Today I’m hosting an event in my hood with my dear friend Natalie at her creative workspace, Supersmith. If you live in NYC and you’re looking for an excuse to visit Red Hook this evening, come join us. Bring underused items of value such as books, apparel, kitchen stuffs, art/office supplies, holiday gifts that missed the mark, and more to swap for new-to-you items. Or just bring yourself! We’ll have a fire burning, snacks and libations, a sweet dog named Bones, and an 9-week-old kitten named Julio at the Trading Post.
Happy 2015! I have never put a lot of stock in making New Years’ resolutions. This is partly because I would like to believe that I’m capable of finding the resolve to make changes in my life—however large or small, on ordinary days throughout the year. Also, momentous occasions can be weighted by a kind of pressure that for better or worse, I tend to shy away from. But this year I have a few personal goals that I’m moving toward. One is to follow through on the gift “proposals” I made this year. In place of object presents, I gave “experience gift cards” to my loved ones. I made them from recycled, compostable rag paper, give to me by my friend Pam while I was visiting her Shotwell Paper Mill. On the front of each card I drew an image that corresponds with the activity described inside the card. In my remaining time at Parsons, I want to take advantage of the discounted student tickets available at institutions across New York City. These ticket deals often come in pairs, so I realized that this was something I could offer to my friends and family this holiday season and beyond. While coming up with experiences, I chose some individualized adventures and other “wildcard” activities that be enjoyed by anyone in my family.
Experience gifts are my favorite kind to give. Selfishly, I love sharing in the activities. In the context of this blog, I have come to really prefer this kind of expression of love, which aims at making memories rather than waste. Because nostalgia is a mechanism that operates strongly in me, the experience gifts I’ve given and received are throughout my life are the most meaningful and memorable. Certainly, objects can be imbued with nostalgia too… but more on that in an upcoming post.
I was curious to see what would happen if I let everyone draw from the pile, so in a Christmas day experiment, I laid the cards on the dining room table and asked each member of my family to choose the images they were most drawn to. The specifically curated activities were each picked by the person they were intended for. I smiled ear-to-ear watching that unfold. Then the wildcards were selected and all the holiday date gifts were set.
This first date I made good on was with my mom. I took her to the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln center to see La Traviata. The student discount is significant so check it out if you’re eligible. The show was beautiful. Growing up, my mother filled our home and our station wagon with the music of her favorite composers, bands, and folk singers. Like sponges, my brother, sister, and I learned the lyrics and melodies of everything she played for us. We’d sing along, dance around the living room, and perform impromptu concerts for her (many of them recorded on our video camera). To this day, when I’m sad, my mom will tell me to put on some music. Now, whenever I wonder what to give my mom, the resounding answer is to give back music.
I will post the rest of the experiences as they are shared. Here’s to many wonderful adventures in 2015.
While spending Christmas day with loved ones, I have been reflecting on my fall semester in the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. I can hardly believe how quickly it passed. The design methodologies, technical skills, and new modes of thinking I learned are clearer from the retrospective “balcony” than they were on the mid-semester “dance floor.” I want to share a project I made for my portfolio. This post has a lot of photos because I geeked about how beautiful the process is.
In one of my classes, I was given the assignment of producing a physical portfolio, business card, or brochure that reflects my professional practice. I knew that I couldn’t simply make a digitally printed book on industrial paper manufactured from wood pulp and claim it’s an object that represents my No Trash principles. So, I consulted my enormously talented friend Pam DeLuco, who I’ve written about here on this blog in the past. I told her I was thinking about making the paper by hand and she advised me on different materials that I could scavenge from the trash and natural fibers I could forage to make the pulp. She then invited me out to California to make it in her beautiful studio, Shotwell Paper Mill, the only handmade paper mill in San Francisco. Because the cost of the flight was affordable and I knew I would also get to see my sister who lives in the Bay Area (we grew up out there) I decided to make the trip. Having access to Pam’s know-how, resources, and facilities was an incredible gift. We worked for five days around the clock to create a little book (a chapbook folded from a single sheet of paper) that both describes and embodies the ideas I have been tumbling around over the course of my semester.
After meeting Pam at SFO, we headed straight to an evening workshop at Dandelion Chocolate where we indulged in holiday samples and collected jute burlap cacao bean sacks. The burlap sacks are used to transport dry food goods around the world but they are only used once. Pam has been collecting these from vendors around San Francisco who would otherwise throw them away. Processed, the jute fibers make a crisp, smooth, beige paper, which I felt would meet the aesthetic and utilitarian requirements of my project. The following morning we hit up Four Barrel Coffee for a few more coffee bean sacks before heading to the Mission district studio.
To start, I cut the bags into one-inch squares with a pizza cutter-style blade and scissors. By the time I was finished with this first step, my right hand was numb. Pam is 5 feet tall and not much more than 90 pounds, but she must have strong hands from this work. During this process, I created trash—a dulled pizza-cutter blade.
As I dismembered the bags, I collected stowaway cacao beans, which fueled our work over the next several days.
Next, we submerged the cut pieces in a 10-gallon pot of water and cooked the fibers over a propane stove for several hours, occasionally stirring them with a long stick. It was a very special brew. The smell of the fermented cacao beans clings to the jute sacks and it filled the studio as the water bubbled and boiled.
Once the fibers cooked down, I rinsed them until the water ran clear. Pam’s business partner Drew Cameron taught me how to operate the Hollander Beater and we added the fibers to the trough. Drew explained that the beater does not cut the fibers but rather it compacts them, which in a sense makes the fibers “grabbier,” so that they can form the hydrogen bond necessary to make a sheet of paper.
To check the beaten pulp for inconsistencies, we drew a sample from the beater and held it up to the light. No clumps. Time to make the sheets.
I decided to make seed paper. I felt that this element made the piece conceptually stronger. I wanted to create a prompt for users to lovingly move the object I produced into the “disposal” phase of its life. By making the paper plantable, I hope that those who interact with it will one day bury the jute paper in soil and in turn feel rewarded for their stewardship by the food reaped from the sown seeds. I rode Pam’s bike to the Scarlet Sage Herb Co. to pick up their very last packet of heirloom lettuce, which I chose because this seed is hard enough that it doesn’t germinate in the sheet before the paper can dry.
“Pulling” the paper was one of my favorite parts of the process. We added the pulp to a bath of water, sprinkled in the seeds, and pulled a papermaking mould and deckle through the mixture. The fibers catch on the screen as the water drains through. The paper is then “couched” or pressed onto pieces of felt that are pressed between wood boards and dried.
While the paper was drying, I got to work setting type to letterpress print the text of my book. After making the paper by hand, it wouldn’t have seemed right to run it through a laser printer. I chose sans serif, no frills, News Gothic 12 point font. I did print a digital copy of my text onto a white sheet of paper to use as a reference while I worked. As I sat there lifting each letter out of the tray, I was struck by the strangeness of using a modern technology to assist the antiquated process.
This part took many hours. In order to justify the text on the pages of my tiny book, I was editing on the fly, searching for synonyms, unessential words, and rephrases in order to make each line fit. The letterpress printed version is essentially a translation of the Microsoft Word document I had been tweaking before arriving in SF. The contents of this book are ideas that I have been working with very closely for many months. But setting these thoughts in led type has deepened my relationship to them.
After the paper was dried and the type was set, it was time to print a test sheet.
So we took the press for a spin.
And discovered some (ironic) typos.
Finally, we got all the kinks out and ran the edition through the press. The seeds broke the type in some places but I think it was worth it to have them in there. I can’t wait to plant one of the books.
I hand illustrated and signed each edition copy, because I’m particularly interested in the tension between the preciousness of the object and its true disposability. When I posted an image of the finished piece on instagram, a friend commented, “But why would you want to plant such a beautiful little book?!” My answer is: Because it can be as beautiful in its death as it is in its life. I’m pleased with the end result and so grateful to Pam and Drew for their guidance and unfettered support throughout the project. It’s a glimpse at what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about.
When I was a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design, I took a foundations 3 dimensional design course with a teacher named Ken Horii. I often recall a lecture he gave during which he projected slides from his trip to the Kailasanatha rock-cut temple at Ellora in India. The temple was carved into the wall of a basalt cliff and took an estimated 40 years to complete. One of the slides showed a section of a painted ceiling. Ken explained that the fine lines in the image were applied with a single hair. I remember that when he returned from the trip he was unable to make art for more than a year. I recently emailed Ken to ask him to refresh my memory on some of the details of his experience. In his reply he explained that he was hoping to impart to his students the importance of finding necessity in our own production. The work of those who carved each stone and painted each line was in service to something greater than themselves. He wrote that what gave him pause in his work was, “the need to seek and find that necessity for myself—a deeper and undeniable way forward.”
I think of Ken’s lecture whenever I am faced with something overwhelming that forces me to question my practices and requires me to take pause in my own life. This last semester of graduate school at Parsons was an instance of this. I was able to design my curriculum around the subject of waste and I discovered very quickly that I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I took a class about e-waste that examined the manufacturing, usage, and disposal of electronics, specifically through the lens of the smartphone. We made a digital and physical project called TECHTRASH that aimed to demystify some of the consequences of device use. In an anthropology course I took at NYU called Garbage in Gotham, I learned about the history of waste management in NYC. I worked on a composting project and campaign at an urban farm in Brooklyn with Project Eats and Hello Compost. In a more experimental project, I co-designed an exhibit called Landfull for a speculative design class. This kind of discourse is exactly what I was searching for once I had settled into a No Trash Project routine in Providence and I looked around wondering if it was possible for me to effect change beyond my own personal consumption and discard habits. I had started to become aware of the limitations of focusing solely on problem solving municipal waste and was eager to have conversations about systems upstream of consumption. The question, “Why do we focus so much money, so many resources and campaigning on municipal waste management and individual responsibility, when household trash only makes up for 3% of the nations total waste output?” rang in my ears. I felt the need to reconsider whether or not I wanted to continue to generate what I feared may ultimately be a misdirected energy. I wondered if I had been naïve to promote my No Trash Project through the blog when folks in the field of Discard Studies seem to have much bigger fish to fry.
After many months, some wonderful experiences, and a lot of reflection, I’ve come to some conclusions that I feel the need to share. First, and perhaps most importantly in the context of everything I’ve written on this platform to date, while the planet won’t notice whether or not I make trash or if I leave the lights on when I leave a room, I remain committed to the effort to circumvent garbage and packaging in my consumption of goods. I continue to take care in my decisions (based in considerations of source, material, manufacturing, energy, quality and durability) about the things I acquire and the things I choose to purge. I will continue to work to limit my energy and resource-consumption. Though I’ve tried to express this in previous posts, I can say more distinctly now that these decisions are not based in some delusion that I alone can slow the melting ice, but rather in something more personal and intuitive. It’s in the feeling that I have when I lift an item towards a trashcan about the strangeness of its grave beyond the receptacle and the rituals we’ve constructed to deliver it there. Any acknowledgement of the resources and labor required to produce that item, and of the fuel required to move the materials around is obliterated in that gesture. The objection to it stirs in my chest and in my stomach. If I had to assign one word to the feeling it would be, “Nope.” It’s important to note is that while that 3% statistic is something I grapple with in terms of trying to decide where to focus my attention, having stood in the open face of Rhode Island’s central landfill taking in the volume of a single day’s worth of garbage in the smallest state in the country, there is no part of me that imagines that 3% to be too insignificant for concern.
