Take Out Your Bags

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. The kids have kept me quite busy. They are 2 1/2 now and very talkative and busy! More on them in some other post. For now, I want to post something short.

One thing I have been doing recently is taking my reusable shopping bags to restaurants when I get take-out, especially for lunch. Many of the wait-staff look at me funny when I ask them to put the food in my own bag, but these are the same establishments that are moving to potato-starch plastic and biodegradable utensils. I am just getting them used to it, blazing a trail.

I figure, if it works at the grocery store, why not at restaurants? I have probably saved about 300 plastic or paper bags in the last 3 years or so just from my lunch take-outs alone. (Yeah, I know, maybe I should bring lunch from home more.) The reusable bags are already in my car ready for the next grocery trip, so I just have to remember to bring them with me into the restaurant.

As for the biodegradable utensils, my company doesn’t have receptacles for them. So, I bring them home each Friday and put them in our green bins. Our city just switched waste service providers in January, and now we all get green bins for garden waste, old food, and for biodegradable things like this. Very convenient. I just quickly rinse them after lunch to prevent them from stinking by the time I get home.

I got a metal knife, fork, and spoon from the company cafeteria and keep them at my desk. So now, I get the take-out with no plastic bag, I eat it with the biodegradable utensils or with these metal ones if it didn’t come with them, and the food and packaging are biodegradable. It now happens a few times a week that I don’t have to put anything in the garbage bin after lunch!

Zero-waste lunch. Delicious!

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Wow

Sometimes, a product comes along that just makes you go, “Wow.”

So about 3 weeks ago, we got a clog in our bathroom sink drain. I searched the net and found the traditional “eco” way to unclog drains is baking soda and vinegar. The two react together and foam up pushing a lot of stuff around, and eating away at things like hair and toothpaste and bits of skin. Baking soda and vinegar are both fine to put down your drain, as they are not toxic and won’t kill all the bacteria at the sewage treatment plant that digests all our effluents.  Sounds like a good solution, doesn’t it?

Except that it doesn’t work very well. After a half gallon of vinegar, and half the huge box of baking soda, our drain only ran slightly better than before, and after a few days, the flow slowed again to a complete crawl.

There must be a better way without resorting to the other nasty, horrible, toxic chemical solution that I know works but is really bad for the environment.  (You know the brand.)

Well, there is always “snaking”. That is, running a tool down the drain to manually grind up or loosen the clog. We have a snake, but it won’t work. The problem is, the snake doesn’t bend enough to get through the quick turns under the sink, and there is some mechanisms down there to pull the sink stopper shut when you pull on the lever. The mechanism is in the way, and won’t allow the snake by.

There must be some other way…

CLR Power Plumber Can

CLR Power Plumber Can

So at the store, I ran across this CLR Power Plumber. It says on the box that there are no harmful chemical, acids, or lye, and no CFCs to ruin the ozone layer. It is just a can of compressed gas with a special head. The way it works is that you fill the sink with water and then invert the can and submerge it in the clog water and use the special head to completely seal off the drain hole. Then, you take a wet cloth and plug any other holes in your sink and hold tight. Then, you press down on the can, gas is suddenly released, and the clog is pushed quickly through the narrow section of pipe to the larger section where it can flow away.

I thought, what the heck. Might as well try it before resorting to the nasty chemicals.

So I followed the instructions, filled the sink with water, inverted the can, plugged the other hole, then pushed. Whoosh! It took about 1 second, and then it was done. That’s it. One second! The sink drains normally now like it was never clogged at all.

Wow.

We suffered through three weeks of vinegar, and it was all solved in 1 second? In fact, it is faster and easier than the chemical solution (the vinegar/baking soda method, or the even nasty chemical solution). And, as a side benefit, it doesn’t eat away at your pipes. We’re never going back.

The only thing that could make it more eco is that the compressed gas probably required a motor run on fossil fuels or electricity from fossil fuels to compress it. If there was some way to compress air for a while by a hand or foot pump until the pressure was high enough, and then use that as your gas, then that would be better too.

I did find a hand pump solution from Cobra Products, which I may try in the future. That goes the extra mile to be more eco friendly at the minor cost of some elbow grease. If it works as well as this can of compressed air did, it will be no problem.

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I’m Outta my Head!

Outta my shower head, that is.

