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All-Natural Rant

Ok. I have to rant for just a sec.

I work in a shop that sometimes gets door-to-door people in trying to market whatever they’re selling, and one day, some guy confidently came in with a question for me. “You’re a girl, so you must love makeup, right?”

I bit my tongue on most of what I wanted to say: that I’m a woman and not a child, that just because I’m female doesn’t make me genetically predisposed to love makeup, that I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with how I look currently that needs fixing, that my health is far more important to me than smearing carcinogens on my face every day is, that honestly, I like sleep much more than spending extra time on my appearance in the morning, and that anyone shallow enough to judge me on how I look or my choice to not use makeup doesn’t deserve the privilege of being a meaningful part of my life. I just merely replied that I don’t wear makeup because so much of it has so many terrible chemicals in it.

“But everything we carry is all natural!”

Not interested, thanks.

I can’t possibly roll my eyes back far enough in my head. All natural, huh? Yeah, sure it is.

I’m so tired of the phrase “all-natural” being touted (at least in the US anyway) as synonymous with “safe,” “healthy,” and “non-toxic.” Really tired of it.

Just because something is all-natural doesn’t mean it is safe, healthy, or non-toxic. All it means is that something is labeled as having been made from ingredients found in our natural world, and it doesn’t even mean that label has to be telling the truth if it’s outside the purview of the FDA. That doesn’t make them safe. Actually, legally that term (from solely a food standpoint, anyway) doesn’t really mean anything. Here’s what the FDA’s website has to say about the matter:

What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now this is all murky enough when it comes to food, but even more so when considering cosmetics, cleaning supplies, toys, food storage containers, clothing, and other things we come in close contact with for extended periods of time that can effect our health but that are outside of the domain of the FDA . Technically, lead is all-natural, mercury is all-natural, arsenic is all-natural, and the list goes on and on. None of these things are safe. I don’t want stuff like that in things I come in contact with. Heck, jalapenos are all-natural, but I still don’t want them in my face cream.

I’m not saying I want to live in a bubble. I don’t. I’m not even sure it’s possible to avoid everything I want to avoid. But as long as lead is still an ingredient in lipstick, but it’s still ok to be called “all-natural,” I think there’s a problem. To me, this isn’t about disclosure of ingredients on labels (because who knows what all those chemical names in cosmetics are anyway?), it’s about not putting toxic or potentially toxic ingredients in stuff in the first place. And about not conflating the label all-natural with safe.

I think the Story of Stuff sums it up a little better than my currently angry, emotional self can:

And the next over-confident, condescending, horrifyingly sexist guy to come in trying to sell their new makeup going to get an earful from me. 🙂

My mother gave me an old set of wooden dishes from when she and my dad were first married, and they had been looking pretty shabby and in need of polishing. For a while now, I’ve been meandering around on the internet looking for a good wood polish to keep these wooden dishes looking nice, and I stumbled across a recipe that does the trick without a whole lot of hassle. Just rub it on, leave it sit for 10-30 minutes, and wipe it off. I tweaked it a little to my own liking (I’m a tinker-er, what can I say??), but as I was using it, I found that it is great for so much more than just polishing my wooden bowls.

It also makes a great conditioner for leather shoes and gloves, a really nice balm for dry skin, and honestly, my hair has never looked better since I’ve started using this exclusively as my only hair gel/protection from split ends. As someone who does henna, it’s an absolutely wonderful post-henna balm, too. Add some thieves oil, and you’ve got a great homemade Vicks-style chest rub, or any kind of healing lotion that you can put wherever the infection is. (Thieves oil is absolutely amazing, too, but that’s another post for another time…) This stuff is an awesome everything balm.

I just don’t know what to call it, since I use it for everything. And “Everything Balm” sounds weird. What to do, what to do…..

The good news is that it’s super easy to make, especially if you’ve made my lip balm recipe before, as it’s very similar.

Here’s what you need:

  • 2 Tbsp finely grated beeswax
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 capsule vitamin E oil
  • Popsicle stick to stir
  • 4-oz glass Ball jar

As far as grating the beeswax goes, it’s not a good idea to use a grater that you ever plan on using for food again–beeswax is hard to get cleaned off. Trust me on that one. I have a grater I use specifically for grating soap, beeswax, and other things I don’t want on the grater I use for food. Also, make sure your wax 100% beeswax, without paraffin or anything else in it. Beeswax is a bit on the pricey side, but it is definitely worth it.

