Archive | April, 2013

Field trip


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.

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Outdoor classroom


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!

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Picnic trick


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.

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Happy Earth Day


Love your mother.

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Earth Care Farm


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.”

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Cream deodorant


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.

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Rolling with the punches


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.

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Lending love


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.

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