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New Roomies

vermicompostworms

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.

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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.

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Field trip

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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.

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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

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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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Earth Care Farm

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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Ship shape

heath

I recently received a gift of some Heath ceramic plates for my birthday. I’ve always admired this Sausalito, California-based company’s designs and environmentally conscious practices. Founded in 1948 by ceramicist Edith Heath, the company has upheld the values of timeless design, fair work conditions, and sustainability. Their lower heat, once-fired pieces are made to be durable enough to last for generations. Each piece contains some recycled clay. I will cherish my dishes.

Every time I receive a shipment, whether it’s something I’ve ordered myself because I can’t find a local source or something that’s been sent by someone else, I cringe at the sight of any plastic or foam packing materials. If I receive a cardboard box, I find myself holding my breath before opening it, dreading the possible discovery of packing peanuts, Styrofoam molds, bubble wrap, or inflated plastic air bags inside. The box from Heath arrived sealed with paper tape. Fantastic. As I cut into it I was thrilled to find that the protective filling was 100% paper! I reached into the paper “peanuts” and pulled out a plate. There was no bag, no wrapper, no tape. It still had some dry clay dust on it, and I instantly imagined the factory it was produced in. But there wasn’t a single chip, crack, scuff, or ding. The plates were stacked on top of each other, separated simply by squares of corrugated cardboard. I composted all the materials. My bin is always in need of the carbon.

I contacted the company via email to express my satisfaction with both their product and their shipping materials. I asked who the manufacturer of the “peanuts” was and how long they had been using them. A woman named Stephany got back to me and this is what she wrote,

“We are one of just a few companies who proudly ship all of our products with ExpandOS, a great packing system made from 100% post-industrial waste and that is 100% reusable and recyclable. Heath has been using ExpandOS for at least six years. Our philosophy on packaging is that it’s wasteful, but we want our products to be safe. In addition to ExpandOS for shipping, we wrap our products purchased in our stores in good old-fashioned newsprint. We give it a second use and it’s recyclable. We encourage reusable Heath totes in lieu of gift boxes and encourage customers to use a Heath tote or their own bag. We do use brown bags when customers need it.”
The ExpandOS packing system carried beautiful ceramics safely across a great distance to my door. I hope to see more companies with mail order services electing similar packaging systems.
Read more about Heath’s environmental integrity here.
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Green Bin Program

The City of Toronto and the surrounding Greater Toronto Area has an outstanding organic waste curbside collection program called the Green Bin Program. I was interested in visiting any of the local organic waste processing facilities while in the Toronto area but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to tour any of them as an individual. However, I was able to connect with a gentleman named Bob Kearse, the Senior Engineer at City of Toronto, Solid Waste Management Services. He answered my questions about the Green Bin Program as it functions currently and he also provided me with information about the processing facility expansion projects underway. 

Amazingly, 90% of single family homes (about 510,000) participate. Research shows that an average of nearly 450 pounds of organic waste is collected per household each year. That means the Green Bin Program diverts 114,750 tons of waste from landfills each year and as the program is rolled out to apartment, condo, and co-op buildings, the waste diversion rates are set to rise.

Food scraps, soiled paper, diapers, sanitary products, and even pet waste is accepted because the material is processed at high enough temperatures that pathogens (disease-causing organisms) are destroyed. The waste is collected from the curb and trucked to facilities where it is first preprocessed to removed debris (e.g. plastic bags and plastic diaper materials, which are extracted and sent to the landfill). The sifted pulp is then put through anaerobic digestion—a process by which naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria break down the organic material in an oxygen deprived vessel. The resulting “digestate” is then trucked to external contractors at secondary facilities where it is processed by aerobic composting. The final product, which is certified by Canada’s Ministry of the Environment, is used on farms, in parks, and in residential gardens.

Toronto’s primary processing facility is the Dufferin Green Bin Facility. They currently process 40,000 tons of waste per year, which is less than half the waste collected from participating residents. The rest has been sent to facilities outside the Greater Toronto Area, but the city is currently working to increase it’s local processing capacity with the expansion of the Dufferin facility and construction of an entirely new second facility—a 75 million dollar project. Above is a photo of the construction at Dufferin. In the foreground is a view of the roof support struts in place on the new anaerobic digester. The tank is about 60 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall. In the background “media” is being poured into the new biofilter, which uses microorganisms for air filtration and purification—in other words, it’s job is to remove odor and dust pollution. The City also plans to make use of biogas—the other main product (besides digestate) of anaerobic digestion, to generate power. Bob explained that these projects resulted from “the push from council to improve on what we’re already doing well.”

