In the continuing war on waste, at a household level by far the most effective strategy I have for reducing our municipal garbage output is composting. I have a very simple and comprehensive composting system.
Three large compost bins. One is filled and has been spending several months quietly composting away. One is nearly full, and one is waiting to be filled.
These bins are recycled plastic and made in Australia. They are the simplest type of compost bin - they have no base, are placed directly on the soil, they have a hinged lid. You don't need to buy compost bins - you can use any old lidded bin of any size, cut out the base and away you go. Now these bins won't make your classic turned, hot compost. They are too small to heat up properly. To make a hot compost that kills pathogens and weed seeds you need a heap that is made all at once and is at least 1 cubic metre (35 cubic feet) in size. This is generally not practical in a small suburban garden. My plastic bins are not compost bins so much as large worm farms. They produce what is called 'cold compost' but is actually pretty much worm castings, and the process takes at least a year in our temperate cool climate. If you live somewhere warmer than Tasmania the process will go quicker, and if you have snow in the winter, it will take longer.
There is no secret or complicated method to producing cold compost. You start with a bucket full of kitchen scraps on the bottom of the bin, and add some compost worms (these are the worms you buy for your worm farm. Or ask a friend with a worm farm or compost. If you live in Launceston, ask me). You will need a double handful of worm-filled compost to start. Then add all your kitchen scraps, soft weeds, autumn leaves and vegie garden prunings. Anything that isn't actually sticks can go in. Sticks take longer to break down. I throw in all my kitchen waste, even the things that you aren't supposed to put in compost bins and worm farms, like meat, bones, dairy, onions and citrus skins. The worms in my bins have never seemed to care. Mind you, I don't have rodents or a dog that digs, so I know that what goes into the bin stays in the bin. Other things I put in the compost: hair, dust and dog hair from the dust pan, a small amount of fire ash, paper towel, natural fibres of any kind, tissues that haven't been used for anything nasty. Cold compost will not kill pathogens, so I don't put anything in it that will spread germs, like cat or dog poop, or snotty tissues. Tissues I flush down the toilet. Guinea pig and rabbit poop is fine though, and their bedding, and the newspaper from the bottom of the budgie cage. Another thing cold compost will not do is kill seeds, so do not throw in seeding weeds, or plants like ivy which will cheerfully resprout under any condition whatsoever.. this also means that you will have hundreds of tomato, pumpkin, zucchini and cucumber seedlings popping up when you spread the compost in the garden. This may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. I do admit it is very difficult to be hardhearted and hoe all of these baby plants back into the soil.
After a year or so the compost looks like this:
The only identifiable ingredient is eggshells, which is kind of bad news for when I get chickens, as chickens who peck at eggshells can become egg eaters. From now on I will be drying and grinding up the eggshells, and saving them as a chicken feed calcium supplement for my (as yet hypothetical) chickens. Otherwise the compost looks exactly like potting mix, but has more heft to it. It is wonderful, magical stuff for the garden. It adds nutrients, but also adds organic matter to the soil, helping it to become better draining and making it a more hospitable place for plants to grow.
Things to remember - site the bins in the shade so you won't kill the worms. Keep the compost damp in the summer. Worms like alkaline, so add a little fireplace ash or garden lime occasionally. If a cloud of tiny flies fly out when you open the lid, add another handful of lime and some garden soil. You will sometimes see an explosion of tiny white wriggly worms in the bin. Do not panic. They are the baby worms, and will grow up to do important composting work like their parents, so feed them well.
I have all the new curtains thanks to the kindness of my friends. When I moved in to our new house I had a quote done for curtains and blinds in three rooms. $2000. I thought again. Curtains. They are hemmed rectangles, right? I can hem a rectangle, I thought to myself. Then I hauled myself around town looking for the exact rustic weave, natural linen fabric I was after (none of the curtain-making places could produce this for me. The $2000 quote was for fabric that was synthetic). I figured it would cost a bomb, but hopefully less than $2000. But there wasn't anything that I wanted, at any price. Then I went to the hardware shop for paint for Rosy's door. And I found a shelf full of marvellous unbleached cotton fabric in a canvas weight, and it turned out to be painters' drop cloths. Brilliant! I bought enough fabric for the three windows that needed curtains, and it sat on my bedroom floor. For a year.
