The United States produces more waste than any other nation. To change at this point is to fight a tidal wave of cultural norms that threatens to bury each of us in a sea of trash. Feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin we decided to start where all good things do…at home. Before moving to the farm we had always recycled and reused because that is what we were told was the responsible thing to do.
The more I educated myself about environmental issues the more I felt that recycling alone was little different than sending all of our trash to the landfill. A good deal of plastics cannot be recycled due to cost. And depending on market demand other recyclables may or may not get recycled. Most landfill trash is product packaging and food waste. Humans have always produced trash; but, not in the massive amount they do today. The real problem with us being so trashy is not just the amount of garbage, it’s the dangerous chemicals in our plastics, inks, and metals that are leaching into the soil and water that we source our nourishment from.
When we moved to the farm and decided to move toward controlling our own food chain as much as possible the tail end of that chain was the waste we produced. We decided not to hire a garbage service. Dealing with our own trash forced us to consider heavily where our waste was going and the accumulation of it through our purchases. I started to make smarter purchases with waste removal and recycling in mind. The following breakdown is how we currently process our trash. We are ever moving toward better practices with the goal being almost no trash to remove. And as I say with everything it is only one way to do it; there are many wonderful ideas out there and more that are coming.
Having a garden fairly demands having a compost pile. The work that goes into growing and cooking your own vegetables can pay off double if you use your scraps to feed next year’s plants. There are many ways to compost your food waste. If you live in an urban setting you may want to purchase or make a rotating compost barrel so your compost does not cause an odor issue. If you have more space having your compost in a pit or on top of the ground is fine too. The important thing is to have your compost contained or far enough away from your living space so the smell is not bothersome.
A very large variety of things can be composted. What should not go in your compost is more important than what to put in it. Do not put any meat or dairy products in your compost with the exception of egg shells. You should also not put anything in your compost with sugar or yeast in it; so pretty much no baked goods. Our food waste that is not suitable for the compost goes to the animals for scraps. Chickens, dogs, and cats will be more than happy to take care of your meat, dairy, and bread scraps. Coffee grounds and tea bags are great in compost. Some paper products can also go into the pile just make sure they do not have any ink or plastic on them and do not compost paper products that have human waste on them. Human waste can be composted; but, it has to be done with more caution to prevent the spread of disease.
Depending on how fast you want to be able to use your compost factors into how much work you will have to put toward the decomposition process. For decomposition, earthworms will be your most useful tool. If they come of their own accord that is the best scenario. A permanent compost pile on the ground will draw decomposers naturally. If you have a lack of worms you can purchase them. Heat aids the decomposition process; you can add a layer of straw or hay on top to hold the heat that is naturally generated by the breakdown.
Once you have a manageable pile, one that partially fills your barrel or that you can easily handle with a shovel you will need to add new waste to a different spot. If you have an open compost pile it is helpful to add new waste on one end and rotate the compost when you turn it. Compost needs to be turned so it decomposes faster. Once your compost looks like soil it is ready to use in the garden.
Refusing, Repurposing, and Recycling
Recycling should not be the first option in waste removal. Before that trash even comes into your hands the best practice is to refuse it if possible. This is extremely difficult in our throw away consumer culture. If you are creative you can find ways to reduce the amount of trash you purchase. Some businesses will put products in your reusable containers. The coffee shop I purchase my beans from, Berea Coffee & Tea, fills my mason jars rather than bagging my beans. If everyone did that my coffee would be a little cheaper because we would not have to pay the packaging price. Some grocery stores will also fill your containers eliminating the packaging all together. The more you are your own grocery store the less need you will have for packaged store items.
When I have to purchase items that are packaged I try to find products that have containers that I might be able to reuse or at the very least packaging that is recyclable. Glass packaging is always the best because it is easier to clean, safe for food products, and more easily recycled. Be cautious when reusing plastic packaging. Many plastic containers have BPA in them, a chemical that is hazardous to your health. Buckets and larger metal cans are useful for feeding animals. Cardboard boxes that have safe ink or no ink are excellent for putting down in between garden rows. The boxes keep weeds down, water from evaporating, and they compost into your garden. Plastic bags can be reused many times or they can be crocheted into reusable shopping bags.
Plastic is the least recyclable packaging and styrofoam is not recyclable at all. The more you can avoid these forms of packaging the better. Most recycling facilities will not take plastic that does not have a recycling number on it.
Last Resort Trash
No matter how conscientious you are there will be some trash that you cannot do anything with. For that small amount of unusable trash we incinerate it. Having a burn barrel is a very old farm tradition. If you have a good barrel that is well aerated the trash will burn fast and efficient. We use the ashes for fill dirt. We do not use it in the garden because it is not healthy. We do use our wood stove ashes in our compost; but, we only burn clean wood in the stove. We do not use plastic garbage bags for this burnable trash. Our trash cans are metal so they clean out easily. Realizing that at some point you will have to burn trash that you cannot reuse or recycle is a powerful motivator in your purchasing habits.