How small businesses in Salt Lake City are helping to clear the air

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cesar Lugo uses the spray booth to paint cabinets at Salt Design Cabinet & Mill in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, The Salt Lake Tribune is examining lesser known contributors to air pollution — our homes and our workplaces — and possible solutions to mitigate the effects they have on the air we breathe. In the third of a three-part series, we focus on how some local companies are helping to reduce Utah’s air pollution. Read part 1: Homes are a big part of Salt Lake City’s air pollution problem. They also are the solution. Read part 2: The all-electric home: Tackling air pollution by cutting off natural gas.

If it smells, it could also be polluting the air.

That goes for the products we use to clean our homes and spray for pests, the paint on our walls, cars and cabinets, and the gasoline we burn to mow our lawns and blow away snow.

Besides the acrid smell, household products, pesticides, paint and gasoline emit a variety of chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These VOCs help form the small particles of pollution that dirty the air during winter inversions and react with sunlight and other pollution in the summer to form ozone. The air along the Wasatch Front exceeds the federal standards for ozone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Several small businesses in Utah have found solutions to reduce their VOC emissions — voluntarily or due to state rules — by taking such steps as switching to water-based paints for automobiles and cabinetry, using electric-powered lawn tools instead of gas-powered, and adding controls to clean exhaust on coffee roasters.

Voluntary measures have resulted in small decreases.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) help form small particles of pollution that dirty the air.

Mandatory state rules, implemented over the past couple of years, have eliminated a lot more: Requiring auto body and auto repair shops to use water-based paints, limiting the VOC content of consumer products from hairspray to bathroom cleaners to certain insecticides, and instituting mandatory no-wood burning during certain winter days are expected to eliminate between 1,800 pounds to more than 10,000 pounds of VOCs a day by next year, according to the Department of Air Quality.

Even with the new rules, solvents remain a major source of pollution in Utah, contributing 35 tons of VOCs a day in Salt Lake and Davis counties, along with portions of Weber, Tooele and Box Elder, according to DEQ data on winter emissions. Solvents make up half of all emissions from area sources, which include homes, small businesses and light industrial operations. Some of the major solvent sources include degreasing at businesses like auto body shops and restaurants; coatings used on buildings during construction; pesticide, insecticide and fungicide sprays; and personal care products.

More small companies, as well as large industries, may need to find additional measures to limit VOCs and other pollution since the Wasatch Front is unlikely to meet federal standards for ozone by 2021, says Jay Baker, DEQ environmental scientist.

If Utah doesn’t meet the EPA standard, the DEQ will have to create a state implementation plan to reduce ozone precursor pollutants by 15 percent over six years and show it can reduce ozone to the federal limit by 2027.

“We’ll look at everything we can,” Baker says, noting that consumers have the ability to act now and [patronize] low-polluting companies. “The more you think about the choices each of us make, the bigger the difference that we get.”

Cleaner coffee roasting

Caffe Ibis, Millcreek Coffee Roasters and Utah Coffee Roasters weren’t required to install afterburners on their roasters, but did after the state and nonprofit Utah Clean Air Partnership offered $1.2 million in grants for companies to reduce VOCs from 2014 to 2017. The grants covered half the cost of the necessary equipment.

The changes made by nearly 100 small businesses have eliminated nearly 60 tons of VOCs per year, according to UCAIR data. While noteworthy, it’s a “small fraction” of what needs to be reduced, says Evans.

(Courtesy of Arrin Newton Brunson) Caffe Ibis Roastmaster Randy Wirth and CEO Sally Sears are passionate about the flavor of their coffee, as well as its impact on the environment. With each triple-certified cup, the couple, married for 35 years, serves environmental stewardship and social justice by adhering to the industry's highest standards.

“We may be small and it may not be making as much of a dent as a refinery would if they would clean up their air, but it’s something we have to do,” says Brandon Despain, director of coffee at Caffe Ibis Coffee Roasting Co. in Logan. Logan also exceeds federal standards for air pollution during the winter.

Ibis bought a $32,000 afterburner with the grant, and now all of its roasters use a pollution control device to roast 400,000 pounds of beans a year.

Roasting coffee, particularly for dark roasts, produces several pollutants. Afterburners oxidize the gases by burning them at about 1200 degrees F, eliminating smoke, odor and VOCs, according to manufacturers.

Stacey Maxwell, president of Millcreek Coffee Roasters, used the grant to buy an afterburner to roast about 1,200 pounds of beans a day.

Now, “there’s not as much smoke around our building,” she says. “It really doesn’t change the flavor.”