Additionally, the upward trend in my quality of life since starting this project obliges me to continue forward with it and to sustain my effort to become more organized in my housekeeping, work, school, and personal care routines. In doing so I might free up more time to cultivate relationships and get after more adventures. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not an organized thinker by nature, so I have to work hard to maintain order and efficiency. I’ve come to rely on the No Trash systems I’ve installed to reduce chaos and clutter. So in short, as far as my personal dedication to this project goes, there’s still no end in sight.
Another important conclusion I’ve reached is that while my private individual actions may not lead to anything outside of personal satisfaction, sharing my thoughts, works, and practices on this blog may generate meanings greater than my own struggles and successes. I’ve just returned home to New York City from a trip abroad. I was awarded the opportunity to attend a design workshop in Venice called Recycling City 3. Once the workshop ended I traveled around to meet some friends I had made through dialogues sparked over my project. I am so grateful to have had the chance to spend time with such amazing thinkers and doers. Letters from old professors, conversations with my brilliant classmates, and shining new friends have inspired me to keep posting. The tone of future posts will likely range from theoretical to practical, and continue to include musings around micro and macro issues in waste.
This year I decided to give experience gifts to friends and family. I tend to prefer coordinating a shared experience to exchanging objects. I enjoy spending time planning special outings and field trips (both surprise and fully disclosed) with the people I love. Now that I’m in New York, I’m closer to much of my immediate family and I have access to so many amazing sources of art, entertainment, and activity. I’m excited to take advantage of my time between semesters and experience more of what the city has to offer. That being said, the thought of showing up at my parents’ house for Christmas completely empty handed just didn’t seem right. So I decided to make and gather a few trash-free offerings to try to express love and appreciation at this celebratory time of year.
Dry skin is a pretty common affliction at this time of year in this part of the world. Combating it from the inside out by eating healthy foods and drinking lots of water is a primary defense, but sometimes it’s nice to have a topical aid as well. So I made some lotion for my family with beeswax (pictured above) given to me by our incredibly talented friend Pam DeLuco. She harvested it from the hives she keeps at her community garden in San Francisco and stamped the forms with the seal from her paper, print, and book company, Shotwell Paper Mill. She brought the bars to me when she visited New York City this past fall. This batch of lotion has just four ingredients: beeswax, coconut oil, grape seed oil, and water. This time around, the mixture was a little on the runny side so the wire bales jars weren’t the most ideal vessels for transport, but it’s still good stuff.
My family loves to drink wine. Curious to see if I might be able to bring them some in a reusable bottle, I took a walk in the rain on Monday afternoon down to the Red Hook Winery, located just a couple blocks from my apartment on Pier 41. When I entered the space, I was warmly greeted by vintners Christopher and Darren. I explained that I was looking to purchase some wine to serve at dinner with my family and that I was curious about where the grapes were coming from and how they were making and bottling the wines. Darren gave me a tour of the space, describing the sourcing and the processing that takes place right there in the beautiful and efficiently laid out waterfront warehouse space. I explained my No Trash Project and objective and withdrew my 32oz swingtop bottle from my bag. Darren patiently and graciously pondered options to accommodate my request, asking me questions about the details of my lifestyle. He then led me to a row of oak wine barrels that represented the 2011 vintage—or at least what remained of it after the winery was devastated by Hurricane Sandy last year. He syphoned the burgundy juice into a glass for me to sample. It was bright and tart, but smooth. I nodded and smiled in approval and he proceeded to fill my bottle for me. He drew a label for me on some blue tape, “Seneca Lake CF, 2011” (CF is short for Cabernet Franc) and smoothed it onto the bottle. He told me if I brought it back he would reuse the tape. We agreed to be in touch the next time they were bottling so that I might have some of my own filled without too much disruption to their production. I left feeling even more in love with Red Hook and the people and projects that have settled here. I tried to hit up Cacao Prieto as well for some Red Hook made chocolate but they were completely sold out for the holiday season. I was able to get package-free chocolate from The Chocolate Room to share with everyone instead.
Also in tow was a large swing top bottle of homemade Fire Cider. Loved ones around me in Brooklyn and those I planned to visit for the holidays have all been sick with a cold or the flu, so I made up a large, potent batch to share with everyone. I’ve been trying to fortify myself over the past several months with homemade remedies to make it through a hectic time without falling ill. I first learned about Fire Cider when I fell ill with the flu back in the spring of 2012. My friend made a trip to Farmacy Herbs of Providence for me and came home with a bottle. I used it to combat my symptoms then, and have continued to use Fire Cider to ward off illness ever since. It is a warming concoction with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties, meant to aid digestion, soothe sore throats, boost immunity, and increase circulation. As promised in my last post, I’ve included my recipe below. I determined the ingredients and amounts for this batch by browsing recipes online and combining things based on what I could find fresh and package-free from the store or the farmer’s market and what I had on hand in my fridge or on my spice shelf. Quantities can be tweaked in any direction according to personal preference and availability.
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup of grated ginger
½ cup grated horseradish
1/8 cup of minced garlic
1 quart of apple cider vinegar (with the mother)
¼ cup honey (or to taste)
1 lemon (juice and zest)
1 tablespoon of turmeric powder
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
fresh rosemary sprigs
I purchased the onion, horseradish, ginger, garlic, and lemon fresh and package-free. I’ve been able to find apple cider vinegar and spices in bulk at food cooperatives and health food stores. The 4th Street Food Co-op has a fantastic selection of dry and liquid bulk goods. They carry apple cider vinegar, turmeric powder, and cayenne pepper. The cider can be left to steep for a few weeks to a few months and then strained or it can be blended well and consumed immediately. This time around I prepped and combined all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and blended them thoroughly with the immersion blender. I then poured the mixture into some glass bottles for storage and snipped some sprigs of rosemary from my beloved potted plant that lives in a south facing window and dropped them into the bottles.
The gifts were savored and enjoyed by us all and on Christmas night we were treated to the most spectacular sunset over Long Island Sound. The sky looked as if it was on fire and the water glowed red beneath it. Between the two, New York City appeared to float above the horizon. It was a lovely closing to the holiday.
Today I watched the sun rise and set on the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. For a sunlover like myself, It’s a day worth celebrating, as it marks the glorious shift towards lengthening days. Here in New York City, winter kicked off at a balmy 62 degrees Fahrenheit. So, determined to spend some quality time in the briefest day, I donned my shorts and sneakers and went for a run from Red Hook up through the waterfront park, past the three bridges Manhattan/Brooklyn bridges. Since I moved into my place in August, I’ve been enjoying witnessing the Brooklyn Bridge Park transform during the impressive expansion project. I’m grateful to have such an incredible public park to exercise in and I have been trying to take advantage of it (and unseasonably warm weather) every chance I get. Running in this place is my one of my primary defenses against physical and mental ailment.
This year I have more than light to celebrate. I completed my first semester of graduate school this week. It was a challenging four months, during which I hustled to attend to matters of school, work, love, life, and death in a city that is at times less than hospitable. But the things I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve cultivated here have all been well worth the effort and I feel fortunate to be able to call this place home for a while. Needless to say I did not manage to make much time to post, but I have been documenting my No Trash trials and victories and I look forward to having some time between semesters to share some of my projects and discoveries.
Through the hectic, often sleep deprived weeks I somehow managed to stay healthy, even when friends around me were falling ill with flus, colds, and bugs. I’ve wondered if the reason I’ve managed to dodge these ailments so far this season has anything to do with the fact that I was able to come home from work and school to my sleepy Red Hook hideaway, where I’ve been able to establish some sense of order and routine. For instance, being able to wash and dry clothes in my own home may seem like a small privilege, but it’s increased my ability to function efficiently during an occasionally tricky adjustment period. Endless thanks to my best friend who helped me heave my beloved energy efficient washing machine, which I purchased used from a refurbished appliance supplier in Cranston RI, up two flights of stairs into my tiny kitchen. Line drying in my sunny front room humidifies my whole apartment and helps me breathe easier on dry days. Making time to cook most of my meals at home (which I have learned is uncommon practice in NYC) and take leftovers to school to fuel long days of class and study sessions also helped me stay well. And drinking down homemade fire cider to fortify my immunity was also a part of the equation. Stay tuned for a recipe post.
Looking ahead, there are still a lot of No Trash Project elements to fine tune here in NYC. Like the worm bin improvement operation I have been scheming on. But so far I am really enjoying all things new to me here in this great metropolis. To all of my readers who are still with me: Happy Solstice. Here’s to sunlight and health.
Living in a part of the world where waste is (for the most part) carried away from our immediate living spaces by municipal services, it’s easy to maintain an out of sight, out of mind attitude about our unwanteds and castoffs. In an attempt to kindle a relationship with such materials, I’ve spent much time over the past couple of years trying to track object byproducts—such as food packaging, that result from the goods I consume, but little time investigating the pathways, destination, and management of the bodily wastes and greywater that disappear down my kitchen and bathroom drains.
I recently took a tour with my studio class of New York City’s Lower East Side. Our guide described the area surrounding the famous Five Points as a cesspool before basic plumbing was introduced. Garbage and excrement was tossed from the windows of early tenement houses into the street gutters below, where it remained until rainwater carried it into lower lying land and the surrounding waterways. Cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid were rampant. In an attempt to mitigate the disease, odor, rodent infestation, mosquito swarms and other problems associated with living amongst coliform bacteria (found in fecal matter) and other harmful pathogenic organisms, initial steps were taken to pipe waste material through hollowed out logs into receiving waters.
Though the topic wasn’t the main focus of the tour, the problem of maintaining sanitation in densely populated urban environments has been heavy on my mind ever since. As I move through this city on my way to and from school and work, and as my bus is regularly detoured around sewage construction, I wonder more and more about the vast infrastructure and systems in place to bring water into our homes for drinking, cooking, and hygienic practices, and the separate systems that take our soiled water “away”. So, when a fellow student hipped me to an Open House New York event, I jumped at the chance to visit The Newton Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant in Greenpoint—the largest treatment facility in the city.