Place the grated beeswax into your small glass jar (a 4 oz Ball jar will be just the perfect size for one batch) and place it in a pan of water on the stove. Use your jar as the double boiler, but there’s no need to really boil the water below. You just need to heat everything until the beeswax all melts. It needs to be fully melted: no clumps, no bumps, just smooth liquid. When it’s completely melted, add the coconut oil and melt that fully, too. Add olive oil and vitamin E oil. Mix well. Remove from heat, and that’s it! You’ll just need to let it cool a bit before putting the lid on.

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Almost all melted…

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Finished and cooled, well-loved (and almost gone) mixture

What I like about this is that the beeswax is melted in the container you’re already going to store it in. Melted beeswax is a pain to clean out of a pan, but this is completely no-mess. Not even a single dish needs washed afterward!

Now, the only question I have is what to call it…..

What do you think? What would YOU call it?

Well, folks, today is the day. The day I finally dumped dirt—yes real dirt (well, mostly)—out of my compost bin.

People always think it’s daunting, hard and complicated to compost. But it’s really not. It just takes a quick, relatively inexpensive trip to your local hardware store ($40 or less), a little bit of time to make your compost bin (an hour or less), and a few new habits (like saving food scraps in a separate container, getting used to what’s compostable, and turning the bin once in a while). Oh, and a bit of outside yard space.

If you’re not sure where to start, this is an excellent video, and it’s exactly what I referred to when I started my bin. It’s super helpful…go watch it!

You will need:

  • A giant plastic trashcan and lid
  • A drill and ¼-inch drill bit (the video recommends pounding holes with hammer and nail, but that takes forever. Just use a drill.)
  • A couple of cinder blocks or something else to lift your bin off the ground circulation (mine is up on an overturned milk crate, which works fine, too).
  • I also recommend a few bungee cords to hold the lid on your can. Otherwise, the lid comes off when you try to roll it. Not fun.

Use the drill to poke holes all over the sides of the bin. Mount it up on the cinder blocks and secure the lid on top with the bungee cords. After you’ve added your material to the bin, it will need turned about once a week, and turning is as easy as rolling the bin on its side around your yard for a few minutes.

Actually, I recommend making two of these bins. I’ve found that if I keep adding stuff to one of them, it never is able to fully break down. So when one is full, I trade bins so the full one has time to be left alone to decompose (but still turned regularly). The theory is that by the time the second one is full and ready to be left alone, the first one will be ready to be emptied of freshly made mulch and ready to start the process again. That mostly worked for me, but after a while I just have to trade them when one is full. As the contents break down, they take up much less space, making room for more.

Here is what my setup looks like:

Now, I know they say that your fresh, ready-to-use compost will be ready in 4-8 weeks if you follow all the instructions and do everything just right, but I’m here to tell you that even if you do absolutely everything WRONG in almost every possible way, you’ll still get good compost…..eventually. Mine took maybe about two years or so. I think. I don’t know for sure, I lost track. I almost never turned it, didn’t always have a good balance of materials (more on that later, keep reading), and didn’t do anything with it in the winter time. If you’re going to be lazy like me, truly no-hassle compost takes a bit (or a lot) more time. But it does work.

But even before you start out with lazy composting (like me), there are still a few things you should know first.

With composting, items are classified into two categories: carbon-rich “brown material” and nitrogen-rich “green material.” For a healthy (read: faster and without a strong stench) composting process, you’ll want to balance your browns and greens. Some websites out there say you need equal amounts, and some say you need more brown than green, even up to twice as much. I don’t keep exact tabs on mine, I just make sure to add enough brown so it seems to balance out all the food scraps. Trust me, your bin will let you know if it’s out of balance (it will stink to high heavens). Just take a deep breath (before you take the lid off!), add some more brown material, and mix it in as best you can. That helps.

Ok, so what’s green, what’s brown, and what CAN go in the bin?

