Chris McDowell: Environmental Everyman

By: Zoe Brawner

Chris McDowell has had an interest in building since he was boy.  As a child McDowell would play with Lincoln Logs and building blocks.

“I was always fascinated with building so I would play with dirt and build stuff. I was into organizing kind of out doors stuff like rock piles.”

Chris McDowell is an environmental everyman. Motivated by training, literature and music, McDowell is building his part of the world with materials others have left behind.

As the director of the University of Georgia Material Reuse Program, McDowell is no longer building structures out of Lincoln Logs or building blocks. Today McDowell uses reclaim and found materials meaning materials you can find in a dumpster, somebody’s trash pile, or materials that are simply not being used.

Their mission is to divert construction and demolition waste from sites on the UGA campus and within the Athens region and actively reuse these “waste” materials on community-based and student projects, according to McDowell’s Material Reuse Program website. And that is exactly what McDowell does. There is no hiding McDowell’s ambitious work scope for his projects. McDowell has completed two dozen or so projects since starting this program and currently has several projects in the works all benefiting the community.

McDowell is just starting his most recent project where he is building a giant pavilion for the Athens Clarke County Recycling department. The ACC Recycling division has a composting facility where McDowell plans to build a teaching pavilion for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade.

“I’m building a teaching pavilion but also a site around it that uses waste water and you know there is probably going to be a rain guard in there or something like that and seating. So that’s going to be around 1500 square feet. We might build a green roof on it.

McDowell received his Bachelors degree in Urban Planning from the University of Cincinnati and his Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Georgia. Hence why McDowell wanted to build this teaching pavilion this way so kids can see the different types of environmental design. It is important to McDowell that they don’t just plop down a building in the middle of nowhere and leave it at that.

“I got into environmental design because I feel like designers can make a difference in peoples lives with connecting man with nature but in a sensible way not in a ludicrous way, McDowell said. “So that’s why as a landscape architect I do what I do. We are trying to bridge the connection between nature and the built environment.”

The Control of Nature by John McPhee is one of McDowell’s favorite novels he recommends to others to read. McPhee focuses on environmental problems in different parts of the country where man has attempted to control nature.

“His book was very powerful and a book that is very important to me.”

As an environmental designer, McDowell expressed the importance of building with nature and not against it or on top of it.

While talking to McDowell it was apparent that McDowell is down to earth man and a relatable human being to many. McDowell is not only a handy man but he is also a musician. McDowell started to play the drums when he was ten years old to recently about five years ago.

“I play drums so I like anything with a beat honestly. I listen to everything. I listen to jazz I like hip-hop you know I’m into pretty much anything that’s not like Justin Beiber. I like a lot of old class country like Hank Williams or Wailin Jennys.”

He even played for his church. Raised in a Presbyterian church McDowell thinks religion is important for communities. “It keeps people together and it is very family oriented” McDowell said.

Due to the fact that McDowell has lived in cities his whole life when McDowell moved to Athens he realized how much he enjoys being outside and working with others.

“I like working in rural areas and I think I would like to actually live in a rural area. Sometimes I think about getting a piece of property and building my house out in a rural area because its just nice to be away from all the clutter and all the nonsense that goes on in a larger area.”

Athens has been good to McDowell because it is a big enough city but he can also drive fifteen minutes out and be in the country. “It’s a nice mix here,” McDowell said.

It may seem as though McDowell’s lifestyle is all work and no play but his lifestyle has a balance. On a typical day McDowell likes to start his mornings off right and goes to the Big City Bread Café to get a coffee. If he is lucky enough to have the day off McDowell spends as much time as possible outdoors.  McDowell enjoys eating downtown at the Last Resort and Tlaloc El Mexicano off Chase Street whenever he can. In the evenings McDowell can be found at the Manhattan Bar drinking a Schlitz.

In the future McDowell plans to build his own house deep in the countryside. “I’ve always wanted to build a house out of rammed earth or something like that but I don’t know how it would hold up in this environment where it rains so much” McDowell said.”

I could easily probably build my stuff our of found materials or natural materials.

Sustaining Local Economies

By: Zoe Brawner

A burgeoning network of food artisans, purveyors and growers anticipate the opening day of the Athens Farmers Market, set to kickoff on April 6.