Until my clever and kind friend Katherine from the Living Better With Less Group said, "Why don't we come and help?" and I said, ever so gratefully, "Oh, yes please!" So they did. Katherine sews lots of her own clothes, has never sewed curtains, but was game to try.
Cindy actually knew what she was doing, being an experienced producer of curtains. The rest of us tried to be useful by handing over the scissors and making lots of tea. I was already at the point of wilting due to having had extensive conversation with the lady at the curtain shop, who was very nice but she also seemed rather doubtful that I had the least idea of what I was doing (she was so right) as she sold me blockout lining, header tape, hooks, and then I had to return because I forgot to buy thread. Still, we measured twice and cut once, and apparently did all the right things, because curtains happened.
Benson-the-curtain-making puppy helped immensely. He lay on his bed and had naps and didn't stir even when we accidentally dropped curtains onto him. Oh, wait, he says he was holding the curtains for us until we needed them again.
I tried all sorts of cunning tricks to avoid having to actually help sew. I made lots of tea, and served blueberry muffins and a cheese platter, and then more tea, and had run out of excuses and had just sat down to start hemming at the insistence of everyone, when there was a knock at the door... a couple who were just visiting Launceston had deduced that this was the wife's grandmother's house.. of course, I offered to show them around and discovered that a nice old lady called Dulcie Harris lived and died in this house about thirty years ago..
The others were convinced that I had arranged the whole affair in order to get out of sewing... but look, here I am, actually sewing, with photographic evidence. And so, thanks to the kindness of my friends, I can now sew curtains. And, no, it is not just theoretical knowledge, because this week I have sewed curtains for Posy's room, all by myself which is an actual miracle.
During the course of the sewing afternoon Cindy said, "We don't ask each other for help enough." It's so true. I hate asking for help. Most of us in our society can afford to buy help, so we do that. In our Living Better With Less Group, and in my wider circle of friends, we are attempting to turn that tide by learning to rely on each other a little more, giving and receiving help for all sorts of projects and learning and teaching so many new skills. And the truth is, being part of a community and doing things together is just more fun, as well as providing a practical safety net for each other.
Oh, and no surprises, my house is now much warmer. I can't believe I lived for over a year with no curtains in the house. Especially on the biggest window which is right next to the woodheater. Now we are cosy and warm. And if anyone wants help with curtain making, give me a call. I will make the tea..
Do you have a community of friends or family who volunteer to help with the quilting, the canning and the barn raising? How do you begin to become that kind of community?
Australians use 3.92 billion plastic bags a year. There are only 24 million of us. I cannot fit enough zeros on my calculator to do that maths (to be honest, I don't actually know how many zeros there are in a billion), but really? That is a lot of bags.
I can tell you right now, our household is not contributing nearly that much to landfill per year. Oh, it probably used to, although even at the height of our rubbish production the neighbours would always use our bin as first port of call to stuff extra rubbish bags in. Over time, as I have become less and less excited about buying new things, very much less enthusiastic about plastic, and have become very enthusiastic about composting, our rubbish production has bottomed out. So much so that in our new kitchen, when we moved into our wee cottage last year, I noticed that there was no intuitive place to put a bin. So I decided to have a benchtop bin. See that small canister above? The one next to my teacup that is there for purposes of comparison? That is my bin. The large canister is the compost bin (I had to move all my dirty dishes to take this photo! The bins live right next to the sink). There is also a small bin in the bathroom, and the girls each have a desktop bin about the same size as the kitchen bin. They empty theirs about once a month. I empty the bathroom bin once a week. The kitchen bin gets emptied every two or three days.
