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Pest control

Little black forager ants (I believe they’re sugar ants) have been appearing on two windowsills in my apartment. When I open up the screens and stick my head out I can see them scaling the brick exterior. And as I mentioned before, there are tons of ants in the garden too. Amazingly, they don’t seem to have found their way into the kitchen yet, but I have seen some lone rangers crawling around on the floor in the living room and bathroom. I imagine that if I don’t act their numbers will likely grow.

I’ve been reading about environmentally friendly ways to keep ants out of the home and it seems that there are two different approaches. The first is to deter ants from entering by keeping surfaces clean at all times, storing food in sealed containers, and strategically placing natural ingredients like cinnamon, cloves, lemon juice, castile soap, baking soda, or vinegar in the areas that the ants frequent.

The second approach is to actually exterminate the ants by using a slow acting homemade insecticide bate made from sugar, water, and borax (or boric acid—an odorless, non-volatile powder that is considered a safer alternative than more hazardous synthetic chemical pesticides). When the mixture is placed on pieces of cardboard or absorbed into cotton balls, the forager ants will feed on the it and carry it back to the nest where they pass it to the other ants, eventually killing the colony. When an insect consumes boric acid, it poisons the stomach and affects the insect’s metabolism. Every source I’ve found that gives a recipe for this bate cautions readers to keep it away from children and pets. Boric acid can be toxic to humans and other mammals if inhaled or ingested in large quantities.

I’m going to try my luck at deterring them before resorting to the poison. I have all of the deterrent ingredients mentioned above on hand. All of them were purchased in bulk without packaging.

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Hey lady

Ladybugs and ladybug larvae feed on aphids. The larvae look nothing like the glossy winged adults. I’ve always thought they have a prehistoric look with their spiky bodies. I found this little guy (or girl?) crawling around on my kumquat tree, which as far as I can tell is quite free of aphids. I moved him over to my infested tarragon plant where he immediately began feasting. You can see the carnage pretty well in full screen mode. After a couple weeks of eating he will attach his backside to a leaf and begin the transformation into an adult ladybug.

This biological pest control has worked well for me in the past. Luckily, there is a bush near my office that is usually filled with ladybug larvae at this time of year and I’ve transferred many in a jar to my plants that have fallen under aphid attack. Ladybugs are often for sale at garden centers and even through mail order sites, but I’ve read many accounts from people who’ve attempted to introduce the adults to their gardens and then watched them all fly away. When it comes to this kind of interference with nature for the sake of growing my own food, I feel better about transferring them locally (I collect them within a couple miles of my home) than I do about the idea of bringing in a bunch of bugs from far away—except for the red wigglers of course which are contained and cannot survive without a supplied food source.

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Aphid season

As the warm, humid weather rolls in and the plants and trees fill out, bugs are hatching in masses. They descend on our gardens and our homes looking for food and water. In large numbers the “intruders” can threaten the structural stability of buildings, contaminate food supplies, and pose health risks. Reports in the national news suggest that the mild winter we had will likely lead to higher than average insect populations this summer, and extra precautions may be required to fortify our homes and protect our bodies— particularly from mosquitos and ticks, which are known to carry disease. Those of us who grow food fight these tiny enemies on yet another frontier. These next several posts will be about my attempts at chemical-free, trash-free pest control.

Above is a calendula plant from my garden. If you look closely you can see that the bud and the new leaves are covered with aphids. If I leave the parasites untouched, they will most likely devour the plant, so I am forced to take action. I want to choose a method of extermination or deterrence that is natural and effective.

My golden fennel is also covered in aphid larvae. I did some research and I found a ton of useful information. One fact that really caught my attention is that ants “farm” aphids for the honeydew they produce. The ants will actually keep the aphids in their nests during the winter and then bring them out to host plants in the spring. The ants will carry the aphids around from plant to plant to continue feeding. I have always noticed little sugar ants near and around aphids, but I never knew what they were up to! I have seen a ton of ants around the property I live on—in fact I’m also working finding ways of keeping them out of the apartment (more on this soon). So it turns out, one line of defense against the aphids is to figure out how to keep ants away.

Other natural aphid repellent tricks include:

Squashing a few aphids around the infested plants to release a chemical signal that makes the other aphids drop from the plants and leave.

Sprinkling a barrier of charcoal powder, calcium dust, or bonemeal around the base of the plant.

A mild soap spray can be used to strip them of their protective wax coating, dehydrating them. Mix 1 tablespoon of Castile soap to 1 gallon of warm water. Adding a teaspoon of neem oil to that mix can make it more potent. To the aphids, the neem oil has a bitter taste, so they will not eat the leaves treated with it. And the oil will prevent the larvae from growing into adults. I’ve used this mixture in the past on my tomato plants and have found it to be effective, but I’m not too keen on using the neem oil directly on the edible parts of plants because it’s difficult to wash off. For this reason I avoid using it on herbs.