I’ve written a bit in earlier posts about scaling in and out on the garbage crisis—thinking about both macro and micro issues in waste production. Meticulous research on toothbrush bristles and soap ingredients can at times be mind-numbing, while learning the specs on Rhode Island’s ever shrinking landfill capacity or reading about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can leave me feeling hopelessly overwhelmed. It’s been important for me to try to aim for some balance between both modes. I am fascinated by the large scale waste management efforts in place today. I often think about where we’d be without landfill, recycling, and compost programs. The data I collect on these operations informs the decisions I make in my daily life (the small realm I can control), such as what I choose to consume (and how), the way I choose to move about, and how I care for the objects and company I keep.

Learning about commercial composting processes makes me look at my backyard operation with a new appreciation. I am so grateful to be able to keep my little bin behind my apartment and I recognize that it’s a privilege many people who live in a city don’t enjoy. My heap can’t breakdown meat scraps or diaper waste, but these are not bi-products of my current lifestyle. For now, simply balancing carbon (dried leaves, cardboard, and paper) and nitrogen (fruit and vegetable scraps) is a self-sufficient and efficient system that keeps my organic waste out of the landfill in Johnston.

Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto website.

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Bears love food scraps

Spent some time this past week at a friend’s cottage off the northeastern coast of Georgian Bay about 170 miles from Toronto. The area is pretty remote and there aren’t a lot of nearby grocery stores so we shopped for food before heading north. We brought bulk grains and legumes, fruit and vegetables. The cottage is located on a tiny rock island accessible only by boat. Not having curbside pickup casts waste management in a whole new light. Furthermore, having to boat one’s garbage to dumpster sites on the mainland makes generating trash inconvenient and impractical. Being removed from the amenities I enjoy in my usual urban setting leads me to think about how much my self-sufficiency depends on living in a city—with regard to everything from transportation to food access. Produce stickers were the only landfill trash we made while at the cottage. We composted our food scraps in the bin pictured above. The one (somewhat sizable) problem with keeping a compost bin in this area is that it attracts bears. We didn’t see any this time.

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Great escape

I’m currently in Maine. I’ve been here since Sunday. I’m enrolled in some woodworking classes at a school in Rockport and I will be here for the entire month. Being away from home for this time means having to make adjustments to keep my No Trash Project on track. Luckily, I’m finding I am surrounded by resources that support my lifestyle.

I’m staying with a couple that rents their garage apartment to students of the wood school. They have the most beautiful home with spectacular gardens. Eric and Laura live on about six acres of land, much of which they’ve cultivated into a community garden that’s shared with and cared for by about 10 of their friends. They’re growing so much food! I am so inspired by the work they’ve done and the systems they’ve established. The scene above is what I wake up to every morning. The deck off the apartment kitchen overlooks the vegetable garden, berry bushes, orchard, chicken coop, compost pile, and solar panels. A grape vine is growing on the deck railing, and a clothesline runs from the exterior of the garage to the trunk of a pine tree. There’s also a modular greenhouse in the side yard. The enclosure sits on tracks and can be moved to house different crops at different times of the year. Their Labrador, Moxy is hanging out in the apartment with me, sitting on my feet as I type this. Basically, I’m in heaven.

I’ll be in class full time during the 4 weeks that I’m here. Right now I’m learning how to hand cut mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. I hope to come out of the courses with two functional objects. Some of my posts this month will be about the property I’m living at (fruits and vegetables will be ripening while I’m here), shopping for food and hygiene goods in a new community, woodworking waste, and conservation. It’s going to be a good July.

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Raised bed

Took a ride out to Smithfield Peat Company today to get some yard waste compost for my planting box. With buckets and plastic storage bins loaned from a friend, I was able to get enough to fill my box. The company sells top soil, gravel, mulch, compost, and more by the yard. I was shy of a yard but they were very generous to let me have just as much as I needed.

It’s late in the season to be preparing the box, but some of my plants are really going to appreciate being transferred to this cozy bed.

