City Composting Program

We participate in the City of Minneapolis pilot food composting program. Because we have our own compost bins outside and a worm bin inside, we don’t produce a lot of food waste for the city, but we really have appreciated the ability to compost bones, chicken carcasses, spoiled yogurt, meat skin and food packaging. And when our compost bins are full, which can happen if I’ve had a busy week weeding in the garden or processing veggies, we do wind up giving the city our excess food waste.

In the summer, however, we can run into a problem, which we noted yesterday as we prepared for garbage pickup. The city only picks up compost once a week. That is not often enough in the summer. It can result in smells and small flies. Solutions we and others have tried:

    Bringing it outside before pick-up day: When I’ve had too much compost, or it’s been too smelly, I’ve sometimes had to bring out a bag well before pick-up day. Unfortunately, the heat outside makes the smell so much worse. I actually worried my neighbors might complain.
    Cooling/freezing: I try to throw away spoiled food from the fridge only every other week, right before pickup, so it’s not smelling up the indoor compost bin. That often means leaving spoiled food in the fridge, taking up limited fridge space. A friend told me he puts his compost in the freezer between pick-ups. For us, freezer space is even more limited.
    Containing: We use a medium-sized garbage can with easy lifting lid for most of our compost, and a small metal compost tin for the worm food. The smaller tin does a better job of keeping insects out of the kitchen, but its too small for meaningful composting. We need an effective larger compost bin.

The city hasn’t asked for feedback from residents on the composting program. I wish they would. I wish they would brainstorm with us ways we can better handle compost before pick-up.

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Kitchen and Bathroom Win for Waste Production

We continued to produce quite a bit of garbage this week – 2 pounds, 15 ounces worth. That doesn’t count the things that will be recycled next week. We’ll count them before we set them out.

The majority of waste came from two rooms: the kitchen and the bathroom.

    The heaviest amount of kitchen waste was compostable, and most of that could be composted on site. We are part of the City of Mpls composting pilot program so we sent 8 ounces of compostable packaging went to the city. We had no meat or dairy waste this week, or that would have gone to the city, too.
    The next batch of kitchen waste was plastic. It’s just impossible to get away from it! I bought canning jars and they come in boxes wrapped in plastic! I bought juice and I can choose a plastic twist or a plastic spout. This week I replaced a broken plastic ice cube tray and a broken plastic whisk because I found unbroken items at a garage sale. At least I didn’t have to buy new plastic wrapped in plastic!

As for bathroom waste – ALERT, SENSITIVE MATERIAL AHEAD, NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH:

    I bought an over-the-counter medication that is only sold in a very small plastic tube glued to a large piece of cardboard and covered in plastic. Ugh, hate it.
    And then there’s feminine hygiene products. I’ve written about this before on my other blog so I’m going to link to that post on alternatives to pads. Cloth and diva cups save A LOT of money and a lot of waste over time but they don’t work for every woman at all times. There are eco-friendly, compostable pads on the market, which I hadn’t noticed until now – and I hadn’t thought about how to compost such a product until now. (Challenges have a way of helping you think through things like this.) Grist blogger, Ask Umbria, says to use a worm bin. I realize I’ve got some investigating to do.

Rethinking Our Energy Goal

Truth be told, we’re having problems with the goal of living within our solar energy budget. We haven’t been able to complete the initial worksheet. It is unbelievably complicated to try to track usage like turning a light on and off every time I enter the pantry. I’m wondering if there isn’t a better, easier way to make a dent in our energy use.

I’m thinking of sabbath. Observant, orthodox Jews don’t do “work” on the sabbath, including answering phones, turning on light switches or using stoves. Perhaps we should allow the TV to rest on Saturday and the computer to rest on Sunday.

The Inevitability of Trade-Offs

Oil and Gas versus Water

Saving water is one of my husband’s goals in the Three Actions Project. We have already done a lot to “create the conditions for success” when it comes to saving water for typical household activities. We have a clothes washer that operates with less water and low-flow showerheads. We have a bucket in the shower and in the wash basin to collect water for flushing toilets (gray water) and we keep a large bucket in the kitchen to reuse excess washwater in the garden (I use biodegradable soap). These are things we already do every day.