A forceful spray of water is often enough to knock the aphids off the plant and may discourage the ants as well, but this is only a temporary fix.

Burying shredded banana peels at the base of infested plant seems to be method that many gardeners swear by. I try to limit my consumption of bananas because of the great distance they have to travel to get to my local grocery store, though I haven’t cut them out of my diet completely yet. They are a great source of potassium, which I know I need as a runner. I decided to try burying a shredded peel around my calendula to see if it’s at all effective in discouraging aphids from feeding on the plant’s life-giving sap. The peels give the plants a shot of potassium too. However, I do wonder if this trick is not recommended if you have an ant problem!




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Almond milk

Since making oat milk at home, I’ve wanted to try making other dairy-free milks. For some reason I had the impression that nut milks would be more complicated than the oat milk but, as it turns out, the almond milk I made today was even easier! It’s raw so the cooking step was eliminated.

In a pot, I covered raw almonds (purchased in bulk!) with water and soaked them overnight. In the morning rinsed them, added more water and blended them in the same pot with my immersion blender. The soft nuts broke up more quickly than I had expected. I probably blended them for one minute total.

Then I strained them through a clean mesh produce bag. Straining them through a bag is quicker than though a mesh wire strainer because you can squeeze every last drop of milk out, leaving only the almond solids. There are nut milk bags on the market designed specifically for this purpose, but my produce bag worked perfectly.

I am saving the solids to make my next batch of energy cubes. But they could be useful for many cooking projects.

Delicious raw almond milk. No Tetra Pak and no added ingredients like evaporated cane juice, calcium carbonate, tapioca starch, salt, potassium citrate, carrageenan, or sunflower lecithin which you often see listed on the back of store bought brands. This homemade version is naturally sweet and with the 1 to 3 ratio I used, it’s thicker than any almond milk I’ve ever had out of a box. I may experiment with honey and spices for future batches. Maybe even a little cocoa powder for chocolate milk!

So here’s the recipe written out…

2 cups raw almonds 

6 cups water

Soak the almonds in water for about 8 hours or overnight.

Discard soaking water and rinse almonds.

Combine almonds with the 6 cups of water.

Blend until smooth.

Strain the liquid through a mesh strainer, cheesecloth, or a nut milk bag (I used a mesh produce bag). Save the solids and use for a baking project, mix into a cooked grain dish, or use as a filler for energy cubes. Store the milk in the refrigerator. Drink it straight, pour it over cold cereal, or use it to cook hot cereal like oatmeal.

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Spring cleaning

Today I washed the screens to my apartment windows. I’ve been meaning to do it so that I can have the windows wide open to let the spring in. The screens will keep the bees that swarm the cherry tree from coming into my bedroom and keep my cat from attempting to leap from the windowsill to the tree in pursuit of the bees, birds, and squirrels. When I replaced them with the storm windows this past fall, I noticed that they were pretty grimy and probably hadn’t been cleaned in years. So I brought them outside with some diluted castile soap (purchased in bulk at the co-op, the same soap I use to wash my dishes) and rinsed them down with the hose. They came clean quickly. No chemicals needed. Now I can breathe easier knowing that the breezes blowing through my apartment aren’t being filtered through so much dust and dirt.

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Potato crisps

Another package-free snack food I enjoy is homemade potato “crisps”. Thinly sliced organic russet potatoes tossed in oil and baked on a cookie sheet. Sometimes I add a little cayenne pepper or sliced garlic. These came with me to work today along with a delicious kale salad. I honestly prefer them to any kind of potato chip. Baked in oil, they’re certainly healthier than deep fried chips.

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The Flu!

On the night of my last post I started to feel like I was coming down with a cold. I woke up on Wednesday morning with the flu that I had managed to dodge all winter. Armed with some cotton hankies, herbal teas and elixirs, I hunkered down for what I decided would be my first time dealing with such an illness without taking any over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Luckily my work situation allows me to take the time I need to recover and I’m not under pressure to show up and perform on the job despite illness. My bathroom cabinet is now empty of all the decongestants, cough syrups, and expectorants I used to have stocked, and lately I have been trying to practice more natural forms of healthcare. This bout of the flu has been a good test of my new self-imposed systems.

Back in November, I wrote a post about medicine in the face of the No Trash Project. My friend Kory wrote a comment in which he talked about fever suppressants potentially being harmful to the body’s recovery in times of illness. Since writing that post I made the personal decision to see a naturopathic doctor who I was able to ask about that concept. She explained that in most cases a fever is not something to fear—that it is a normal self-preserving mechanism of the body. Increased temperatures will serve to neutralize and eliminate toxemia brought on by a viral or bacterial infection. What I learned is that instead of suppressing a fever, it may actually be more beneficial to “assist” the fever.