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Scrub update

I think it’s finally time to retire this hemp dish washing “scrub”. It’s the same one I made and started using back in November. There are holes in it now, which I think resulted from snagging the yarn on silverware, but It has held up remarkably well for the amount of work it’s done. I can’t imagine ever returning to a traditional dish sponge. One of the things I love most about this little knitted square is that it never smells bad. I just wash it with soap and water and hang it on a nail to dry between uses and it stays quite clean. I loathe the smell of a cellulose sponge after it’s picked up billions of bacteria. Hemp is naturally mildew resistant and antimicrobial. Now that this one is starting to fall apart, I’ll cut it up into little pieces and throw it in the compost. I knitted a new scrub to replace it.

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Worm bin

An update on the worm bin.

A little over three weeks ago I took a trip to Charlestown, RI to visit the Worm Ladies. I came home with a half pound of worms to start my own bin. They are currently living in a found restaurant tupperware container in the tenant garden. There are instructions on the Worm Ladies’ website on how to get started.

So far, they seem to be doing well. I’ve been monitoring the moisture balance and the food scraps every couple of days, but overall they are pretty low maintenance pets. I’ve noticed a lot of babies wriggling around. Eventually I will move them into a bigger container and perhaps share some worms with friends interested in vermiculture or sell some back to the Worm Ladies.

I cant wait to harvest the castings to fertilize my plants.

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Worm Ladies

Today I took a trip down to Charleston to visit the Worm Ladies at an open house they hosted in honor of Earth Week. The open house was held at Worm Lady co-owner Nancy Warner’s home on East Beach Road. Guests gathered in her beautiful backyard garden to learn about vermiculture. It was nice to spend some time talking to friendly people who are all interested in the practice of turning food waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer. I took home a half pound of red wigglers in a brown paper bag to get started.

This electric tumbler sifts high volumes of compost, separating the precious worm castings (collected in the plastic bins below) from the debris that doesn’t get eaten by the worms. Nicknamed “black gold”, a five gallon bucket of castings sells for $60.

Made a stop at East Beach, about a mile down the road from Nancy’s house. First visit to the ocean this spring.

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Carbon

Today I spent some time tearing up the cardboard boxes my new bed arrived in to add some badly needed carbon to my compost bin. It’s a project I’d been putting off while my work schedule was extra busy. The weather was beautiful today, so I pulled them out of the closet I had tucked them into, went down to the small garden under my kitchen where my compost bin lives, and sat ripping them into little bits. It was meditative work that I was happy to do on a low stress Sunday. I’ve been working to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio in my compost. Food scraps from my kitchen are added almost everyday so there’s usually excess nitrogen. All that cardboard will help keep the fruit flies at bay.

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Environmental Toothbrush

For many years, I have used an electric toothbrush. My family had one when I was growing up and I have used one ever since. I always thought of it as an important tool to maintain oral hygiene and health. Since starting this project almost a year ago, I have been using the same replacement head. The brush is becoming pretty shabby and less effective. I knew that I wouldn’t be buying a new replacement head (because they’re made out of plastic and come in plastic packaging), so I planned to transition to a more sustainable manual toothbrush. 

I had read that there are recyclable and compostable toothbrushes on the market. I considered buying a preserve toothbrush, which is made from recycled yogurt cups and will be turned into plastic lumber if you ship it back to the company once the toothbrush is spent. But I struggle with the idea that that a park bench made from that plastic lumber will eventually end up in a landfill. So I set my heart on finding a compostable brush instead. The problem with this option is that currently, there are no compostable toothbrushes being made or even sold in the United States. 

After a lot of research, I found myself torn between two products. The first is a pig’s hair and beechwood toothbrush manufactured in Germany sold on the Life Without Plastic website. The bristles come from longhaired pigs that are bred and raised for meat in China. I’m not sure where the beechwood comes from. The head of this toothbrush is wrapped in a small piece of biodegradable plastic.

The second toothbrush I considered was The Environmental Toothbrush, which is made with nylon 4 and bamboo—sold in Australia. I settled on The Environmental Toothbrush, in part because it is more affordable and because the packaging is 100% paper. I was also very satisfied with my email correspondence with the company’s international sales manager. He provided thorough answers to all my questions about the nylon bristles, materials sourcing, and shipping materials. Still, it’s difficult to for me to determine whether or not this particular product was the best choice from an environmental standpoint.