Brown (carbon-rich) material:

  • Cardboard (shredded)
  • Office paper and junk mail (shredded, remove the plastic envelope windows)
  • Newspaper (shredded)
  • Wood shavings/wood chips
  • Sawdust
  • Leaves
  • Straw/hay
  • Pine needles
  • Wood ash
  • Corncobs and husks
  • Dryer lint

Green (nitrogen-rich) material:

  • Fruit peels, cores, pits, rinds, and scraps
  • Veggie peels and scraps
  • Any overripe or moldy produce
  • Tea bags (remove any staples)
  • Coffee grinds and filters
  • Grass clippings
  • Weeds
  • Flowers and clippings

Not sure whether green or brown, but still OK to put in:

  • Egg shells (crush first for faster breakdown)
  • Breads (donuts, pizza crusts, crackers, pasta, anything made from flour)
  • Grains, cooked or uncooked
  • Old spices
  • Expired boxed foods
  • Vacuum bag contents
  • Hair and nail clippings

What shouldn’t go in the bin?

  • No meat or dairy products should ever go in your bin. This includes meat, fish, animal fat, bones, and pet/animal feces, as well as any kind of cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, sour cream eggs, etc.  Adding any of these items will make it smell bad (like really, really bad!), attract maggots, and attract all kinds of other critters, large and small. Certain kinds of cat litter may be ok (you’ll have to read the label), but only the litter. You’ll still need to scoop the feces out. Basically, if it came from an animal, it shouldn’t go in your bin. Eggshells are about the only exception to this rule.
  • Also, you don’t want to put excessive amounts of cooking oils in either.

Other helpful hints:

  • Keep your bin in the sun, if you can. Warmth makes for faster breakdown.
  • Chop or shred materials before adding them. The smaller they are when they go in, the faster they will break down.
  • The more often you turn you compost, the faster it will break down.
  • If it’s dry, water it. You want to keep it moist, but not dripping.
  • Once you have some soil start to develop (or if you start with some soil in it) adding some worms will also help material break down much faster.

The most important thing here is that you don’t have to be an expert to compost your food scraps. Nature has been composting without fancy plastic bins since pretty much the beginning of time. She doesn’t really need our help, but there are certain things we can do to help speed the process a bit.

I’m not an expert. Heck, I think I’m a great example of what not to do when you’re trying to compost, but I still get an ok result. What I like best is that our trash doesn’t stink (because there’s no food scraps in there anymore) and we hardly have to take it out anymore, between composting and recycling. And diverting compostable food waste from incinerators and land fills is one of the single most important things we can do for waste disposal in general. I wrote about that earlier when I toured my local incineration facility. What I remember most is that they estimated 40-70% of everything they process is stuff that shouldn’t be there, be it recyclables, or food waste. That’s huge. And we should all be doing our part to decrease that number.

I think I’ll save the easy and convenient kitchen habits I’ve figured out for a later post.

So….does anyone compost? Who’s got tips, tricks, and any more advice?

A while ago, I started making homemade cat food for my cat. It took her a while to really like it (she doesn’t do well with change) but now she hangs around the kitchen when she knows I’m making it to be sure she gets a scoop of it when it’s freshly made. She absolutely loves this stuff.

I got the inspiration from Beth Terry’s My Plastic Free Life blog post about her own homemade cat food, and decided to give it a try for myself. I was not only looking to reduce our waste in terms of cans, but I wanted to give our cat a healthy food that wasn’t made from corn and grain products and processed junk. When we adopted her, they recommended a balance of wet and dry food for her, and we were having trouble finding a wet food she could eat. Up to this point, Maddie would get sick if she ate anything processed we tried. She would scarf it down at first, then get sick. And then she wouldn’t eat any more of that kind. Ever. After going through several brands/kinds/flavors of wet food, this was the last thing I could try.

So I went to the BalanceIT website, put in all of Madeline’s info, chose my base ingredients (I chose chicken and white potatoes) and got a recipe and vitamin supplement from them.

I have tweaked the recipe a bit, and did the math so I can make about 2 weeks worth of food at a time.  She still gets dry food as well, so this wet food I make is really just a bit of a supplement to that. I divide it into jars, with about 3 days worth per jar. They freeze ok, but keep in the fridge for only about 3-5 days. So when the fridge jar is empty, we replace it with another one from the freezer. She gets a little bowl of it every morning. Apparently, it’s good enough to make it worth begging for, starting at about 4am.

