Monday, May 25, 2009


In some ways this is a funny title for this post, because waste isn't really a need. The need is to get rid of it.

I have some mixed feelings about using the word 'waste' because from an ecosystems perspective, waste doesn't exist. (In my post of 8/27/08, I cite Fritjof Capra's principles of ecology, one of which is "... an ecosystem generates no waste, one species' waste being another species' food.") But particular species--us for example--do generate waste, that is things we cannot use, some of which is toxic to us (that being the reason this 'need' is in the most immediate, physiological needs). Still, I often talk about living in a zero-waste situation--meaning creating situations where all waste is dealt with--in many cases by becoming (as Capra says) food for another species.

In the US waste is usually dealt with by 'disposal systems'--which generally means it is taken out of our sight. Many people don't care where it goes from there--often being buried in a landfill, dumped into the ocean, or sent to a smaller country. I want to look at ways we can deal with our own wastes ourselves. I'll start by dividing waste products into inorganic and organic and look at each in turn.

When I think of inorganic wastes, I think of the oft quoted "Reduce, reuse, recycle." The problem is most people just recycle and pay little attention to the first two principles. Recycling has become just another disposal system with little thought as to where the stuff goes. While recycling is marginally better than putting things in landfills, it's fairly energy intensive. I want to take it out of the equation altogether, and look at the other two pieces: reduce and reuse.

I think we need to start by reducing what we take in, moving our way out of the consumer mentality. This is not easy. This society blasts "Buy, buy, buy..." at us. I would recommend stopping watching TV for one thing, and watching The Story of Stuff instead. And start to think about everything that you take in--whether you buy it or it's free. Ask yourself--do I need this? How long will I use it? What will I do with it when I'm done?

Reusing, on the other hand, becomes a challenge to our creativity. How can we reuse something in a different way? (Artists can be really good at this stuff.) One way of giving things reuse is giving them away. Websites such as freecycle and craigslist (which has 'free' and 'barter' categories in its 'for sale' section) do a thriving business in connecting people who don't want things with people who might want them. And then there are the Freegans who are radical reusers--of dumpster food, among other things.

While there are lots of different kinds of organic wastes (paper, for example, is an organic waste that can be reused, composted, or easily recycled) I want to focus on two of the main ones: food wastes and bodily wastes.

The best way of dealing with food wastes is composting. It came from the soil and, with time, it will become soil. Many people and groups have elaborate methods and rules about composting. My motto is 'compost happens'. If it's organic, it will rot, it will compost, it will turn to soil. It's a matter of time. All the methods and rules may make the process faster, less messy, and less smelly, but no matter what you do or don't do compost happens.

That said, there are a couple of particularly interesting things you can do to compost things. For people without a yard, or lovers of earthworms, vermicomposting (aka worm bins) uses a lot less space and produces a rich compost result. Sheet mulching (aka lasagna gardening) is sometimes referred to as 'composting in place'. Here you just stick your food wastes and dead leaves in a sandwich with cardboard or newspaper and it becomes soil (over time) on the spot. I'm not saying that vermiculture or sheet composting are better ways of composting. The old compost bin/pile works fine as far as I'm concerned, but these are just two more ways of composting.

At this point the squeamish should stop reading.

Like it or not, our bodies produce wastes and we need to deal with them. While there are actually many body wastes (blood--from wounds or menstruation, pus, semen, and sputum are just a few examples), urine and fecal matter (aka 'number one' and 'number two'--plus a number of names that could get an adult content warning on this blog) are the main waste products. Both can be composted. Urine is actually close to sterile most of the time (except if there's an infection in the kidney or urinary tract). It can be drunk in emergency situations or possibly used as an antibiotic (see 'Survival uses' in the Wikipedia article on Urine). More importantly, it contains minerals that could help build soil. While it can damage plants if applied directly, it is a great addition to compost--with a high nitrogen and phosphorus content.

Fecal matter is more problematic. It can contain many disease organisms and is not safe to add directly into a garden or farm. However, it can and has been successfully composted. This must be done carefully and over time to make sure that all possible disease producing organisms are killed. Several companies manufacture composting toilets, one of the best known being Clivus multrum, but it isn't hard to create a homemade version.

