Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Never Thought of That

Today I had an experience that reaffirms my belief that no matter how long you've been learning about (or teaching) something, there's always something new for you to learn. I was browsing through articles on Crunchy Betty when I came across this one about using butter wrappers as an alternative to Pam or other cooking sprays. While this is a great idea for a basic kitchen trick, there were even more in the comments, primarily one relating to composting.

If you have problems with fruit flies or similar pests in your house, but don't want to make a trip out to the compost bin every time you have something to put in there, just keep a container in your freezer exclusively dedicated to compost material. Whenever you cook, keep it on the counter to toss things into, then pop it back into the freezer till you have time to make a trip out to your garden. By keeping the collection container in the freezer, you won't deal with any annoying insects or smells, but you can still benefit from all the joys of composting.

I love learning new things. Happy composting!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Compost Friendly Meals

My imaginary readers know that I write a zero waste baby steps blog that talks about how to manage a lifestyle that produces no garbage. Technically I produce waste, but the kind of waste that can be fed into a new life-cycle (everyone remembers technical and biological nutrients, right?). The main form of waste I produce is biological material. I go to the bathroom, I use water, I trim my hair and nails, but most of all, I eat.

When we think about it, cooking makes a lot of garbage. There are cans, bags, wrappers, ties, leftover food, and all the inedible bits that come off of unprocessed food like stems, pits, hulls, peels, and cores. However, garbage from unprocessed food can be composted, while packaged and processed food create waste that at best can be recycled, but at worst ends up entombed for eternity in a landfill. That last statement maybe was a little exaggerated, but really, processed, packaged food isn't good for the planet or you.

At first cooking with plants and whole food can seem complicated and unappetizing, but really it's a simple process that can often be a nice way to unwind after a long day. For example, last night I made my family lentils and rice, Colombian style. Look how yummers it was:

I know it doesn't look its best right now, but I ate it all before I remembered to photograph it, so here you see some of the lovely, package free tomatoes I used to make it, the leftover lentils (I always make twice as much as I need because I love having lentil leftovers), and the broth I spooned off the top which I will use tomorrow to make tomato--carrot soup.

To make it I cooked lentils, while caramelizing onions in a little olive oil. Then I shredded a couple of pounds of tomatoes into the onions, added my secret blend of herbs and spices (and by secret I mean I can't remember what I added because I wing it every time), then mixed the tomatoes and lentils together and let everything cook for a bit together while I spooned broth off the top (not normally part of the process, but I added too much water to the lentils and decided to make the best out of it). I cooked rice while this whole process was going on, then put the lentils on a bed of rice to serve.

Since I was able to buy the lentils and rice in bulk, this meant that aside from the glass jars the olive oil and spices came in, the meal was zero waste, except for the bits that were collected to be composted:

And there you have it, a healthy, zero waste meal that fed my family and my compost bin. I'm building a little collection of these types of recipes, and I promise to keep you updated on all the delicious news.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Friendly Holiday Reminder

As we are all gearing up for the big holiday season I'd like to offer a few reminders, mainly that a lot of holiday decorations and paraphernalia can be composted! I know it's like beating a dead horse, but this site is all about composting, so I don't feel too bad.

Carved pumpkins, homemade treats, and decorations made out of paper, cotton cloth, leaves, and wood can all be composted. Let's all make this a compostable haunting holiday. For those of you who know your neighbors (and so have shown them that you're not a crazy child-poisoner), consider giving out homemade treats like cookies, suckers, and popcorn balls. If you have a large neighborhood or aren't that outgoing, consider giving tea lights, coins, feathers, or other trinkets which will delight kids, give grown-up no worries, and are biodegradable or can be considered a technical nutrient.