Recently, my sister was thinking about trying it out for her cat, so I shared my recipe with her, just to see if her cat would like it before she made the investment. I gave her a bit of the supplement powder, she made a big batch from my tweaked recipe, and her cat absolutely wouldn’t touch it. Quinn apparently is a dry food kind of kitty.

The next time my sister came to visit, she brought her batch of cat food with her, so it wouldn’t go to waste. I was just about out of Maddie’s current batch, so it was perfect timing. The next morning, after her ritualistic begging for several hours, Maddie was served Sister’s food. And she wouldn’t touch it. She kept begging, acting like we were hiding her good food away somewhere else.

As the days went by, she grew more and more desperate for her old food (even though this stuff was the same!) and more adamant that we had some of the good stuff and were keeping it from her. I dare say we threw a good portion of it out because she just wouldn’t eat it. Even though it was the same food, from the same recipe.

Now, I know people who say it’s important to buy veggies from a farmer’s market, where you can get to know the people who grow your food. I think this might be how my cat is now: she won’t eat her food unless she knows the cook and is present to monitor the cooking process. I can’t think of any other reason.

So today was the day. Sister’s batch has run out and I started making a fresh batch for for Maddie. She was just about the happiest cat ever. She licked out the tuna can and the chicken container (quality control for freshness), and sat in the kitchen monitoring the potatoes as they boiled. She oversaw me adding the oil and vitamin supplement, mashing the potatoes, and stirring the meat in. And she sat by her bowl waiting for that fresh, hot scoop. When it was served, she dove in. Success.

And after a nice hot meal of her favorite food, a very happy Maddie went to take a nap.

Carpet freshener makes the whole room smell fresh and clean. Maybe it’s not a total necessity, but it’s nice to have. The good news is that it’s super easy to make.

Save an old parmesan cheese container, and fill it mostly with baking soda. Then, dump it back out into a bowl. This is so it’s easier to mix everything up. Shaking it all up in the same container doesn’t distribute the essential oils as well. In the bowl, shake some dried cloves, dried nutmeg, and about 20-25 drops tea tree oil. Stir well, and pour back into the shaker container.

Shake onto carpets, leave sit for about 5 min or so, and vacuum. (I’m going to assume this would work well on furniture/mattresses as well, but I haven’t tried it yet.)

There truly are a ton of tweaks of this on the internet, so play around with it to get a scent/texture you like. Some people put cinnamon in as well, or skip the spices and just use essential oils they like, or just use plain baking soda. If you’ve got light colored carpets, you may want to forgo the dark spices. I’ve got a light-ish speckled berber, and it doesn’t show, but if I had all white, I might not want to risk it.

As for the base, baking soda is good at neutralizing odors, but there’s some info out there that it doesn’t play nice with hepa filters on vacuums. I’ve got an older vacuum that uses a bag, so I don’t have to worry about that. Basically, the baking soda’s powder is too fine and clogs up the hepa filter, I think. Other sites suggest using cornmeal instead of baking soda if you’ve got a vacuum with a hepa filter, but I haven’t tried it, so I can’t vouch for whether that works. I’m not sure if cornmeal absorbs odors the way baking soda does, or if it simply acts as a way to dilute and spread out the essential oil scent.

Also, some sites recommend adding borax to the mix as well. I would suggest a bit of caution for this. While borax does occur naturally in the environment (hence it’s “all-natural” label), that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to use in high quantities around pets and children. It’s not good to breathe in, and it irritates eyes in powder form. While I use it in my laundry soap and to sprinkle in the toilet to clean it, I certainly wouldn’t want to use it in my carpet powder. To me, there’s a difference between diluting it in water to use it and using it straight from the box.

Anyone else have any good carpet freshening suggestions?

Popcorn is one of those things. I really like it, but it comes with a lot of waste and lots of unhealthy additives, preservatives, and who-knows-what else. And so I don’t buy it. But I still miss having popcorn once in a while.