We have a 104 litre (27 gallon) wheelie bin and we put it out once a month, for a family of three. We could probably stretch that to five or six weeks, but monthly works well, as our recycling bin only goes out on alternate weeks, so it is easy to put them both out once a month.
Here is a sample of what our kitchen bin contained, pre-Plastic-Free July. First, the carrot bag bin liner:
Next, the contents:
Note the single rubber glove? I save the other one and eventually I get a pair again! The biggest item in the bin is the cryo-vac packaging from farmers' market meat. And that is the reason I used a plastic bag to line the bin. Now that I am buying my meat plastic-free from the butcher's down the road, I haven't needed to use a lining in the bin. There is a rice cracker packet. The lid from a plastic milk bottle. Now I am toasting sourdough instead of using crackers, and buying milk in one litre cartons. Which is expensive and annoying, as they get used up really quickly. The can lids? Well, this is embarrassing. I always worry that the recycling centre employees will cut themselves on the sharp can lids. I am everybody's mother. When I told a friend this, she looked at me strangely. "They wear gloves," she said. "If you're really worried, stick the lid inside the can and squish the top together." So now that's what I do.. After I took this photo I realised I could use the cardboard clothing labels as fire starters. The labels are from a shirt I bought from the op-shop that still had its labels attached.
My girls are away from home this week, and this is almost a week's worth of bin contents for just me, in full Plastic-Free July mode:
I bought a small pot of natural yoghurt as a starter for making home-made yoghurt, as I killed my last batch (added the starter while the milk temperature was still too high and killed the yoghurt bugs. Sorry, little guys). The black plastic circle is the thingie you pull off to get the lid open. There is the sticker from my meat purchase in my own container today, a sticker I pulled off the furniture (thank you Posy) and some bits of candle wax I scraped out of a jar I was using as a candle holder. There were also some till receipts but I added them to the newspaper fire starter yesterday afternoon (I haven't been recycling till receipts because I thought they were below minimum size for recycling, but I just researched that and discovered that it is only shredded paper that is too small for recycling. So recycle your till receipts and put your shredded paper in the compost. The cardboard labels up above could have been recycled as well).
So hey, at this rate it will be two months before I have to put the bin out.
I know that reducing and refusing plastic is the goal of Plastic-Free July, but my friend Katherine sent me some information on the weekend about what I can recycle at our local tip, sorry, Waste Centre and Transfer Station. It is pretty schmick and organised now, and it is free as long as you are recycling and not dumping waste to landfill. It even has a cool tip-shop. Anyway, the point is, I discovered I can recycle soft plastics there. That is, things like bread bags, plastic bags, plastic wrap, chip packets, lolly packets, pet food bags etc etc. Now mostly I don't buy things in plastic BUT frozen peas! Cat food! Hurray, now I will be able to recycle those last pesky items that reproach me with their plasticness. I already have half a bag of plastic bags with holes in and empty frozen pea and corn bags in the pantry, because I knew if I waited long enough I would find a way to get them recycled. And here it is!
One thing I do put in the rubbish bin that I shouldn't, is noxious weeds. I have a messy corner at the bottom of the yard where I throw all my green waste. Next year I want to plant some fruit trees there, but until then it can accumulate green goodness. I hate having potential soil fertility leaving my yard, so I hoard clippings, prunings and weeds because really, they are green gold. But then there are noxious weeds like oxalis and ivy and grass which grows on a rhizome under the ground, all of which shoot and sprout from every tiny little piece given half a chance. All of them go straight in the bin. I have gleeful thoughts of the entire Launceston landfill site being overtaken by ivy, oxalis and twitch grass. But it will probably sit and mummify for a century underground, and then spring back as cheerful as ever in the far distant future when landfills are mined for goodies.
What could I do with noxious weeds instead of putting them in the rubbish? Well, I could put them in a lidded bin and cover them with water for.. a very long time. This would theoretically kill them and then I could compost them. But I'm not sure I trust that method. Would they really be dead?