The toothbrushes are sourced and manufactured in China then shipped to Australia, where they are then shipped to national and international buyers. Of course the fuel required to bring this product to my doorstep is quite problematic. I was told by the sales manager that they are desperately seeking a distributor in the US. I’m also not sure how I feel about the synthetic bristles on this brush, but currently the only other compostable option on the market is an animal product, which presents a whole other set of issues. I was told that in standard composts, the bristles should break down in 12-24 months. Below is an extract from a scientific journal that was included in the email.

Nylon 4

It has been reported that nylon 4 was degraded in the soil and in the activated sludge. The results confirmed that Nylon 4 is readily degradable in the environment. Furthermore, the biodegradability of nylon 4 and nylon 6 blends was investigated in compost and activated sludge. The nylon 4 in the blend was completely degraded in 4 months while nylon 6 was not degraded [90]. Recently, Yamano et al. was able to isolate polyamide 4 degrading microorganisms (ND-10 and ND-11) from activated sludge. The strains were identified as Pseudomonas sp. The supernatant from the culture broth of strain ND-11 degraded completely the emulsified nylon 4 in 24 h and produced γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as degradation product.

Above is the package as it arrived, in a small piece of brown paper (secured with plastic packing tape).

The toothbrushes are packaged in unbleached paper. I bought one package, which contains 12 brushes.

It certainly looks nice. I will provide reviews once I have used it for a while.

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Vermiculture

Last week I attended a compost conference and trade show at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, RI. Nancy Warner, co-owner of The Worm Ladies of Charleston, Inc spoke about vermiculture: the practice of raising red wiggler worms to consume food scraps and some other household waste. Red wigglers will eat organic waste and turn it into “vermicompost” or “worm castings”, which is known as the best compost on earth. One great thing about vermiculture is that you don’t need to have a yard to compost your food scraps. Watertight bins can be kept indoors and don’t require a lot of space, so even city dwellers in tiny apartments can compost! And worm composting is virtually odorless if done properly. Read more about composting with worms here.

I’m interested in trying vermiculture in addition to the traditional compost pile I’ve been keeping in an open wood frame and chicken wire bin for more than a year. I learned that the garden-variety night crawlers in my compost are not dining on the organic waste. I hope to pay The Worm Ladies a visit soon.

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Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation

Yesterday I visited the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston, RI. I met with Recycling Program Manger Krystal Noiseux, who showed me around the landfill/Materials Recycling Facility and spoke with me about the daily operations at the complex, the renovation of the MRF, and the waste-management issues Rhode Island faces looking ahead. The following posts will detail my visit and everything I learned about what happens to the trash we make in this small state.

We began the tour at the deposit stations for materials that can be repurposed or recycled but are not meant to go into your blue and green bins. There is a station set up for books, clothes and shoes, cooking oil, scrap metal, scrap lumber (unfinished), televisions and computers, hazardous waste and more. Residents can come during normal hours of operation to deposit these materials (hazardous waste deposits can only be done on certain Saturdays by appointment: www.rirrc.org/ecodepot). About one quarter of the tires pictured above can be repurposed. The rest will be shipped to a tire-to-energy plant in Connecticut where they will be incinerated, generating electricity. The ashes are then shipped back to RIRRC where they will go into the landfill. I was surprised to such a variety of materials are accepted. Each is sent to a different company in another location for a wide range of “next life” purposes.

Next we headed over to the commercial composting site. Currently, RIRRC only accepts leaf and yard debris. They process nearly 40,000 tons every year. Rhode Island residents can come and purchase this “class A” compost for $30 per cubic yard. So all you locals who are dreaming up garden plans for this spring, take note! There is a half yard minimum requirement and you have to be able to carry it away in your own vehicle, but RIRRC will help you load it. Some of the compost is used at the central landfill for operational purposes. The rest goes to New England Organics, an industrial organics and minerals recycling company.

The photo above shows a new area being dug out to become landfill. This stop along the tour left a big impression on me. The ‘pit’ seemed much shallower than what I would have imagined. Krystal explained that it can’t be dug too deep because it must be above ground water levels. The next phase of preparation in this area will include laying down layers of plastic (to seal in the garbage) and pipes that will divert any water that sinks through the trash carrying harmful substances (leachate), from seeping into the ground. When the landfill is full, a synthetic cap and a soil layer will close it off.