In the last decade, according to Local Harvest, farmers markets have become a weekly ritual for many shoppers as well as a favorite marketing method for farmers. In Athens, officials report the Athens Farmers Market attendance has more than doubled.

The Athens Farmers Market sells its products twice a week. Every Saturday the Athens Farmers Market is at Bishop Park from 8am until noon and on Wednesdays it is located at City Hall from 4 p.m.-7p.m.

Today there are almost two million farms in the United States. Local Harvest states that about 80 percent of those farms are small farms and a large percentage of these are family owned. When you look at a map that identifies farmers markets across the nation, it is a sea of hundreds if not thousands of red dots. Local Harvest’s map of all of the farms in the United States allows you to find a small farm near you to support your local farmer.

Customers arrive to the sound of live music at the Athens Farmers Market. They grab a freshly brewed cup of Thousand Faces coffee. Then roam from booth to booth, buying seasonal produce from their favorite growers.

All of this occurs while visiting with neighbors, old friends and making new friends. Customers try new foods they have never cooked at home while children wander at will in the protected confines of the market.

They are free to dance and sing to the music of a local musician. Growers offer recipes and tips to cooking the current season’s produce.  If the customer’s timing is right, they can watch a cooking demonstration by a local chef and taste a sample of the outcome.

As the customer leaves, they stop for fresh eggs, field-fed meat and dairy products. But most importantly, when the customer prepares and eats their food from the market, they remember the relaxing experience and appreciate the tasty and nutritious food they are eating.

The Athens Farmers Market establishes a tighter connection between producers and consumers of locally grown produce.  Co-founder of the Athens Farmers Market, Jerry NeSmith, says they require that the growers come to the market to sell their products. NeSmith said that the Athens Farmers Market nourishes and encourages the relationship between the consumer and the grower. It creates a sense of community between the local citizens and local farmers.

College student Rachel Barnes is a frequent customer at the Athens Farmers Market just for that reason.

“I shop at the Athens Farmers Market for many reasons, namely that I like to know exactly where my food comes from.  I can ask the growers questions about how to prepare it, and I am supporting people within my community.  I’d give my money to a local, family-owned farm than a corporation any day!”

There is no surprise why the Athens Farmers Market has hundreds of “regulars” that come every week and are on a first name basis with the growers. NeSmith even stated that growers often invite customers to their farm for visits. Recently, the Athens Farmers Market attendance has risen from an average of 800 adult visitors to almost 2000. NeSmith says the Athens Farmers Market has doubled the number of growers at the market since their first market in 2008.

Juan VillaVeces, a vendor at the Athens Farmers Market, and his family have been a part of the Athens community for over 35 years. His family has a history of cooking in Athens. As a food purveyor, VillaVeces provides prepared foods using locally produced ingredients. VillaVeces says that some of their customers actually guide their recipes and what he actually brings to the market. VillaVeces mainly sells empanadas. Occasionally he offers tamales. He also has an assortment of muffins, baklava, pastries, and anything else he wants to experiment with in gluten free products.

“We sell our products at the Athens Farmers Market because Athens is not big enough to sustain our business exclusively with one venue. Although some of the customers are the same people who go to the farmers market. The market is also a social event. It has been beneficial for my children to be involved and have something to do on the weekends.”

Community Supported Agriculture programs are similar to farmers markets due to the fact that CSAs have also become a viable source to financially support these farmers and increase local consumption. Typically the farmer will provide a certain number of “shares” to the public, which is often a box of vegetables. Consumers can purchase a membership with seasonal subscription fees in advance. In return the consumer will receive weekly shares of produce throughout the course of the growing season. is an example of an established Community Supported Agriculture program. Dan and Kristen Miller founded Athens Locally Grown in 2001 and have continued to grow this CSA. Today Athens Locally Grown sells a wide range of products to over 4,000 individuals, families, local restaurants, and grocery stores. In other CSA programs members receive the same box of stuff. However, Athens Locally Grown lets consumers choose which items they want, the quantities, and from which farm they want their produce. Athens Locally Grown sends members a weekly email each Sunday evening that contains a list of the produce, milled products, fresh flowers, and artisan goods that are available each week. Consumers simply browse the available items on the website emailed to them before they place their order online. Members pick up their orders between 4:30 p.m. -8:00 p.m. each Thursday at Ben’s Bikes.