Since the plant was renovated, the site has become a destination for curious NYC residents and tourists who are drawn to the strangely beautiful glinting vessels jutting out of the shore of Newton Creek. The visit is divided into two parts. First, we were treated to an in-depth information session and slide show about the history of New York City’s wastewater management and the current operating systems and facilities. I learned that before treatment programs were established, the waters surrounding New York City were so filthy, that ship captains used to dock in the toxic harbors and rivers just to kill the barnacles and shipworms that clung to the hulls of their vessels. In 1887, when human feces floating in the surf at Coney Island threatened commerce, several small sewage plants were erected, making Brooklyn the first city in the United States to treat its water. But it wasn’t until the federal government passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 restricting the release of toxic substances into water, that living organisms started to return to the the dead zone that enveloped the city. Today, 7,400 miles of sewer pipe, 135,000 sewer catch basins, 95 wastewater pumping stations, 14 treatment plants, 4 sewer overflow facilities, and 3 sludge vessels all humbly do a job that New York City can’t live without. There are also 74 checkpoints located around the 5 boroughs where analysts test turbidity (a measurement of suspended particles) and oxygen levels of the water in the canals, rivers, and bays that surround us.
Wastewater that flows into the treatment facility undergoes five processes before it is allowed to flow back out into the waterways. Preliminary treatment is essentially a screening process to remove large floatables (trash and other debris) from the influent water, which pose a threat to pipes and facility equipment. Primary treatment happens in the first sedimentation tanks. Here, the water flow is slowed so that heavy solids can sink to the bottom and lighter solids like grease and small bits of plastic float to the top where they are skimmed off. Secondary treatment is also known as the activated sludge process. “Seed” sludge collected at the plant is added to the wastewater to help break down harmful pathogens. Air is pumped into the tanks to stimulate the growth of oxygen-using bacteria. These organisms feast on remaining water pollutants and then sink to the bottom of the tanks once they are full. Some of this settled secondary sludge is re-circulated back into the activated sludge process and the rest is removed from the tank for further processing. Even after primary and secondary treatments remove 85% to 95% of pollutants from the wastewater, disease-causing organisms may persist. So before the effluent can be released back into the environment, it must be treated with sodium hypochlorite, the same chemical found in common household bleach. This is the disinfection phase. Wastewater spends a minimum of 15-20 minutes in chlorine-contact tanks before it is flushed back into waterways. The final processing stage is the sludge treatment. The sludge collected from the sedimentation tanks during the secondary treatment is digested for stabilization and is then dewatered for easier handling. The resulting material, known as biosolids, is applied to land to improve vegetation or processed further as compost or fertilizer.
The second part of the plant was the tour of the plant’s digester eggs. Eight stainless steel-clad digester eggs rise out of a highpoint on the plant property. We took turns riding the elevator up to the observation decks. There, our guide described the biomimicry of the oxygen-free tanks, which act much like our own stomachs. Inside, anaerobic bacteria feed on organic material in the sludge. We were able to peer down into the belly of the tank to see the churning, bubbling contents, which was at once so awesome and so gross. The digestion process converts much of the material into water, carbon dioxide and methane gas. The methane is converted into energy to power the plant.
The view from atop the eggs was lovely at sunset.
An important takeaway from my visit to the plant is a a new understanding of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) phenomenon. During a heavy rain or snowfall, stormwater entering the system can raise wastewater to levels that exceed the amount of influent water our sewers and treatment plants were designed to handle. To protect infrastructure and facilities and to prevent flooding in the city streets, the excess water is discharged into the open waters. CSOs are a concern because they raise the bacteria count in our waterways. These bacteria consume and dissolve the oxygen that marine life needs to survive and as I’ve discussed, pose a threat to our health. CSOs also wash other pollutants such as litter, and motor oil into the surrounding rivers and bays.
So what does this mean to NYC residents? There are some very simple things that each of us can do to help reduce our personal contribution to the surge water in the sewers during a storm, like being conscious of how often we flush the toilet—“if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” as they say. We can try to plan showering, dishwashing, and laundering at times when water is not falling from the sky.
Furthermore, green infrastructure initiatives implemented by the city and by property owners can greatly reduce CSOs. Rooftop detention (a.k.a. blue roofs), rainwater barrels, landscaping in place of blacktop and concrete, and streetside swales are just a few examples. And of course, making sure that our garbage and recyclables don’t make their way onto streets and into storm drains is hugely important. It’s incredible to think of the work, money, and resources that go into providing plumbing to well over 8 million people who live in this city. Since visiting the treatment plant, I have a heightened appreciation of the reliable inflow and outflow that occurs daily in my little apartment. I am more determined than ever to try to conserve my water usage and to do my part to minimize overflow into the waterways.
The weeks since my move-in post have flown by. I’ve been settling into a routine in my new home, devotedly working to uphold my No Trash habits. Composting my food scraps is one of the most crucial components of the equation and as I had anticipated, establishing the practice here in NYC has been one of the more challenging steps in my transition.
I’ve come to realize that I was a pretty lazy composter in Rhode Island. I had a large open bin made of 2x4s and chicken wire. It provided me with a little over 15 cubic feet of space to fill with my nitrogenous green kitchen material and carbonaceous shredded paper and cardboard. I used a pitchfork to aerate the pile, but that was about all the work that ever went into maintaining it. Here, without the luxury of yard space, I have to construct alternatives to my big old bin. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve placed a compost container on the fire escape outside my bedroom. It’s a small galvanized steel ash can with a lid. The volume of the can is little more than 1 cubic foot, so I need to supplement it with other compost systems, especially as the cooler months approach and the metabolisms of the microbes in aerobic compost that eat the rotting food and paper start to slow down.
I did some research to locate a compost drop-off site near me. If you live in New York City, you can view Build It Green‘s list of food scrap drop-off locations to find one near you. I reached out to the Red Hook Community Farm through the contact page on their website and a gentleman named Ian replied to inform me that they do indeed accept kitchen scraps and that they compost them there at the farm, which is a short 5 minute walk from my apartment. Drop-off hours are on Fridays from 9am – 12noon. Since moving here in August, I’ve been bringing some of my kitchen scraps and shredded paper material to this site.
The newest part of my personal composting program is my red wiggler (Eisenia fetida) worm crew. I purchased them from the Manhattan Compost Project, an operation run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. I called them up and asked about purchasing some red wigglers to try vermicomposting in my apartment and they put me down for an order of a pound of worms and told me I could pick them up from their stand at the Union Square Greenmarket the following week (they were sold out for the current week). The Union Square area happens to be where I am going to school so after class on the day of my scheduled pickup I walked with a curious classmate to purchase my worms. A friendly woman, who had been expecting me, handed me my pound of worms in a repurposed half-gallon almond milk container, which I later recycled. They were protected from the elements by some peat moss bedding. I paid about $20 for them. Later that evening, as I stood packed into a crowded subway car, I had a daydream about dropping and spilling my worms on disgruntled commuters. I tightened my grip on the carton, widened my stance, and braced for jerky train car movements. Luckily, there were no such accidents and the worms made it safely back to my apartment.
Readers who have been following my project for a since the spring of 2012 may recall that I attempted vermiculture once before while living in Providence. Though I was already set up with an adequate compost bin, I wanted to try keeping worms so that I could harvest the castings (worm poop) to fertilize my container garden. Unfortunately, the experiment was a bit of a disaster. I kept the bin outside and sugar ants, which are a natural predator of red wigglers, invaded it. I opened the bin one day to find it crawling with ants and not a single worm remained. Hopefully I will have less tragic results indoors.
I’ve been keeping my new roommates in this old enamel washbasin until I can come up with a better housing solution for them. I have ideas for a homemade “worm factory”, but that’s a project that will take a fair amount of planning and time to create. Meanwhile the worms seem pretty happy. Though there was some tribulation one night when I accidently let their bedding get too dry (the weather is shifting here in the Northeast and the humidity has dropped considerably), which unfortunately led to some casualties. In search of water, a brave few attempted a great escape and perished in the arid landscape of my front room. I awoke in the morning to find about 10 shriveled worms stuck to the wood floorboards surrounding the washbasin. Stricken with guilt, I vowed to be more diligent in regulating the moisture levels of their bin. Worms breathe through their skin and require an environment that is neither to dry nor too wet. I’ve been covering them with shredded brown paper that’s been soaked and then squeezed of any dripping water. This seems to help keep the peat moss bedding moist. A lidded bin would also help the cause.
If optimal conditions are maintained for moisture, pH balance (not too acidic), and temperature (between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit) variables, the worms can eat up to half their body weight in a single day. That means my pound of worms can consume about a half a pound of food stock per day. They dine on both nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials as long as the food itself has some moisture—they cannot eat dry paper for instance. I’m finding that burying the food stock in the bedding helps keep the material moist, cuts down on any odor from decomposing organic matter, and keeps fruit flies at bay. Over time I’m sure I will learn more nuances of maintaining a healthy and efficient worm bin and will share what I discover as the relationship develops. I’m excited to engage in such a direct symbiosis.
This week was an exceptionally busy one. I have a bit of overlap with my leases in Brooklyn and Providence so even though I’m still wrapping up work in the Ocean State, I took some time to move most of my stuff down to my new apartment. With help from my incredibly generous friends and family, I spent the last several days packing, schlepping, unpacking, painting, cleaning, and setting up my new home.
My last move was just across town, so relocating without producing any trash wasn’t very difficult. I made many trips back and forth, wrapping things in blankets, strategically placing them in my car or a borrowed pickup truck, and I took care not to hit any bumps or make any hard turns. This time around I have a 3-4 hour drive between my old and new home so packing without boxes, bubble wrap, newspaper, and tape required some more careful consideration. My best friend and I rented a 4’ x 8’ U-Haul trailer and hitched it to his small pickup truck. We managed to fit the bulk of my belongings in this rig. My bed and breakfast table pack flat so that helped a lot. I wrapped some of my fragile ceramic and glass kitchen wares in my sheets and comforter and placed them into my small blanket chest. I was really satisfied with that parcel. It traveled well.
I own quite a few glass jars and bottles, in which I store dry and liquid bulk food and hygiene goods. I transferred those in some borrowed milk crates. The crates that were tightly filled and placed at the front of the trailer (closest to the hitch), like the rectangular one pictured above, made the drive without a problem. But I did have some casualties in a smaller square crate that wasn’t quite Tetris packed like the others. The items in that crate had a little bit of room to rattle against each other. It was also at the back of the trailer, which means it probably had a bumpier ride than the others. It was also one of the last things to go and by that point, already tired from packing and loading and eager to get on the road, I’d gotten a little careless. But I really should have taken the time to stuff some clothes into the gaps between the fragile objects to prevent them from jostling around, because unfortunately the broken glass can’t be recycled and now it will end up in the landfill. Plus, one of the vessels that broke was a bottle of red wine vinegar, which made quite a pungent mess in the trailer.
Still, all things considered, I am pleased that I didn’t have to wrestle with a single cardboard box. My place is scrubbed clean and painted with low VOC paint. I will recycle the empty paint cans and the roller will likely become trash (couldn’t figure out a way around using one and I’m not sure that I can get it to come clean even with the most thorough soaking). My mom always says that any place we choose to live is basically just four walls, a floor, and a roof, it’s the things we chose to fill that box with and how we decide to arrange them that make it feel like a home. I thought about that sentiment this week, as I hung my ceramic planters in the windows and art on the walls (all made by my gifted, beloved friends).
