Archive for the ‘composting’ Tag

2012 Solid Waste Audit Results   1 comment

My project this summer (other than enjoying pregnancy and getting ready for baby) was to do a solid waste audit. Yes, that means that we saved all of our trash for a month, and then I sorted and weighed it. Like the energy audit we did last summer, this audit only measures waste generated in our household and not solid waste generated upstream, downstream, or outside of our control. By upstream waste I mean the solid waste generated in the creation of the products we use. By downstream waste I mean particulate or solid matter in wastewater. I’m not sure how much of the soap that goes down the drain flows through the wastewater treatment plant, gets consumed in the wastewater treatment plant, or gets disposed in the sludge. Solid waste outside of our control would be stuff like the asphalt that was scraped off our street before repaving. This audit also doesn’t take into account stuff that goes into the give-away pile, or stockpiles (plastic bags to be used for garbage, receipts tossed at the end of the year, saved magazines, etc.).

I was hopeful that this year would show improvement over 2006, when I last did a trash audit. I’ve started recording on the calendar from our trash company what weeks we take our bins to the curb, and we’re pretty regular. Almost exactly monthly we take out the recycling and the trash, and that schedule is determined by when the recycling bin is full usually. It’s pretty rare for the trash bin to be more than half full. Based on weight we recycle almost 90% of our trash (that’s skewed a bit by the density of the paper and glass jars in the recycling). Last year I think we only took out the green waste once, but this year it’s been quarterly as I rip out part of the lawn and throw that in the green waste instead of compost so that I’m not spreading my weed seeds.

There were a few major reductions in weight: newspaper, organics, and unrecycleable plastic. Newspaper is out of our control as that just means the Bee is smaller than it was 6 years ago. However, I’m very happy to know that our compost pile is diverting approximately 8 pounds of waste per month. Unrecycleable plastic also makes me feel good because I think that is an indication that the attention we pay to reducing packaging is paying off. We also had a couple significant increases in weight: glass and mixed paper. Glass: well, we are eating more jarred pickles now. We’ve got a good stockpile of jars in the pantry for food storage but we go through more pickle jars than there’s need/space to store them. And the mixed paper? Oops. When we moved we completely forgot to sign onto the “do not mail” registry at our current address. We’ll be doing that now.

Overall, though, I’m happy, we had a 30% reduction in solid waste weight from 2006. That puts us only 15% more than my 2001 audit results, which was just my one-person household. Wonder where we’ll stand in 2016 with kids in the family.

Posted October 10, 2012 by mayakey in conscious living, home, resource use

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Compost Trials: Pallet Composter   2 comments

Apparently this winter is all about making changes to my compost systems. Last month I wrote about converting my failed 5-gallon bucket compost “bin” into a vermicomposter, and now I can write about transferring the Heap into a pallet composter. I guess the idea of using pallets to create a compost bin isn’t new, but either I just hadn’t seen it anywhere before or I just spaced it out until now. A couple weeks ago I went to a master gardener workshop and while wandering around afterwards I noticed some compost bins made out of pallets in the corner. Considering that I had a bunch of pallets sitting in my backyard, and they had been on my mind lately, I was immediately intrigued. The pallets are from a remediation system I am running at work that uses nutrients that ship on pallets. While pallets are valuable in bulk, when you are using 2 per quarter and they are exposed to the weather all the time, they end up just going to the dump. Unless, of course, you find a way to salvage them. Originally, I started bringing them home because I thought the wood would be great for a half-height fence in the front yard. I  soon discovered, however, that it is really hard to break down a pallet and they have been stacked in the side yard since then. Last weekend I switched gears and converted four of them into a compost bin, and then transferred the old compost heap into the bin. When needed, I have four more pallets to build into a second bin.

This seems like such a good idea because it is cheap (assuming that you can find free pallets somewhere), easy (all you need are four pallets, four hook-and-eye closures, and a drill), not ugly (at least not compared to just an unstructured pile of compost), and should really work. Since the pallet slats have space in between them, there’s plenty of aeration for the pile, and the inner volume of the bin should be large enough that the compost can actually heat up.

