Sunday, September 11, 2011

Waste not, want not.

The house I live in is found a little more than a stone’s throw from downtown San Marcos Sierras. Distance has its consequences. It means I’m happily and peacefully isolated in my own little project haven. It also means that we aren’t frequented by garbage collectors… meaning that all the trash we produce is our responsibility. This presents a serious question: if we don’t want to be waist-deep in waste, what do we do with our trash??

Sure, we could load it all into bags, cart them into town and have them magically disappear. That would be the easy option. But have you ever stopped to think about what happens to your trash once it disappears from your doorstep?

If you live in Argentina, it is most likely discarded onto the ever-growing piles of trash known as the local dump. The plastic, Styrofoam, glass, wood, paper, metal and organic material are then left to sit and think about their existence. Everything is mixed together. The organic material, due to lack of oxygen, then begins to ferment, producing a very unpleasant odor. Then the wind picks up and carries whatever it can into the countryside. The plastic bags cling to trees in desperation. The soda bottles await their fate in roadside ditches. Candy wrappers are whisked into streams, rivers, lakes, and lagoons. Decorating the beautiful countryside, people’s back yards, and city streets with trash.

Or… It is sometimes lit on fire and burned. Mmmmm….

If you live in the United States, it is mostly likely dumped into a landfill or the ocean.

Tada! No more garbage!

But I say, no thank you! I don’t want to participate in that destruction of natural resources. I want to be able to walk through the mountains and not see a wine bottle or a crumpled bag of potato chips. I want to be able to swim in water that isn’t contaminated. I want to be able to breathe air that is transparent. I want to continue cultivating the earth and drinking waters from the streams. And, even if you aren’t as hippie-idealed as I am, perhaps you can agree with me that accumulation of trash can have negative impacts on us and the world around us.

Sure, we can talk about recycling. But recycling requires recycling plants, fossil fuel burning transportation and processing. And, yes, it may to more good than harm… but why not, instead, concentrate on consumption patterns? Why do we create so much trash? Perhaps it would be more effective if, instead of treating the symptoms of the problem, we figure out the source. Once we have the core, the origin of the issue, we can work to find the solution.

Look at each and everything thing that you throw out. And imagine how it would be to take responsibility for that trash. To cohabitate with it. To confront its existence and your role in bringing to reside in your possession. What would you DO with such material? Every candy wrapper. Every bottle of potable liquid beverage. Every sheet of paper. Every yogurt container. Milk carton. Piece of clothing. Tin can. Everything! Everything everything! Everything we consume, and then throw away, results in a huge quantity of primarily unbiodegradable crap.

One simple solution, consume less. Produce more. Make homemade! Things are easily made in your kitchen, bathroom, back yard. Don’t be tricked into believing that they can only be bought in the supermarket. That’s what marketers want you to believe. So many things from edibles to ant repellants can be made with a little research, your own hands, and a few minutes. Don’t have enough time? Turn off your television. Or your smart phone. You’ll discover you have more time than you thought.

And… if you do consume, try to buy local and without a lot of packaging. Bring your own Tupperware, or plastic bag, or jar to the store for your milk, honey, flour, and rice. Here in San Marcos I’ve joined a community-organized purchasing collective. Great way to meet the neighbors, save pesos on ingredients I use every day, and never set foot in a supermarket.

Once you’ve reduced the waste that you produce… now what do you do with the things you DO throw out?

We separate the organic from the inorganic. All organic (veggie kitchen scraps minus the citric, meat and dairy) become pet food.

Pets? Yes.

I have acquired, and now feel a compelling responsibility to care for, my new pets. Well, they pretty much care for themselves; my job is to make sure that they are well fed, that their environment retains a certain level of moisture, and that they are happy.

Not only are my pets emotionally satisfying, they are of the functional variety as well. They digest organic kitchen scraps and poop out rich organic matter that is very useful for gardening. They are very low maintenance and require very little care. They pretty much keep to themselves. True, they aren’t cuddly or fuzzy. They are fairly shy. They are awesome.

If you haven’t considered wiggly squiggly worm pets, I urge you to entertain the idea.

The worms love decomposing banana peels, squash skins, and coffee grounds. I just make sure to chop everything up before I bury it in their worm haven. The question becomes, what on earth did I do before I had earthworms??

And, honestly, it’s super easy to set up your own worm box. Here’s what we did.

Went to Geraldo the worm guy.
Got to dig out our own worms.
Carried them home.
Found a discarded crate.
Lined it with discarded pieces of wood and plastic bag.
Put shredded newspaper on the bottom.
Filled with dirt.
Installed worms.
Covered with dirt.
Covered with damp newspaper.
Covered with scrap pieces of wood.
Bury food scraps in different places.
Keep humid.
Keep fed.

If you don’t feel comfortable constructing your own worm home, there are complete worm kits (with instructional DVD) for sale online. They come with everything included. My father has one in his NewYork City apartment. He is a fan. Read about it on his blog:

Avoid giving the worms citric wastes. Instead, you can use your orange or lemon peels for jam making. See “orange peel jam”. Meat and dairy scraps should also avoided in your worm care; they are, however, welcomed by the dogs and cats.

The rest of the trash we try to reuse.

Plastic bottles are great for planting seeds. The reflective interior of potato chip bags are perfect for lining the solar oven. Jars are always in demand when preparing your homemade olives, jam, yogurt, dulce de leche. Paper products are used to start the fireplace or mud oven. I’ve begun to look at everything with a different perspective. How can I reuse this? How can I transform that? Hmmm… I need a smaller watering can, maybe I can use this bottle. Almost everything in the house is recycled, reused and overall waste is thus reduced.

That which does not serve any other purposes is, yes, burned. It’s not pleasant, but it is a reminder to keep conscious of the consequences of my consumer actions.

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