I thought about it as I set up my new kitchen. I took the doors off the cabinets so that I could see all my tableware, stainless steel containers, and jars full of ingredients. I find that having open shelving makes my kitchen more functional. Besides, having cabinet doors that swing open in a space as narrow this one is a little cumbrous. Heads are bound to get bonked. Eventually I would love to remove the cabinets altogether and replace them with extended open shelving. It will give me more storage room and I think it might make the space feel a little bigger. In good time. For now I will make the units that are there work for my purposes.
Setting up my bed and unpacking my clothes were two other tasks I needed to tackle before I could feel settled. I placed some herbs and a small compost container on the fire escape outside the bedroom window. Today the dry breeze carried the smells of a backyard barbecue and the nearby water through the apartment. Little by little the space really is starting to feel like home. Now I’ll be able to focus on starting school, knowing that I have a great spot to return to each day.
This week I signed a lease on an apartment in Brooklyn. Though I’d been amply warned about the challenges involved in finding a place to live in NYC, the undertaking proved even trickier than I’d anticipated. As a student, I will only be able to work part-time and my modest budget limited my options from the get go. Securing a dwelling that met my requirements took a good deal of time and energy, but in the end my tenacity paid off.
Feeling comfortable and at ease in my immediate space has always been important to me. In addition to finding an agreeable, clean, functional, sunlit interior, there were many other factors to consider before choosing a place to call home in a city as large as New York. My desire to live without making any trash further complicated my decision. Of course, the proximity of my home to my school and access to public transportation are both of great importance. But I was also thinking about access to resources, like bulk food vendors. And with each space I looked at I also had to consider whether or not I would be able to compost at home or nearby. Trying to familiarize myself with these factors as an out-of-towner was no easy feat. Nor was it easy on my feet. Despite my best effort to employ a daily blister prevention program of strategically placing paper medical tape on my toes and heels, while hoofing it from neighborhood to neighborhood on some of the hottest (sweatiest) days of July, I wound up with some rather raw dogs. But all the walking was worth it. I’ve started to get to know some neighborhoods, trains, eateries, and grocery stores in Brooklyn. After several weeks of searching I was able to settle on an apartment that seems to be a good compromise on everything I was looking for in a home.
I found a reasonably priced, no broker fee apartment in sleepy Red Hook. I really love the neighborhood. There’s an excellent grocery store that stocks an impressive variety of bulk foods and organic produce, an impressive community farm, some lovely garden centers, and a handful of great restaurants. One drawback to the location is that there are no trains that go directly to the neighborhood, which means that I will have a longer walk, a short bike ride, or a bus ride to get to and from the train into the city every day. But while I was hemming and hawing over whether or not I could tolerate the commute, a dear friend pointed out that I happen to be someone who is willing to pass on certain conveniences in order to experience other things of value that support a good quality of life. Hearing this from someone who knows me well made me realize that I’m quite capable of making the best of my time there. Of course it’s possible that come wintertime, I may grow weary of the commute, in which case I may choose to relocate for my second year of school, but for now I’m just excited to give it a try.
Meanwhile back in Providence again, I’m finishing up work projects, and preparing for my move. Being without my car has been great so far. I took my bike for a tune-up and replaced the synthetic squishy, leaky gel saddle with a quality leather one. I returned the gel saddle to my friend who built my bike for me. He said that despite the tear he could still make use of it. So far I’ve found the leather saddle to be a lot more comfortable than the gel. I don’t feel like I’m slipping and sliding the way I felt on the padded seat. Now that it’s the only vehicle I own and because it will ease my daily commute to the train once I’ve moved, I’m more focused on taking great care of my bike.
Some progress to report: today I sold my car. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, especially since I moved into my current apartment, which is only 3 blocks from my office at Brown. The vehicle was good to me for years, facilitating trips to the beach, visits with family, and co-op stock ups. But now that it’s gone I feel a tremendous weight lifted as I am no longer financially responsible for maintenance, repairs, insurance, car taxes, registration, and of course fuel. Oh, and parking tickets. All that has been transferred to a very nice man from Cranston. He bought the car for his daughter who, as he brags, just graduated from high school at the top of her class.
I’m left with my feet and my bike, which are more than sufficient modes of transportation for the remainder of the summer here in Providence and is certainly all I’ll need once I move to NYC. It’s a lovely season for the extra exercise. Now that I’ve sold the car I can justify tricking out my bike. Just kidding. But I am going to invest in a nice saddle. My friend who built the bike up for me chose my current saddle. Much of my ride was assembled with components he had lying around the shop he works in, which was a fantastic money saver and I’m pleased he was able to repurpose so many used parts. But unfortunately my overstuffed gel seat is starting to deteriorate and ooze sticky synthetic material onto my backside while I’m riding, especially on super hot days. It’s not a good look. So I’ve begun searching online (mostly craigslist and ebay) for a lightly used leather saddle. There seems to be a pretty good inventory out there.
Little by little, the pieces required for my transition are starting to fall into place, and I grow more excited as my first day of class draws nearer.
It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. My longest update lapse since I started blogging in October 2011. There are lots of changes taking place in my life right now and I’ve been taking time to wrap up chapters and plan for the adventures ahead. I’ve decided to go back to school to study sustainable design and waste management. So I am stepping down from my wonderful position as a film archivist at Brown University, and moving out of my beautiful 230-something year-old Providence apartment to get after graduate studies in New York City. It’s a bittersweet departure for me. I’ve loved my time in this little city and when I think about leaving, it’s easy to get sentimental about the relationships I’ve forged, and the fantastic projects I’ve been a part of. Leaving my job, home, and friends in the twilight of my twenties to become a full-time student again is a bit nerve-racking, but the idea of staying still, unchallenged and unchanging, troubles me more than the idea of taking risks.
I’m excited to engage in new modes of thinking in the company of faculty and fellow students. I hope to work to carve out initiatives that can change patterns of behavior that lead to waste—particularly food and packaging waste. I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking my No Trash Project to New York, a city that moves at the speed of convenience, where disposables spatter daily life at an astonishing rate. Here in Providence, I’ve hit my stride with this project and I’m quite comfortable in my routine. I know that certain Zero Waste practices (like composting food scraps) may prove more difficult in the big city, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about myself over the past 26 months, it’s that I can be very determined and resourceful. Luckily, there’s no shortage of resources in NYC, so I know for sure that I will be able to find vendors who stock package-free goods. Actually, I’ve already begun researching trash-free grocery sources and I now have a growing list of businesses to visit once I’m down there.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty to do in the coming weeks. I need to finish work projects, sell my car, pare down my belongings further, find a place to live in Brooklyn, and move. It’s a lot but I’m making progress. As a Rhode Island School of Design alum, I have the privilege of holding tag sales on campus. Foot and vehicle traffic is pretty busy at the permitted locations. In the past, when I timed it right, I have managed to do pretty well there. So I’ve been combing through my cupboards, bookshelves, dresser drawers, and closets pulling objects for the pile. Faced with the question, “Do I really want to move this thing?” decisions about what to keep and what to put back into circulation become clear. I will donate whatever I’m unable to sell.
I’d love to pledge to reestablish my regular posting routine, but that may be an unrealistic commitment at this time. However, I will say that sharing my trials and triumphs on this blog has been one of my favorite aspects of the project. It’s been rewarding as a journaling exercise but even more so as a means of communication with people around the world. I am habitually snapping photos of all things trashy and trash-free, writing posts in my head. Making the time to actually compose them has been tricky lately but I intend to continue share as much as possible. Besides there’s so much uncharted territory ahead (no trash moving, for instance) that I think is worthy of the humble NTP spotlight. So to those readers who are still with me: Many, many thanks. You motivate me to get busy chasing my dreams.
I’m not sure what I enjoy more, growing my own food or having generous friends who grow and share food with me. These chive flowers and salad greens were a gift from a bestie. Grown in his Bristol, RI vegetable garden. It’s lunchtime and I’m feeling pretty darn fortunate.
This past weekend I got into a project I’d been scheming on since the start of spring. My landlady generously offered me a bit of space to grow some food in by the cement wall/iron fence that surrounds her backyard garden. The sunny spot is located in the small driveway off the alley by which I access my apartment. Two cars fit snuggly in the lot so building anything with substantial depth would have blocked vehicles from pulling in and out. Inspired by readings and projects from the Urban Agriculture class I took at Brown this semester, I decided to try my hand at some vertical gardening. I had seen DIY pallet garden projects in books and online and thought that might be a good place to start. I figured it would be economical too. A couple weeks ago I picked through some discarded samples behind a paper supplier in Pawtucket and found a few good specimens that I could pull apart and rebuild into a Franken-pallet. Gorgeous weather, a visit from my enormously talented woodworker/furniture maker friend, and the day off from work on Monday gave way to a perfect opportunity to finally get busy.
We started with a sturdy 3′ x 4′ pallet that boasted tightly fitted boards on one side. This would serve as the retaining wall on the back of the planter. Then we framed the sides and bottom of the planter with wood from the other dismantled pallets and some leftover scraps that were available from an ongoing home repair project (a new floor being laid in the laundry room/entrance to my apartment). Next, we mapped out the spacing of the boards that would enclose the front of the box. I decided to leave 2.5″ gaps between the boards to plant in. It seemed like a good amount of room for my herbs to grow but not so much space that the soil would forever be spilling out.
After lifting the basic frame into the right location/position and wiring it to the iron fence posts, we built the garden layers from the bottom up. We filled the pallet with soil, laid and watered each plant, then one by one we nailed each board to the frame. We collected sticks from the property (last summer’s cuttings from my landlady’s hedges) and pressed them in between the plants to try to create a webbing to help retain the soil until the vegetation fills in. To give the plants a good start, we mixed in worm castings as we worked our way up.
Above is the finished garden. Eight rows (including the row planted in the open top) currently hold twelve different edible plants. I’m growing rosemary, oregano, sage, two different kinds of marigolds, dill, cilantro (coriander), three different kinds of basil, tarragon and nasturtium. Marigolds, rosemary, cilantro, and basil are all pest repellent crops. The plants were grown from seed in my windowsill and purchased at the Southside Community Land Trust plant sale. I’m pleased with the look of the garden and I think its’s a great use of the very narrow space. I’m not sure how well everything will grow in this planter. I wonder if there will be enough soil for all the root systems that will be vying for water and nutrients. And properly saturating each layer with water may prove to be a bit tricky. There’s already been talk of a piped in irrigation system for the next pallet project. For now, I’m very happy about what we were able to create with the resources around us. The garden is an experiment and I’m excited to see how well it works over the course of the growing season.
To reward ourselves for a day of work in the sun, we bought some take-away and headed to the coast for a sunset feast on the beach. With a bunch of stainless steel containers in tow, we hit-up East Side Pockets and the grocery store salad bar for some good eats. We also packed some water, fruit, and trail mix to snack on. My trusty 17-year-old Block Island beach blanket served as both a nearly sand-free surface to sit ourselves and our delicious meal upon, and later as a much appreciated wrap to keep warm with after sundown.