The shower head in our  en suite master bathroom was a “gentle rain” type of shower head. It was nice and wide and distributed lots of water everywhere. It was luxurious and showers felt great.

But it was also expensive.

Why? Well, a flow of 3 gallons per minute means a 5 minute shower would 15 gallons. And a 5-minute shower is not very long. I know people who take 15 to 20 minutes showers. A 15-minute shower would use 45 gallons, a 20-minute one would use 60 gallons.

In my previous post on navy showers, I indicated that we got our water usage for a shower down to about 10 gallons or so, down from 20 to 30, by turning off the water while lathering up and only running the water while getting wet or rinsing. That saved us about 7100 gallons a year, which is 949 cubic feet = 9.49 water units, which costs just under $39 in our area. Multiply by 2 adults, that is $77.

Just recently, I bought and installed a low-flow shower head from our local home megastore. This new shower head has a flow rate of 1.5 gallons per minute as opposed to the 2.5 gallons per minute for the regular shower heads, and 3 gallons per minute for the high-flow “gentle rain” type that we have. That is a savings of 40% over regular shower heads, and 50% over the one we had before. There is also an even lower-flow setting on the head for soaking rather than bulk rinsing (~0.75 gallons per minute?). This setting is good for things like rinsing the soap out of your eyes where you don’t need the full blast of water.

My concerns with the low-flow shower head were that the water pressure would not be enough and that I would have to take longer showers to rinse properly, and that would negate the savings from the lower-flow version.

The pressure issue was dealt with nicely. The manufacturer made a big deal that the design of the shower head made for a reasonable amount of pressure. After installing the head, it seems they were right. While it is not as nice as the previous shower head, it is at least acceptable.

As for the rinse length, it turns out that I do not have to turn on the water any longer than I did previously to rinse off. I am guessing that much of the water that the old head sprayed at me was not being used to rinse the soap away. It was just running off without collecting soap/shampoo, or it was spraying onto the walls and tubs without hitting me. With the lower-flow shower head, the flow is slower, so more of the water gets more time to dissolve and rinse the soap/shampoo. Or at least that’s my theory.

To see if this head actually saved any water, I did an informal test. First, I took my regular navy shower with the old “gentle rain” shower head. I closed the bathtub drain at the beginning of the shower to collect it all. When I was done with the shower, I marked the final water level with a piece of tape. That night, I replaced the shower head with the low-flow model. The next morning, I also showered with the drain closed. I didn’t measure exactly how much water was saved, but I could see that the final water level was well below the previous day’s mark. In fact, it looked like it was approximately 50% or so, but that is a just an estimate. If I were less lazy, I would have measured it exactly.

Assuming it was actually 50% that I saved over the previous 10 gallons, that means:

water savings per shower: about 5 gallons
water savings per year: 1775 gallons = 226 cubic feet = 2.26 water units
cost of 2.26 water units: $9.24
cost for two adults: $18.48
cost of the new showerhead: about $50 (taxes and everything included)
pay-back time: 2 years 8 months

That calculation doesn’t even factor in the savings in the amount of natural gas used to heat that amount of water. I’m not sure how I can calculate that, but I would suspect that is significant compared to the cost of the water itself.

On a side note, regular readers probably noticed there have not been a lot of posts recently. The twins have kept us very, very busy, so I haven’t done a lot of green improvements to the house recently that I could blog about. I hope now that they are getting to be a little older (10 months and counting!), I will get more time to do that.

All other parents of twins we have met have told us the same thing, “Don’t worry, it gets easier after the first year.” I hope they are right!

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Paper or Plastic?

When you go to the grocery store, sometimes they still ask you that question. Many are tempted just to say “plastic” because they are convenient, strong, can hold wet things well without breaking, and are really only very small amount of plastic when you think about it.

The problem is that even a very small amount of plastic multiplied by a large number amounts to a huge amount of plastic.

Each year, somewhere on the order 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic grocery bags are consumed every year around the world. Somewhere between 100 and 400 billion of those bags are consumed in the US alone. A vast majority of them go right into a landfill when they are done with their job.

A sizable minority get loose and create non-biodegradable litter which finds its way to rivers and oceans and collecting in huge floating patches in the center of the ocean. The plastic then photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces until it starts to interfere with the food chain of a wide variety of marine animals, and basically just kills them. The HDPE plastic from which they are made does not biodegrade, so it sticks around in very small bits for thousands of years.