But in the summer months, this is not where the majority of our water usage occurs. My garden and food processing are the water hogs.

We have water in MN, we don’t have oil. So I’m working on reducing the distance food travels to get to my table. This year the distance for at least some of our tomatoes, cabbage, onions, kale, chard, beets, lettuce, peppers, zucchini, raspberries, ground cherries, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, leeks, cucumbers and beans is no more than 50 feet.

I try not to be water wasteful. I don’t water lawns, which can survive drought by going dormant. I have lots of native plants and bulbs on my boulevard and I rarely water them. But if mother nature doesn’t water the vegetables, I have to. I’m working on getting a rainwater system going, but it’s not there yet.

We eat something from the garden almost every day, but I’m also learning to process vegetables for winter. I’m most familiar with water-bath canning. I can tomatoes, sauce and pickles – things with high amounts of acid. It takes quite a lot of water to wash the vegetables and fill the canning pot. And it takes a fair amount of natural gas to heat all that water. If I’m going to be canning two days in a row, I save the water in the canning pot, but I have a very small kitchen. I can’t keep a huge pot just sitting around. If it’s not going to be used soon, we “water” the compost bin (compost breaks down faster when it’s got the right amount of moisture) or the veggies. But I do feel guilty when I pour all that water out.

In the past month, I’ve been canning with my neighborhood Transition group (Transition Longfellow). We’ve been teaching folks how to pickle and can and doing it together. This saves water because many people are using it one after another. It also saves gas because we are doing more in the same canner so we don’t have to keep heating extra water. It’s too bad there aren’t places set up in each neighborhood where people can go to do this kind of work together – saving money and gas and having fun while they do it!

I recently bought a pressure canner so I can process low-acid foods like beets and green beans and meat. At first I couldn’t understand why people said it was more efficient because a pressure canner takes far more time. Now that I’ve processed soup and broth, I see what they mean. The pressure canner uses only a couple of quarts of water – as opposed to many gallons used in the water canner – and once it reaches boiling, I can turn the gas on the stove down to the very lowest setting. Pressure keeps the heat high.

But it’s clear to me that I need to learn more about other methods of food preservation, too.

Zero waste is clearly a longer-term goal

Last week we missed garbage day so on Tuesday night we sat down to sort through two week’s worth of garbage looking for clues on how we can reduce waste. We have a long way to go before we meet our goal of zero waste. So what were the stand-outs?

Activities generate a lot of waste. In the last two weeks we:

    Hosted National Night Out: This resulted in the purchase – and disposal – of 40 plus pop cans, left-over invitations and packaging for the invite paper. People brought food to share and left me with plastic containers, tin foil and foil chip bags. Next year I’ll make lemonade and maybe I can come up with some cute invite idea that doesn’t require me to purchase postcard paper.
    Built Little Free Libraries: My husband organized a group build of 15 little free libraries. We are left with plastic packaging for hardware and plastic sheets that protected the windows, packaging for labels and laminates. Hm, where can you buy individual hardware pieces unboxed?
    Started the Three Actions Project: We generated paper printing out info.

Over the course of this year we are pushing ourselves to look into every nook and cranny of our house and property to see what needs cleaning, repair or removal. This inevitably generates waste.

    I tackled a set of drawers that held 18-years-worth of family photos, throwing away many dozen old, bad photos. The checklist provided by Three Actions asked me if I had ideas to reuse them so I thought about whether there was some “crafty” project I could do but what would I have in the end? Stuff I don’t need. I’m thankful for digital cameras that allows me to NOT print out bad photos, and for shareable online photo albums.
    We replaced a rusty old mailbox, a rusty outdoor light, and an impossibly difficult-to-set thermostat with a super-easy set-back thermostat. I’ll try freecycling the old thermostat.

Other people generated waste for us!