I never wanted another appliance (like a popcorn popper) to store that I’ll hardly ever use, and popping popcorn on the stove sounds annoying. But I recently found that it’s super easy to make popcorn in the microwave, without the necessity of it being processed, pre-packaged, and sold in individual envelopes with that weird plastic foil thing inside. (What is that thing anyway?) It comes out just like microwave popcorn, but a whole lot cheaper, with less waste, and (presumably?) a bit more healthy. But watch out, it’s just as addictive!

You’ll need:

  • A regular paper bag. Not a huge one, but maybe the next size up from the small lunch-sized one.
  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. salt

Place the oil, salt, and kernels in the paper bag, fold it over a few times and microwave for about 3-5 min or so, until it sounds done, just as you would with regular microwave popcorn.

That’s really it.

And, instead of just settling for whatever comes in the package from the store, you can experiment and tinker with it when you make your own (which I find fun). I made a batch last night with rosemary and parmesan cheese in the bag too, and it came out really great. I also drizzle a bit of melted butter overtop.

Yum!

As far as waste, you’ll still have the plastic bag the corn kernels came in, unless you can buy them in bulk somewhere. And the paper bag too, which after being coated with oil won’t be recyclable. But it’s still compostable. And you can reuse it a couple of times, as long as you can store in somewhere it won’t pick up dirt/dust, or get moldy, but I wouldn’t want to keep it more than a day or two.

My Quilting Hobby

I thought I’d fill you all in on what I’ve been doing, since I haven’t been posting all that often anymore. So here it is, a little glimpse into my hobby of making mini quilts.

In Flight, 13 x 19 inches

Snowflake, 13″ x 13″

Harbor Light, 13″ x 9″

Birch Trees, 14″ x 9″ (adorned with real birch leaves, dipped in copper and gold plated)

A Walk in Capitol Square, 17″ x 14.5″

“Tin Goose over South Bass Island” 12 x 12

And a few unfinished works in progress:

Dancer, 11″ x 10″

Violet, 10″ x 14″

Maddie even let me take 2 whole pictures before jumping into the frame!

I’ve kicked the plastic bag habit, but there’s always the occasional plastic bag that gets into my house. I swear, it’s like an infestation or something, I don’t know how those things get in! Anyway, instead of just carting them off to the grocery store to be recycled, I thought maybe I could cut them into strips and crochet something out of them.

I’ve been needing a new bathmat in the bathroom, and I thought this would work perfectly. Easy to make, easy to clean, it would dry fast, it would be free, and best of all, it would divert something out of the waste stream.

It’s really quite easy to prepare plastic bags to be crocheted. There’s even a nifty way to hook the bag strips together without having to tie any bulky knots.

First, take your plastic bag and fold or roll it so the handles are at one end, and the bottom at the other.

Then, cut it into strips 1-2 inches wide, like this. Each strip will open up to a loop, and that’s exactly what you want. Don’t cut the loops open! You will have to discard the handles and the sealed strip at the bottom of the bag.

Open up the loops, and pull one through the other one, about halfway, so now you have two small loops.

Take one of the ends of the loop and pull it through the one on the other end. Basically, loop it through itself. It will look like this:

Pull it tight, and there you have it!

Continue the process by looping another one on the end, and in no time, you’ll have a giant ball of plastic, ready to be made into something new.

So I started crocheting. And….I blew through my stash of plastic bags. This thing has been quite a while in-the-making, since I just don’t accumulate plastic bags that quickly. That’s a good thing, but this half-finished rug lying around my living room has been starting to annoy me.

Enter: Madeline, my cat.

Something I have to tell you about Maddie: I don’t know why, but apparently, she loves plastic, and she’s been absolutely loving my rug-in-progress. Seriously. Husband and I were laying in bed the other night and wondering about the rustling sound we were hearing from the living room, along with cat howls. In the morning, we found my plastic rug, in a pile in the dining room. She drags it around at night and howls (with joy??). Since I didn’t have enough plastic to make a rug anyway, I went ahead and just finished it as a cat-sized little square for her.

Behold, the happiest cat ever, pictured with her new bed.