A final bodily waste is, indeed, our bodies. Amazingly, when we die our bodies are often encased in steel and fiberglass coffins. Towns and cities often use a lot of landspace creating cemeteries--and then find they need more as the cemeteries fill up. Cremation is one solution, but it uses propane or natural gas to create temperatures of 1600 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and spew waste gases. Natural burial is an alternative to all that, where the body is allowed to decompose naturally--in other words, we compost. When I die, I hope to be buried somewhere with a fruit tree planted above my body so I can fertilize the tree. This is just completing the cycle.

Mary Appelhof, Worms Eat My Garbage--The classic book on vermicomposting
Stu Campbell, Let It Rot!--A compost classic
Centre for Natural Burial--A UK site with links to natural burial organizations around the world
Green Burials
--Another website devoted to natural burials
Todd Hemenway, Gaia's Garden--Has a nice section on sheet mulching with instructions
John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables--Devotes a whole chapter to compost
Joseph Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook--Another classic, the book on composting body wastes; Jenkins has a website with a section devoted to 'humanure' and also includes the entire book as an online download as well as a selection of videos on humanure and a photo gallery of 'Owner-built humanure toilets'
Bobbie Kalman and Janine Schaub, Squirmy Wormy Composters--Vermiculture for kids
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Has a chapter on 'Waste' which includes sections on Wastewater Recycling, Composting, Vermicomposting, Recycling Human Wastes, and Putting It All Together
Helga Olkowski, Bill Olkowski, Tom Javits and Farallones Institute, The Integral Urban House--Contains a chapter on 'Managing Organic and Inorganic Wastes' which includes a good deal of information on composting toilets and general composting
ReDO--Website for a nonprofit devoted to finding ways of reusing things
Carol Steinfeld, Liquid Gold--A book on 'Using Urine to Grow Plants'; there is a website for the book which has lots of good addition information (I love the heading at the top for 'Pee on Earth Day')
Bill Talen (aka Reverend Billy), What Would Jesus Buy?--A collection of sermons against consumerism by the founder of the Church of Stop Shopping; yes it's outrageous, but maybe that's what it takes to get people to reduce their consumption

Quote of the day: "Nearly all of life's products, from tree trunks and deer bones down to insect wings and bacteria cells, are recyclable. Nature assembles and breaks down, dissolves and renews, using the same molecules over and over. She leaves no landfills and toxic dumps in her wake. In nature there is no such thing as waste. Everything is food for something else, connected in life and death to many other species." - Toby Hemenway


Daisy said...

I'm still amazed at how much less garbage we put out for collection now that we compost! If more people composted in their own homes, our landfills would be much less full.

MoonRaven said...

Hi Daisy--Thanks for your comment.

And you're absolutely right--composting is a great way to cut our wastes.

And I like your blog title--'Compost Happens'--it's a motto of mine.

Robyn Coffman said...

I love, love, love your blog.

Thank you for The Story of Stuff connection, cant wait to share that with the young ppl i share life with.

And it was good to read about natural burial. We were just talking yesterday about how crazy it is that we still fill up the land with bodies...

Keep writing and sharing knowledge, my friend...

MoonRaven said...

I appreciate your sweet words, Robyn. And please share 'The Story of Stuff' with your young folks. I truly believe what we all need is more connection (with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us) and less stuff.

Austan said...

Thanks, Moonraven! You're always on the money in your writings- one of the things I like about you.

I'd like to add that while omnivores do compost like most, they have the additional waste meat to deal with, and meat can't be put into regular compost piles.However, back in the day I had a neighbor who lightly buried the household meat scraps in one area, and mined the worms that ate it for fishing. He said they were great bait! And the fish bones, etc. went into his garden, co,pleting yet more recycling.

MoonRaven said...

Good ideas--though as a vegetarian now turned vegan I'm not likely to use them. Still, I'm sure they could be helpful to other readers.

Thanks for your suggestions. I appreciate lots of what you say and do as well.

SoapBoxTech said...

Great post, although I tend to argue the semantic that "decomposition happens", whereas compost is optimized and specialized decomposition.

I'm quite enjoying the red worm compost bin I have under the kitchen table. Once its up and running at a good volume it should provide our laying hen operation with a lot of their favorite protein source, which in turn should maximize their laying.

Permaculture is SO the way.

MoonRaven said...

Okay, I agree that 'decomposition happens' is more accurate; I still like 'compost happens' better.

Your worm bin sounds cool--I think combining it with your hen raising is brilliant. May they provide you with many eggs.