I recently ran out of the powdered laundry detergent I buy in bulk at my local co-ops, so I decided to make my own. An internet search for homemade laundry detergent usually yields a wide variety of sources for a basic recipe that calls for washing soda, borax, and grated bar soap. But there’s also quite a debate raging online about the potential health risks of using borax for home and body care. Some sources adamantly claim that the median lethal dose of borax is no higher than the median lethal dose of table salt (about 3 grams per kilogram of weight), making it a perfectly safe laundry detergent ingredient. On the other side of the argument, studies indicate that borax powder is a skin, eye, and lung irritant and if ingested it could cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and lethargy. There is also concern that high or prolonged exposure to borax can lead to infertility and damage to an unborn child.
While wading through some of this information, attempting to sort out factors like the credibility of sources and the dates of each study, it occurred to me that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree. At some point I realized that I’d rather err on the side of caution and I refocused my energy to try to find some recipes for homemade laundry detergent that didn’t include borax. As it turns out, there are indeed several borax-free recipes floating around on the web and many are just variations of a few basic elements. Baking soda, washing soda, grated bar soap, citric acid, epsom salt, table salt, and white vinegar were the ingredients I came across the most. I’ve begun experimenting to see what mix I like the best, based on what I’m able to acquire within the package-free parameters of my project. For this particular venture I’ve decided to make an exception for products packaged in paperboard or paper bags that are compostable. But to start I did manage to make a completely package-free batch of detergent from one cup baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), one cup washing soda (sodium carbonate), and one grated 4oz bar of unscented glycerin soap.
I was unable to find boxed washing soda on any local store shelf so I decided to make my own. In my research of each ingredient listed above, I discovered that it’s easy to make washing soda at home by simply heating baking soda in the oven. Baking soda’s chemical makeup is NaHCO3 (one sodium, one hydrogen, one carbon, and three oxygen molecules). Washing soda’s chemical makeup is Na2CO3 (two sodium, one carbon, and three oxygen molecules). When heated, the glistening, grainy baking soda gives off water and carbon dioxide, leaving dull, powdery washing soda behind. I spread a thin layer of bulk-bought baking soda in a shallow pan and baked it at 400 degrees for one hour. I agitated it about a halfway through the bake time. I’ve only done a couple loads of laundry with my baking soda, washing soda, soap mix, but so far my clothes and linens have come out clean, odorless, and not too stiff. An there doesn’t seem to be any soapy residue left on my fabrics. I should mention that I’ve not yet tested this mix on any tough stains, though I’m sure it won’t be long before an opportunity arises.
I saw some recipes for soapless detergents, which call for baking and washing soda, epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), and table salt. Epsom salts are a natural surfactant—a wetting agent that reduces the surface tension of a liquid, allowing it to better penetrate solids. Today, surfactants made from a variety of petrochemicals (derived from petroleum) and/or oleochemicals (derived from fats and oils) are used in generic detergents to render water less likely to stick to itself and more likely to interact with greasy, organic soiling. Considered non-toxic, epsom salts are commonly used in homemade beauty treatments and cleaning solutions. Magnesium sulfate is also used in organic gardening and farming as a soil conditioner/fertilizer. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improve plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfer. And sulfer is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes. The other day while I was in the grocery store, I spotted some epsom salts in a paper carton and decided to purchase them. I transfered the salts to a glass jar, then shredded and composted the packaging. I’m looking forward to experimenting with them in my homemade detergent concoctions and I will post about my findings.
I’m feeling very fortunate to have been able to spend today with my mom. My gift to her was an experience. No object gifts, no cards, no trash (she’s come to expect those terms from me). I took her to a concert held in an incredible space at one of her favorite museums. Nine violinists, four violists, three cellists, and two bassists played a program of classical and contemporary music in a small, “round” theater (it was actually more cubic than round). The acoustics were amazing. Later we went out for dinner. It was a great day. I’ll never forget it.
There’s quite a show happening on the hill in Providence right now. A remarkable variety of flowering trees and shrubs are in bloom. The cherry tree outside my bedroom window has opened and the fragrance is incredible. The blossoms are about three weeks later than they were last year. Where ever it falls on the calendar, this blooming period is my absolute favorite time of year in this little city.
One of my turnips from this weekend’s farmer’s market has an especially nice hourglass figure. I wonder what biological factors caused the variation in the shape of this usually spherical root vegetable. I love turnips. They’re members of the Brassicaceae family (along with kale, cabbage, radishes, etc…). I usually eat them thinly sliced in a fresh salad. To store them, I remove the greens, which will draw water out of the root if left attached. Then I float the turnips in a bath of water in a container kept in the refrigerator. They’ll stay fresh and crunchy for more than a week this way, though they never last that long in my house because I eat them so quickly. The greens needn’t be tossed out—they’re edible, and quite tasty. They can be used raw in salads and stir-fried as a stand alone dish or with other ingredients. They can also be added to soups or used to make a broth. I get such a kick out of growing, shopping for, and eating plants that can be consumed in their entirety. Roots, stocks, leaves, flowers, fruit, and all. No pealing or shucking required.
During a class discussion on recycling in my Master Composter Training course, I learned that food storage plastic wrap (Saran wrap, Clingwrap) is not a recyclable plastic film. Plastic film receptacles are located at major grocery stores and pharmacies across the state of Rhode Island to collect stretch plastic poducts like plastic bags, which shouldn’t go into your bin with your other recyclable items. I thought that plastic wrap fell into this category and would sometimes deposit rinsed pieces that had been used at catered events at my office. Learning that the material cannot be processed to become resource material (plastic lumber for decking or park furniture for instance) secured plastic wrap a place at the top of my list of household trash “offenders”. In preparation for a No Trash Talk I gave recently, I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to present basic tips to people who are interested in reducing their waste output but don’t know where to begin. At the end of the talk I encouraged audience members to start in the kitchen, and I tried to impress upon listeners that one habit we should all try to break is purchasing and using plastic wrap. I really think it’s a completely unnecessary product and a waste of money. I’m not sure what case can be made to suggest that using plastic wrap is easier than using a container to store leftovers. Besides, who wants to futz with that stuff anyway? It’s always clinging to itself and it never stays put. Food storage can be effective, efficient, and convenient without disposables!
Hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and zaalouk from Tea in Sahara on Governor Street. I took a break from work and biked over to the café to save my growling stomach. The owner very kindly agreed to put my order in my stainless steel containers. A woman sitting sipping tea inside admired them and asked where she could find some. I gave her a list of sources. When I thanked the owner for honoring my special request, he said “No, thank you!” I left smiling from ear to ear.
On the way home from my Worm Ladies field trip and the beach, I made a stop at the Alternative Food Coop. I knew I’d be driving through Wakefield so I planned ahead and packed my car with a shopping kit (a large canvas tote filled with a couple swing top bottles, a couple jars, and some bulk bags). It’s been about a month and a half since my last co-op restock trip and even though I wasn’t completely out of the few package-free supplies I can’t find within walking or biking distance from my home, I decided to fill up then to save from having to make another trip in a couple weeks. I go through a lot of cooking oil. Generally speaking, I use canola oil to cook with and olive oil to dress dishes. Canola has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke… a point of interest because when an oil starts to smoke, nutrients are destroyed and potentially health-harming compounds are formed). It’s also rich in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat. I can get great bulk olive oil Providence, but not canola. When I entered the co-op I noticed immediately that their bulk oil station looked revamped. They seemed to have more stainless steel fusti dispensers and a larger variety to choose from. A lovely co-op employee approached me and asked if I needed any help. I told her that I would need to tare my swing top bottles before filling them and she informed me that in order to comply with the Rhode Island Department of Health, the co-op devised an new system for the liquid bulk food items. To reduce the risk of contamination from shopping with containers brought from home, customers are asked to use the sterilized funnels provided at the filling station and then deposit each used funnel in a basket to be rewashed by co-op employees. Or customers may use any of the free vessels (pictured above on the bottom shelf) that have been donated by customers and sterilized at the co-op), purchase a clean mason jar to fill, or use a free number 5 plastic container (as seen on the top shelf). Signs posted at the station clearly explain the new system and thank customers for their cooperation. Because they weren’t very busy, the employee I spoke with offered to sterilized my bottles brought from home. This was another way to ensure that there wouldn’t be any contamination from potentially harmful pathogens coming in contact with the fusti spigots. She disappeared with my two large bottles and returned with them washed a couple minutes later. She tared them at the register for me and I was ready to fill.
I had a chance to speak with co-op Manager Rosemary Galiani, about the new system. She explained that the change was spurred by a Department of Health inspection, which determined that the old, funnel-less operation was not up to food safety standards. I think it’s so wonderful that rather than removing the liquid bulk food items, the co-op chose to work with the DoH to come up with several convenient shopping options for customers, and a manageable sterilization system for co-op employees. Yet another reason to support this wonderfully small business.
Over the weekend I went on the final field trip of my Master Composter Training course. Saturday morning we visited Nancy Warner of The Worm Ladies of Charleston at her beautiful south county home. Nancy came to visit our class a couple of weeks ago to talk about vermiculture with Eisenia foetida or red wiggler worms. In her backyard garden we got to see her impressive composting operation in action. I first met Nancy at the open house she hosted in honor of Earth Week almost exactly one year ago. At that time she sold me a half a pound of worms to get started with my own vermiculture setup. I’m sorry to report that the effort failed. What started off as a seemingly healthy worm bin, soon turned into a site of epic predation when the black sugar ants that lived in my tenant garden got into the bin and ate my poor wigglers. I lifted the lid one day to find the worms completely gone and thousands of ants in their place. I wasn’t sure the ants had eaten the worms (I thought perhaps they came in to eat the food scraps and simply drove the worms out through the air holes) until Nancy confirmed that the ants are indeed predators of the red wigglers. There seems to be quite a huge population of ants living around the exterior of my apartment (and they sometimes like to crawl up the side of the brick house and in through the windows looking for food). Ants and aphids have a mutualistic relationship and for gardeners and farmers, this dynamic duo is a real nuisance. If I’m going to give vermiculture another shot, I need to deal with the ants first. I’ve thought about trying to separate my worms from the ants by keeping my bin inside under my kitchen sink, but I’m afraid that will just lure them indoors. So as much as I’d love to just coexist with all these buggers, if I am going to grow my own food and experiment with organic waste management techniques I may have to give extermination some more serious thought. A slow acting homemade pesticide of borax, sugar, and water is said to be a very effective bait.
In the meantime, I decided to hold off on bringing more worms home from Nancy’s place. Instead I purchased a gallon of castings (worm poop) from her to use to fertilize my developing container garden, once the time comes to transplant my seedlings and harden them off to spend the summer outside. It’s a wonderful organic soil conditioner that will surely give my veggies and herbs a fantastic start. Without hesitation, Nancy let me empty one of her pre-packed ziplock bags of “black gold” into my own glass jar, which I brought from home. She is able to reuse the bag.
Then, just as I did a year ago, upon leaving Nancy’s house I headed down the road for a walk and a nap on East Beach. The weather was gorgeous. My first beach day of the season.
