Archive for the 'compost' Category

14
Mar
10

Recyclable Me

We might not like to think about it, but we ourselves are highly recyclable. Under the right circumstances, even teeth and bones will eventually resolve into new forms. Left to our own devices, we will at long last be carried away by critters or become absorbed into the mysterious, inexorable life of slowly heaving rock. Except for fillings and crowns, pacemakers, artificial knees, and other late-arriving hardware, nothing much remains.

To me, that sounds like absolution. Composting may not be a pretty process, but it’s the closest thing to the magic of “poof” that nature delivers. I bow to the light within that.

Skylawn Cemetery, San Mateo, CA

Nevertheless, a whole industry in the US takes the opposite view. A quiet army of morticians routinely embalm the broken bodies that arrive on their doorstep, pumping them full of chemicals that divert the dead from the cycle of life, transforming the remains into an environmental hazard. The only benefit achieved by the process is to sanitize the open-casket obsequies that appear to be nearly obligatory in the United States.

Of course there are alternatives. Cremation is better, though it too is associated with environmental burdens.  (The ovens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and our non-organic hardware may be transformed into toxic fumes.) A green burial is the low-tech best, if you’re lucky enough to have a green cemetery nearby, easily determined with reference to the Natural End map. It turns out I can avail myself of a funeral home in Colma and repair to Mill Valley, California, where I can receive a natural chemical-free burial, involving a biodegradable casket or shroud and GPS coordinates to mark the spot. As Fernwood points out, I get “to be part of a land restoration project” in a whole new way.

But there’s a third high-tech recycling option, for those who lack the patience to do it the old-fashioned way: alkaline hydrolysis, a process by which the body is broken down to constituents in just about three hours. The Wikipedia article on resomation—the name by which the process is being marketed—specifies that what’s left at the end is “a small quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-coloured dust.” The liquid can be used to water the lawn, the dust is returned to the survivors.

And the New York Times pointed out that the industrial hardware—replacement parts, augmentations, and other devices—is delivered up clean and pristine and ready for another go-round. Perhaps Goodwill can handle the trade.

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08
Sep
08

ivy

Ivy, the Hog

Ivy, the Hog

I’m in Pescadero on the California Coast for a few days and find myself next door to a gigantic and very dusty pig.  Ivy looks almost too heavy for her stumpy legs. When I walk by, she strugggles upright, legs about to buckle, hooves splayed out like much-abused shoes, skin folded into a leathery carapace like that of a rhino. She grunts and snorts at every lumbering step, inviting me to offer alms.

Even lying down appears to be strenuous exercise, given her bulk. She carefully bends one knee and allows herself to list sideways a little, hesitating just a second before she gives way and keels over in a cloud of dust. She is a powerful warning against gluttony.

It may not be practical for every family to keep a pig, but it does occur to me that considerably less garbage would find its way to the landfill with an Ivy to take care of the vegetable leftovers. She eats everything except cabbage. While her diet is essentially the same, not counting the cabbage, she is certainly far more efficient than my modest little worms, if distinctly more odoriferous.

Oklahoma City's 1930s Piggery

Oklahoma City's Piggery (1930s)

Early in the 20th century, many towns in the US kept piggeries as the most economical waste management solution, perhaps inspired by the roaming pigs that kept house in the streets of New York City until the 1880s and 90s, as well as the many clandestine stationary hogs that many poor people stashed in cellars and hallways as a cheap source of protein.

Just this morning I heard on the radio that Al Gore advises us to cut out at least one dish of meat from our diet every week, to help curb global warming. I suppose a swill-fed Ivy could still deliver a guilt-free carnivorous feast. On the other hand, as I contemplate this hog snorting up a puff of dust in her carefully moulded dirt bed, it is apparent to me why various cultures consider pork unclean.

06
Aug
08

On Fire

In late July, a huge compost pile caught fire at the Palo Alto dump. Gigantic billows of smoke drifted off to the neighboring communities, creating considerable alarm among the residents, most of whom (understandably) don’t like to be intimate with landfill and its various effluents. Fire engines and helicopters were dispatched to extinguish the smoldering ruin, after which a crew sifted through the entire pile in search of hot spots.

Compost Pile in 2006

Compost Pile in 2006

Barbara Cimino, a spokeswoman for the fire department, sought to calm the fears of residents in the path of the smoke, explaining it was all very harmless and quickly brought under control. The Huffington post fueled the flames by adding “toxic” to its headline, although that’s unlikely, considering it was the compost pile that was laid waste, so to speak. It won’t have been more unhealthy than smoke is, generally, I should think and to be avoided, but “toxic smoke” suggests something else to me.

Cimino noted that the fire department was investigating whether a truck had brought in combustible material. That’s what caught my ear, as definitely newspeak. Compost is by definition combustible. Moreover, the process of biodegradation generates heat and smoldering fires in landfills are common, as they used to be in haystacks, where moist hay can spur biodegradation and result in spontaneous combustion). Compost can’t be any different. So however it happened, in all likelihood, it was just in the nature of things.