As Krystal described this to me, it seemed logical that measures must be taken to keep garbage in all its hazardous forms separate from the environment. But I never knew that these kind of protective layers were placed between the trash and the earth. I always imagined a landfill as a simple hole in the ground filled with garbage. This new image I have of a landfill is more bizarre. Our garbage is being entombed in the ground. This is the best kind of “away” that we have come up with—an effort to keep our waste away from our water, our soil, our air, and our wildlife.

Krystal said that she begins her tours by asking visitors whether they think a landfill is good for the environment or bad for the environment. The visitors always answer that it’s bad. As the tour progresses, visitors begin to see that it is not the landfill that is harming the environment, it’s the trash—our trash.

This waste-to-energy plant was the next stop on the tour. It converts the gas produced by decomposing garbage into electricity. The facility (operated by Broadrock Renewable Energy) has been in operation since 1996. I have heard of facilities that convert landfill gas into electricity but I had no idea there was one in operation here in Rhode Island! 65% of the gas that is siphoned off from the landfill is converted. The rest is flared. The current facility generates enough electricity to power approximately 21,000 homes.

While RIRRC works to expand the central landfill, a new plant is being built that will more than double generating capacity from 20 megawatts to 47.6 megawatts. The new facility will be the second-largest landfill-gas-to-electric power plant in the country. It will generate enough electricity to power about 38,000 homes.

We then made our way up the landfill. As Krystal said we were “driving on trash”. Landfill gas collection pipes stick up out of the landfill. Krystal explained that landfill gas is typically comprised of methane (50-55%), carbon dioxide (45-50%), and trace amounts of other gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide. Methane is considered the most potent of the greenhouse gasses produced in a landfill.

As we ascended the landfill, I began to see the seagulls. We came upon the area where trash was being spread. Thousands of gulls swarmed the trash and the workers. A recent surge in the number of gulls has led RIRRC to approve new measures to fend off the birds, including pyrotechnics, propane cannons, shooting, and using fake seagull carcasses to scare them away.

composting conference and tradeshow happening this Monday will address the importance of getting food scraps out of the landfill. Less rotting organic material in at the landfill will mean less landfill gas and fewer gulls.

I learned that daily operations at the landfill include compacting (crushing) and covering waste with several inches of soil or other cover material to reduce odor and litter (that can get picked up by the wind) as well as control pests. A cross section of the landfill would show layer upon layer of trash and cover. Krystal explained that many people think the central landfill is a dump, but there is a big difference between a dump (an open pit of trash) and a sanitary landfill, which is really an engineering marvel designed to protect the environment from our garbage. Though the trash is covered quickly, while it is being laid down it can blow around in the wind. Litter crews collect the sailing Styrofoam cups and plastic bags off the face of the landfill and surrounding areas.

Since 2010, areas of the RIRRC grounds have been planted with native shrub species (steeplebush, bayberry, and meadow-sweet), trees (eastern white pine and eastern red cedar), and seeded with native grasses and wildflowers to attract native wildlife species. RIRRC employees volunteer their time to monitor wildlife activity. Deer, coyote, mink, bald eagles, turkey, hawk and various other song and water bird species have been observed. The central landfill has been Wildlife at Work certified since 2011.

The last stop on my tour was the Materials Recycling Facility. As I have mentioned before, the facility is undergoing a major renovation. A new single stream recycling system will be up and running on Earth Day (April, 22). RIRRC will then launch a public education campaign shortly there after. Rhode Islanders will no longer need to separate their paper from their metals and plastics. Specific information about newly accepted recyclable will be sent out in the mail and posted online.  Currently, the majority of Rhode Island communities are only recycling an average of 24% of their waste through curbside collection. When you factor in compost, textiles, and metals, the average municipal recycling rate is only 31.8%. The goal of the single stream system is to bring that average up by 20-40%.

When the new system goes live, several more kinds of plastics will be recycled (currently RI only accepts plastic bottles and jugs). The new state of the art facility includes optical scanners that will target and redirect specified materials with a blast of air. Watch this video produced by Waste Management to see how single stream works.