This concept is new and strangely exciting to me. Helping the body in its natural functions as opposed to fighting it makes sense to me on an intuitive level. So when I woke up with a fever on Wednesday I chose not to start popping Tylenol to try to bring it down the way I always used to. Instead I called in sick to work, drank some yarrow and mint tea and simply slept through it.

When I woke up on Thursday the fever was gone. I was still run down but I was already feeling much better. By the end of the day I felt well enough to go outside and experience the remarkable 80-degree weather we had. I took a book to the woods and sat reading on a rock in the sun. Since then the flu is has been running its course and I’m trying to take it easy (though I did go back to work yesterday, which may have been premature). I feel that I am on the road to recovery and my suffering hasn’t been any greater than when I’ve used medication to relieve flu symptoms in the past. In fact, I can say that I really appreciate not feeling any of the side effects that come with so many cold and flu medications.

There’s a rock by the pond in Lincoln Woods that I like to go to—some of you locals may know it. That’s where I went Thursday afternoon. Not a bad place to sit and recover from the flu. I brought water in a bottle, tea in a jar, a couple cotton hankies, and a book (Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record) to this spot and sat reading, sipping, and sniffling in the afternoon sun. I still can’t believe how warm it got this week.

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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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Wintertime farmer’s market

The Saturday farmer’s market at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, RI.

Lots of stands, lots of customers!

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Good morning

A trash-free breakfast of hot amaranth, nuts, seeds, and fruit—with a drizzle of olive oil.

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A dilemma…

I’ve been talking a lot about my cat’s diet lately. I am meeting with my vet next week to discuss switching Magpie from canned wet food to a home-prepared diet that meets her specific nutritional needs. The grain-free canned food seems to agree with her­—she is a healthy weight and her coat is soft and shiny. But I’d like to move her into a diet that is organic and of course one that makes less waste. Last weekend I was so excited to find the brand I feed her (Wellness) in her in a larger 12.5 oz can. I bought a few and brought them home. I had intended to post about how switching from the 5.5 oz cans will reduce the amount of metal I buy and recycle every week until I’m able to wean her off the wet food. Tonight while reading about the different metals used for pet food cans I came across some information that throws a kink into the plan.

The small 5.5 oz cans are made of aluminum and the 12.5 oz cans are made of coated steel. The coating that lines the inside many steel food cans contain bisphenol A (BPA), while the coating on most aluminum cans does not. The lining is used to prevent the food from eroding the metal. I suppose I should have thought about this sooner because there have been a lot of reports in recent years about BPA in canned human food. As I make a great effort to reduce my own contact with harmful leaching chemicals, it’s difficult to imaging not making the same considerations for my pet. I came across this newsletter with a pretty thorough post about the kinds of cans used by different pet food brands. It looks like there are some brands that do sell food in large 12.5 or 14 oz cans that do not contain BPA.

I am going to call Wellness tomorrow to ask if they are still using steel cans that contain BPA. If so, I will do some research to see if there is a brand with a formula similar to what I’m feeding my cat now, in a large BPA-free can, available at a local store. Meanwhile I remain very hopeful that my vet and I will come up with a manageable alternative solution.

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Bench project

The bench I’m building is nearly complete. I’ve been applying the finish in my living room. I’m using 100% Tung oil to seal the walnut legs and seat. Tung oil is a natural drying oil derived from the nut of a tung tree. I wanted to use something completely nontoxic and easy to apply. I also like the idea of using a finish containing only one ingredient. Fortunately I don’t have any nut allergies and the oil doesn’t irritate my hands or my lungs. I’m not worried about hazardous fumes (the tung oil smells good) in my living room. The drying time between coats is long but it’s worth the wait. Once the final coat hardens it will be nearly impervious to water. I feel good knowing that this functional object soon to be put to use in my home is made almost completely from organic materials (not including the wood glue). Over time the bench may have to be re-oiled but I don’t mind.

I have really enjoyed working with wood. The material seems alive as every cell expands and contracts depending on the moisture in the air. I prefer finishes that showcase the material rather than cover it up. Because this bench is one of my first woodworking projects, I went with my class to a hardwood supplier for my material. However, I’m very interested in learning about more sustainable woodworking practices like building from reclaimed and salvaged wood or from naturally fallen timber.

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Trash reduction in my daily routine is becoming more automatic. After many months of problem solving, I can finally say that there is very little waste entering my house with the food and hygiene goods I consume. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about waste reduction with regard to more permanent necessities, like furniture. One way to reduce the waste we make in our lifetime is to choose quality made items that last and then take great care of them. I find it’s easier to care for furniture that I really love.