This week marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s been exactly two years since I started my No Trash Project. I’ve been reflecting on the milestone as I engage in activities aimed at advancing my Zero Waste practices. This evening, my Master Composter Training class met at City Farm to learn about the different composting systems in place on the 3/4 acre Southside plot. The farm produces 2 tons of food (over 70 different crops) per season. It was warm and sunny in Providence today—a stark contrast to yesterday’s frigid, rainy weather, so I was excited to be outside. City farmer Rich Pederson gave us a tour of the several composting sites on the property and spoke about the practices and holding bins that have worked best for the farmers. It was really valuable to hear about his experiences with the varied setups, especially since his perspective is that of someone who is composting in an urban environment, which requires slightly different considerations than rural compost operations, namely rodents and potentially concerned neighbors. Rich described himself as a “lazy composter” and said he chooses a “lasagna” layering approach with his carbonaceous and nitrogenous materials . To aerate the compost, he plunges a digging bar into the pile to agitate the material and allow oxygen to enter, but he doesn’t “churn” up the pile with a pitchfork or shovel. I like his approach. It’s a lot more manageable for spaghetti armed folks such as myself. Rich also talked about their tumbler composter, which he especially likes to use during the winter months. I’ve always wondered how well they work as they seem like a good option for urban composters who need to completely seal off their compost from opportunistic city dwelling pests.
Before leaving the farm I snapped this photo of some baby salad greens and herbs. I can’t wait for the Annual Rare and Unusual Plant Sale in May!
A colorful homemade, trash-free meal on a grey and dreary day at work. I love my 3 tier tiffin. Thank you J and P for this beautiful, functional gift! I’ve been putting it to good use.
I’m taking a Master Composter Training course at University of Rhode Island this month and it’s been wonderful so far. I’m learning so much! The course is comprised of classroom lectures and fieldtrips. Unfortunately I had to miss the first class trip to Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, RI at the beginning of the month. I was so disappointed because I’ve wanted to visit the farm since first hearing about the operation nearly a year ago. I called up Earth Care founder Mike Merner and although he’s very busy at this time of year, he graciously agreed to show me around the farm on a separate occasion. So one morning before work last week, I headed down to South County. We couldn’t have picked a better day for my visit—it was the warmest day so far this season here in the northeast.
Earth Care is located at the end of a road aptly named Country Drive. The pavement ends at the farm’s gated entrance where an engraved wood sign reads, EARTH CARE FARM: WORKING IN HARMONY WITH NATURE. I continued down the dirt driveway and pulled up to the farmhouse. I grabbed my pen, notebook, and camera from my bag and stepped out of the car. The air smelled like earth. Signs pointing to the office directed me up onto the porch of the house. I peered in through the screen door and saw Mike sitting at the desk inside. I recognized him from a photo on the Earth Care website. He was on the phone but he waved me in and invited me to take a seat. He explained that he was on hold, trying to order a tractor part. When he hung up, I introduced myself and briefly explained that my No Trash Project was behind my interest in both small and large scale composting operations. I thanked him for taking the extra time to show me around the farm. He smiled and told me he was happy to do it.
We began the tour around to the side of the house where three small compost piles sit in front of a large fenced in garden. This is Mike’s personal compost. Mainly food scraps and yard debris. This three-pile setup is the same basic system implemented on a large scale at the farm. The first pile is the accumulating pile. A combination of nitrogenous (“green” stuff, like food scraps and grass clippings) and carbonaceous (“brown” stuff, like dried leaves) materials is added to this pile. The second pile is the composting pile. It was once the accumulating pile but when it’s turned over to the composting pile nothing more gets added. It must be aerated to assist in the decomposition of materials and to prevent the pile from becoming anaerobic . This can be done with a pitchfork or a shovel. The third pile is the finishing pile. Once the composting pile, it has been turned over to its final stage. This pile is rich, dark earth. Few materials remain identifiable, save some seashells, eggshells, and some woody materials, which take a very long time to break down. This is the pile to take from. The finished compost can now be used to enrich the garden soil and fertilize the crops.
Next we walked the rest of the way down the dirt drive to the large accumulating and composting windrows that lay beyond the garden. Mike told me that this year’s accumulating pile has quite a bit of woody material from all the trees that came down in the storms that moved through New England during the fall and winter months. Scattered across this pile were paper bags of yard debris. Earth Care also accepts animal manure, animal bedding, seaweed, paper, spent bark mulch, and food scraps. At one point in our conversation, I used the terms food waste and yard waste. Mike stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder and said ” We need to get away from using the word waste to describe compostable materials. It sends out the wrong vibrations.” Noted. I won’t forget that.
The compost piles at Earth Care reach thermophilic temperatures ranging between 104 and 160 degrees fahrenheit. Heat loving bacteria work quickly to consume materials. This energy generates heat within the compost pile and the high temperatures kill many harmful pathogens that can be found in animal manure. An equally large windrow lies beside the accumulating pile. This is the one of the composting piles. Payloader tractors are used to turn the piles bit by bit.
Fairly large pieces of wood and molluscan seashells are visible in the composting pile. Wood contains a chemical compound called lignin. Second only to cellulose, lignin is one of the most abundant polymers on Earth. Because of its complex structure, lignin takes a very long time to break down. As do seashells. They’re comprised of calcium carbonate, which helps to raise the pH level of the finished compost. Earth Care accepts gurry and shells, two pre-consumer by-products of the fishing industry. Gurry is the word used to describe all the parts of fish that get discarded. This includes heads, tails, fins, and entrails. An average of forty-five percent of all the organisms we pull out of the ocean for consumption becomes gurry. The rest is sold as food. Luckily, gurry and seashells make great soil conditioners and Earth Care is making great use of both. Delivery trucks dump the gurry into “containers” or troughs in the compost formed with the payloaders. Gurry is the one material that can be added to the composting pile and it serves to enhance the finished product. As the pile gets turned, the gurry is evenly distributed throughout.
While Mike and I stood talking about squid guts, a customer arrived to purchase some compost. An Earth Care employee named John loaded her pickup truck with a yard or so of mature black compost and Mike disappeared to the office to fetch her a receipt for payment. I took advantage of the pause in the lesson to take some pictures. When Mike returned we made our way up to the finished compost piles. The difference in the color and consistency of this windrow was vivid. Mike explained that this finished compost had been sifted through three-quarter inch screen to remove large debris that may interfere with plant growth. From what I understand, the screener is large machine that is towed into the farm. The compost tumbles through a large cylindrical drum screen and conveyor belts send the finished compost and the large debris in two different directions. The material that doesn’t fall through the screen (large debris) is added back into the accumulating pile. Mike picked up a handful of the dark finished material and held it out toward me. “There are more microorganisms in this handful of compost than there are people on this planet.” He said. Amazing.
Another customer arrived and with surprising agility and speed, John once again scooped up the black gold and deposited it into the bed of the man’s pickup truck. He was a landscaper who was about to plant some trees in a customer’s yard and was purchasing some compost “to give them a good fighting start.” A little help from some microbes could make a big difference.
Earth Care Farm was one of the first composting farms in the region to receive a USDA organic certification. But Mike decided to relinquish that title because he feels that the corruption within the department leads to regulations that have little to do with human and environmental health. And because the government owns the “O” word, Earth Care now uses words like holistic to describe their product. And phrases like, “working in harmony with nature.”
But as with anything, there is a good deal of trial and error in the composting business. I was telling Mike about the Nylon 4 in my compostable toothbrush and the claims that the synthetic will eventually break down in a backyard compost pile. He said he wanted to show me something and led me over to the pasture next to the finished compost. He started to explain that at one point they were accepting paper product from a manufacturer that among other things produced paper used to make hospital gowns and the sheets that are used to cover exam tables in doctors’ offices. Mike had been told by the company that all the products had been screened for any toxins and were deemed clean. But as the product broke down, Mike and his employees started to notice that something was being left behind. Fine synthetic fibers that had been woven into the paper were matting together and sticking to the screener as the compost was being sifted. “Here’s some.” Mike bent down and picked a bit of the material up out of the grass and dirt and handed it to me. “It’s polyester,” he said. “and when I called the company to ask about it they told me that there was nothing to worry about because the material wasn’t harmful to the environment and it would eventually break down. We spread the compost containing the stuff in this field many years ago and it’s still here.” The matted fibers are a nuisance and could potentially strangle seed sprouts and roots so Earth Care stopped accepting the paper product from that particular company.
My visit ended where it began, back in the garden. Mike mentioned that he was going to plant peas and beans later that day. It was time to get them in the ground. He invited me to join him and John for lunch. Unfortunately it was time for me to get back to Providence. Before we shook hands and parted, I asked him how long he’d been at this business. He told me that he started landscaping in 1972, bought the property we stood on in 1978, and then began the composting business in 1979. He explained that the idea to make and sell compost for agricultural and landscaping use was born out of a simple thought that came to him one day while he was digging in the garden, “Good health begins in the soil. If we have healthy soil we can grow healthy food to support healthy lives.”
I’ve written about homemade deodorants in previous posts. By now it’s no secret that name brand deodorants/antiperspirants containing aluminum may pose health risks. And no matter what your stance is on the Alzheimer’s link, most rational thinkers can at the very least agree that clogging up our sweat ducts with product to prevent a natural function of the body probably isn’t good for us. So in the interest of healthy bodies and a healthy environment, I have been experimenting with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) deodorant concoctions. Baking soda is alkalizing and it neutralizes the odor causing bateria found on the surface of skin and hair. I tried a very basic powder version and then switched to an even simpler spray. I’ve been very happy with the spray, but I decided to try making a cream deodorant for some friends who were interested in finding a healthy alternative to store-bought products but weren’t totally sold on sprinkling or spritzing. The cream is closer in consistency to the stick deodorants that we are all familiar with, and therefore perhaps more appealing to some folks.
The recipe I used is very simple: one part coconut oil, one part baking soda, one part cornstarch. I’ve seen some recipes that call for arrowroot in place of cornstarch but haven’t been able to find it in bulk nearby (though I did see some in bulk at Good Tern). I decided to start with a small batch and measured out 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of each ingredient. In a double boiler setup (a stainless steel bowl set over a pot of boiling water) I liquified the coconut oil. While the oil was melting, I mixed the cornstarch and baking soda together in another bowl. I then poured the coconut oil into the powder mix and whisked it well. Finally, while it was still somewhat runny, I poured the deodorant into a couple small jars and allowed it to cool and set up completely before capping them. Not including the setting time, the whole operation took less than 10 minutes. My friends, who are are all very honest when it comes to giving me feedback on my No Trash experiments, seem to really like the stuff. And they each have varying levels of perspiration and body odor due to their unique body chemistries and levels of daily activity. I sampled some myself and have to say it’s quite lovely. The coconut oil is very moisturizing and I personally enjoy the aroma. Like the powder and the spray, it works great! And I think it’s better than the other versions for travel because I can put it into a tiny salve or lip balm container.