CSAs like Athens Grown Locally and farmers markets like the Athens Farmers Market, have many benefits. When consumers support a local business by purchasing local items, consumers provide stability to the local economy. Consumers of local products are individuals involved in the process of saving resources including packaging materials and gas. Locally Grown and Athens Farmers Market supporters help educate the community about the importance of sustainable agriculture as well as preserve a way of life. Both believe that small, diverse, family-owned farms contribute to a society’s health.

E-waste: The Fastest Growing Waste In the Country

By: Zoe Brawner

College student Colson Barnes strolled down the street walking and texting. The phone fell from her hand when a stranger bumped into her. Barnes picked it up and hoped it survived. It didn’t.  Like many other students who have broken their electronics, Barnes asked herself what do I do now?

Experts say most people would throw it away, replace the cell phone and not think twice about it. This is not unheard of when electronic products near the end of their “useful life.” Kristine Kobylus, Athens Clarke County’s Solid Waste Department Program Education Specialist, thinks throwing away electronics when they die has become a part of our culture. Specialists like Kobylus along with other Recycling activists in the Athens area are determined to educate the public and change how e-waste is recycled.

Hundreds of pages could be written about E-waste. However, experts say these are three vital things the public should know: 1. E-waste is the fastest growing waste in the United States.  2. Throwing away electronics is an improper disposal method of e-waste. 3. Recycling e-waste is easy. Video:

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the country. As technology advances and the time span of an electronics “useful life” continues to diminish, many find their electronic devices become obsolete. E-Cycling Central confirmed today televisions are used on average for less than two years while computers it’s three. According to, the country’s largest nonprofit for young people and social change, the nation now dumps between 300 and 400 million electronic items per year but less than 20 percent of that e-waste is recycled. The E-Stewards Initiative estimates as little as 11-14 percent of e-waste is recycled in the United States and an estimated 70-80 percent of the e-waste given to recycle centers is exported to less developed countries.

Dumping electronic devices in landfills causes a number of problems according to Prospect Journal of International Affairs. E-waste is different than other waste because it is hazardous according to the Journal: It contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants. When e-waste is burned at low temperatures these chemicals create the most toxic substances known to mankind. Therefore, if the waste stream isn’t managed in the proper way, these toxic materials in e-waste can cause many health problems which include endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, cancer, and many others. Toxic chemicals in electronics do not break down over time they accumulate in the biosphere when dumped in landfills. These toxins present risks to communities, the global ecosystem and recycling workers.

Clarke County’s Household Hazardous Waste Specialist Christopher Griffin says Athens Clarke County Recycling Division Center has diverted 322.25 tons of e-waste from the landfills. That means in the last six years Clarke County has recycled 46 tons on average which is 2-3 percent of e-waste when compared to the total amount of recycled materials. Although this percentage is small when compared to the total waste recycled, it represents an increase in growth of customers who are involved with ACC’s recycling programs.

“It is significant as far as our customers are concerned. The fact that they are making the effort to recycle e-waste is huge because these items are not always easy to recycle. Six years ago that 2-3 percent was just going into the landfills.”

Athens Clarke County Recycling Division has a drop-off bin where anyone can drop off electronics in their fullest form to be recycled. They serve as the collectors of e-waste and store all of the materials in a trailer on site. The e-waste is transported to KP Surplus where the electronics are shredded, crushed, and broken down into smaller components. These materials are then stored in big Gaylord recycling boxes and taken for further processing at an R2 recycler. This is where they extract all of the toxic chemicals. Kristine Kobylus, says that every municipality that collects e-waste has a choice of where they want their processor to be. Kobylus touched on the ethical issues of exporting e-waste to third world countries and expressed how fortunate Athens Clarke County Recycling Division is to have a local partner and R2 recycler in the United States.  Griffin elaborated on how important it is to know who they use as a manufacturer to process the e-waste is doing the right thing with the material.

“I think that was one of the problems that we had with the company we used before, Creative Recycling. Where essentially because they were profit driven that stuff was going where it wasn’t supposed to go so that’s why we are now involved with KP’s services plus they are local so that made a huge impact on the level of customer service we get.”