Only a very small fraction of these bags actually get recycled — on the order of 0.5% or so. The problem is that it costs far more to recycle the bags than you can get out of selling the final product (about 60 times or so). It is just not economically feasible to recycle them. That is why you see so few grocery stores advertising that you can recycle the bags with them.

The bags are also a problem on the manufacturing and retail side too. Aggregated, these bags cost grocery stores on the order of $4 billion a year in the US alone. That will eat into profits!

In terms of the plastic used to manufacture the bags, each bag is only a tenth of an ounce or so worth of plastic. But multiplying out, that still accounts for 3 million tonnes of plastic used world wide, not including all the manufacturing waste. This amount of plastic requires a huge amount of oil and natural gas, and a staggering amount of energy to make.

Paper bags are no better. It takes about 4 times the amount of energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Also, paper manufacturing often releases a lot of toxic chemicals into the environment as well.

I took a look at our own family consumption.

100 to 120 shopping trips a year to the grocery store
4 bags per trip on average
= 400 to 500 plastic bags a year!

What can we do about this problem? There are 2 good solutions:

1. Reusable bags
2. No bags at all

For the past few months we have started using reusable bags. The bags we got at my wife’s work and are made from recycled plastic. Another good choice for durability is canvas, which will last years, and is made from natural materials.

At first, we kept forgetting to bring them with us to the store, but now we store them in the trunk of the car at all times so that if we happen to go to the store, we always have them with us. Now I just have to figure out some way of remembering to get them out of the trunk before I walk in the store.

A reusable shopping bag from www.reusablebags.com

A reusable canvas shopping bag from http://www.reusablebags.com, a good source of high quality bags that can be in service for years.

An even better solution is no bags at all. When we go to Costco, they do not offer you bags. You can get old boxes from them, or just stack stuff in the shopping cart. We bring our totes to Costco for the small stuff, but for the mega-packs of things like recycled paper TP, we just keep them free in cart.

No bag at all is also a good option for small purchases at any store. If I go to the store and only get 1 or 2 items, often I just take them as is in my hands. One thing I learned is to keep the receipt out and make sure it is prominently displayed with the items as I walk out of the store so the other employees don’t think I am shoplifting. I have been stopped before by another employee that thought I was just blatantly walking out with stuff.

I also now bring my reusable bags with me if I get take-out food at a restaurant. I ask them to stow the food in my own bag. They are often surprised, but they understand it right away — it is saving them a small amount of money, after all!

So now when we’re asked, “Paper or plastic?” our answer is “Neither!”

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Spin Doctor

Okay, my experiment with the “compost pit” was a failure. Not happy.

Here’s what happened. Basically, the rains came this winter and filled up the pit until I had a soup of rotten food and water that lasted for a number of days after the rains stopped and the water finally seeped out again. This soup stank something awful, as all the aerobic bacteria were killed off and anaerobic digestion began in earnest. I thought the water would just seep into the ground during a rain rather than collecting in the pit. I found out that the ground upon which our house is built has a very high water table since we are close to sea level (~3 or 4 feet ASL), so the water from rain doesn’t have anywhere to go. It just sits there.

So, after having had enough with the olfactory complaints from the wife and indeed from my own nose, I covered over the pit with a number of bags of top soil. This settled, and I added more bags. After a while, this will just be a regular part of the lawn.

The new composting sitting in our side yard.

The new composting sitting in our side yard.

But what to do with all the food wastes now?

Well, as luck would have it, Costco was selling a 74 gallon tumbling composter for only $99 as a spring special. This is an unbeatable price, as most of the tumbling or spinning composters of that size that I have seen are in the $250 range.  This one is even made from recycled plastics and materials and comes in a box made of recycled materials and no glue. And even better, the family CFO (ie. my wife) approved the purchase, so I got one!

Assembly was pretty easy except for the part where you hang the tumbler from the frame, which was awkward and required 2 people. It took about 45 minutes or so.

I have been putting food wastes in there for about 6 weeks now, and already a lot of it is turning brown. There is no significant smell when the thing is closed, though when open it does smell of good food gone bad. The pile feels nice and warm when you open it up and put your hand near it, so the bacteria and such are doing their jobs.