Soon, a green waste collection is starting in Launceston, to encourage residents to put all their kitchen scraps and garden waste into a bin which will be collected weekly to make municipal compost. This is an excellent plan. I don't think I will order a bin though, because I hoard my kitchen scraps and garden waste to make my own compost. And the more I turn my jungle into garden, the less noxious weeds there will be. What I need is to find someone else with a green bin, and make some judicious deposits. It will be just like the neighbours used to do with my wheelie bin, except it will be composting which makes it all fine, doesn't it?
What do you put in your bin that you wish you didn't? Bare all, and maybe other readers will have some good ideas about ways to keep things out of landfill.
PS I just had a brainwave! I pulled the candle wax out of the bin and put it in a jar. Posy makes candles so I will keep all the stubs and wax drips for her to experiment with. If I keep the aluminium tea light holders, we could even refill them. Posy has lots of candle wicks..
PPS I went to put the candle wax in Posy's candle-making drawer and she already has a bagful of scraps. She is way ahead of me.
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is a fascinating parable of society, wild and magical and disturbing. A man sets out into the jungle with his friends and family and founds a town in splendid isolation. The novel follows the fortunes of this family and their town over the course of one hundred years.
In this, my favourite quote of the novel, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, son of the town's founder, is reminiscing about the best days of his life, many years before when he had been a simple metalsmith creating golden fish in a tiny studio behind his house:
He had had to start thirty-two wars and had had to violate all of his pacts with death and wallow like a hog in the dungheap of glory in order to discover the privileges of simplicity almost forty years late.
The Colonel himself might be a parable for own society. How many wars do we have to start, how much wallowing in the dungheap of glory before we discover the privileges of simplicity?
I love the term 'privileges of simplicity'. Simplicity is not regarded with great enthusiasm generally. It is mostly seen as a state in which we choose to go without something we might otherwise have rather enjoyed. Like ease, convenience, nice things.
But what are the privileges of simplicity? Well, for me, what I aim for in seeking simplicity is peace of mind. Living simply on less means not worrying so much about money. It means having time to pursue creative projects, stand in the vegie garden and daydream, and drink tea with my friends. It means deciding that 'wallowing in the dungheap of glory' will not be a life aim, which then means that my ambitions can be purely for my own entertainment. Nice.
In respect to the wider world, the privilege of simplicity for me would be not being morally responsible for wars, famines, corruption, or death, ill health or miserable lives for other people so that I can have ease, convenience or nice things.
The privilege of simplicity for nations would mean giving up our hysterical attachment to growth, not sending our citizens off to war on a regular basis for reasons of empire or oil, living within our means and not giving a damn about cutting a figure on the world stage.
Mind you, a nation of folks quietly going about their business and doing whatever interests them for its own sake, and not in thrall to governments, banks or corporations would be a mighty thing.
Anyway, enough of grandiose philosophical visions, let's talk about me. This week I received an email informing me that an article I submitted has been accepted for publication in the Spring edition of Earth Garden, one of my favourite magazines ever! Can you imagine my state of extreme excitedness?? The article is about edible weeds, which I love particularly at the moment, as my garden is a complete wilderness, but has produced an enormous crop of chickweed, which I am making into lovely, lovely pesto. Happy days all round :)
For years I have been buying this toilet paper because it is recycled and wrapped in paper. Brown paper. So wholesome! But just last week I realised that the inside of the paper was shiny. I have extra-sensitive plastic detecting sensors at the moment because it is Plastic-Free July. So over the course of the last week I have been having this conversation with the sales department people at Encore Tissue:
Hi, just wanted to let you know I have used your toilet paper for years because it is recycled and packaged in paper, and sustainability is the thing I look for first in a product.
A quick question - I have noticed that there is a shiny lining to the paper packaging on the Safe toilet paper. Is that a plastic lining? Is the packaging recyclable?
Thank you for taking the time to contact Encore Tissue regarding your below enquiry.
The shiny lining is in fact a plastic layer which helps the paper bind and stick together when being sealed.
Both elements are recyclable.
