My First Consulting Project – Compost Construction for City Slickers

Over the weekend I helped my girlfriend build a compost for her apartment.  Ever since I built my worm bin last August she’s wanted to build one as well but we just never got around to it (for those directions click here).  My 10 gallon bin is almost full after almost 9 months of use so it was time to get rid of some worms and compost anyway.  Here are a series of pictures from my first young and urban consulting project :)

We bought an 18 gallon bin from Ace Hardware in Porter Square (Somerville/Cambridge, MA) for $6 so we definitely didn’t break the bank.  The next thing we did was borrow a power drill from one of our friends in order to drill holes in the bin to promote airflow.

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Sorry Tufts Daily, I enjoyed reading you but it’s time for you to become worm food.

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After shredding a bunch of newspaper we had to get it “moist” i.e. not wet and not dry but somewhere in between.

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I had brought over about a half-pound of worms from my bin for Sarah’s new bin.  First we put down about 3 inches worth of torn newspaper bedding followed by the worms.

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First food scraps to the compost, nom nom nom.

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We then covered up the food scraps with another 3 inches or so of newspaper bedding.

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Then we cut out a piece of cardboard to rest on top of the bedding.  This helps to keep the smell down and to keep the worms from crawling out of the bin.  After a few months the cardboard will need to be replaced simply due to moisture and the worms eating it away.  I haven’t had a cardboard top on my bin for a few months now and I don’t notice any smell so maybe it’s not really necessary.

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We bought a mini hand rake thingy from the hardware store which is used to peel back the newspaper bedding when you’re adding food scraps to the compost, then you recover the food with the newspaper scraps.  This costed us about $4.

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Great success!

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Here’s her new compost hidden away under the sink.  It’s important to keep the compost somewhere cool, dark, and dry.

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She lives with a few other people so she dedicated a tupperware container for leftover food scraps and wrote some simple directions: no animal products, no egg shells (you CAN compost them but cleaning them, drying them, and crushing them is really not worth it in my opinion), cut scraps into small pieces (makes for faster composting), and some examples of things that can be composted like coffee grinds and veggies.  Make sure to wash the tupperware each week because it can start to smell pretty gnarly if you neglect it.  She said that within a day, the tupperware was full of food scraps from her roommates :) for me I usually empty my tupperware into my worm compost once each week and it’s mostly coffee grinds and fruit scraps (apple cores and banana peels).

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We were able to build this compost for around $10 total.  It’s a super easy, cheap, and effective way to reduce your contribution to the landfill.  With composting and recycling I find that I have dramatically reduced the waste in my life.  For more “Life without the Landfill” tactics, check out my 30 day life experiment from August 2011 http://theyoungurbanunprofessional.com/august-life-without-the-landfill/

Worm Compost Follow-Up and My First Horticulture Experience

It’s been four months since I started my worm compost bin back in August’s Life Without the Landfill Challenge.  I decided that Christmas would be a good time to open up the bin to see if some of the compost (read: worm poo) was usable to plant some plants for Christmas gifts (and contrary to the beliefs of my building’s management company in Boston, no I’m not planting marijuana).  I’ve kept the bin in the cupboard in our pantry and at the end of every week I’ve transferred my food scraps from the tupperware in the kitchen to the compost in the pantry.  The smell has been largely non-existent except for a slight increase in earthiness when you’re in the pantry (not exactly a bad thing).  No rodents, no flies, no nothing (yet, knock on wood).  My worms were pissed off a few times and tried to escape when I opened the lid but that was because I hadn’t added moist newspaper shavings in a long time (>4 weeks, should add every 2-3 weeks) so the compost was too dry.  If the compost is too wet or too dry the worms will freak out and start climbing the walls of the container.  Just adjust the moisture level by adding damp or dry newspaper shavings and wait a week.  Worms are pretty resilient and slow to adjust so don’t think that they’re going to die immediately or that your fix will take place immediately, cover it back up and revisit it in a week or so to see if the worms are happy again (happiness = worms are chomping your food underneath the newspaper shavings).

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A group of worms chomping on my most recent food scraps.