For several years since I’ve been out of college, I’ve been toting around some family hand-me-downs and a few pieces I inherited from roommates who moved away to tiny New York apartments. I’ve always been interested in making whatever space I inhabit feel like home–something I learned from my mom as we moved around the country when I was growing up. But in the midst of art school and the struggle to steady myself afterwards, carefully curating my belongings was not a top priority. As I get older and less scattered, my desire to live more efficiently grows. For me this means clearing out the broken, uncomfortable, nonfunctional, and the extra. I’ve managed to sell a lot on craigslist and the rest I’ve donated. But it seems that getting rid of things was the easy part.

Since I moved into my current apartment five months ago, I have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The bed I used to have didn’t fit up the narrow stairwell of the 220-year-old building. Unfortunately I find this mattress to be very uncomfortable—the springs are very pronounced. I’ve wanted to get a different one along with a simple platform to get it up off the floor, but finding the right thing has been a challenge. In my free time I’ve been learning to build furniture through woodworking classes and so far I’ve been tackling a table and a bench. I’m told a bed is a much more advanced project. The classes have heightened my appreciation for the handcrafted and my curiosity in how things are made. Now more than ever, I’m determined to avoid buying from bargain furniture stores, but I do understand why so many people rely on such businesses for accessibility and affordability. While holding out, I’ve gone without.

Yesterday on my run, a Waste Management truck with a trailer full of discarded Christmas trees drove past me. I noticed the trailer was marked “Mattresses”. It prompted me to wonder how many mattresses (and Christmas trees) that truck picks up in Providence each year? Do they all go to the landfill? How long does it take a standard mattress to biodegrade? If I’m to replace it, can my current mattress be recycled? Later that evening while reading an article on ecoRI’s website, I noticed an advertisement for a company called The Clean Bedroom, with a store in North Kingstown. I clicked into their website and found a brief statement offering reasons to choose organic bedding over standard.

“…While we sleep, our immune system recovers and prepares for the day ahead. If your mattress is filled with airborne allergens and chemicals toxins, your immune system will battle these rather than repair itself…

Regular bedding – a standard mattress laden with polyurethane foam, toxic flame-retardants and water- or stain-resistant chemicals

Organic bedding– an organic mattress where materials are all-natural, clean and free of chemicals — the cotton is grown without pesticides; the latex is free of synthetics; for fire protection, pure wool is used.”

Well, that seems to make a lot of sense. But of course organic bedding can be very expensive. Today as I continued to research, I’ve been asking myself: When did a good, clean night’s sleep become so complicated and elusive?

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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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Confessions of a floss addict

One personal hygiene product that I decidedly cannot live without is floss. It’s been a part of my daily dental care routine since I finally made it a habit (after my braces came off) in grade school. I credit flossing for my healthy, cavity free mouth. Because floss comes with quite a bit of packaging, when I first began this project I tried to use a rubber gum stimulator in its place, but quickly found that it was not a good substitute–at least not for my mouth. I think my teeth must be very close together because I’m not able to get the tip of the stimulator between them. So, I turned back to floss.

I have searched high and low for simple paper packaged, chemical-free floss and the best product I have found so far is Eco-Dent’s Gentle Floss. When I first spotted it on the shelf at a local co-op (since then I’ve seen it at Whole Foods) I was very excited, but when I got it home and opened the paper box to get the thread end started, I discovered that the floss spool comes wrapped in a small clear stretch plastic bag and that the 100 yards of floss are wound around a hard plastic bobbin. The bag is meant to keep the essential oils used to wax the thread from drying out. While it’s not trash-free, I do feel that this product is much better than the twice packaged floss I bought for years–wrapped once in a #2 plastic box and then again against a paper card with a cellophane or #1 plastic cover glued to the paper.

I try to use the floss sparingly. I keep the pieces that I break off just long enough to wrap a couple times around one finger on each hand with just enough space between to maneuver around my mouth. And though it may sound gross, I reuse each piece a couple of times until the coating comes off, simply rinsing the strand between uses. Lately I’ve wondered about the plausibility of making my own floss. Perhaps I could find a natural fiber thread of the appropriate weight and coat it as needed with minimally packaged oil or wax…

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Today I tackled a project that I’d been avoiding for many months–the disposal of old and expired pharmaceuticals. After cleaning out my cabinets at the onset of this project, I had stockpiled the bottles and blister packs full of unused and expired pills that had accumulated in my home over the past several years. Everything from unfinished antibiotics and steroids that were prescribed for the flu and sinus infections, to over-the-counter allergy medications used during some landscaping forays, to painkillers that were prescribed for one of my several broken digit incidents–had all been tucked away in my sock drawer until I could figure out what to do with them.

For medical and environmental reasons it is usually recommended to finish the course of a prescription, but I’ve never been good at taking a pill for a symptom that no longer exists. I’ve had serious anxiety about throwing the drugs away because I know that no matter what approach I take, this hazardous waste will end up in the ground and water. Though it was once common practice, many people know by now that it is not a good idea to flush medication down the toilet. And I’ve read that great caution needs to be exercised when throwing drugs out for trash collection as animals or even people could potentially ingest them after you put them out.

