“Welcome to the award-winning WRATT hole!” says the sign on Don Hollister’s office at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in west Asheville. The sign includes a picture of a tie-wearing rat — pencil and clipboard in hand.
“We get a lot of mileage out of the name,” notes Hollister, a retired engineer who, with partner Gordon Moore, coordinates Land-of-Sky’s Waste Reduction and Technology Transfer program. It’s a group of seniors who volunteer their time to help area businesses, colleges, manufacturers and industry cut waste, Hollister explains, and they offer free, confidential waste-reduction assessments to just about any company that asks.
Aren’t there any women in the group? Mountain Xpress asked the 72-year-old Hollister.
He smiles, because the average age of “the WRATT guys,” as he keeps referring to them, is somewhere between 65 and 75. A few of them flew bombers during World War II, and one senior team member is well into his 80s. “When we were in [engineering] school,” he explains, “there weren’t too many women in the field.” He rubs his chin a moment, recalling his Vanderbilt University days in the 1950s. “I think there was one woman in the program then,” he says. Hollister, who got his degree in mechanical engineering but specializes in technical writing, notes that WRATT has had a few retired women engineers and hopes to get more.
But for the most part, WRATT “has been a bunch of fellas [who] feel we’ve got some good productive years left, so why sit around with your feet propped up, twiddling your thumbs?” says Hollister. For a small, grant-funded stipend, his “guys” will visit a local company and evaluate its solid-waste stream, its water use or its lighting system. They’ll root out inefficiencies and propose solutions — at no charge to the company (though implementing the solutions is up to them).
WRATT receives support funds from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Service, the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance, and the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson. Land-of-Sky — which serves a 17-county area of western North Carolina — administers the program. Most of WRATT’s assessments have been in Buncombe County, but its engineers have roamed as far as Bryson City, Statesville, Murphy and Rutherfordton.
The part-time work of these clever WRATTs has paid off, too: This past year alone, they recommended ways for local companies to cut their water use by 182 million gallons. To date, about half the recommendations have been implemented, saving those companies an estimated $415,000 per year, Hollister reports. WRATT also sniffed out 11 million pounds of solid-waste reductions, worth an additional quarter-of-a-million dollars in annual savings.
A local manufacturer, for example, was throwing away thousands of yarn cones each year. WRATT stepped in and hunted up a recyling firm that now buys the cones and uses the material to make corrugated boxes, says Hollister. He chuckles while Mountain Xpress takes a picture of the cones and the new cardboard, cracking jokes about the “coneheads” on “Saturday Night Live.”
But WRATT’s engineers are pretty serious about their new Green Lights program, aimed at helping companies reduce their lighting (and overall energy) costs by refitting or replacing outdated fluorescent fixtures. Hollister reckons the program could save local companies nearly $200,000 per year. One of WRATT’s nearly 30 engineers measures how much light is needed for the job, how much light the company gets out of its existing fixtures, then estimates how much electricity could be saved with newer equipment, how much it would cost to install, and how long it would take to see a return on the investment.
Such assessments, observes Hollister, yield savings for everyone — by reducing a company’s overall emissions, consumption of electricity, and the amount of waste it ships to the landfill. “I’m not a gung-ho environmentalist, but if we can conserve and save, that’s what we ought to do. There’s a certain amount of personal satisfaction in that,” Hollister declares.
The WRATT guys’ efforts have not gone unnoticed, either — they’ve received a number of awards over the past two years, including:
• a North Carolina Recycling Association award in 1997, “honoring the volunteer program that shows initiative and commitment to the community, waste reduction and the environment”;
• the National Association of Regional Councils’ 1997 Award for Distinguished Achievement; and
• the National Association of Development Organizations’ 1996 award for “bringing innovative solutions to local challenges.”
“WRATT engineers all sense the need for conserving our resources and being good stewards for what we have,” says Hollister. “And we’ve still got something to offer.” They’re always on the lookout for a few good engineers, too, he notes — male or female.
For more information on WRATT, call Hollister or Gordon Moore at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, 251-6622. Or e-mail them at: email@example.com.