At some point, I will have to stop adding new food, and let this stuff finish composting. The plan is to temporarily store new waste in a garbage bin, and let the current batch finish without any new additions for a while. Then, put the mostly composted stuff in another garbage bin and let it sit and “finish off” before use in the garden. Then, transfer the new waste to the tumbler and start afresh. Ideally, I should have bought 2 tumblers. Maybe the CFO will let me do that next year if I am good and remember mother’s day.

Close up of the compost so far. Note all the 6 week old brown stuff.

Close up of the compost so far. Note all the 6 week old brown stuff. Hopefully, all the large pieces will break down into smaller pieces after the compost is done...

As a side note, I must say that I am very impressed with the little changes that Costco is making towards being green. They are now selling organic cotton clothes, organic foods, and puting solar panels on the rooves, and now … composters? Slowly, they are getting there!

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Unruly Fans

With a title like that, maybe you are thinking about European soccer matches? But what I am actually referring to is something equally violent with respect to the environment: the simple bathroom fan. It sucks. Or blows. Your choice. Either way, it’s not good.

What is the problem with bathroom fans?

Well, have you ever wondered where the air that it pumps goes? Usually, it goes directly to your attic, taking with it a valuable resource: its heat. There are many, many ways in which a house is inefficient with heat, causing you to spend a lot more money and produce a larger carbon footprint than you have to in order to get your house to the desired temperature. The bathroom fan is one of them.

In the winter, you spend a bunch of money on natural gas, heating oil, or electricity to heat up the air in your home to a comfortable level. Then, you go to the bathroom, and proceed to pump that nice warm air into the cold attic — ie. outside your insulation (if you have it) and effectively, outside your house!

In the summer, the same thing. You spend a lot of energy on air conditioning, and that nice cool air gets pumped right up into the attic, meaning you have to produce a bunch more air conditioned air to replace it in the rest of the house.

How wasteful is it?

Fans are rated by how much air they can pump in one minute as measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM). Many pump about 70 to 80 CFM, but some are powerful enough to pump 200 CFM.  A typical home contains about 12,000 to 15,000 cubic feet of air. That means that little 100 CFM fan in the bathroom can pump out the entire volume of the house in about 120 to 150 minutes or so. Most of that air is replaced by outside air that needs to be heated up or cooled down as appropriate.

Now, we have all forgotten to turn off a bathroom fan for a few hours, right? We come back from that shopping trip 3 hours later and realize we left the bathroom fan on. Oh well, it can’t be that bad, we think. Well, the entire volume of the house has been replaced, and that means we have spent a deal deal of energy just heating the new air for nothing!

So what to do about these fans?

Well, what I have started doing is using the fan for one purpose and one purpose only — to evacuate the bathroom of uh… “undesirable odours” shall we say. When the undesirable air is gone, I turn the fan off immediately. In the spring or fall, if the outside air is a mild temperature, I just open the window and leave the fan off for this purpose too.

I do not turn on the fan for showers or baths or any other reason.

This has a number of advantages:

  1. The heat contained in the air from the shower water will migrate into the house instead of being pumped outside.
  2. In the winter or summer, the humidity generated by a shower will help to rehumidify the house air. Both furnaces and air conditioners tend to dry the air out (which is why some people get bloody noses in the winter or summer). You just have to make sure to leave the bathroom door open when you are done so that it dries out, otherwise you can start growing mold and mildew. Our bathroom usually dries out in about 20 minutes with just the door open. Humid air also retains heat better than dry air, so it will help [very slightly] reduce your cooling or heating costs as well.
  3. The moisture in the air that is pumped up to the attic with the bathroom fan will condense when it hits the cooler air in the attic. Cold and damp is perfect conditions for growing fungus, mold, and mildew. If the mold gets completely out of control in your attic, it can create very serious health problems due to the toxins they can contain.
  4. I can’t forget to turn off the fan, because it is already off.
  5. A regular bathroom fan uses 40 to 75 watts or so.  That is equivalent to a small incandescent light bulb. By not turning on the fan, I am not using electricity to run it. Assuming I take one shower a day and the fan is running for 20 minutes (15 min shower + 5 minutes to dry out the bathroom afterwards), that comes to 5.9 kWh per year saved, which costs me about 77c around here. Not a big deal, but all these sort of little things can add up over time.
  6. Our orchids LOVE the warmth and humidity in the bathroom. Now they are actually starting to bloom.
  7. In the winter, the bathroom stays warm when you are done showering, until you open the bathroom door to let it air out. This means you are not freezing before you get the chance to dry off. With the bathroom fan on, the warm, moist bathroom air is replaced by the cooler air from the rest of your house, making it unpleasant to step out of the shower.
  8. Best of all, this is something green I can do that costs nothing!