I sat down this morning and separated all the pills from their bottles and packs and put them into a used paper bag. By the time I was done, I had emptied hundreds of pills. The sight of them all mixed up was pretty shocking, as was that of the pile of bottles and packs. I noticed my cat was immediately drawn to the smells in the bag (more on how she fits into this project soon). I filled the bag with ashes from the wood stove and cayenne pepper to make the stash less desirable to scavengers, as recommended by several online sources. I placed the bag inside another thicker paper bag and deposited it in a lidded dumpster at my work that will be emptied in the next couple of days. It felt strange and terrible to throw a bag into the garbage after months of not doing so. I took bottles to Whole Foods where I separated the plastics according to their number and placed them in the appropriate bins.

Since starting this project, my thinking about medicine and healing has been shifting to a more natural approach, and my experience today will have a great and lasting impression on me.

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Happy New Year

I dreamt of big trash-free plans for 2012 on my run today.

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Farmacy Herbs

The No Trash Project has rather naturally led me to a territory previously unknown to me–medicinal herbs. How can I treat illness, heal injuries, or relieve pain and discomfort without making trash? This past weekend I finally visited Farmacy Herbs in their Providence shop. I mentioned the business in an earlier post about trash-free medicine, at which point I had only ever seen their products at my local farmers markets. The shop is in a small one-room building across from North Burial Ground Cemetery. Mary Blue (Farmacy’s founder) helped me find the herbs I was looking for on the shelves and gave me some recommendations for herbs that may help relieve menstrual cramping. At the self-service table setup next to the wall of dried herbs, I scooped my selections into my own glass jars and weighed them. I was surprised to find that my purchase of nettle leaf, raspberry leaf, cramp bark and ginger root (3oz or about 85 grams total) only cost me $6.00. In the half hour I spent in the shop, many customers came and went. I was excited to catch a glimpse of what seems to be a community of people taking advantage of this wonderful resource. I spoke briefly with a woman named Suzie who is enrolled in Farmacy’s Herbal Education and Training Program. She was helping to tend the store as a part of a work-study arrangement. She told me that classes take place in the shop. On their website you can see a list of topics covered from herbal terminology to wild fermentation techniques. Browsing these topics motivates me to learn about growing, harvesting, preparing, and using medicinal herbs.

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Running rubbish

This morning I went for a run in the woods. The sun was shining but the ground was still saturated from all the rain we got over the past two days, so the smell of decomposing leaves was heavy in the air. I prefer trail running to road running because it calls for more focus and coordination, and because there isn’t much traffic out on a wooded path. My run is usually my favorite part of a day. I always say that if I could bottle the post-run feeling and sip it all day long, I’d never have a care in the world. I like that it’s a form of exercise that requires little gear. I can throw on my running clothes and be out the door. But the most important piece of equipment that a runner has (the one that takes the most pounding) also makes the most trash.

Carbon rubber, polyurethane, ethylene vinyl acetate, nylon, polyester, and thermoplastic urethane are some of the materials used to make modern running shoes. Most spent pairs go straight to a landfill.When I got home today and kicked mine off, I noticed they’re really starting to fall apart. I’ve worn through the foam on the heel of the insoles and the treads on the soles have flattened out since I bought them almost three years ago. I do own another pair that I love–a ‘minimal’ running shoe I picked up this past spring when I became intrigued by the argument that barefoot running is beneficial for joints, but couldn’t imagine sacrificing the soles of me feet. My minimal shoes are not completely sealed on the outsoles, so water creeps in when the ground is wet. I don’t mind damp feet in warmer weather, but it can be unbearable in the cold.

So the time has come to do some more research. I’d like to find a shoe that is made from minimal material, but can stand up to winter in New England. I realize this is a tall order. I’ve started looking into it and while I haven’t yet found a pair that meets my criteria, I have found some information about the recent efforts of some athletic shoe companies to reduce waste in a toxic industry.

Puma and Brooks seem to be taking the lead. Both have redesigned their shoe packaging so that customers walk out with less trash around their new footwear. In 2008, Brooks released a shoe with a midsole that supposedly biodegrades 50 times faster than conventional midsoles. In November, Puma announced that they are working to develop the first completely compostable running shoes. And I came across these leather and canvas biodegradable, blooming sneakers.

I will keep looking for shoes that are right for me. When it is finally time to get rid of my old ones I think I’m going to bring them to the Reuse-A-Shoe drop-off location about 10 miles away from where I live. Meanwhile I daydream about taking up yoga–a truly barefoot form of exercise, but I don’t think I could ever completely kick my running habit.

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Yerba Maté

This morning I harvested the leaves of my yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) plant. Actually the truth is I shocked the little shrub by bringing it indoors for the winter and it let go of all its leaves. So I collected the fallen and the falling, and put them into a glass jar to dry. Once they’re dehydrated I will grind them up to make tea. I think the plant will bounce back and start pushing out new leaves soon.