It may be time-intensive, but try making all your treats this year from scratch. Get the whole family involved for a holiday activity that allows everyone to spend time together. Properly store any leftovers, but feel free to compost anything that doesn't get eaten, can't be eaten, or won't be eaten (cooking mistakes, anyone?). Try decorating with leaves, popcorn strings, or flower arrangements that can all be composted. The kids can paint or draw on newspaper, make construction paper cutouts, or form sculptures out of salt dough. All of these make creative, fun, and decorative crafts that can all be composted afterwards. You can even compost the turkey carcass, but try making a delicious broth from it first.

I love picking out gifts for people. I love the challenge of finding a person something they'll both love and use, and now I've given myself the challenge of getting them something earth-friendly as well. If you have the money, I recommend getting people a rotating compost bin, as a lot of my family would happily compost if they didn't perceive it as so work intensive. I've been saving up all year to get my parents and in-laws each one of these, but you can also make one yourself for much less money.
Other great Christmas gifts that are less preachy but still good for the environment include lunch containers, furoshiki wraps, second-hand books, and homemade food. While I spend a lot of time picking out the ideal gift for those high on my list, I like to make a big batch of cookies, candy, or nut mix and then individually portion them in compostable waxed bags for all of those who are on my list in big groups, like coworkers, classmates, and the neighborhood.
Remember that a lot of Christmas decorations can be compostable, like your wreaths, garlands, popcorn strings, and even your tree, though you'll want to chop it up first. Wrap your presents in painted newspaper or dyed tissue paper and all the wrappings can be composted as well (don't use tape).
The Christmas card exchange is a wonderful tradition, but there are a multitude of ways to make it earth friendly. You can make your own paper for the cards, send plantable seed cards, stamp your cards with a friendly reminder to recycle, or send the cards to receive to St. Jude's Ranch to be reused and support a good cause.

New Years Eve
Again, make all your decorations out of compostable material, or reuse decorations from last year. Serve drinks and goodies on your standard dinnerware or special occasion china rather than buying plastic utensils and cups. If you want the convenience of throwaway stuff, there's plenty of reusable and compostable options on the market. Just remember that most plastic goods claiming to be biodegradable actually aren't, so opt for things that will obviously break down in your compost bin.
When buying libations for your friends and family, opt for those in glass bottles that can be reused or recycled (If you can't find anyplace else, remember that Target recycles glass). Freeze any leftover wine for cooking if you like, but beer and wine can also be poured on your compost pile and will contribute a flood of good bacteria (the same bacteria that made that grape juice alcoholic in the first place).

I know the holiday rush can be overwhelming, but taking the few extra minutes to pick a compostable option will have a huge payout for your garden come spring, will greatly reduce the trash you have to cart to the curb, and will give you that warm feeling of doing good that we all love to have.

Happy holiday composting!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cradle to Cradle: Waste Equals Food

Not to burden you with too many book reviews in a row, but I just read Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and found one concept in their book particularly interesting. The book primarily addresses how products, buildings, and systems can be designed to be beneficial for the earth, the population, and the economy, rather than harmful or just "less bad". It doesn't deal much with composting, but their concept of technical vs. biological nutrients is incredibly relevant.

Ideally, in the human world we would treat our resources like the natural world, where everything cycles through different systems; the waste of one system is food for another. This isn't the case, even when one considers the growing recycling industry, but we could easily make it so by viewing all materials as either technical or biological nutrients. Biological nutrients are things that are compostable and can be fed back into the natural world as a nutritious, safe resource for plants and animals. Technical nutrients are things that can be fed back into the industrial system endlessly to be reused to make new products.

Currently our recycling system is flawed, as much of what we recycle is actually "down-cycled" into products of lesser quality. I definitely need to do more research on this subject, but basically the adding of dyes, paints, or solvents to a material contaminates it when it comes to future use. So if you have a green soda bottle, that plastic is still recyclable, but only as a different, usually lower-quality product.