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The Compost Pit

On Ungolden Pond

Well, I have finally gotten rid of the mosquito-larva-laden pond in our front yard. It had a pump in it that got clogged up every two weeks, which meant it was continually clogged because I was too lazy to clean it that often. So, it got algae and scum and was not very pleasant. Though I was probably providing habitat for many creatures, I think it was not so healthy for the human creatures that lived nearby. (ie. us!)

So I pumped out all the water onto the front lawn — why let it go down the drain? Might as well water the lawn — and ripped out the plastic pond liner that the previous owners had put in there. Rather than throw it out into the landfill, I put it up for grabs on Freecycle, and it was snapped up in no time by a grateful single mom whose son always wanted a little gurgling pond in their yard. (The son better stretch well before he starts digging, because that’s a big pond and will take a lot of digging!)

Here is a view of the old pond liner that I was giving away on Freecycle.

Here is a view of the old pond liner that I gave away on Freecycle.

The Compost Pit

But now I am left with a hole in the exact shape of the liner above. How to fill this hole. I need dirt. Cheap Dirt. Hmm… where can I get some dirt?

Wait! I know! Now I can kill two birds with one stone. This hole in the ground will become my new compost pit. Once the items have decomposed into compost, the compost can just stay where it is and be the dirt that fills the hole and becomes part of the lawn.

Only problem is, I have never composted before. So, I did some research.

What I found is an awesome free book on Project Gutenberg by Steve Solomon called “Organic Gardener’s Composting“. It is very detailed and illuminating.

However, it is also long, so I’ll try to summarize it here. If you are going to compost yourself, I would definitely recommend reading the whole book for a full explanation of the “why” behind everything. Otherwise, if  you are merely curious about the really bare basics, just read on.

Carbon and Nitrogen

Carbon and nitrogen are two elements that form the basis for many compounds used by plants.

Carbon is used to create carbohydrates, which are sugars, starches, cellulose and lignin which form the energy storage mechanism and the structure of many plants. They are also transformed into fats and oils from there. Carbohydrates are made by plants via photosynthesis from carbon dioxide in the air, water, and light energy from the sun. Plants can make these very easily. They can also get some of their carbon from the ground.

Nitrogen is used by plants to create proteins from amino acids that are composed partly of that nitrogen. However, nitrogen cannot be “fixed” from the its gaseous form in the air (N2) into a solid form usable by plants as easily as carbon can. Instead, plants have to get their nitrogen from somewhere else. Some plants get their nitrogen from various single-celled organisms that fix nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Some plants, like beans, even create an environment for these organisms to grow around their roots. Other plants need to absorb their nitrogen from their surroundings in the form of composted materials that happen to be near their roots.

The Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio

The most important thing to think about in compost is the carbon/nitrogen ratio of the stuff you are putting in your compost heap. You want to achieve the ideal of 25 units of carbon to 1 unit of nitrogen. If you do, the compost will degrade nicely and form healthy, high-quality fertilizer for plants with enough carbon and nitrogen for the plants to thrive. The final, stable compost will have a ratio of about 12.5 to 1 because some of the carbon is “burned” off by the composting organisms to get their energy.

Most things have both carbon and nitrogen, but some are very lopsided in one way or another. For example, sawdust and wood are almost all carbon with a ratio of between 100 and 400 to 1. Urine is almost all the way on the other side of the scale with a ratio of 3 or 5 to 1. To balance it out, you need to mix a little of both to achieve the 25 to 1 ideal.

Finding the carbon/nitrogen ratio of any particular piece of material is impossible without taking it to a lab for analysis. Even within a particular type of material, it depends on how that material was grown and what happened to it afterwards. For example, grass clippings from your lawn may have anywhere between 15 and 40 to 1 depending on the time of year and how much and which fertilizers you put on it.