It’s difficult to express how much I enjoy growing my own food. I don’t have any ground to plant in, so my garden is potted. In the summer I grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. In the winter I bring everything indoors. Some plants go dormant in the basement (my fig trees for instance), others tough it out on the windowsills in my apartment. Having the green inside my home helps me through the grey winters in Providence.

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Many people have asked me how I deal with medicine in the No Trash Project, and as cold and flu season descends on New England, the issue becomes more pertinent. The truth is that there are no ‘quick tip’ solutions to filling medicinal needs without making trash. Over-the-counter drugs come packaged in number two plastic bottles or in plastic and aluminum foil blister packs inside paper boxes. Though I’ve looked, I have not been able to find a single glass bottle on a drugstore shelf. Orange tinted prescription bottles are made from number five plastic and you can’t refill your refills in bottles that have been used (however, many pharmacies will take your bottles back to be recycled-not reused). Of course there are strict health codes at work here. Recently, while visiting a friend in the hospital, I was struck by how much trash is made in the effort toward maintaining a sterile environment and toward making caregiving more efficient.

I want to be careful in the discussion of this particular topic because I realize people require many different kinds treatment to fight ailments and diseases of varying severity. I understand that there are instances in which producing trash cannot be avoided to meet individual healthcare needs. I feel that the best way to address this issue is to present my own personal experience regarding health and wellness in the context of the project. I don’t want to suggest that mine is a system that should be adopted by others, but rather share some of the questions and discoveries I’ve come across.

A reoccurring theme of these posts is my goal of simplifying my lifestyle to become more efficient. As with all other aspects of this project, the search for trash-free medicine has led me to reevaluate my needs. By now we’re all familiar with the idea that fortifying our bodies with a healthy diet and regular exercise is a fundamental form of preventative medicine. Growing up, I was relatively active and my parents raised my siblings and me on well-balanced meals. In the summer we ate vegetables from our garden. As an adult I have continued to focus on taking care of myself. But since I was very young, I have used prescribed and over-the-counter medication for both the prevention and treatment of illness. I could not name all the different antibiotics I’ve taken in my life if I tried. And there was a time when I would not hesitate to take a pain reliever to ease even mild discomfort. I feel now that those tendencies were largely based in habit. The idea of straying from systems that work reasonably well can be unsettling especially when it comes to healthcare.

The project has led me to become more interested in ‘alternative’ medicine. I’m drawn to naturopathy, which is centered on the belief that the body has an innate ability to heal itself. The idea of using diet, exercise, lifestyle change, and natural therapies/remedies to enhance the body’s ability to ward off disease makes a lot of sense to me on an intuitive level. I’ve been trying to incorporate more natural healthcare practices into my life. 

The no trash effort naturally supports eating a healthy diet of whole foods (I imagine it would be challenging to get junk food and processed food without some kind of packaging). I’m very sensitive to the way that the foods I ingest make me feel. I eat a mostly plant-based diet supplemented with some seafood and poultry. I have been experimenting with all the whole grains in the bulk section. My meals are colorful and delicious and I am never left wanting. I run almost every day. I sometimes notice the mental health benefits of running even more than the physical. It’s the best way I’ve found to manage my own stress.

I haven’t filled a prescription in nearly seven months. I stopped using oral contraceptives as a means of regulating my cycle, and have begun to look at herbal remedies to relieve cramps, treat colds, ease headaches, settle an upset stomach, etc… Chamomile tea for instance, can be used not only as a mild sedative, but also to relieve stomach and intestinal cramps, menstrual cramps, and headaches. I purchase it loose in bulk at the co-op. I’d like to learn the medicinal uses of all the fragrant herbs and teas stocked on the shelves. It wasn’t until starting the No Trash Project that I took notice of another wonderful resource in Providence called Farmacy Herbs. They come to the local farmers markets but they also have a store location here in town that I’ve been meaning to visit.

My medicine cabinet still contains ibuprofen, acetaminophen, some over–the–counter cold and flu medicine, and an inhaler-all of which were acquired before starting down the no trash path. I’m hanging onto it for ‘just in case’ reasons, especially because I tend to get sick more in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer. It’s a schedule that seems to be directly related to working at a university. I have not sworn off western medicine, and I don’t intend to put myself through any unnecessary suffering in an effort to avoid using over–the–counter and prescription drugs. But I am interested in learning about many different healing practices and I hope to be able to lean on those that are more environmentally healthy when I am faced with illness.