There are exceptions to this, but system-wide we don't have a good method for recycling materials into products of equal quality and value. Even materials which should be easy to recycle, like metal, are often contaminated because of current recycling methods. For example, aluminum soda cans are often lined in plastic, and cars are crushed into a large block of material, rather than being disassembled to retrieve their copper, steel, and other resources.

I have a whole rant building on how we need to recycle better, design products and packaging with their reuse and recycling in mind, and how the plastics industry is particularly troublesome, but that's an article that needs a lot more thought, research, and calmer state of mind. So what I want to talk about is biological nutrients, and how important it is to separate them out from (what should be) technical nutrients.

As it stands now, unless you participate in some sort of recycling program, technical nutrients and biological nutrients are mixed together in your trash, then buried in the ground at a landfill where they are sealed off from soil and air. What this means is that even the biodegradable waste like banana peels and newspapers won't break down because the right aerobic (or air-loving) bacteria won't grow in this environment, and so there's nothing to facilitate the rotting, or composting, process. I wish every city had a composting program and was vigilant about separating out its waste, but this just isn't the case.

If the city won't do it, it's up to the citizens to make it happen. By all means write letters to your mayor, attend city council meetings, and make phone calls to your city's waste management department, but in the mean time, take matters into your own hands and start composting. Put everything you can into your home compost bin. If you know of neighbors or apartment dwellers who are unable to compost, offer your bin to them as well, it will only enrich your compost and make for a more beautiful world.

I think the idea of technical and biological nutrients is brilliant, and I intend to explore it further. But in the mean time, I know exactly what to do with all my biological nutrients to make sure they are returned safely and responsibly to the earth.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pet Poop Composter

If I had any readers at this point I imagine they'd want more information on how to make a pet poop composter. I mentioned this in my post of What to Compost, Even Though Most People Say You Shouldn't, but only briefly, so I thought I'd go more in depth on the subject. Also, if you're intrigued with the idea of composting to deal with humanure, but aren't quite comfortable with that yet, you can follow in my footsteps and start by composting animal poop first.

First things first, poop is something that needs to be composted outside. Indoor composting methods (to be covered soon, I promise, especially with winter coming) aren't recommended by this writer, at least not until more experimentation is completed in a successful manner. A lot of dog owners have a yard of some sort, but if this isn't the case for you, try engaging in a little bit of guerrilla composting by building your pet poop composter in an abandoned lot, earthy alleyway, under a camouflaging shrub, or in a friendly neighbor's yard. Only do that last one if your neighbor knows about it and agrees, otherwise you could end up explaining to a judge why composting trumps trespassing; it's true that the same situation could arise from any of the other spots, but those are usually less monitored, and so easier to get away with.

It's easiest to build a pet poop composter with an old trash can or some chicken wire. This isn't necessary, but it helps keep the pit from collapsing in on itself, as well as makes the finished compost easier to haul out. Cut the bottom out of the trash can (tin snips, also called aviator snips, work great for this), and drill or pound a lot of holes in the sides to promote drainage and interaction with the surrounding soil. Dig a hole a little deeper than your trash can or chicken wire. If you have heavy clay soil you'll want the hole to be a foot or more deep than your lining material, and then add some gravel to help with drainage. To tell if you have clay soil grab a handful of it when it's damp, roll it into a snake, and bend it into a 'U' shape. If you can do this without it breaking, you have clay soil. This method is stolen from the amazing Alys Fowler, who wrote a wonderful book on gardening and composting which you should definitely check out here.

If you're working with chicken wire, line the hole with it, keeping the wire level with the ground. For a trash can, sink it into the hole, but leave two inches sticking up above ground level to accommodate the lid. Now just collect all the animal waste in your yard/litter box/terrarium/cage/aquarium and dump it in. Some people like to throw a little septic starter in to promote healthy bacterial growth, but I just toss in a little topsoil and call it good.