A couple of years ago, I got a tour of the Palo Alto landfill from the manager, who showed me the active face, the recycling operations on top of the fill, the vast closed area which holds nothing but pipes and grass on top of the fill, and the area converted to park. He drove me around and explained what was what and how things worked, grudgingly at first and much more enthusiastically when he discovered I was nothing but ears.

He’d worked at the landfill since the early 1980s and told me stories about people stealthily trying to dump motor oil when the workers weren’t looking. About a lady bringing huge loads of new cabbage patch dolls just before Christmas, which the workers rescued and gave to a not-for-profit. About another lady dragging a worker under her car as he was helping her get unstuck from a muddy spot. About yachtsmen abandoning their craft as the marina silted up. leaving the landfill crew to deal with the remains.

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

And he explained that the landfill was smoldering under the surface pretty much all the time. Usually, the workers coould tell where the hot spots were when their PVC methane collection pipes melted. There wasn’t much they could do about it except lay more pipe for methane collection.

He told me he didn’t know what he would do when the landfill closed, not too far in the future now. He didn’t have much education, being an outdoors kind of guy, but operating the heavy machinery on the landfill all those years had caused a lot of damage to his body. It left him quite a few years away from retirement but not very many options.

It was an education, as I gradually realized that landfill workers get squeezed between government organizations that demand less trash, residents who want to dump whatever they want to get rid off, regardless of regulations, and the trash itself, which is wayward, nasty, and toxic.

Many people like the park that has been created out of the part of the landfill that was closed years ago, but the landfill manager, my tourguide, would just as soon hang himself as walk around there. “It’s filthy,” he said. “and there are nasty creatures all over it–black widows, rats, and all sorts of other vermin.” We’ll have to give it to him. he knew what he was talking about.

28
Jun
08

literary profundities

The many dictionaries of quotations keep mum on the subject of garbage altogether. They contain no high-flown thoughts on leftovers, no ecstasies on rubbish dumps, no meditations on our trash. The poets are considerably less squeamish than the quotation-mongers, however. A.R. Ammons wrote a long and intricate poem on mortality (I think) called Garbage, in which he proposes that “garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough / to get our attention, getting in the way, piling / up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white.”

Ivan Klima wrote a novel called (in English) Love and Garbage, which tells the story of a streetsweeper- poet haunted by the conviction that everything endures forever, including the things we wish away (such as garbage, political inconveniences, a wife). “Rubbish is transformed into new rubbish,” he writes apocalyptically, “only slightly increased in quantity. … the spirit of dead things rises over the earth and over the waters, and its breath forebodes evil.”

And here is Robert Hass, on the ethics of raccoon-composting (section 2 of “In Weather” from his first collection, Field Guide):

I can’t decide

about my garbage and the creatures

who come at night to root

and scatter it. I could lock it

in the shed, but I imagine

wet noses, bodies grown alert

to the smells of warm decay

in the cold air. It seems a small thing

to share what I don’t want,

but winter mornings the white yard

blossoms grapefruit peels,

tin cans, plastic bags,

the russet cores of apples.

The refuse of my life

surrounds me and the sense of waste

in the dreary gathering of it

compels me all the more

to labor for the creatures

who quiver and are quick-eyed

and bang the cans at night

and are not grateful. The other morning,

waking early in the new sun,

I was rewarded. A thaw turned up

the lobster shells from Christmas eve.

They rotted in the yard

and standing in the muddy field I caught,

as if across great distances,

a faint rank fragrance of the sea.

31
Mar
08

Entente

Some time ago I wrote about the arrival of worms in my life, a moment of unanticipated but therefore not less rueful buyer’s remorse on my part. We were off to a rocky start, those worms and I, with me on the cusp of an intense and unhappy ambivalence and the worms presumably shell-shocked out of their usual complacency by unaccustomed travel. (Check out Dilemma for the original story.)

I can now happily report that we’ve worked out some form of peaceful coexistence. I add some scraps to the bin and watch the lid go down slowly, at which point I add some more scraps. Other than that, nothing happens. Whether the worms are happy or disgusted, they haven’t chosen to let me know. They are very discreet, silently chomping away at the goodies. They accept the edges of the bin as the far reaches of the universe and haven’t given any evidence of a desire to explore the world, light out for the territories, or otherwise emancipate themselves from the family circle. So the whole thing, it seems, works out on both sides.

“Seems” because I confess that I have not performed a census of the population, either by counting or weighing my critters, to see how they stack up now against the original pound. I’m heedful of Annie Dillard, who, in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, creeped herself out by looking too closely at the writhing, swirling, pullulating abomination of hatching insect eggs. Not to follow her example, I have avoided too careful an examination and all I know for certain is that my wrigglers are in their bin and that they do in my leftovers, very, very slowly.