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The first few posts have mostly been about the already established systems of the No Trash Project, but every new day offers potential to further the effort. This week I finally got a bike. I had been looking for one that would fit me for quite some time. I needed a frame with a shorter stand over height and length.  This past summer I checked out a number of bikes through craigslist but couldn’t find any that were appropriate for my proportions. Finally I decided to seek help to build one up.  A friend of mine who works on bikes happened to have a smaller frame set aside. He put the bike together with mostly used and a few new parts. I am now the proud owner of this tangerine beauty. I recently moved into an apartment that is only four blocks from my office. I’ve been enjoying walking to and from work and to nearby businesses. Though it’s late in the New England biking season, I look forward to using my new ride to further cut down on driving.

On the day I went to pick it up, while Tom was helping another customer in the shop, I perused the parts and accessories hanging on the walls. I noticed there are a wide variety of material choices to consider when putting a bike together. Tom and I spoke about some of the things that can be done to reduce the waste involved in keeping a bike.

There are some fundamental common sense measures that can be taken to lengthen a bike’s life. Luckily I have the space to keep mine inside while at home and at work, and both spaces have reasonably dry air. I once kept a bike in the basement of a Providence house thinking it would winter over well, but the moisture in the basement caused the frame and the chain to rust. Of course I’ll need to consider the way in which I lock it outside to safeguard the parts and the bike itself. It seems obvious I know, but it’s easy to get careless. My friend Kory recently made instructional booklets on how to properly lock a bike, which can be seen here. I will certainly think of these tips every time I lock mine up.

Beyond the basic care of the bike, I’m also interested in the range of sustainability of materials used to make bike parts. Mine was cobbled together from available used parts and some of the components are on the not so environmentally friendly end of the spectrum. The seat (saddle) for instance is foam and vinyl. The derailleur has some plastic components and the handlebar tape is foam with an adhesive backing. The tires are probably the least sustainable part on the bike, but as far as I know, there really aren’t many options here. Some saddles, handlebar grips, and pedal straps are made of genuine leather. Cotton cloth grip tape is also an option. Some of the plastic parts on my bike are also available in different kinds of metals, but may weigh more.

In general, I think I’ve always been interested in how things are made and how they work. The No Trash Project seems to have heightened my curiosity. I find myself looking at objects, breaking down their parts in my mind, wondering about the life of a thing before I came in contact with it and the life it will have beyond me.

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It’s no secret that maintaining cleanliness supports health. Being clean is considered virtuous–cleanliness is the tenth of Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues to live by. Hygienic standards and practices vary across cultures and have changed throughout history. The Romans had their bathhouses and scented oils. Soapmaking became a popular trade in Spain and Italy during the Dark Ages. The toothbrush as we know it today was invented in China in the late 1400s. Before that, chewing the twigs and leaves of plants thought to have antiseptic properties was common practice.

Contagion and germ theories led us to the notion that we have more to worry about than visible filth. In 1854 John Snow discovered that cholera was transmitted through contaminated water. His findings led to the widespread development of sewage systems. In the twentieth century, industries sprang up to deliver products that would serve us on our quest for cleaner countertops and whiter toilet bowls. Advertisements goad us to buy products that support health and that will spare us the judgment of others about armpit odor.

The continually increasing attention to hygiene has meant an increase in pressure on the natural environment. Today we’re starting to see a push away from the use of harsh chemical cleaning agents because of growing evidence of their threat to our health and the planet. “Green” cleaning agent production is becoming big business.

I’m interested in finding ways of maintaining personal and domestic hygiene without making trash and without using any chemicals in/on my body, or on the surfaces in my home. We all have a different standard of cleanliness, so the system I’ve mapped out so far is of course personal. This zone has been slightly more complicated than the food zone, but the approach to tackling the problems is the same. I ask myself what I need. What do I need to sufficiently clean my dishes, my laundry, and my floors? What do I need to feel clean, smell good, and stay healthy?

As I mentioned in the last post, the discovery of the Alternative Food Co-op in Wakefield has helped me enormously in the No Trash Project. They encourage membership but it is not required in order to shop there. Not only is the store stocked with a wonderful bulk food selection, but they also supply many cleaning and body products in bulk dispensing systems. Below is some information about the non-food products that I buy in bulk and their important roles in no trash hygienic practice.

Baking Soda–not just for baking!

Currently, baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, has numerous uses in my home. Because it is weakly alkaline and acts to neutralize acid, baking soda has long been used for many first aid applications. It also has mild antiseptic properties. A simple paste made from baking soda and cold water can be applied to burns, bug bites, bee stings, and poison ivy. It can be diluted in water and used as an antacid.  As a mild, gentle abrasive, it can be used in place of toothpaste or as an exfoliating skin cleanser. A friend of mine recently explained how she mixes it with a bit of conditioner and uses it in place of shampoo.

For the same reasons it works to cleanse the body, baking soda is an effective household cleaner. Its fine, gritty texture works as an abrasive agent and is safe to use on most surfaces. It can be added to the washing machine to help remove stains, neutralize odor, and acts as a fabric softener for laundry.

