.03 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Round Rock-based Dell, ranked 46th, 365.6 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Houston-based Solvay America, ranked 61st, 220 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Plano-based Cinemark USA, ranked 95th, 120.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Two Texas schools appear on the list of the top colleges and universities for use of green power:

  • University of North Texas in Denton, ranked 17th, 80.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Fort Worth-based Tarrant County College District, ranked 25th, 57.1 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Four Texas institutions show up on the list of the top K-12 users of green power:

  • Austin ISD, ranked second, 19.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Lake Travis ISD (select schools), ranked 12th, 960,000 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The da Vinci School in Dallas, ranked 15th, 237,990 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The Empower School in Austin, ranked 17th, 115,314 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

The EPA's ranking of the largest users of green power across the country "is proof that good business practices can also benefit the environment," says James Critchfield, director of the EPA's Green Power Partnership.

From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

National report declares Texas dim when it comes to energy efficiency

Power Problems

For a state that's home to the "Energy Capital of the World," Texas falls flat when it comes to energy efficiency. WalletHub, a personal finance site, ranked the most and least energy-efficient states, and Texas was named No. 42 of the 48 states evaluated.

The states were scored on home and auto efficiency out of an available 100 points. Home efficiency was calculated based on the ratio of total residential energy consumption to annual degree days, the days of the year in each region that require buildings to engage heating or cooling. Auto efficiency was established by factoring in the annual miles driven per year, gallons of gasoline consumed, and population. At the top of the national ranking were New York, Vermont, Utah, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 33.34 total points on the report. The state ranked No. 35 on home energy efficiency and No. 42 for auto energy efficiency. Texans drive over 271 billion miles annually and use over 19 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

The Environmental Protection Agency's research tells a different story of Texas' sustainability. The EPA's Green Power Partnership named its 2018 top local governments, and Texas cities claimed three spots in the top five. Houston was ranked No. 1, followed by Dallas at No. 2 and Austin at No. 5. This ranking is based on the annual green power usage — Houstonians use almost 1.1 million kilowatt hours of wind and solar energies annually.

According to the WalletHub report, each American household spends at least $2,000 annually on utilities and another $1,968 on gasoline and oil, which is up $59 from last year. New technologies and energy-efficient measures can reduce household utility costs by up to 25 percent, and a fuel-efficient car could save drivers over $700 annually, says WalletHub. The report's experts advised in properly weatherproofing homes; smart technology, such as thermostats; solar panels; and more.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.