Because of that, it is easier for the home composter to lump types of material into 5 general classes with average ratios that represent everything in the class:

  • High Carbon Materials – these materials have a ratio of 100 to 1 or more. Certain things like hardwoods can even be as high as 400 to 1.
  • Medium Carbon Materials – these materials are in the range of about 50 to 1
  • Balanced Materials – these materials are in the range of about 25 to 1, and are in the right range already.
  • Medium Nitrogen Materials – these materials are in the range of about 12 to 1
  • High Nitrogen Materials – these materials have a ratio of 6 to 1 or less

Here is a short list of materials and the classes they are in. This is not an exhaustive list! I will be making a separate page with a large list of materials as I find them.

High Carbon Medium Carbon Balanced Medium Nitrogen High Nitrogen
sawdust
wood
paper
tree bark
grain chaff
dried brown grass clippings
dried corn stalks
low quality hay
green grass clippings
seaweed
fruit wastes
top quality hay
vegetables
garden weeds
horse manure
cow manure
bone meal
rabbit manure
chicken manure
seed meal

The trick then is to mix these things in the right way to generally achieve about 25 to 1.

If you do not mix them in the right way, you will still get compost that looks and smells the same as regular compost, but it will not have the right mix of nutrients or nitrogen for the plants. I found out that the municipal solid waste compost I was advocating in an earlier post comes mostly from balanced to high carbon sources, which are basically all the garden wastes from everyone’s yards. These are green and dried grass clippings, dried plants, fallen dried leaves, branches and wood clippings. Basically, it is everything you throw into the green bin when taking care of your yard and garden. All of those things are heavier on the carbon side than on the nitrogen side. This means that the compost is actually lower quality than it could be, and does not provide enough nitrogen to the plants to be a good fertilizer.

To achieve the right ratios, you should put the materials together with the following ratios:

For every unit of high or medium carbon material you put into the compost, put in 24 times as much medium nitrogen or 8 times as much high nitrogen materials to balance it out.

Alternately, you could say:

For every unit of medium nitrogen material you put in, put 4% of a unit worth of high or medium carbon material to balance it out.
For every unit of high nitrogen material you put in, put in 12% of a unit worth of high or medium carbon material to balance it out.

In terms of the balanced materials, you can put in as much as you want, as long as all the other carbon materials are balanced by the nitrogen materials.

When I say “unit” in the above sentences, I mean any type of weight unit like pounds or kilograms. The unit doesn’t matter as much as the ratio between them and that you use the same unit of measurement for everything.

Other Concerns

Acidity

The acidity level for compost should be right about neutral. (ie. pH of 7). Many foods, especially fruits, are very high in acid (pH < 7), and create an unbalanced mix. Check out the list of the acidity of various foods on the FDA web site. To combat too much acidity, you can add in alkaline foods such as lima beans, egg shells, frozen cooked corn, or even a little baking soda (not baking powder). Be careful how much!

Nutrients

You may have seen the NPK measures on regular inorganic fertilizer at the store. These are the measure of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (symbol K) in the fertilizer.  These “macronutrients” are most needed for plant development, but so are a wide variety of “micronutrients” that occur in far smaller concentrations. Inorganic fertilizers have many problems that I won’t go into, but one in particular is the focus on the macronutrients. Eventually, if you only replace the macronutrients in the soil year after year, all the micronutrients will get used up by those years worth of crops, and you will eventually get a very unhealthy soil.

Compost can have all the nutrients, macro and micro. The easiest way to achieve this is to just put in a variety of foods into your compost. Mostly, it will come out right by itself. (This is also healthy for you because it means you are eating a variety of foods at home!) However, if you have a large amount of one particular food in the compost, then you will usually run into problems of too much of some nutrients and not enough of others. Variety is the spice of compost, as well as life!

Water

The bacteria in compost need water to thrive. The compost should be somewhat wet like a damp cloth. Add in a little bit of water each time you throw in some more food, and perhaps on hot, dry summer days as well.

Air

There are two types of composting: aerobic, and anaerobic. Both will produce a similar compost using the same feedstocks, but the aerobic compost will smell a heck of a lot better as it is composting. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t an extremely pleasant smell until it gets near the end, but it is a lot better than the anaerobic composting. Also, aerobic composting is usually faster.