RIRRC charges per ton for trash dumped at the landfill, but it is free to bring recyclables to their recycling facility. There is no washing, melting, or pulping happening at RIRRC. The facility is set up only to sort and bale metals, plastics and paper to be sold as commodities to be made into new products. 50% of the profits from those sales are shared with the municipalities.

Krystal Noiseux said that a common misconception about waste management in Rhode Island is that we are ‘behind the curve’. I admit that was definitely my impression before visiting the complex. To my surprise, Rhode Island was the first state in the nation to pass mandatory recycling legislation in 1986. RIRRC has only ever collected the recyclables that they can market to companies that will process them.

I was impressed by the many measures in place to divert waste from the landfill at RIRRC, the gas-to-electricity plant, and the effort to support wildlife habitats on site. I think it’s important to have an understanding of how our personal waste is handled. Unfortunately I think there is a general lack of appreciation for the technology and people at work in the sanitation industry in this country. I think everyone should visit his or her local landfill and recycling center to see first hand what engineering marvels they have become. However, I want to stress that these last several posts aren’t meant to make us feel better about producing trash. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ system enables our growing consumption of disposables. The monetary cost of waste management is hidden to most consumers. What would it be like if we had to pay by the pound or by the piece of trash we produce? What if waste management services didn’t exist? Since visiting RIRRC I’ve been thinking about the fact that it’s impossible ‘get rid of’ our trash—we can only relocate it. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like if we were all responsible for storing our own waste.

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Compost

My compost bin never ceases to amaze me. Still gobbling up food scraps even in cold winter temperatures. Can’t wait to use it to plant my garden in the spring!

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Magpie

This is Magpie. She is not trash-free, but I love her anyway. I took her home from a shelter almost seven years ago. Because she has a very delicate constitution, it has been difficult to make any changes to her diet. I feed her Wellness canned cat food as I was always told that wet food is far healthier for cats than dried kibble. But the waste from the one can a day diet is pretty difficult to accept, especially in the light of this project. The two times I’ve tried to switch her over to a homemade diet she has gotten pretty sick, so I’ve delayed another attempt–hence the cans in the waste crate.

I recently consulted my friend (who is currently studying at Tufts vet school) for advice on home prepared cat diets. She adamantly stressed the importance of consulting my own vet (or even a pet nutritionist) to develop a diet that meets Magpie’s specific needs based on her age, weight, and medical history. She explained that in the natural world, a cat’s ideal diet is whole prey (meat, bones, and organs); so coming up with a well-balanced homemade diet is really tricky for felines because they require taurine and other vitamins/minerals. Most of the home prepared cat food recipes I’ve found online are offered with serious warnings against improvising a recipe, as cats can become very ill without certain supplements. I plan to talk to my vet for recommendations and instructions.

Because I live in the city, she is a strictly indoor cat (though she does go outside when I take her to visit my parents in the woods), which means she uses a litter box. I use Swheat Scoop Natural Wheat Litter. The only two ingredients are wheat and soybean oil. Swheat Scoop claims to be the only certified flushable litter on the market. I flush it and have not had any clogged drains. I buy it in a 40 lbs paper bag at my local pet supply store. I don’t use any box liners. I just wash the box out with soap and water when I change the litter, and compost the used litter. My friend Madeline has a new kitty and she told me she’s been thinking about trying to toilet train her cat with a product called Litter Kwitter.

Since the day I was born, I have had pets in my life. Every one has given me so much joy. When we take a pet home we are faced with the great responsibility of providing the best quality of life possible while they live in this world and the responsibility of determining how they will leave it. We can choose to provide pet care that is environmentally responsible, which often promotes good pet health.

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It started in the kitchen…

A lot of time passed between the point at which I decided to create a blog about the No Trash Project and the point that I finally got it started. I’ve been thinking (probably too much) about how to organize it. Of course a blog is a wonderful platform for documentation, and I know that as time goes by, it will become a sort of album and journal. Ideally, I would like the content to be useful to others as well.  I’ve decided to try to outline the ‘big picture’ ideas motivating the project and also describe the details of the daily problem solving involved.