The $32,000 price tag would have been difficult to pay without the grant, and Millcreek doesn’t have afterburners on its other two roasters because of the cost, she says. But she doesn’t think customers would pay more knowing that the coffee they’re drinking is “air-friendly.”

It’s like other certifications coffee roasters seek, whether it’s Rainforest Alliance certified or direct trade from farmers, she says. “It’s almost expected now as a coffee roaster: We do what’s good for the coffee community and the community we roast in.”

Small motors, big polluters

Nick Lamb says he’s tried every gas-powered push mower there is and none is better than the electric mowers he purchased for his Salt Lake City-based company Electric Lamb Lawn Care, which maintains 30-50 lawns a week.

He doesn’t have to fiddle with spark plugs, filters and pull cords and pays a sliver of what he paid in gasoline to charge them. There are no fumes and no noise.

“It’s 1000-times better than any push mower that’s out there. I’ve used mine all day, every day and it’s never failed me for four years straight,” he says of his Mean Green-brand mower, which he purchased with the help of a UCAIR grant.

The only problem? Electric mowers are three to four times more expensive than gas-powered mowers, according to landscapers, which is why just a handful of companies use them.

Gasoline-powered mowers and gas-powered handheld tools are a major source of pollution: A typical 3.5 horsepower gas mower can emit the same amount of ozone precursors as 11 new cars, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

In southern California, lawn, garden and other outdoor power equipment emit more ozone pollution than all passenger cars, according to the California Air Resources Board, which is considering new standards to reduce emissions by 80 percent in 2031. Moving to electric-powered mowers will likely be a major part of the new standards, according to the board.

In Utah, the switch to electric is voluntary. The state offered 1,200 reduced-price electric mowers and nearly 1,000 electric lawn trimmers to homeowners in March, paid by donations. The DEQ says commercial and residential lawn and garden equipment, including snowblowers, emit a little over 3,000 tons of ozone precursors along the Wasatch Front per year. That’s the equivalent to what about one-tenth of the cars in those counties emit.

And UCAIR offered landscaper grants. But sometimes good intentions meet up with technological limitations.

Wasatch Eco Mow and Los Gringos Lawn & Landscape voluntarily switched from gasoline-powered lawn mowers to electric ones, only to switch back because they said the electric ones didn’t perform like their customers wanted.

“For homeowners, I absolutely, 100% recommend battery-powered over gas-powered for their own yard,” says Los Gringos owner Jared Bradley. “The technology … is just not quite up to commercial grade.”

He said residents didn’t like how the electric mowers dumped clumps of lawn clippings.

Both companies say they still use electric-powered handheld landscaping tools, eliminating the two-stroke engines for their hand-held tools that required mixing gas and oil. The Wasatch Eco Mow trailer even carries solar panels to charge batteries for trimmers and blowers. Owner Mike Hornung says he wants to go back to electric mowers, and has looked at converting his existing equipment, but the cost is too high — $4,000 to $6,000 per mower.

“It’s not a very glamorous service that people look at and say, ‘I’m willing to spend more just because he’s got lower emissions.’”

Cabinet maker goes green, but it’s not cheap

Braden Smith didn’t know he was using water-based paint for the mid-to-high-end residential cabinets he makes at Salt Design Cabinet & Mill in Kearns until the paint took twice as long to dry. He said consumers don’t notice any differences in quality, but the required switch hurt his production times — a problem for a company growing 30% to 40% a year.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Braden Smith of Salt Design Cabinet & Mill in Kearns received a $15,000 grant to install an air make-up unit in his warehouse so that he could speed up drying times for paint on the cabinets he makes.

He successfully lobbied to receive a $15,000 grant to install an air make-up unit in his warehouse, which replaces contaminated indoor air with heated outdoor air. Sounding like a massive fan inside the spray booth, it speeds up dry times.

Smith also upgraded the spray guns to a version that ensures he uses 85% of the paint, compared to standard spray guns, which over-sprays so much that it’s like dumping half the paint in the garbage, he says.

He says he is happy about the changes to improve the air. “The inversion is pretty bad here. I’m all about it.”

But it wasn’t cheap to make the changes to accommodate low VOC paint; he says it cost a total of $300,000 “to do it right.” And he suspects there are cabinet makers who continue to use solvent-based paints if they work out of their garage instead of a licensed shop. Consumers should ask questions when they’re choosing cabinets, he says.

“Make sure they have a shop. People [may] have to pay more money for the companies that do it right.”

Heather May is a freelance writer and can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com.