    We generated 14.5 oz of paper printouts in two weeks, but the Star Tribune, various fundraisers and a couple of catalog companies sent us 5.5 lbs!!! of paper that we didn’t ask for. Although we sent various companies a postcard 3 years ago asking to be removed from their mailing list, if you make a purchase they put you right back on it. It’s a constant struggle to stay removed, but we made a list and will follow up.
    We bought a new mailbox, house numbers, light fixture and thermostat and along with them came 1.75 lbs of cardboard packaging. I started bags of peanuts to bring to UPS for reuse (there is one in Highland Park that takes it) and saved the brown paper to use for wrapping paper.
    Of course, it didn’t help that we brought 1.5 lbs of paper into the house in the form of free papers and flyers.
    And we received 1.6 lbs of real mail.

In the end we recycled 45 pieces of metal (all food related), 5 glass jars (all food related), 11 pieces of plastic (all but 1 food related), and more than 10 pounds of paper.

We had 3 lbs 12 oz of non-recyclable garbage. Even though I grow my own veggies, and bring my own bags and containers to the coop, I was still not able to avoid food-related plastic. We had no actual food waste because we have a worm bin, a 3-part compost bin and we participate in the City of Mpls composting program, which takes food that can’t be broken down in a home-sized compost pile (like chicken bones and food-contaminated packaging).

Starting Out with the Three Actions Project

This is Leslie. I’m participating with my husband, Peter. We are the parents of five young-adult children. Our recognition of the threat posed by climate change and our concern for our children’s lives and futures has caused us to significantly shift our lifestyle in the last two years to one of greater sustainability.

Our household has already taken action on many of the menu items for the Three Actions project but we are by no means at the bottom of the chart. We believe involvement in this project will give us the discipline to measure our progress and the opportunity to develop new habits.

We have chosen two actions together, and each of us chose one action separately. Our shared actions are:

  1. Eliminate All Waste. Every year for the past five years, we’ve chosen to work toward one significant sustainability goal. The goal for 2012 was to become a zero waste household after seeing this video, but we haven’t made significant progress. Instead, we’ve been “creating the conditions for success” (more on this later). We believe that the act of photographing and measuring will help us be more successful and we appreciate the information the Three Actions project has provided as background.
  2. Reduce Plug Loads by 33%.  Our house has a 3.2 kW solar electric system (as well as solar hot air panels), which is small for a household but it’s all the space we had on our roof. In June, our PV system produced 3/4 of our electricity. We considered choosing the goal of Living Within our Solar Budget, but we felt this “lesser” goal would provide the kind of measurement that we needed to reach the larger goal. The worksheets that came with the Three Actions project will help us understand where our energy is being used so we can either change our usage or determine if we should add an off-grid solar component for some discrete uses (like powering our freezer, which is an essential part of our program to eliminate food waste).

My separate action is to Eliminate Food Waste. Like every other American, we undoubtedly have food dying in our refrigerator at this very moment. But our household has an even bigger challenge: our garden!

I joined the urban farming program of the Permaculture Research Institute for Cold Climates (PRI) and have turned about 1/3 of our city lot over to organic food production. We produce (more or less successfully) cucumbers, zucchini, squash, collard greens, kale, chard, lettuce, peppers, green beans, carrots, radishes, garlic, leeks, onions, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, rhubarb, horseradish, mint, oregano, sunflowers and strawberries. We’ve been expanding our  plantings of fruits and berries, though our harvests are still quite small.

So far this summer we’ve harvested more than 100 pounds of zucchini and cucumber, 51 heads of garlic, 40 hot hungarian peppers, a few pounds of tomatoes, and bushels of greens.  I’ve managed to stay on top of it with canning, pickling, cooking and freezing. This goal will help me keep on track. Plus, I’d like to see how far into the winter we can get eating our own produce.

(PS: Our household also blogs on our sustainability efforts, the activities our of neighborhood sustainability group, and things occurring around the Twin Cities at Think of It As An Adventure).