Tag Archives | food scraps

New Roomies

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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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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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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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Milestone

It’s been exactly one year since I started this blog. Posting about my daily No Trash adventures—however large or small, has become an important ritual in my life. Dialogue with friends and readers about the project renews my resolve to continue sharing my experiences on this platform. Thank you to everyone for your interest, your inquiries, and your encouragement.

Tonight I shared a delicious meal with a friend at a Cantonese restaurant in Toronto. My meal was pretty large so I scraped what I couldn’t finish into my stainless steel lunchbox, which I had toted around the city during the day. It’s lightweight and this particular box doesn’t take up much space. The rectangular shape fits nicely in my backpack. It’s become one of my favorite objects. I’m looking forward to eating these leftovers for lunch tomorrow!

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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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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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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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