Note: some people are sensitive to baking soda and can experience irritation when applying it directly to the skin, so it’s best to err on the side of caution when trying a baking soda body product for the first time.
This past week, I took advantage of the quiet University spring recess and used some of my saved vacation days to visit with friends and family. No trash travel has become pretty manageable and routine for me. Armed with a water bottle, stainless steel container, travel utensils (chopsticks and my bamboo spoon/fork), a few reusable bulk bags, a couple mini glass jars and bottles filled with my essential hygiene products, and my wits I am able to adapt to most scenarios without having to make trash. Committing to Zero Waste means having to be resourceful and I really appreciate the challenge of taking my project beyond my usual stomping ground. While the travel kit I described above serves me well most of the time, there are occasional circumstances in which I find myself missing something from home. This time around it was my trash-free herbal remedies I longed for when I found myself suffering from… ahem, acute menstrual cramps. Luckily I was staying in Toronto and as I had discovered during previous visits, the city is full of many great bulk sources. So on a borrowed bike, I took a ride to see if I could find something to ease the pain. At home I have been using teas and decoctions in place of over-the-counter or prescription pain pills to cope with the monthly distress. Slowly sipping on a warm liquid with pain relieving and anti-spasmodic properties gets me through the peak cramps. And I feel good knowing that I am not using medication that can adversely effect my stomach or liver.
I was able to pick up some chamomile at great little store called Strictly Bulk. The slogan on their very simple website reads, “because you don’t eat packaging”. I filled up one of my hemp bulk bags with enough little flowers to make several cups of tea per day for at least three days, after which I knew I would be feeling much better. Studies suggest that chamomile may work to relieve menstrual cramps. I find that drinking chamomile tea has an overall relaxing effect that helps take the edge off of menstrual pain. And I was very glad to get a hold of this trusty, familiar aid while away from home. Meanwhile the chamomile sprouts on my windowsill are growing taller and stronger.
Last week I rode my bike to my public library to check out a book that has long been on my must-read list. When I arrived I discovered that my library card had expired. I hoped it could simply be reactivated but was told I needed a new card instead. When I asked why, the woman at the circulation desk said she wasn’t sure exactly, but it had something to do with the barcode identification system in place. Bummer. I went ahead and got a new one. Being able to borrow books is important to me, especially in the context of my project.
I’ve been slowly working to pare down my personal library to a small collection of novels, textbooks, and oversized art books that I still use as reference tools for work and personal projects. There was a time when I used to tote around quite a few more, lugging them from one apartment to the next, just so that they could sit unopened on a shelf. Many were books that I had read once, but had no desire to reread. Some were books that were given to me that I never had any desire to read in the first place. I used to feel quite guilty about donating unwanted gifts, but that particular kind of guilt is a mechanism that no longer operates very strongly within me. Storing, keeping, collecting, stashing, or hoarding things that become untouched, unused, and unloved makes me feel far worse. I like to think that donating my neglected belongings restores their potential, giving them a new chance to serve their purpose and/or provide someone with pleasure.
The woman at circulation withdrew a new card for me from a drawer. My stomach flipped a little when I saw that it was more of a card “kit”, which included a mini keychain card and a standard wallet card, held together by a perforated bit of plastic. I wonder why the card set design includes the disposable piece? Couldn’t they be manufacture so that the mini keychain card was attached directly to the wallet card? And how are all these cards made anyway? I looked it up and found this video, which shows how credit cards are manufactured. There are many components that go into swipe cards of all kinds (credit cards, gift cards, identification cards, etc…), but they’re mostly made up of sheets of polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA). In the past I’ve struggled to find information on the recyclability of expired cards. My Rhode Island Recyclopedia doesn’t list them. So I’ve been saving a pile with the intention of passing them off to my artist friends who can use them in studio processes (mixing and spreading glue for instance). But while working on this post I came upon a company called Earthworks System that apparently collects and processes expired cards to produce recycled PVC resource material for new cards. Consumers can mail old cards to the company’s facility in Ohio. It seems like one of the better options I’ve found for diverting this item we depend on so heavily from landfills. Certainly security is an issue that must be considered when it comes to the disposal of credit cards. We’re taught to cut them up into little pieces to prevent fraudulent activity. I wonder if Earthworks System has any solutions or suggestions for dealing with cards that have personal and information on them. Do they accept shredded card material? Shredded or not shredded, if the card information is expired, is it safe to send it in the mail? Hmmm, I will do some more thinking and investigating on this issue.
So when will my new library card expire? Apparently as long as I continue to actively borrow from the Ocean State Library system, it will never expire. Fantastic! Incentive to keep up with my reading list. Meanwhile, I am devouring the book above. Gah, I don’t know how it took me so long to pick it up.
Here in the northern hemisphere, spring has officially sprung! And so have my chamomile sprouts. Today, the Earth’s axis tilts neither toward nor away from the sun, resulting in equal parts day and night across the globe. In my biology class I’m learning about photoperiodism, the physiological response of an organism to changes in the photoperiod. The photoperiod is the relative length of day (light) and night (dark) periods in a 24-hour cycle. Flowering plants like chamomile use a photoreceptor protein to sense these changes and signal the buds to bloom. Some plants require longer night periods to bloom, while others require shorter night periods. My chamomile plants will open their potent flowers when the days are long and the nights are short. Well, first they have to survive the nursery period. Here’s hoping I can prove to be a proficient caregiver!
A couple things impelled me to finally try my hand at homemade tortillas. The first was a conversation with my friend who professed the desire to wrap most of the meals I cook for us in a tortilla. I make a lot of veggie stir fry or fresh salad dishes, usually accompanied by some kind of cereal grain and legume, which would indeed be delicious in a flexible, foldable, flatbread. When I first started the No Trash Project, I did a little searching for a package-free tortilla source. I inquired at a few of the many wonderful Mexican food establishments located on the outskirts of Providence. On a couple of occasions I was able to purchase corn tortillas from one vendor who kindly parceled some out for me from a large bulk bag. But the bag was of course plastic, and while it seemed a little better than buying a plastic pack of 12 tortillas from the grocery store, I wasn’t satisfied with that option. Still, I thought I may be able to find a vendor who makes them fresh in-house that would be willing to let me purchase them with a reusable container. Over time, while I busied myself with other packaging problems, I guess I just adapted to a tortilla-less life. But my friend’s love of all things bread reignited my tortilla interest (and craving). So what about making my own? Ouff, it seemed like quite a project. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that lard or shortening was required—at least for flour tortillas, and finding a bulk source for either ingredient would likely be more difficult than finding unpacked tortillas. But what about corn tortillas? What goes into making those?
Then, while looking for recipes for my blue cornmeal, I wondered if I could use it to make tortillas. So I did some research. As it turns out, whole grain stone-ground cornmeal—which retains some of the germ and fibrous hull of the kernels—is great for crumbly cornbread, but won’t hold together on it’s own in a tortilla. Makes sense. Instead, corn tortillas and chips are made from a corn flour called masa (Spanish for dough). To make it, corn kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), and then hulled, leaving the soft endosperm of the grain. This is called nixtamalization, an ancient food processing technique that originated with Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Today, store-bought tortillas are produced with mechanized industrial processes. The processed corn is called nixtamal, which has a distinct flavor and texture. It’s easier to grind into a smooth dough that will hold together in a tortilla and the nutritional value of the corn is actually increased. The alkaline solution convert’s the grain’s bound niacin (vitamin B3) to free niacin, making it available for the body to absorb. The corn also absorbs some of minerals in the lime, increasing the calcium content. Another benefit of nixtamilization is that it decreases mycotoxins (molds) that commonly infect corn crops and can be harmful to humans. This information is a bit jargony but I’ve been learning a lot of these terms in my biology class and as a grower, maker, and eater of food I think it’s fascinating stuff!
Okay so then where does one get masa to make homemade tortillas? Well, one doesn’t. Not from a store anyway. At least not in New England. It is certainly possible to make it from scratch at home, a project I’m very interested in, but it will require finding a package-free or bulk source for the ingredients (dried flour corn kernels and pickling lime) and I’m still not set up with my own food processor or grain mill… I know, I really should get around to that. But I learned that masa harina (Spanish for flour) is widely available on grocery store shelves. Simply reconstituted with water, masa harina becomes dough, ready to be rolled or pressed into tortillas. I called around to see if I could find a store that offered it in a bulk dispenser but had no luck. So, I did something I rarely do these days and decided to purchase a packaged food item. I bought masa harina in a paper bag and transferred the flour to the large glass jar above to preserve freshness. I planned to compost the bag, but instead ended up using it as fire starter in my wood stove on a recent raw and chilly night.
Once I finally acquired the flour, I discovered that making the tortillas is ridiculously easy. I started with half a cup of masa harina, and as per tips I found on the internet, I slowly added a little water, mixing it in to the flour with my hands until I had a dough that seemed to be a good consistency. Not too wet and not too dry. Then I separated the dough into small balls and rolled them out on my counter with a wood rolling pin. Many online instructions for this process will tell you to roll or press the dough (in a tortilla press) between two sheets of plastic to avoid sticking. But I was able to manage without the plastic. I just made sure to put some dry flour on the counter and my roller. When it did stick to the counter, I simply lifted the dough with a large spatula. I used my wide mouth stainless steel funnel to press out small taco size tortillas. I then cooked them over medium-high heat in my cast iron skillet, setting the dough on one side for about 20 seconds, then cooking for 1 minute on the other side, and back again to the first side for another minute. And that’s it. So simple. Tip: I found that placing the cooked tortillas in a covered container will keep them warm and help retain moisture until you’re ready to fill them.
For lunch I made fish tacos with leftover tilapia (from last night’s dinner), black beans, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, lime and pepper. Oh my goodness, they were so delicious. As with so many projects that have resulted from the quest for package-free foods, I’m really pleased with the outcome. It led me to learn a lot more about corn and corn products, and a little more about the agricultural history of the crop. I also gained the unique satisfaction that comes with making my own foods from base ingredients, which is in part due to the superior freshness of homemade meals and the cost savings. And of course, I get the enjoyment of a delicious food without the plastic packaging I used to regularly send to the landfill.
I know some pretty incredible people. A dear family friend recently gave this yarn to me. I think of her often on my journey toward Zero Waste, as her values and work have influenced me greatly. Pam is a renaissance woman who for as long as I’ve known her (about 14 years) has been interested in sustainability, health, and handmade processes. She spun these wool yarns herself. The gray yarn on the bottom is a worsted Shetland yarn she made with wool fibers from her friend’s sheep in Idaho. The warmer colored yarn on top is a woolen yarn she made from Polwarth sheep fibers she collected while living in Australia. I can’t wait to knit something from these beautifully crafted, oh-so-soft materials. She described the processing of both to me in an email.