But I still don’t have a rug! So when we took down all the plastic window sealer, I started cutting that up into strips and crocheting with it. (As a side note, I hate that we have to seal our windows with plastic every year, but that’s the best solution for us right now. As much as I’d love to just replace all the windows, that’s a task for our landlord.) That clear plastic film in rug form actually looks nice! It gives off a bit of silvery shine and makes a thick mat. But given that I used all the plastic from all the windows and it’s not nearly as big as I want, it might take me about 3 years to finish it 🙂 And in the mean time, I just have to get my cat to NOT steal it….

This was a bit more time-consuming to work with, because when you cut it up it doesn’t make nice loops that you can hook together. I tried cutting it into a spiral shape, and that didn’t work at all. The plastic tore apart at every curve or corner. So I ended up cutting each piece into the longest strips possible and just tying them together. Yeah, it was a bit of a pain, but it gives another use to something that we usually throw away every year. And that makes it worth the trouble.

Here it is as I was just starting out:

And here it is now. Madeline comes running every time the camera comes out, and the fact that I brought my other plastic rug out of the closet was an added bonus. This was the best I could do, a blur of a cat running to get in the picture:

And a few of the happy kitty, just for good measure. She does try so hard to be in every picture, after all.

 

Recently, I toured my local recycling facility to see how it all works, and it inspired me to think about where all the REST of our trash goes. Around the Greater Boston area, (where space is a premium) almost all of the trash from around here is incinerated, sending the ash to a local landfill.

And guess what? I got to go on a tour of the local waste-to-energy trash incinerator in Saugus, MA.

I have to say, I wasn’t really thinking I’d learn much. I mean it’s just a fire, right? The stuff burns until there’s only ash left and it’s buried. Simple, right? Well, I found there’s a bit more to it than that. And just having the opportunity to see the process in motion made a big difference. And let me tell you, that fire is friggin hot! Even through the super-thick, tiny viewing glass (which was sort of like peering through a welding mask) it felt really hot on my face. They told me they maintain the fire at about 2200-2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and you could really feel it through the reinforced walls and everything.

Here’s a short animation from their website that explains how it all works. This makes much more sense than any long-winded descriptions I could offer. It’s a great little video, showing how the trash gets into the burning room itself, how the metals are sorted out, and how the gas is “scrubbed” afterward to meet air quality regulations.

Additionally, they have an ash landfill on site, so they don’t have to take the waste all that far. They told us that they reduce the size of the incoming trash by 90% which is nothing to sneeze at. Another upside was that the power generated (in the form of steam that runs turbines, I think) powers the whole plant, with plenty of energy leftover that they sell to the local electricity company.

Maybe one of the reasons I originally didn’t feel it was necessary to see this facility along with the recycling plant was the lack of the feel-good component. There’s nothing good that comes from this. It doesn’t get sent somewhere else so we can use it again. We’re left with a pile of super-toxic ash that needs disposed of in a landfill that (we hope) won’t contaminate the groundwater, affect local wildlife, or harm people around it.

But I’m really glad I went. Just seeing the sheer volume of garbage in person is an image that will haunt me for quite a long time.

For our waste, this is the end of the line. There’s nothing else, nowhere else for this to go. They process 1500 tons of trash per day, and that’s only off the top of the mountain waiting to be incinerated, all while a steady flow of trash trucks shows up to dump more constantly. Their little animation video shows that giant “claw thing” lowering all the way down to the floor to grab a load of garbage, but in reality, it only had to scoop from the top of the pile near the ceiling, 200 feet above the ground.

What really bugged me the most was to see so much stuff that had so much potential. Lots of recyclables, pieces of furniture that could have been reused or refurbished, so much stuff that could have gone around again, that could have served another purpose. And once it’s ash, it’s ash. There’s no more reusability, no more use that can come from it. It is a true last resort for disposal.

Ok, enough of the depressing stuff. I asked our tour guide (who also works there) for a list of his top 5 things he should never have to see coming into this facility and being fed into the incineration rooms. I was very surprised to hear they really don’t have a problem with hazardous materials, electronics, or large appliances coming through. He said those would definitely be on the lets-never-see-them list, but he didn’t feel it was necessary to list them because they weren’t really a problem.

So what were the items they see a lot of but shouldn’t have to deal with? They were all completely obvious things, but it was still staggering to see so much of those very items going through the system, just in the short time I was there.