I think it’s important to talk about the reevaluation of both need and habit that has been necessary for me to make any kind of progress.  As cliché as it may sound, we are ‘programmed’ to participate in trash-making routines.  It’s easy to accept that the products we see on television, billboards, and store shelves will enhance the quality of our lives. I was very much in the habit of buying and using things that just seemed necessary to function in a productive way. Now, the question I repeat over and over everyday is, “Do I need this?” Do I really need a different cleaning product for each and every surface in my house? Do I need dryer sheets to keep my laundry fresh and static free? Do I need plastic wrap to keep my food from spoiling? After several months of making these continuous checks, I’ve found ways around the trash to get what I need to be happy and healthy. Eventually I came to the question, “Do I still need my trashcan?”

I want to stress that at the beginning of this project I decided that the venture must always be about feeling good. I wanted to be very careful not to make this process about deprivation, especially because I would be working on it with another person whose wants and needs vary from my own. The system is not perfect. There are many stubborn problems still to solve. A small amount of recyclables still go out to the curb every week. There’s always room for progress and I love watching the project grow.

Okay, now for some specifics. To start down the no trash road, I needed a plan of attack. I had to organize the steps required to establish working systems in my home and the rest of my life. I looked at the different ‘zones’ in which I make trash. In the broadest sense, I categorize my trash production into three zones that exist both in and outside of my home.

Zone 1: Food–before I began this project, the majority of the trash in my can was from food products

Zone 2: Hygiene–both personal and household

Zone 3: Work–for me this zone applies to both the practices of my artist studio, and my university film department job

For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about the food zone, as it’s the area that is working most efficiently today. Here is a breakdown of the food zone subcategories.

Shopping: As I mentioned in my first post, bulk grocery shopping was a catalyst for the project. I buy all my food in bulk and I try to limit my produce and animal product shopping to farmer’s market as much as possible. A local fishing company has agreed to take my container home and return it at the next market day, filled with a fresh caught fish of their choosing. When I do go to the grocery store I shop the perimeter. I purchase all my fruits and vegetables without packaging of course and I have someone at the meat and fish counter put my purchases directly into a container I’ve brought from home.  They place the empty container on the scale to get the tare weight, and then place the meat directly into the container. No paper for the cat to pull out of the trashcan at home.  I fill up peanut butter and almond butter from the grinder machines into my own jar. The tare weight is subtracted at the checkout register. While there are great selections of bulk dry goods at my local markets, discovering a nearby co-op helped me to take the project to the next level. There I can fill tea, spices, oil, vinegar, and many non-food products into my own containers. It’s wonderful. Finally, choosing responsible distributers at the markets and buying organic has become an important part of the overall no trash effort.

Food Storage: Once the food gets home, the dried goods are poured into glass jars of all shapes and sizes, greens are placed into cups of water, and meat is kept in airtight containers in the refrigerator. The humidifier drawer is helpful in keeping vegetables longer. Carrots and radishes will stay crunchy for a surprising amount of time if stored submerged in water in the fridge. With regard to perishables, I’ve found that it’s imperative to only buy what I know I’m going to consume in the next couple of days. This way I can altogether avoid throwing out spoiled food. My refrigerator is not cluttered with forgotten groceries like it used to be. It has become a very efficient space that is constantly being emptied and restocked with colorful foods. I’ve established a collection of storage containers that play a daily part in this cycle. Luckily I live in a place that’s within close proximity to many grocery stores and farmers markets.

Food Scraps: Compost, compost, compost. After years of talking about it, I finally built a compost bin. It sits in the small yard behind my city apartment—my landlady was nice enough to allow it. All the scraps from the kitchen (except for citrus) go into the pile, and the compost fertilizes my plants. The local farmer’s markets also have a compost service.

Make Your Own: There are many products that cannot be purchased in bulk or without some kind of packaging.  Of those, most I’ve found are very easy for me to live without. I’ve learned to make some of the foods I still crave at home, from ingredients purchased without trash—like hummus or kombucha for instance.

Eating Out: Here is another area where it is important to choose responsibly. Supporting businesses that buy locally, serve no processed food, and plate reasonable portion sizes is important to me. A reusable container from home can replace the need for a doggie bag. Also, a container can be brought to a restaurant for takeout service or to the window of a food truck. I make a lot of meals at home to carry with me to work or on a day trip.

So there it is—a scratch at the surface. A bit of the macro and the micro.

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