“The Shetland wool was prepped and spun worsted–that means all of the fibers were combed out first so they are parallel and then the spinning is also controlled in a way that preserves the alignment of the fibers. If you look closely, you’ll see it’s a relatively smooth yarn. I spun it on a drop spindle. The Polwarth is from Australia and I got it when I lived there. That one I prepped and spun woolen. I washed it first and then carded it with hand cards. This makes the fibers go in all different directions. I spun it on my spinning wheel using a long draw (a technique where you draw your hand back and let the twist enter the yarn). I also fulled this yarn. That’s a finishing technique where you basically shock the fibers. Fibers either felt or full–trial and error will let you know which one your fiber will do. So for fulling I put the yarn in a bucket of really hot water with soap. Using a small plunger I plunged it up and down a bunch of times. Then I took that hot, soapy, skein and put it into a bucket of ice water. The process is repeated a bunch of times until it looks finished. Woolen yarns tend to be fuzzy and this helps give it a cleaner look.”
Everything Pam does she does all the way. Her past projects include a hand-knit mohair sweater made from yarn spun with angora fur she collected over time from her pet rabbit, Jambo. And another sweater she knit using silk yarn spun from the silk fibers she collected from her own silk worms. I don’t remember where she got the silk worms, but I do remember that they escaped their designated habitat and made their cocoons all over the bathroom of her San Francisco apartment. Not wanting to disturb their pupa phase, she coexisted with her metamorphosing roommates for weeks until they emerged as moths.
Once while I was in high school and Pam was staying with us, I arrived home after class and entered the kitchen through the sliding glass door. I was met with a strange and terrible odor that filled the house. “Pam!” I shouted. “What’s that smell?!” She appeared laughing and said, “I’m rendering cow kidney fat.” Sure enough there was large pot of white suet chunks and water simmering on the stove. “What? Why?” I exclaimed. “I’m making soap,” she giggled. “The old fashioned way!” Oh, duh. Of course she was. And she did. Lavender and orange scented bars, which she later gave to my family. The soap smelled lovely.
It was Pam who first hipped me to the questionable and hazardous ingredients in common beauty and hygiene products. She taught me the importance of knowing the source of the goods we consume and the conditions under which they were produced. And most importantly, she taught me there’s almost always an alternative way of getting what we need, if we are dissatisfied with the products that are marketed toward us.
These days Pam’s newest loves are paper, print, and book making. She runs a studio called Shotwell Paper Mill in SF’s Mission district. All their papers are made from recycled fibers. Check out this beautiful video of Pam making paper from an old pair of jeans. She also rides her bike around San Francisco collecting used jute coffee and cacao bean sacks from local coffee roasters and turns them into beautiful cocoa colored sheets. She explained that since great amounts of work, energy, and resources are required to grow and harvest the jute and manufacture the bean sacks, it seems right to extend the life of the jute fibers by turning them into paper. Yep. I like the way this lady thinks. Oh and she also keeps a beehive and grows food in her local community garden. I hope to visit her and see all these fantastic projects in person someday soon.
Thank you, Pam for this beautiful gift and the endless inspiration.
Oh March, you fickle old girl. I love the changes you bring each year. The image above is was taken while I was out for a run Friday morning. It was snowing sideways and the temperature didn’t get up above freezing all day. But by mid-day Saturday, much of the accumulated snow had already melted in the sun. Sunday brought more sun and mild temperatures nearing 50 degrees Fahrenheit so I jumped at the chance to log some hours outdoors.
My best friend and I took a drive out to the Willimantic Food Co-op to stock up on some bulk goods that we can’t get package-free in Providence, namely liquid soap (for household and personal hygiene purposes), agave nectar, honey, and canola oil. Fertile Underground Grocery’s bulk selection continues to grow and I’ve been told that their goal is to one day offer these liquid bulk goods, but for now I’m still making out of town trips every two months to fill up my glass jars and swing top bottles. Of course, having to drive 40-60 minutes to get to the nearest liquid bulk goods source is not ideal. I take care to plan ahead, writing lists and packing a shopping kit with ample vessels to minimize my trips. Carpooling with a friend and incorporating an outdoor adventure into the errand helps ease my anxiety about burning the fuel.
We hit up Old Furnace State Park—one of my favorite semi-nearby hiking spots. The extra hour of daylight seemed like such a gift. The air was warm enough to smell the wet earth and leaves underfoot. On several instances I was overcome by excitement and found myself breaking into a full sprint along the trails. My friend and I weren’t the only ones enjoying the warm weather—the birds were chirping up quite a chorus. Being confined to my apartment or office for most of the winter has its serious drawbacks, no doubt, but the cabin fever makes the coming of spring that much sweeter.
I feel as though too much time has gone by since my last post. I have so many things I want to write about, photos loaded, and drafts saved. I had trouble choosing a topic tonight. So bear with me as I gush about some things that have me excited these days.
This past weekend was lovely. It began with a small test of will power when I signed off, shut down, and unplugged my computer, phone, and lights on Friday night in participation of the 4th annual National Day of Unplugging. The respite officially took place from sunset Friday, March 1st to sunset Saturday, March 2nd. I was a little late to the party because I had to work Friday evening, but I did manage to hold out for 24 hours. Well, almost. The digital detox is meant be a break from laptops, iphones, and tablets. I decided to try to go without using any electricity (save my refrigerator). I ended up turning on some lights and my electric stovetop to cook dinner late Saturday, about 20 hours into my power-free period. On Saturday I rode out to the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center for the Urban Agricultural Spring Kickoff hosted by Southside Community Land Trust. Demonstration and information tables on seed starting, urban chicken keeping, rain barrels, bee keeping, and maple sugaring were set up along the pathways of the indoor gardens. I talked with some friendly folks, gathered some resources, and got the inspiration (kick in the pants) I needed to start my seeds.
As the event was winding down, I took some time to peruse the gardens. The botanical center boasts of nearly 12,000 square feet of plantings. The air inside the building was warm, humid, and fragrant. A stark contrast to the chilly, windy, and grey weather outside. As I moved rather languidly from room to room, species to species, I lost track of the time. Actually my sense of time was pretty well off throughout the entire day as my phone, which normally acts as my time piece, was powered down. I suddenly realized I was the last person (besides a couple botanical center employees) in the place. So I bundled up in my enduring wool outerwear and hit the road back to the east side. Time to get busy.
I’m sitting in on two classes at Brown this semester and I’m IN LOVE WITH THEM. One is an Urban Agriculture course in the Environmental Studies department and the other is a Biology course called Plants, Food, and People. There’s been some wonderful overlap between the two, and both seem to be mirroring my life and personal projects in uncanny ways. Or maybe it’s the other way around. At any rate, I’m so excited for the growing season. We’ve been learning about vertical farming in my Urban Ag class. Innovative systems like the Sky Greens vertical farms, and the Plantagon are taking shape around the world. One of the primary problems of growing food indoors is how to maximize sunlight. In my apartment, I have just one window that faces south. It overlooks the tenant garden below my kitchen and receives the most uninterrupted light of all my windows, the rest of which are moderately shaded by trees. It’s the best spot I’ve got to start seeds so I’ve been experimenting with ways of using the light efficiently.
With hemp twine, I strung up some Burpee seed starting cells (a 100% biodegradable product made from plant fibers) that I picked up from the hardware store. I wanted some lightweight vessels that I could fill with soil and easily string together. It occurred to me after I purchased them that I might have been able to make my own from folded recycled paper, but I wonder if I could come up with something that won’t drop out the bottom when saturated with water. I’ll have to do some tests. Meanwhile I feel good about using this particular product. The only packaging is a paper sleeve. I marked the cells with a wax pencil to keep track of what I’ve planted.
I also planted seeds in some small glass Weck jars that I normally use for spices or hygiene goods. I’m hoping the glass lids will help trap humidity while the seeds germinate. Mini greenhouses. I placed some paper labels on the lids, but I may tape them to the sides of the jars with acid-free paper tape to allow more light to fall on the seeds. In my biology class, we’re learning about the factors that affect germination, including lightness and darkness, water, oxygen (I sometimes forget that plants actually respire!), and temperature. I’m also gaining a basic understanding of what occurs on a cellular level as a seed grows from an embryonic state into an adult plant. This new information and vocabulary gives me a new perpective, and I imagine it’s going to provide a whole new level of enjoyment in growing my own food this season. So the seeds are in the dirt, they have plenty of moisture, but not so much that they can’t breath. They have as much light as I can offer, and hopefully they won’t get too cold by the window. Now for the waiting game. Waiting, wishing… and singing to them. Okay, okay I know how woo-woo that sounds but I can’t help it. Growing things engages both my scientific and nurturing (dorky) self.
I’ve had this blue cornmeal hanging around for a while and I’ve decided to put it to use before it spoils. Like many dry cereal grain flours, cornmeal has a very good shelf life (it may keep for several years if stored in a freezer), but it can eventually turn rancid. So I’m kicking some cornmeal projects into gear.
Blue cornmeal is more flavorful and higher in nutritional value than yellow or white. You can use it in any recipe that calls for cornmeal. Today I made skillet blue cornbread. I love the taste of food cooked in an iron skillet and it’s a fantastic non-toxic nonstick surface. The bread is delicious! I’ve already consumed quite a bit more than the slice missing in this photo. I looked at several recipes online and then composed my own, which allowed me to work with the ingredients I had on hand—all of which were purchased without packaging as always. Here’s what I came up with:
1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal
1/2 cup oat flour (any flour could be substituted here, or just use another 1/2 cup of cornmeal)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raw oat milk (made fresh from oat groats soaked overnight)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup finely chopped red pepper
1 medium size minced jalapeño pepper
Preheat oven to 350˚ Fahrenheit. Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the oat milk, eggs, apple cider vinegar, honey (warm to liquify if necessary), and canola oil in another bowl. Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Stir in red and jalapeño pepper. Pour the batter into a 10″ cast iron skillet that has been rubbed with oil. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until done. Serve with a wink and a smile. Store in an airtight container.
With the exception of a small jar of stevia seeds, my freezer has stood empty for a long while. It is of course void of any packaged frozen foods and because I’m lucky to be able to access fresh foods year-round, I rarely have occasions to freeze foods. While editing down the belongings in my kitchen to the few essential items I use regularly, I donated my plastic ice cube tray. Even in the dog days of summer I prefer most of my drinks iceless (though I do sometimes like to use ice to cool down warm water, home brewed tea, or kombucha) and I dislike the taste of ice cubes that have been frozen in plastic. So I didn’t think I had much need to hang onto it. But when I recently banged up my knee after taking a good tumble on a morning run, I wished I had some kind of cold pack to reduce the swelling around my injury. I did a search for plastic-free ice trays and discovered that stainless steel trays like the ones on the market from the 1930s to the 1950s are being manufactured again as an alternative to plastic trays. I purchased this one from Life Without Plastic. It works really well and it makes perfectly tasteless ice. If the ejection lever gets frozen to the cubes (not uncommon with this design), running the tray under warm water releases the lever, making it easy to lift. This beautiful, functional tool may even inspire some frozen treat experiments. And for first aid purposes, I’m thinking about investing in a good old fashioned hot water bottle to fill with my steel tray-made cubes the next time I bust up my body, since I won’t be using plastic bags to make cold packs.