Pallet Composter


The Heap was actually working, but it was slow going. That is partially because I wasn’t trying to make it go fast, and partially because of structural problems. Without any support the pile couldn’t get very tall, so I don’t think it really warmed up properly. And of course the rose bush prunings that formed the base of the Heap were going to take forever to decompose. In the process of transferring from Heap to pallet bin, I removed all branches, so the process should go quicker now. The parts of the Heap that had kitchen waste were decomposing relatively well, and the parts of the Heap that were almost entirely yard waste were just a little moldy. Now everything is mixed up or layered in the pallet bin, and we’ll see if this really does work.

Posted February 6, 2012 by mayakey in frugal living, gardening, resource use

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Compost Trials: From 5-Gal Bucket Compost to 5-Gal Bucket Worm Bin   Leave a comment

Even though I had declared the 5-gallon bucket compost experiment to be a failure back in May, I never emptied the bucket into the compost heap. I had no plans for the bucket; what can you do with a hole-y bucket? So it just sat there, and functioned as one of the edges for the compost heap for the last several months. No longer.

I’ve really been wanting to start vermicomposting, aka, composting with worms.  A while back I had managed to talk the man-who-doesn’t-like-anything-that-doesn’t-have-four-legs into letting me vermicompost as long as it was in the garage and not the dining room like I originally wanted. I’ve heard that if properly managed there’s no odor, and the closer to the kitchen the easier to use, but since I can’t convince him that the worms aren’t going to escape it stays in the garage. However, a worm bin, even one made of plastic storage bins, is pretty far down on the house wish list, and I didn’t have any suitable containers to make one for free. Or so I thought!

Then at the Green Festival in November I acquired some worms for free! I went to a vermicomposting workshop where the presenter was giving away a few containers of worm castings. She had collected the worm castings in a hurry so they still had a few baby worms in them. When I got back home I put the bag aside and wasn’t able to get to it for over a week so I thought I’d probably killed the worms. Lo and behold, though, when I peaked in there were a few full sized worms wiggling around in there. I punched a couple holes in the container and threw in an old piece of lettuce. Fast forward a month to around Christmas and I peaked in again to realize that the lettuce was gone and the worms still alive. But they couldn’t stay in a clear plastic snack-food container forever, they needed a home upgrade.

That’s when it occurred to me that the 5-gallon bucket with holes in it could work as a worm bin. I hope. The original holes are quite large so I’m hoping that I don’t lose my few worms through them. The hole-y bucket has holes on the bottom and sides, and I drilled a few more (much smaller) holes on the side to make sure there will be enough ventilation. I grabbed another then-unused 5-gallon bucket to use as the moisture collector. The outer bucket is wider than the hole-y bucket so I didn’t need to drill ventilation holes in it, but if it had been the same dimensions I would have drilled a row of ventilation holes in the sides below where the bottom of the inner bucket would be. Instead I propped the inner bucket on some scrap plastic bits and there’s a narrow annular space between the buckets. I put a really thick layer of dampened hand-shredded newspaper on the bottom since I didn’t want the worms to fall through the drainage holes, added a few rotting lettuce leaves, strawberries, tea leaves, and a well crushed egg shell (or as well as I could crush it), and dumped the castings container and worms on top. I don’t mind sacrificing that worm gold fertilizer if it means I’ll get a head start on creating my own. After topping it off with some more hand-shredded newspaper and another good misting, I created a lid with a peace of plywood we had laying around.

Now I just have to remember to check on them occasionally. At this point they’re not going to create much fertilizer since I’m starting with just a few worms, literally. It’s more of a test run to see if I can keep them alive before I actually order my first pound of worms. I’m really excited at this.

Posted January 9, 2012 by mayakey in gardening, unshopping

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Camping Composting   Leave a comment

Oh the joys of camping. We get out in nature where we enjoy the sound of the breeze through the trees, the smell of redwoods, the mesmerizing vision of flame and embers, and where somehow we create more waste than usual. At least some of it is organic waste, and therefore burn-able, so most of us throw it in the fire pit to burn away in the nightly fire. That works great for paper plates and napkins (especially if they’re greasy 🙂 ), but is an apple core doing the fire any good? What about an egg shell? This summer for the first time I decided to compost my wet organic matter and egg shells. On the first camping trip of the summer I felt very self conscious about it. While it felt natural to me to pull out a Ziploc bag and put my bits of vegetables and fruits in it, I also felt a little weird being in a campground with garbage cans yet packing my trash back home with me. It would have felt even more awkward if it had been at a campground with bear lockers. There’s nothing quite like putting a bag of stuff-to-compost in with your food and toiletries. For many backpackers and back-country campers this kind of action is nothing new. In some places you have to pack all your waste out, and I mean ALL your waste. For me, I think this will be a regular practice because it heightened my enjoyment of nature knowing that I was producing that much less landfill waste, that less of an inefficient fire (not that campfires aren’t already very inefficient fires), and that much more luscious compost at home (eventually).