For the past 2 weeks I’ve added food to the same side of the compost so that the worms had a chance to travel from one side to the other in search of food.  This meant that one side would be largely free of worms.  I’ve learned that with vermiculture composts you’re not supposed to turn to the compost as you would with an outdoor compost.  With inside worm composts, this would mix the food in with the newspaper and the worm poo which isn’t a good thing because you’ll have to pick it all out later when you’re ready to use your compost.  The worms typically hang out within the newspaper shavings, eating the shavings and the food scraps (they don’t travel around in the compost below).  Generally you are supposed to have 4-6 inches of moist newspaper shavings on top of the worms and allow the compost to grow from the bottom up.  When you’re ready to add food scraps to the compost you peel back the newspaper layer on one end of the compost, add the food (chopped up in small pieces so as to be easily digested by the worms), and then cover the food thoroughly with the newspaper layers.  Covering the food with newspaper keeps the smell down and keeps unwanted flies and rodents from coming to check things out.

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Here's a handful of rich worm compost from the bottom of the bin.

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Here's a pile of worm compost. I had to pick out a few worms here and there but largely one end was free of worms. I also had to pick out some newspaper shavings because when I first started the compost in August I had been turning the compost and not layering it with newspaper as I should have been.

Seeing as though I’ve never planted anything before, I decided that I would use my first horticulture experience as an opportunity to build my confidence.  So I bought an Amaryllis bulb that’s apparently “guaranteed to bloom” and a piece of Lucky Bamboo that’s relatively indestructible.  The Amaryllis bulb was a Christmas present for family and the Bamboo was a present for  my apartment.  Pending a successful trial with these two “idiot-proof” examples, I plan to put up more greenery in the apartment such as an aloe vera plant that will help with burns and whatnot.  I bought them both from Pemberton Farms on Mass Ave in Somerville, MA near Davis Square.  Pemberton Farms is awesome, full of good, local food, beer, coffee and wine, all things that I love.  However, don’t be fooled, Pemberton Farms is not a farm, it is a company that sells organic food which can be a very different thing.  They simply have the image that you’re buying directly from a farm in Vermont, instead you’re buying from a company who happened to incorporate in Vermont.  Oh well, they have lots of great local food, overall it’s a win, I highly recommend checking it out if you live in the area.

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Amaryllis bulb (left) and Lucky Bamboo (right). I mixed in the compost with some potting soil and then covered the top 1.5 inches or so with straight compost. The nitrogen in the worm-poo will act as a natural fertilizer for the plant. The bamboo doesn't really need soil it just needs water, but I read that using soil is fine so perhaps the extra nitrogen will benefit the growth.

So far so good with the compost experiment.  I was skeptical, my roommates were skeptical (and nervous), and my family/friends have been waiting to see if it would actually work out.  Looks like the experiment has been a success.  As a result, I’ve been throwing away far less stuff.  Prior to the compost, a majority of what I tossed in the garbage was excess food.  Now the only food scraps that I throw in the trash is egg shells and moldy cheese.  I’ve learned you can’t put things like avocado shells in the compost.  I’ve had shells in there for 4 months and the worms still haven’t even come close to digesting them.  I also didn’t chop them up into small bits so maybe that would have helped.

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A new layer of food scraps after potting my new plants. Just peeled back the 4-6" layer of newspaper, dropped in the food scraps, and recovered with the newspaper.

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The food scraps covered back up with newspaper. Time to go back into the pantry cupboard.

If you’re interested in building your own indoor compost there’s a ton of free information online.  To see how I built mine, check out my instruction guide, “Compost Construction for City Slickers” it’ll cost less than $20 and take up less than an hour of construction and then less than 2 minutes/week (having a power drill will be helpful).

7 Ways to Live Without the Landfill – Lessons from the Young Urban Unprofessional

Over the course of the last 30-days I tried my best to live without the landfill, i.e. I recycled or composted almost 100% of the things that came into my life.  I have learned a lot along the way and I’ve found that I’m only scraping the tip of the iceberg.  This post is a summary of 7 changes of habit that helped me reduce my contribution to the landfill.   Many of these ideas might seem pretty obvious but after having experienced this challenge I have realized that changing small habits can make a tremendous impact on reducing needless waste.

#1 – Water Bottle:  Having a Nalgene or something similar helped me to reduce the amount of bottled water and other beverages I bought and the number of bottles I had to recycle.  If you always carry one of these in your car, backpack, or messenger bag then you’ll almost never need to buy water (plus it’s healthy to be well hydrated).  I don’t recommend getting the full 1Liter Nalgene bottles because they’re too difficult to carry around and who really needs 1Liter of water at a time if you’re not hiking?  I would opt for the 1/2Liter version (BPA free of course).  They are also leak-proof which is a bonus.

