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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?

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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.

 

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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??

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We have a lot of trash cans in our house. And I’m not just talking about having one in every room. There’s a recycling bin, a container for landfill trash, a compost bucket, a bin for compostable paper. The compostable paper one came into the mix just because our compost bucket was filling up way too fast. And since paper doesn’t smell bad, it doesn’t need to fill up the small bucket that’s designed to keep the smell from bad-smelling food waste contained until it’s taken outside to be composted.

Currently, it’s way too easy to just toss things into the landfill trash. It’s more easily located, first thing in the kitchen, and often, in my laziness, I plop little things in there that could go in the recycling or paper just because I don’t feel like walking  that far into the kitchen. “Just  this once,” I tell myself. “I usually do the right thing, but this little scrap is so small, it hardly matters.” And truthfully, it really doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean I can’t work on being better about it. It’s also about the principle of the matter. I’m being a hypocrite and I know I’m being a hypocrite. And for no reason other than I’m just feeling a little lazy at that particular moment, and letting myself off the hook by saying I’ll do it next time.

But I really wasn’t doing it next time either.

I tried posting a sign on the landfill trashcan, designed to be part reminder, part guilt-trip, and part informational for when we have guests over.

Overly dramatic SIGH. “Yes, I Can compost or recycle this little receipt.” and begrudgingly I would walk to the paper bin and deposit my little shred of paper. And that worked for a while, with the sign pushing me to do what I knew needed done but just didn’t want to do right then.

But lately, my response has been, “Yes, but I’ll do it next time.”

Am I really that lazy? Unfortunately, yes, I am sometimes.

Ok, now for a bit of background here. Really, we only take our landfill trash out about once a month, with Husband and now I making a game of how long we can hold out before the bag is full and needs to go out. And we keep track of it. Because I’m weird and I love to keep data about stuff. (Seriously. I have lots of lists tallying various data on a wide range of things in my life. I figure averages, make graphs, and plot data on just about everything. I know, it’s weird.) Actually, in 2011, we took our trash out a total of 10 times, so not even once a month. (Yes, I keep a list of when the trash went out, and I’m doing it this year too, so I can compare it with previous years. I should start weighing it and plot a graph by weight to see our progress…..)

So a few days ago, this obvious thought occurred to me. Given this fact about our trash almost never going out, WHY WHY WHY is that the receptacle that’s easiest to access in the kitchen? It seems like maybe that bin should be switched with the recycling bin and the trash put over where the recycle bin is now.

With a little reorganizing, I think I came up with something that will work much better than the system we had. And with some new and smaller bins, it doesn’t take up nearly as much space as before, looks nicer, and makes more sense. The recycling bin is now the easy-access bin by the kitchen entrance, with the others piled by the fridge, neatly labeled. It hasn’t been in place long enough for me to really evaluate how well it’s working, but it seems to have streamlined our trash process, all while maintaining my current level of laziness. Score!

Paper, landfill trash, and compost bin, neatly organized and labeled. The recycling trashcan (not pictured) is on the other side of the kitchen, for easier access.

And here’s one of Madeline, simply because she was trying so hard to make it into the pictures I was taking. Whenever there’s a camera out, she automatically assumes it must be to photograph her and comes running to pose for every picture.

How do you organize all the trash that needs to go to various places?

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