Posted September 21, 2011 by mayakey in environment

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Compost Trials: And We’re Back to The Heap   Leave a comment

So back in June I posted about our compost heap, and at the time I was planning to go back to pit composting for the summer to avoid any issue with odor or gnats/flies. That worked, very briefly. Unfortunately since we aren’t regularly watering that patch of grass it soon became baked hard. As in: I spent 45 minutes digging one day and got 6 inches. We don’t have a pick, and I’m not inclined to buy one just so I can continue on this ridiculous project of pit composting. So we’re back to using the heap. The plan is for me to keep sufficiently ahead on my yard work that I have enough dirt/yard waste waiting to cover the kitchen waste right away so it retains some moisture and doesn’t attract so many flies. Theoretically I could start pit composting in early winter before the ground becomes soggy again, but let’s be honest: it’s not likely to happen. Sometimes my lazy streak wins out. Yeah, it would greatly improve the fertility of that patch of soil, but at what (labor) cost? I watched my dad go round and round the yard for my entire childhood and if there was any significant improvement, I never noticed it.

I am dreaming very hard of starting my worm bin now, since I think I can do it cheaper than the cost of a compost bin, but there are so many projects going on now that for now it will stay a dream. Besides, since Mike won’t let me do it in the house it’ll have to be in the garage and the temperature fluctuations out there may still be to large.

Posted August 27, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Compost Trials: The Heap   Leave a comment

Now that the rainy season is over (ahem) and the ground is dry enough to start digging again for our pit composting, I’m finally getting around to doing a post in this composting series about what we’ve been doing over the winter/rainy season. At first I slogged on with the pit composting but that didn’t last long after the rains really started. You know how shovel-fulls of dirt are heavy? Well shovel-fulls of saturated dirt are even heavier. My back was complaining bitterly as the rainy season started and I was still trying to dig. Plus, it is extremely messy (and a bit sisyphean) to dig a hole in mud, fill it with kitchen waste and then refill the hole with mud. And since I wasn’t keen on actually doing the work in the rain, we reached a point where the holding bucket was overflowing and a backup holding bucket had to be recruited as I waited for a dry daytime hour to allow me to dig. I confess to being a bit mulish, and I am aware that a sane person would have given up way earlier than I did, but I finally realized that I needed to try something different and that the best alternative at the time was “the heap”.

The heap started by accident/through laziness last summer as I was removing dead brush from the planters in the front yard. At first I was chopping branches into smaller chunks by hand and using the pieces as mulch, but as I started working on the rosebushes that strategy broke down. I procrastinated chopping up the dead rose branches and just threw them in a pile in a corner of the driveway where it grew to be quite tall. Then I de-thatched the front lawn and since I was exhausted by the end and could no longer think straight I just threw the armfuls of thatch on top of the rosebushes to deal with at a later time. Eventually Mike prevailed on me to at least move the pile into the back yard where it wasn’t publicly ugly, and when I did so I realized that the stuff in the pile was already starting to decompose. At that point it was officially declared part of our composting strategy, ostensibly to deal with large amounts of yard waste (like several dead rose bushes and a couple cubic yards or so of thatch).

When pit composting became impossible due to rain, I realized that the heap was a viable alternative. Neither Mike nor I is really comfortable with throwing kitchen waste in an open pile in the summer because of odor and insect swarms, but in the winter those negative side effects are significantly less to non-existant. So the pile has a layer of rose branches at the bottom, then a layer of grass and weed thatch, then a layer of kitchen scraps with some yard waste mixed in, and is now topped off with some interspersed layers of grass clippings from the waist high beauty that was our back lawn, and grass plants and iceplant ripped from the planters. The top layers of grass and iceplant will keep the noxious gnats and flies from being a problem from the old kitchen waste and hopefully keep in moisture. The next plan is to get a black tarp to cover it for the summer and just let it be. I have no delusions that it will be particularly fast composting since it is on concrete, contains lots of large hard branches, and was not strategically layered; but eventually everything organic decomposes.