Castile Soap

I’ve been using liquid castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s)–an olive oil based soap that is a mild but effective cleanser. I use it in place of dish soap, as a body wash, and occasionally as a surface cleaner. It’s available to me in bulk dispensers.  I fill it up in jars at the co-op and once I’m home I pour it into glass oil cruets (like the one pictured above). The soap pours easily from the metal dispenser.

Powdered laundry detergent, bleach powder, moisturizing lotions, shampoo and conditioner are also available in bulk at the co-op.

There is another natural household cleaner that I’m attached to, which I have not been able to find without packaging. White distilled vinegar is effective in killing mold, and bacteria. I find it neutralizes odors well and clears drains when combined with baking soda. I have resorted to buying it in a glass bottle. I’m careful to use vinegar sparingly and dilute it with water to make the supply last longer. Again, the system is not perfect. The vinegar bottle becomes a part of the recyclable waste I make. And I haven’t forgotten that the goods we buy in bulk are delivered to the grocery store and co-op in packaging/containers (more on this soon).

Hygiene accessories are an important part of this discussion. Many cleaning and grooming tools are made of plastic and are meant to be disposable. I’ve tried to focus on choosing tools that are made of more sustainable materials that will stand up to the test of time and use, or products that are compostable.  Microfiber cloths have replaced paper towels, plant-based compostable sponges have replaced plastic and cellulose sponges, and a high quality stainless steel safety razor has replaced the disposable plastic version.

While writing this post, I’ve been thinking about the number of plastic bottles, jugs, aerosol cans, plastic spray nozzles and pumps, sponges, and paper towels that before starting this project, I threw into the trash and recycling on a regular basis. Though I’ve only been working toward no trash for six months, today my old routines seem to be rather unnatural. It’s bizarre to package goods that may be used in one hour, day, week, or month in containers that will be on this earth for hundreds of years after they’re emptied. Stranger still is the fact that we are consistently encouraged and even pressured to take part in this unsustainable system.

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For the past six months I’ve been focused on an undertaking that I’ve been calling the No Trash Project. The goal: avoid purchasing anything in packaging and eliminate personal trash production. As this is my first blog entry, I’d like to explain the inspirations for this endeavor. When I think back, I can pinpoint a few key discoveries that led me to the big ‘all or nothing’ push.

First, many years ago I came to the realization that Rhode Island only recycles numbers 1 and 2 plastics and that all the other numbers I had been putting in my recycling bin had ended up in a landfill. I began to notice how many different kinds of plastics are used to package goods and was amazed by the volume of my routinely purchased products that were packaged with numbers 3 through 7 plastics. For the first time I really took notice of how many plastic components surrounding and encasing the goods that I purchased, that were not meant to be recycled at all. I was making far more trash than what I was carrying out in a trash bag every week.

Then came the all-important discovery of bulk grocery shopping. For years I had passed by the bulk sections in my local markets to shop the middle aisles, buying my cereal, grains, nuts, beans, flour, sugar, etc… in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Once in a while I turned to bulk to get a particular dried fruit that wasn’t on the shelf, or some trail mix that looked appetizing. I’d fill up the available plastic bags or the number 5 containers provided by the bins. Because of the guilt I felt over tossing out the containers, I began washing them at home and bringing them back to the store to refill. This was a real aha moment. Much like my reusable bag, here was a system that (if I remembered to bring my containers to the store) cut out a piece of trash. Soon I began to view the bulk section as a more prominent source for my dry grocery needs. Somewhat surprisingly, I discovered that bulk shopping even had an aesthetic appeal. With my food stored in clear containers on the countertop, rather than behind labels and packaging–tucked away in cabinets, ingredients looked more appetizing and inspired more cooking. Eventually I found myself wishing that more goods–even beyond the kitchen, were available to me in bulk.

A year ago, I attended an Action Speaks radio conference at AS220 about the 1987 roaming Mobro Garbage Barge. Three panelists spoke about the problem of where to put all the garbage we make, and whether or not recycling as we know it today, can even begin to curb the crisis. I remember being particularly struck by the comments of a young woman from the audience who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. She described growing up in a post-communist economy where out of necessity, everyone was “obsessed with recycling”. Glass milk, beer, and juice bottles were returned to the store to be used again. The conference prompted me to think a lot about the monetary cost of convenience.

Finally, in April I saw a news video online about a family of four (plus one dog) from Northern California, who after six months had just a handful of garbage to show for the waste in produced in their home. I was floored when I saw this story. The Johnsons have developed systems by which they consume food, hygiene, clothing, and other goods without carrying home the by-products that become garbage. After a glimpse of the Johnsons’ success, decided that I needed to go further.

Since April, I have been overhauling my lifestyle, implementing new shopping, cooking, and cleaning systems to produce as little trash as possible. Today, I can’t imagine ever turning back.

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