I hadn't done much more than this in previous years, but after reading the humanure handbook I now cover the poopy up with leaves or grass clippings. This keeps the smell down, but also contributes much-needed carbon material to the nitrogen-rich animal leavings. It make for better compost, eliminates the extra step of mixing pet compost with regular compost for balance, and allows me to open the composter on the hottest of days with the freshest of turds and not have to worry about the stink. In the summer I like to water the bin, but I live in a desert, so this may not be necessary for those residing in moister climates.

If you used a trash can, just the leave the lid on when you're not adding material to the composter to keep people and animals from falling in. You can also cover the hole with some scrap lumber, a bit of old carpet, or leave it open, whichever appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities. I do recommend covering it or cordoning it off in some way, as my cute but clumsy shih tzu-poodle fell in once and made quite a mess afterwards while trying to get out. You may not have the same dog, but there are clumsy things everywhere who don't deserve to fall in what is essentially a giant toilet.

Poop does carry pathogens, so it's important to let the compost sit, undisturbed, for a year or more in order to make sure every thing dies off. I do this by building two composters, then filling one up while the other one sits for a while. If you are thermophilicly composting your pet poop, this waiting period is not necessary. You can take extra precaution by only using the resulting compost on horticultural gardens, rather than agricultural ones, but I've never had a problem as long as I've either let the compost sit for a year or put it through a thermophilic process.

Finally, it's important to put only biodegradable material in your pet poop composter. Of course any feces or urine is fine to go in, but make sure the collection method is also compostable. I use Biobags to collect dog droppings when we're on a walk, and have found that they compost just fine. If you have a cat, opt for cat litter made out of corn cobs, newspaper, saw dust, or wheat husks, as all of these materials work great in compost piles; sand, clay, and crystalline based kitty litters are a no-no as they can leach toxins and mess up your soil structure. Fish tank water is fine to pitch straight onto your garden (roses love it), but can also be poured into the pet poop composter. If you have hermit crabs or other small animals try lining their tank either with sawdust or coconut husks, as these are earth-friendly beddings that compost with ease.

As you can see, it will take an initial investment of effort build a pet poop composter, and requires developing some new habits when dealing with your pet's leavings, but once these routines are established I think you'll find dealing with pet waste a much easier, pleasanter, and rewarding task than it ever was before.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Composting Book Review: The Humanure Handbook

I just finished reading The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, and I highly recommend it, especially as you can download it for free if money is tight. I think it's worth the ten to twenty bucks to pay Mr. Jenkins for his wonderful work, but I know not all composters have the cash to spare.

The book primarily addresses how to compost human waste (poop and pee) in an environmentally responsible and safe manner. Jenkins has amassed a huge collection of scientific studies showing that pathogens will be completely eliminated in responsibly managed compost, and that composting "humanure", is often more effective at turning out a safe, usable product than standard sewage treatment facility procedures. Mr. Jenkins does a very good job over the course of the book at convincing "fecophobes" that humanure is safe for use in both horticultural and agricultural applications.

I particularly like the gradual build of subject matter in the book from an introduction to thermophilic composting, which leads to a review of studies on composting humanure, to an all-inclusive tutorial on how to collect, compost, and use humanure without odor, pests, or pathogens.

If I had to pick the most important idea Mr. Jenkins puts forth in his book, it's that human waste isn't really waste at all, it's a resource rich in nutrients that requires only a cheap, simple process to make safe for use all over the world. He has picked the term "humanure" to particularly highlight this fact and to move our collective mindset away from the idea of poop and urine as disgusting things, and more towards the understanding that these are natural byproducts of our bodies which would best be used to close the loop on food production.

The Humanure Handbook is written in a friendly, informative tone that's accurate without being boring, and provides a plethora of new ideas and concepts which become more convincing with each passing page. Best of all, the topic is addressed with not only common sense, but a sense of humour, something that's invaluable when talking about poo. You can obtain a copy of the book, in whatever format you like, through a page on Mr. Jenkin's official site here (the bolded book options are clickable).