# 2 – Travel Coffee Mug: I bought an insulated stainless steel spill-proof coffee mug (previous coffee blog post).  It keeps hot stuff hot, it keeps cold stuff cold and it totally eliminates the need for Styrofoam or cardboard cups, sleeves, or lids which are a huge source of waste.  Americans throw away nearly 400 million disposable cups every day, so from here on out I’ll be trying my best to use my own mug.  Also, many places will only charge you for a small coffee if you use your own mug.

So get one of these:

To avoid getting one of these:

#3 – Recycle:  Before this month I would have called myself a recycler; cans, bottles, cardboard, etc.  Since then I’ve realized how much stuff I just simply threw away that could have been recycled.  Recycling is a habit and it needs to be practiced.  To help, I got a recycling bin for my apartment.  Look into what your city allows you to put on the street (it differs from town to town).  For info on how to get a recycling bin free from the city of Boston as well as a list of what is ok and not ok to recycle click here  This is easy to do, it’s free, and having a recycling bin in your apartment will act as a reminder to recycle before you automatically throw something away.

Many cities provide these to apartments for free. Keep right next to your trash can in your kitchen.

The city of Boston gives this out for free as well. These are curbside recycling bins, no need to sort your recycling, they take care of that for you.

#4 – Smart Grocery Shopping:  First I had to make sure to bring reusable bags with me to the grocery store (packpacks work great, cloth bags work too).  I started making a pass around the perimeter of the store before going through any of the isles (previous blog post).  Everything on the outside is typically fresh and the farther you go into the isles the more packaging you’ll be dealing with.  Also, I didn’t buy meat in bulk as it generally comes in Styrofoam/Saranwrap packaging. 

Lot's and lot's of Styrofoam, yikes.

Instead I bought my meat from behind the deli counter instead.  I also brought my own container for the meat which was never a hassle (aside from the weird looks you get).   If for whatever reason you end up with plastic bags at the checkout counter, or you have some from previous excursions to the grocery store, you can usually bring them back and the store will recycle them for you.

#5 – Avoid Convenient Stores:  I typically travel out of the city every weekend for various adventures and until this challenge I didn’t realize how many times I grabbed a snack or a bite to eat from a convenient store while en route to my next adventure.  It always ends up in trash production.  I started to plan snacks for the road ahead of time; something to munch on, a full bottle of water, and some caffeine in my travel mug.  This helped me to avoid stopping at a convenient store for anything more than using the restroom.  I’m not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination but I’m pretty sure nothing good comes from eating at convenient stores anyway.  Everything is individually wrapped and the food is anything but fresh.  Going to a convenient store will undoubtedly result in trash production so from here on out I’m going to try to avoid them all together.

"Fast, Fresh, and Friendly" - Well at least they got 1 out of 3 right.

#6 – Use Your Own Bag:  I found that every time I purchased something, whether it be a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream or a 6-pack of beer, the clerk behind the counter, as if on autopilot, would throw it in a plastic bag and I would have to politely decline and put the item(s) in my backpack.  I don’t need a plastic bag to carry one or two items, that’s incredibly wasteful.  However, our society has adopted the plastic bag as a norm and it has become an automatic response to expect one as well. Unless you’re on a shopping spree you can probably manage carrying with two hands the majority of what you purchase at a store.  Similar to grocery shopping, having a backpack or a reusable cloth bag with you works great.

#7 – Build/Buy a Compost:  I found that a majority of my waste came from food.  Being an unmarried male with no kids who is constantly on the go, I find that I constantly have food that will either go bad or that I can’t enough of before it goes bad.  Starting a compost for my apartment had a tremendous impact on the amount of material I threw away.  To see how I built one for $15 check out my Compost Construction for City Slickers post.

$15 + 1 hour of construction + 2 minutes every week = great fertilizer and zero food waste .

It is definitely more of a commitment than my previous tips from this month but it is definitely the most rewarding.  If you have a back yard you can also build/buy your own outdoor compost.  You can get them from the City of Boston for about $50 (about 1/2 the retail price).  I spend about 2 minutes every week putting that week’s food scraps into my compost.  In a few months I’ll have plenty of fertilizer.  I’ll most likely use it to grow plants to give away as presents so make sure you’re nice to me over the next 3-4 months.