Recycling electronics today is crucial to keep e-waste from accumulating in the landfills.  Griffin and Kobylus plan to attack this problem by educating the public that there is an alternative to throwing electronics away.  By 2020, the mayor of commission expects ACC to have an 80 percent diversion rate. In order to achieve this, ACC has to come up with new programs to collect items on the curb and reduce the amount of e-waste at the recycling division center. In the next seven years ACC plans to have a regular collection on a regular basis for e-waste. CHaRM, which stands for Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, is a program in the works to provide improvements and equipment. CHaRM’s mission is to establish a recycling center for Athens-Clarke County that can accept designated recycling materials and household hazardous materials that cannot be accepted through other disposal methods, and properly reuse and/or dispose of such materials. In the meantime the ACC Recycling Facility, Best Buy, Target, ReConnect, Sony, FREE IT Athens, and Hewlett-Packard all offer free electronic recycling services.

With this knowledge, Colson Barnes says she will never throw away her cell phone again.

“I had no idea how much damage I could prevent just by taking the time to  recycle my phone instead of throwing it away. If I had this knowledge prior to  breaking my phone I would have recycled it the correct way.”

In the future, Barnes plans to drive to the Athens Clarke County Recycling Division Center. Barnes will drop her next broken phone off in the electronics-recycling bin and looks forward to making a positive impact on the environment.

Thrift Stores Attract A New Kind Of Customer

By: Zoe Brawner

Ben Miller, a forty-two year old and father of three, walks into Agora, a local consignment store located downtown in Athens, Georgia and starts to explore the store. He looks up at the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, thumbs through old records, and leaves the store with several great nostalgic finds.

Miller is an example of the new type of customer that second hand shops and thrift shops see on a national level. Instead of a young crowd interested in vintage clothing and items, Airee Hong, the proud owner of Agora, says the customer base has changed.

“It’s not just young people now, because before vintage was all about young people really into vintage but now their moms are into vintage, their grandmas, everybody’s into it, even their fathers. Everybody’s into vintage because its like so different and unique and they’re getting into it. So the kids like you would take their parents into these stores and now they’re the ones coming into the stores so they are following that trend. Its all ages, not just a young thing anymore.”

This influx in consignment shops and thrift shops has led these businesses to thrive in such a thrifty era. The recession spurred growth in these types of shops. According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Stores, data shows a record number of 15,000 resale shops open, an increase from 13,000 one year ago. The industry has experienced a 7% growth in the number of stores for each of the past two years. Today there are more than 30,000 resale, consignment and thrift shops in the U.S.

Some would even say that retro is the new black. The stigma to shop in a second hand store today has gone away. Shoppers are no longer embarrassed about shopping in these stores. Ben Garrett, the store manager at Dynamite, understands the demand to shop in thrift stores occurs now for a variety of reasons including cheaper prices but resale shops are also consistent with reduce, reuse and recycle.

“I will say though going back to people being more comfortable coming into these places, some of the older women that you find that come in here it is no longer a shunned thing. It’s okay to buy something that’s been worn. Especially for us and over at Agora everything is looked over, everything is gone through and priced accordingly. So if you can get an amazing leather jacket from the 70s and feel like an 18 year old again, why not?”

The location of a resale shop is critical to its success or failure. Geometrx explains that there is a recent industry trend for resale shop owners to establish their shops in locations with greater foot traffic as well as those that are clustered near similar businesses.

Dave Wolfe has been the owner of the resale shop Minx for seventeen years. In Wolfe’s opinion, when resale shops are in a college town they should be as close to the gates of the college as possible. Wolfe stated that because of the short attention span of college aged people, retail stores compete to gain the interest of thousands of people.

As the United States continues to cut the government budget to tackle the debt crisis, individual Americans tighten what they spend their money on as well. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, journalist Sam Schechner quotes Daphne Kasriel, a consumer-trends analyst at Euromonitor,

“Worries about money are chipping away at consumer loyalty to brands. This thrift mindset is here to stay.”

Consumers no longer show austerity when they shop. Thrifting is not just for penny-pinching grandmas anymore, it is a trend that has lost its negative stigma and benefits both the consumer and economy today.