  • Food scraps: Food scraps, because they’re over 90% water don’t burn very well and sap energy from the fire. They’re way better off being composted. It’s ridiculous to dispose of food waste any other way. (I keep meaning to write a post on how easy composting is, but sometimes I don’t even know what to say. Put food scraps in a pile outside and they’ll turn into dirt. That’s basically it.)
  • Metals and Glass: Metals and glass don’t burn. With metals, it takes a lot of energy to melt them, and I mean a lot, and it slows their system down just to send the stuff to a recycler anyway. Metal and glass both have a very high resale value and can easily be remade into other useful things. There is absolutely no reason to dispose of them through incineration.
  • Paper/cardboard and recyclable plastics: Recycling is a much better use for stuff like this because it has reuse/recycle value. Again, why burn and waste what someone else will pay money for so they can make it into something else? Yes, paper products burn well, but then they can’t be used a second time around or more.

So basically, it doesn’t make sense to burn things that don’t burn, it doesn’t make sense to burn things which can be used again and again, and it doesn’t make sense to burn food scraps that can be composted to make valuable topsoil. The longer we can keep the same things going around, the better. Duh.

So how big of a problem are those things? They estimated about 40-70% of their incoming trash was either recyclable or food waste. Yeah, you read that right. 40-70% of what they process shouldn’t even be there in the first place. I’d say that’s a pretty good starting point for improving things: getting every town to offer a recycling program, and getting people to put their recyclables in the right place.

I asked if people really did recycle all of that stuff if there wouldn’t be a need for their plant anymore, and if anyone would have to worry about that. Nobody at the plant hesitated with their solid  “no.” There’s always more trash out there. They run their facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can’t keep up with the incoming trash. And they only have contracts with 14 surrounding communities. There’s more than enough to go around, and not enough time in the day to process it all.

I couldn’t help but think about the recycling facility down the road that is crying for more material to sort, sell, and recycle, all while valuable materials are burned to ash and buried in a landfill (around which a wildlife refuge was designated).

If nothing more, it’s made me think harder about what exactly I throw away. Do I really not have any other use for that? Am I sure I need to throw that away? Do I really need to buy this? Can I buy another option with less packaging? Now that I know where it all goes and saw it firsthand, I don’t want to contribute to that anymore.

Anyone have any other thoughts? Have you given any thought to reducing your trash? What changes have you made (or plan on making) to reduce your trash? How can we get more people to recycle??

The hard part about recycling–and waste disposal in general–is that we never get any feedback. If we’re doing something that doesn’t work for the disposal system, we have almost no way of ever knowing that we’re even doing anything wrong, let alone given a chance to improve.

And I, for one, have a million questions about the details of the whys and hows.

Why ISN’T styrofoam recyclable, even though it’s labeled as #6? I really can’t just toss it in, and it will make its way to the right place? Why do the plastic bags have to be recycled at the grocery store separately rather than going in the recycle bin, even though they’re #2 plastic? Is it better to leave the lids on plastic bottles or off? Does it matter if we take the labels off things? Exactly how much peanut butter do I need to rinse out of the jar before tossing it? Should I flatten cardboard and smash bottles before tossing them?

I like to know the details, because realistically, someone–a person, a human being, an employee of the plant–has to sort it out when we don’t do something right. And I’d like to know what I can do make that person’s job just a little bit better.

My visit to the local materials recovery facility allowed me (as well as others on the tour) the opportunity to ask just those kinds of questions. And what I learned was very interesting.

Surprisingly, the machines sort the stuff pretty well. This particular plant just upgraded to some state of the art sorting equipment, which made the job of hand sorting much, much easier. What kept recurring in our conversations was that the lack of education (or plain laziness) of patrons, concerning what can be recycled, clogs the system at every turn. Their biggest problem is that the equipment can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to only put in our recycle bins what’s meant to go in the bins.

That’s mainly why they need quality control staff in the first place. And as I looked down the pit into the piles of inappropriate things they pulled out, I could see they weren’t kidding. A mangled shopping cart, crutches, a broken wheelchair, old stained pillows, and countless plastic bags, sheet plastic, styrofoam, and more were being sorted into piles for disposal outside of their facility.