Sales At Encore
Thanks for getting back to me. Good to know both elements are recyclable. Just to clarify, does this mean I can put the paper Safe toilet tissue packaging in the council recycling bin or recycle it wherever paper recycling is available?
After looking into this further, as there is a plastic layer behind the paper - it is to go into landfill.
Sales at Encore
Thanks for looking into this Sales people.
It is disappointing that the paper wrapping for a recycled toilet paper product needs to be binned, and I would really appreciate it if this is something that your company could look into to make Safe Toilet Tissue a truly sustainable product.
I am really unhappy about this outcome. I am grateful to the Sales Department (I did actually talk to a particular person with a name, but didn't publish it here) for looking into the matter for me, but really, Safe Toilet Paper people.. if you put a product into brown paper packaging it seems to me to be a reasonable assumption that it is paper, and therefore recyclable. Paper with a sneaky plastic backing? What is the point? And why? Why not just put it in brown paper? Sigh. I will now be sharing my friend's Who Gives a Crap toilet paper order. PS I do apologise, but despite trying multiple times I cannot get all the text on this page to remain the same size..
Delicious organic biodynamic milk and cream in glass bottles - but with a giant sticker.. what is all that about?
What I have learned about plastic-free eating: lots of vegies. And eggs. And lots of cooking.
Food you can't buy without plastic wrap: tortillas, flatbread, sushi nori, rice paper rolls, crackers, biscuits, teabags, non-gourmet cheese, dips, butter (even the foil wrapper has a plastic lining), any meat from the farmers market, ice cream, chips, pasta, sliced bread, crumpets.
Food you can buy plastic-free if you have a fabulous bulk bin shop like I do: flour, sugar and all the baking requirements, spelt pasta, dried beans, rice and grains, cereals, loose teas, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, honey, peanut butter, oil, condiments, chocolate covered goji berries.
Food you can buy plastic-free from local shops: bread, cakes, biscuits, slices, meat (if they let you bring your own container), gourmet cheese (if they wrap it in tissue paper), fruit, veg, eggs, flour, milk and cream in cartons or glass. Food in cans or glass bottles.
Food you can buy plastic-free from the supermarket: fruit, veg, eggs, flour. Milk and cream in cartons. Food in cans or glass bottles. Edited to add, from comments: Butter in paper, sugar in paper.
My takeaway from this is: the global food industry couldn't exist without plastic. Local food bought fresh is mostly what you get when eating plastic-free.
Even my fabulous bulk bin shop isn't plastic-free - after all, the lentils don't arrive direct from heaven in crates made from compressed rose petals and delivered by angels. They arrive from India in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. The reason this is a good thing is that twenty people can go home with a kilo of lentils each and only one plastic bag is used. The same effect can be achieved by buying a twenty kilo bag of lentils from the Asian grocer and sharing it out with nineteen of your best friends. And if you do not have a bulk bin shop near you, this is an excellent alternative.
But only really local food can come unpackaged. Bread straight from the oven. Veg from the farm. There is a shop down the street that sells pasta made on the premises. It just occurred to me I could ask them to pop some in a container for me. So for options if I don't want to cook?
Recently I read about an adorable 'buy home-cooked food for dinner' set-up called Josephine. Home cooks make dinner, and you order it, turn up at their house, pop dinner in your Tupperware and off you go. If you live in the US you can give this a go. I think this would work anywhere among friends, without having to wait for a San Francisco start-up to come to a neighbourhood near you. Plastic-free takeaway.
Meanwhile, I am going to pop up the hill and buy chips from the food vans at the park. Everything is served in cardboard and paper bags, which I will use as fire starters tomorrow, because nothing starts the fire better than fat-soaked cardboard. Thanks, bearded millenial food truck entrepreneurs, for getting it.
Oh, my goodness, I have been so sad today. Some days the whole world comes crashing down, and today was one of those days. Posy has been telling me recently that she misses our old house, and I woke up this morning unbearably sad that on a whim last year I had moved my children out of the house they grew up in. The Girl is home for the holidays and instead of being able to cuddle up in her old room with the cat she has to take it in turns bunking in with her sisters.