Posted June 28, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket Update   1 comment

As I wrote previously, the first experiment with composting that I did when we first moved into our house last summer was a 5-gallon bucket. To summarize: I thought it would be perfect since I had access to free buckets, and would be able to roll them easily to turn the compost. Unfortunately the free buckets did not have usable lids, which meant no rolling. Additionally, I had difficulty with getting drainage right.

Over the winter I left the bucket to sit and completely ignored it. I thought of turning the compost a few times with a trowel, but since the compost was growing a nice crop of an unknown plant I thought that might be more trouble than it was worth. This weekend I finally checked in on this experiment and I now deem the lidless 5-gallon bucket composter a complete failure. The easy stuff is degraded, sure, but there’s still plenty of easily identifiable bits of plant matter and kitchen waste. I’m inclined to guess that even if I had been more diligent over the winter it wouldn’t have made a difference since it is too small to generate sufficient heat, and many of the bugs were probably killed before I got enough drainage holes drilled.

I still think the original concept would work. A 5-gallon bucket with a lid and plenty of holes drilled in it should be a halfway decent composter for someone with limited space. The lid should help it stay moist and trap heat, and enable easy turning-by-rolling. Since I was interested in the “free” thing for this experiment, though, I’m declaring the experiment over. Now that the new car is paid off, buying a not-free composter (aka Expensive! sheesh) is within sight.

Posted May 23, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Compost Trials: Inaugurating The Green Waste Bin   Leave a comment

In the last couple of weeks I have used our green waste bin for the first time. It’s been sitting next to the recycling and garbage bins in all its virginal glory since I wanted to compost all of our green waste at home. However, as I tackled the spring weeds I realized that I really didn’t want to try to compost those plants myself since I have no confidence that the seeds would be degraded. This summer as I cleaned out the weeds in the planters after we moved, I threw the weeds in the regular trash because there was some windblown debris in the dried weeds, and I mistakenly thought at the time that weeds should not be put in the green waste bin. Since then I realized that “weeds” are specifically listed as acceptable items for the green waste program, which I assume includes weed seeds. I guess that however the industrial composting is done, they are confident that high enough temperatures are reached to degrade the weed seeds and not just incubate them for whoever buys the finished compost. I hope that is true, because I hate to thing that I am just shipping my weeds off to someone else to deal with, especially since there’s a chance that someone else might use herbicides and contribute to the ensuing pollution problems.

It is really nice having that bin, which is large and almost full, because otherwise we might have had to put the trash bin out to the curb for pickup twice this month!

Posted April 17, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Compost Trials: The Pit   4 comments

I don’t know how my dad did it. I’m about ready to throw in the towel on this whole pit composting thing. Or “soil incorporation” as the composting book that I got from the library called it. This is the form of composting that I am most familiar with, having grown up with it; although we knew it as “French composting”. During my entire childhood kitchen scraps and yard trimmings not slated for mulch or firewood would be dumped into “The Pit.” “The Pit” was basically a hole that snaked its way through our back yard eternally. The design was fairly elegant, actually, although the last decade has fuzzed my memory a bit. It was maybe 3 feet deep, with two flights. On the leading edge the top flight was always slightly more excavated than the bottom flight so that there was a step. The process went: dump organic waste into the back of the hole, dig out some of the leading edge to cover the waste, repeat. So the hole never got filled since the leading edge was always excavated in order to fill the back.

When we moved into our house this summer and I committed to composting all compostable material (defined as kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and tissues), I defaulted to pit composting as a TEMPORARY method. Especially after discovering that 5-gallon buckets don’t make good composting bins. We didn’t have compost bins, and to be completely honest there are more important things that we need to spend our money on right now. Pit composting has the wonderful “free” feature. Unfortunately “free” means “labor-intensive”. Digging dirt is not easy, especially when the ground is baked in the summer and saturated in the winter. I don’t have the discipline that my dad had, so my process is more like: dig a 1 foot deep hole that is just over a shovel width wide and long enough for the amount of organic material to be composted, dump the bucket into the hole and hope that it is not more than 4-6 inches deep, cover it with the dirt I just excavated.