My worms are modest eaters, which is a good thing as well as a disappointment. The literature suggested that a pound of worms make short shrift with half a pound of scraps a day. Either this is a sales pitch or the population took a serious hit during the transition into my household. Anyhow, their modest appetite means I can leave them for a fortnight without a minder. It also means they aren’t making much of a dent in the overall volume of my trash. It also means that, until now at least, they aren’t really worth the effort.

31
Jan
08

Composting

Spoke to Bob Besso, who manages NorCal’s waste reduction program. That puts him in charge of the compostibles collection. Right now, he says, about 40% of people participate, on a voluntary basis, and he blames that relatively low rate on the “ick-factor” that keeps more people from separating their food waste from their conventional recyclables and the rest of their trash. (If you put food scraps in the regular trash, you can put it in a plastic bag and not really have to touch it again when it’s time to transfer it to the main bin. For food waste, the plastic doesn’t work, so you get to be just a little more intimate with it.)

In about two years, San Francisco is supposed to meet its goal of 75% diversion of waste from landfill. Currently, it’s only at 69%, and Besso doesn’t think that the goal can be reached without making compostible separation mandatory. (When I ask about San Francisco’s zero waste goal by 2020, Besso says he hopes to be retired by then.) Right now, he has people going bin to bin and door to door, to alert folks to the possibility of reducing their garbage. There’s a mild financial incentive, because you might be able to drop down to a lower monthly collection rate if you can squeeze the hopeless garbage into a smaller can. Obviously, most of San Francisco is way too well off to worry about a few dollars a month. So the question arises: what does move people to make the change?

20
Jan
08

Dilemma

This past week I inadvertently acquired a pound of pet. That is to say, the acquisition itself was entirely intentional: I made the purchase upon mature reflection. It was the pet part I hadn’t counted on.

What I had in mind was a practical solution to the unfortunate fact that the county I live in does not collect compostibles separately from the garbage destined for landfill. I was looking for a way to stop padding the trash with my apple cores, tea bags, and broccoli skins. However, I’m acquainted with the drawbacks of a compost heap, not the least of which is the fact that you have to start gardening to get rid of your own product. So I ordered a worm bin instead, worms included, figuring I could probably get my friends and my land-lady to take the less voluminous castings off my hands.

I set up my bin—all good. I prepare the bedding and add some food—still good But the moment I start opening the worm package, a rather ponderous little cube delivered into my hands by the USPS, it hits me. What if they are dead? They could all have died in transit. Something extremely unpleasant could be waiting to waft up to me when I snip the plastic snag that holds the bag shut.

When I think about it, sending wrigglers in the mail doesn’t seem right. Does the postal service even approve of it? Do the little creatures not need air? And what if some postal employee plays football with the package?

As a matter of fact, even if they haven’t died, something extremely unpleasant could be waiting to waft up to me when I snip the plastic snag that holds the bag shut. I have never yet beheld a pound of red wrigglers in a bag, but it is beginning to dawn on me it won’t be nearly as cute as a litter of puppies, say. Even in the best of circumstances, opening the bag is not an extremely appealing prospect.

Come to think of it, what if they are alive? That would mean they can die any time afterwards and then whatever they shed—blood? ichor? goo?—will be on my hands. I consult the instructions and find that many things can go wrong with worms. Too much food. Too much moisture. Not enough moisture. Too much trauma, even, because, according to my helpful booklet, worms don’t actually like to be in the mail.

I flash on the high school genetics project, many years ago, in which my fruit flies, also arriving in the mail, promptly mired themselves in the sky-blue cereal I had carefully prepared for them, according to instructions. Under my care, they died a miserable death despite their notorious ability to survive all efforts to eradicate them. Things don’t necessarily bode well for a pound of live worms.

Here I am, then, on the horns of a dilemma, on the cusp of a new life as a worm owner. I am definitely hoping they are alive. Or am I? If they are alive, then I will have to make arrangements to have them taken care of next time I go on a trip. I didn’t think of that beforehand. When doing well, I read in my helpful booklet, the population doubles in size in about a month’s time. I didn’t think of that either. Maybe I am actually hoping they are dead.

Anyhow, I take a deep breath, snip, peek in the bag, and stare at nothing. Just a bunch of dirt. No wrigglers. No odor. I gingerly overturn the whole thing on the bedding, and a giant ball of wrigglers, wriggling furiously, reveal themselves to my horrified eyes and promptly roll, en masse, to the very edge of the bin and start to topple over.They are most definitely not dead. Whatever else it is I may be hoping, I certainly hope not to have to pick the wrigglers off my living-room floor one by one. I intervene with my serving spoon and get them back into bed. I try to spread them around a little, so they can’t repeat their caper.

Apart from spooning them into place, it seems there’s little I can do for them at the moment. I am advised to lift up the lid in three day’s time to see if all is well. That leaves me still on the horns of my dilemma: does “all is well” mean dead or alive?




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