And suddenly, for the first time, I missed the ease of our old house. It was completely renovated and everything worked. It had a lovely garden and heating that didn't rely on me splitting wood on a daily basis. It had lots of couches and space for all the children's friends and a courtyard and huge dining table for neighbourhood lunches and dinners. There was even a study for me to write in instead of my current options - the dining room table or sitting up in bed. Also, I had just had the kids' old cubby turned into a chicken house before I left. If I had stayed I would have had chickens for a whole year by now!
I love this house, but it throws up so many challenges - heating with wood, the garden/jungle, it still has no curtains, no door knobs on my bedroom or the bathroom and I am in negotiations over building a verandah and some more retaining walls, which might take actually forever, and somewhere in the jungle is space for chickens, but where? But most of all I grieve for Posy who is grieving for her past - not only her old house, but her old life and an intact family. No matter what solutions I can come up with (and I am all about solutions), nothing is going to fix that grief. That is something we have to sit with and be sad about together.
I am trying to make some career decisions which will possibly be disastrous and end in tears. Risk versus safety. I know I am going to take the risk, but I am all about safety and am frankly terrified.
I went to the farmers market today and so much beautiful fresh food there was wrapped in plastic. I was just despairing and miserable about the planet, about the mess we are leaving for our brave and vulnerable children, and also irritable at myself for endlessly taking on challenges that are difficult and annoying. Today I wanted to just walk into a supermarket and buy all the things, plastic wrapped, produced by mega-corporations and breaking the planet, whatever. I just wanted life to be easy.
I bought two litres of wonderful organic, biodynamic milk in glass bottles from the market, and it is so sweet and yummy that by five o'clock in the afternoon we only have half a litre left. I am panicking because it was so expensive and we won't have any left by tomorrow.. and I'm panicking because I don't see how we can eat ethical and afford to eat..
What else? I made yoghurt and for the first time ever it didn't set. At all. I did nothing different. Nothing! The universe conspires against me.
This afternoon I went to bed and cried. The dog came and used me as a pillow. I stared into a certain future of having no-one in my life except the dog because I am grumpy and irritable and other people are just impenetrable mysteries, or maybe I am just incompetent at people. I second-guess every parenting decision I ever make and wish I could press the rewind button, oh, at least twice a day..
So much woe.. and what is the point here? Well, you know, I am usually such an optimistic person. I bob along on the river of life like a cork. It is so hard for me to be down for long. It is 10:02pm, and already my day is on the up. The Girl made dinner, and dessert. She gave me hugs. We all played a silly board game after dinner and the girls are playing their loud and cheerful music all through our tiny house. I swept the floor and did the dishes, and although there is no milk I am not worried. I'll get a carton when I am out tomorrow. It doesn't matter. So much doesn't matter. The children will always love me, no matter where they are. I will always love them. We will always have something to eat. The dog will always use me as a pillow, and why not?
Today I had a bit of a wobble. I have been sick for three weeks, and here at the tail end I'm just having a down day. It's not surprising. Tomorrow I will be back to my smiley self. What I wanted to say is.. I am so lucky. I have the occasional sad day where everything falls apart. But mostly my days are full of small joys and glorious possibilities. My brain is pretty sunshiney.
There are people in my life who are not so lucky. They fight through dark panic and grey fog and doubt and sadness most days. They battle anxiety and depression and their bodies and minds fail them on a daily basis. I was pretty miserable today. I can't imagine feeling like that every day. I can't imagine keeping on going without the encouragement of sunshine and cheer. And yet, you do, my darlings.
So here's to you my lovely, loving, beautiful, brilliant, brave fellow souls and sojourners, those of you I know and love, and those of you I know are out there struggling through your own dark day today. I appreciate what you bring to the table of life. Thank you for everything you show the rest of us about courage and resilience. I wish I could share some sunshine with you.
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (17) and Posy (12). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..