So, you need to turn the compost every few days to introduce new air and new oxygen. Various manufacturers sell “tumbling” composters that can be spun on a hinge or axis. They are expensive (like $250), but work very nicely and easily if you can afford them. I’m planning in the future to make one for myself out of recycled/reused materials. But, that’s for a future posting!

Bad Stuff

There are some things you should not put into the compost at home:

  • Meat and fish scraps, including foods made with meat like spaghetti sauce. These make for great nitrogen materials because they contain lots of proteins. However, there are a number of problems with them. First, when they break down (ie. putrify), they smell EXTREMELY bad due to the creation of putrescine and cadaverine. Anyone who has ever smelled a decaying dead body before knows what I mean. Second, they will also attract pests such as rats and raccoons that will dig through your compost and make a complete mess in your yard. Third, the putrefying meat can be a harbour for bacteria and diseases, so you cannot put the resulting compost on any edible plants in your garden. If you have a completely secure and closed off vessel to compost the meats (concrete?), or if you live on a farm, and you are only using the compost on ornamental plants, then you can compost the meat. Otherwise, if you are composting at home, trust me. Just avoid the meat.
  • Oils. Oils go rancid and smell. The smell is not as bad as the meat, but it can get bad. More importantly, oils break down very slowly and the rest of your compost will be done before the oils in it are.
  • Human feces. Just don’t do it. For one thing, it stinks. This is not even good on your ornamentals because of the human diseases it can harbour such as E. Coli. If you want to compost your own wastes, there are composting toilets for that purpose which guarantee that the composting happens hot enough to kill all these diseases.
  • Diseased plants. Some diseases can survive the composting process and infect your other plants when you use it as fertilizer.
  • Weeds with seeds in it. This is because the seeds will survive if the compost doesn’t get hot enough, and you will be sowing a new batch of weeds in your garden when you’re done.
  • The roots of underground creeper plants, unless they are thoroughly pureed somehow. These resist composting and will grow new plants. Example: bamboo. That is nasty stuff that is very difficult to kill.
  • Anything that is not organic or was not alive at one time. This includes all glass, plastics and metals, except for plastics made from starches which are designed to be biodegradable.
  • Solid wood, twigs, sticks, and bark. These are actually okay in the compost, but they break down by fungii so slowly that they don’t really add much to your compost. The rest of the compost will be done long before the wood is.
  • Glossy magazines. The paper has too many contaminents in it. Regular paper, especially newsprint, is fine because it is usually printed with soy inks that are biodegradable, but avoid those perfume-laden glossies.
  • Glossy paper plates. These are usually made with a thin layer of plastic to protect the paper from getting waterlogged and falling apart, and the plastic of course never breaks down. If you want to compost your paper plates, there are a variety of brands that advertise that they are compostable and they are made only of paper and no plastic.

How It’s Gone So Far

Well, since writing the earlier parts of this article, it has rained very heavily where we live. Unfortunately, that meant the ground got water logged, and the pit became a pool again which only drained slowly as the ground dried out again. This meant all the food was buried under a foot of water or so, which means anaerobic composting started up. YUCK-O. It smells really bad now. I have stopped adding food to the pit and covered it with leaves and dried grass from the yard. This successfully insulated us from the smell. I thought the rainwater would just absorb into the ground. I didn’t realize it would just stay there if it rained enough.

So, I have co-opted an old plastic garbage can I had lying around. Now all the food goes there. There are air holes poked in the top, and I can roll the can around on the ground to mix everything and introduce air. This has gone very well, and is a heck of a lot cheaper than one of those tumbling composters.

The smell is very light. Standing right beside the can, I can’t smell anything odd most of the time. I have to open the lid before I get the bad food smell. It looks right too. Much of the older food is turning brown and black, though it may be due to the coffee grounds. There are lots of fruit flies and other insects in there, which is good, as they are part of the process of breaking down foods.

The plan is to compost all the food, then fill the pit the rest of the way with a mix of compost and dirt. Surprisingly, after only 5 weeks of adding food to the can, it is now 1/3 full. We eat a lot at home, it seems. I think I may need more cans in the future for making compost for my garden! I also have to remember next fall to store some dried leaves and plants to use as the “carbon” for next year’s compost.

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