Any time something that’s not meant for their system gets in, it slows down the whole process. They have to take the time to pull it out manually, and if they miss it, it could jam the machinery down the line, or affect the quality of the baled materials they’re selling, affect the resale value of those bales, and even affect the quality of the materials remade from those recovered materials, if they’re “tainted” with pieces of things that aren’t supposed to be there.

So as for some of my questions earlier, I got the opportunity to ask! And I got some good feedback.

Regarding plastic bags, they’re one of the worst things for the whole plant. Not only can the equipment not process them, but they routinely get sucked into the machinery, jamming it. It actually breaks the gears and can compromise the whole plant’s ability to process anything at all. They wreak havoc on the system at every turn. If there was only one main thing the plant workers could ask everyone to do, it would be to NOT put any plastic bags of any kind into the recycling. That includes sheet plastic, plastic wrap, bubble wrap, those air pocket things used in shipping (even though they say right on the bag they can be recycled), and any kind of plastic grocery or storage bags.

Styrofoam is too light to be sorted properly, and it doesn’t have much any resale value, it’s just not profitable to process, and it’s difficult to remake it into much else. They said that it’s much better to try to get people to stop producing, buying, using, and disposing of styrofoam in the first place rather than trying to make it into something else. (I tend to think that about single-use disposable containers in general, but…..that’s a discussion for another time.) Additionally, paper or cardboard are much better alternatives to styrofoam in just about every instance.

Shredded paper is too small to go through the sort process–literally falling through the cracks onto the floor–and will get swept into the trash. They CAN process shredded paper, but it should be tied in a clear bag and labeled so the hand sorters can see what it is and can pull it out and place it with the paper. This can be the ONLY exception to the no plastic bags rule. Putting it in a paper bag or other type of container is fine, just make sure it’s clearly labeled that it’s shredded paper, otherwise they just have to tear it open to make sure it’s not everyday trash. (Once it’s torn open, you can guess what happens from there…scattered on the floor to be disposed of elsewhere.)

Same with lids of bottles and other tiny bits of material: the machinery just isn’t designed to sort small pieces. Lids have a much better chance of getting to where they are going if they stay attached to the bottles. And if the bottles are smashed before the lids are put on, it makes even more likely that they’ll both make it to where they’re going. I heard lots of “POP” sounds from lids blowing off plastic bottles as they were run over by bulldozers and such as they were being pushed toward the entry conveyor. I imagine that also affects the safety of the workers down there too. No one wants to get hit by a jet-propelled plastic cap. And while receiving 400-700 tons of recycling material per day, I imagine the fact that it just plain takes up less space makes a big difference too.

Here’s a shot of the floor, in case you’re mildly curious about what falls through the cracks…

Paper labels should come off so they will get sorted into the paper rather than heading off with the glass, tin, or plastic container they’re attached to. This cuts down on contamination in the final bales of material.

Now as for the giant pieces of metal, while the system can’t process it, they end up with so much of it, the facility itself carts it to scrap metal places for cash. They said they’re not really thrilled to have to pull it out manually, but it is a source of extra revenue for them. And they were really pulling a bunch of it out. The problem with that is it takes more human power to do that. And it can impact both the machinery and the finished baled products if it doesn’t get all pulled out by hand in the first stage of sorting. I can imagine they get a pretty good chunk of change from all that stuff, that bin was enormous:

The best thing to keep in mind is what I mentioned earlier, that the system can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. Otherwise, the sorting system works quite well. And it would work even better if we could all make sure to do the best we can to put into the system only what was supposed to be there.

So go back and take a second look at your neighborhood’s collection policy. Check with your recycling coordinator if you have specific questions, or ask them what facility handles the recycling and contact them directly. They can’t make their recycling system  better without our informed efforts.

It was a little challenging to take pictures during the tour portion, as it was important to keep moving and stay with the group, but I have a few to share. Enjoy!

The first step: onto the tipping floor.

Everything is then pushed toward the entry conveyor to start the sorting process.

After everything has been sorted, it is fed into this machine and baled. The baler was spitting out a long line of paper bales when I was there.

Forklifts arrange the bales into sections according to material.

It looked like a warehouse in there, piled high with bales. The nicest-smelling section was the one with all the laundry detergent container bales.

A close-up of an aluminum bale.