Since most of our back yard is concrete and I refuse to do this in the front lawn, the square of grass that we don’t have plans for yet in the backyard is perfect for the pit. In the summer the ground was really hard. I could not figure out why it was so hard to get the shovel through the first horizon since the grass was all dead. And once I was past the top few inches I could never get a shovel-full without having to bend down and pull out a large rock or chunk of concrete. Then fall came, the ground became moist and more easily dug, and I discovered that there is a plastic mesh about 3 inches below the surface. That’s what makes it so hard to get the shovel through! Someone please tell me that it is not normal to put plastic mesh under lawns. So I started peeling back a strip of “sod”, pulling out the mesh, digging my hole, and then filling it and replacing the “sod.” Then winter came with rains. And now the ground is saturated. I try to hold off on digging, but when our holding bucket and compost bowl are both full, there’s nothing for it but to dig mud. Mud is HEAVY! And I can’t find the plastic mesh in the mud to remove it, either. But at least I also can’t find any rocks.

So far I’ve made it through less than 10% of the grass patch, but I seriously doubt I’m going to make it too much further. It’s not all bad; in addition to the composting, there have been advantages. Namely removing buried rocks and concrete chunks, removing the plastic mesh, finding irrigation pipes and other pipes, and hopefully adding some health into what appears to my inexperienced eyes to be poor unhealthy soil. I am officially declaring “no more digging mud” and just piling the scraps when it is raining (or when I just don’t have time to dig, or when my back hurts). Since I have no intention to water the grass in the summer (and will therefore have baked soil again), the only times of year when it is even practical to compost this way are spring and fall. It’ll be a while before we actually have landscaping plans for the back yard, and I think the grass patch will stay as a grass patch, so there’s no aesthetic conflict with the pit yet. Whenever that aesthetic conflict does occur, though, it will be the final death-knell of the pit.

Posted January 25, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket   11 comments

A word of advice to anyone who wants to try using a 5-gallon bucket for compost: it doesn’t work all that well.

My compost journey started early this summer with a free 5-gallon bucket from work. We’re going through a couple of buckets a month at work, so rather than throwing them away we’re finding other uses for them. I though the bucket would be a perfect small compost bin since the lid already had a large hole where a pour spout had been and it would be easy to turn the compost by rolling the bucket. Unfortunately, the lid had to be sawed off in order to open and clean out the bucket. Buying a new lid kind of defeats the whole purpose of trying a free compost bin. I tried laying cardboard over the top but it didn’t help keep moisture in, so I tried using a scrap of translucent plastic that used to be in the kitchen light. That works to keep moisture in the bucket, but there’s still no way to roll the bucket around on its side to turn the compost.

With a plastic scrap covering the top of the bucket, there’s no way for the compost to aerate. The bucket also needed drain holes. So I got a nail and hammer and started punching little holes along the base for drain holes. That went well. But when I tried to punch aeration holes along the bucket sides, I ran into difficulty. It’s hard to punch holes in a 5 gallon bucket! At least part of the problem is that the plastic flexes. In any case, I gave up and resorted to manually aerating the compost with a long-handled trowel on a “daily” basis. (Um, maybe every-few-days-basis would be more accurate.)

As a result, the bucket compost is dry on the top and saturated on the bottom because I can’t effectively mix the compost. Don’t get me wrong, the compost is definitely composing. There’s still lots of activity in the bucket. But it is smelly, and it is small (1 bucket holds about 2 weeks of organic matter for us, and it is too small to heat up.)

So far, I would not recommend this strategy to anyone. It might be different with a lid, but without it is definitely not ideal. I’m going to see it out as an experiment, though. What I do recommend 5-gallon buckets for are holding bins. Don’t have time to take care of your compost during the week? Use a bucket outside to get it out of the house where the bugs can start working at it in the meantime. Gardening? Drag a bucket along behind you to collect your trimmings.

Posted October 16, 2010 by mayakey in gardening

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