Recap:

  1. Water bottle to bring around with you while on the go
  2. Reusable travel coffee mug, preferably stainless steel, beware of plastics
  3. Obtain a recycling bin for your house/apartment and keep it next to your garbage can as a constant reminder
  4. Grocery shop around the perimeter of the store and avoid buying prepackaged meats
  5. Avoid getting snacks at the convenient store, plan ahead
  6. Use your own bag when making purchases at a store
  7. Build/buy a compost to reduce food waste

Thanks again for following this month’s challenge, feel free to reach out to me with questions, comments, concerns, or insults via email at theyoungurbanunprofessional@gmail.com or via twitter @youngandurban.  I’m looking forward to my next 30-day challenge of meeting a new person on public transit every day.



Life Without the Landfill Challenge – Last Day…

Today is August 31st 2011 and it is the last day of my first 30-day life experiment of life without the landfill.  This challenge has been tough but once I broke some previously wasteful habits I settled into a rhythm where it was pretty easy to recycle or compost everything I consumed.  The point of this challenge was not for everyone to do exactly what I did, nor was the point to completely cut yourself off like No Impact Man.  The point was for me to challenge myself  daily; mentally, physically, and emotionally.  It has made me think twice about the throw-away culture that I live in; what can I reduce/reuse/recycle and how can I minimize the amount of garbage I produce every day/week/month/year.

What I am going to do with this final post is to put up a few pictures of some things I didn’t get a chance to post throughout the month and then at the end I’ll empty out my small Ziplock bag of accidental trash to see what’s inside.

I gave blood at work and no surprise, they don't recycle anything. It turns out that all the waste is incinerated by the Red Cross. I suppose my conscious is ok with giving blood even though it broke my no-landfill challenge.

Too bad the only sugary food options after giving blood are wrapped in plastic. I avoided the trash by bringing an apple and a Nalgene of water. Stayed hydrated and kept my sugar levels up without the wasteful snacks.

A Fresh vending machine seems paradoxical to me.

"A" for effort, but definitely not sold on the idea of "fresh" vending machines

Amazon helped me out by having zero plastic in their shipping, just cardboard folded around the books. 10 volumes of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" good bedside reading for sure.

Inflatable packaging, interesting concept. This company used #4 recyclable plastic and inflated it instead of using packaging peanuts. Air is definitely a better alternative than Polystyrene, good work.

Now for the fun part, here’s my Ziplock bag of accidental trash that I accumulated throughout the entire month and a description of all the pieces:

My Ziplock bag ended up about half full of miscellaneous pieces of garbage.

Then I laid everything out on the kitchen table, which in retrospect was actually pretty unsanitary, sorry roommates, my bad, I sanitized it afterward:

1st piece of trash - a 5 lb bag of Equal Exchange Coffee beans, I bought this in May but finished it in August so I figured I'd count it as trash produced this month.

Unidentifiable plastic packaging from theclymb.com so I wasn't convinced it could be recycled. They offset their shipments with carbon credits but they don't use 100% recyclable packaging?Interesting...

Fig Newton's packaging, again bought before August 1st but finished during August. The sleeve holding the Fig Newtons was recyclable but the outer packaging was not :(

Waxy butter and cream cheese wrappers from making banana bread during my compost construction. Baking without the landfill is hard to do.

Floss. It turns out that Floss is not recyclable. I used it once and realized that it could only become garbage. Does biodegradable floss exist?

A rubber glove and alcohol wipe from work. I had to modify a few practices to avoid coming in direct contact with bodily fluids at work, long story.

A Gu energy gel I found in my hiking backpack and a packet of soy sauce from my sushi experience at the American Folk Festival

A Popsicle wrapper from the first week of the no-landfill challenge. "Hey it's 100+F outside do you want a popsicle?" "Yeah sure of course... (unwraps it, eats it, loves it) oh wait damn it"

A replacement debit card that I had to chop up and throw away. Later I found out you can recycle them through TerraCycle.com. However, I'm not sure I'm comfortable recycling my debit card info.

A bird's eye view of all the trash I produced this month by accident. Again, the dinner table probably was not the smartest choice for displaying month-old trash.

At first I struggled with the idea of simply throwing this stuff in the garbage.  I thought about perhaps making a piece of art out of the trash to commemorate the experience or even finding alternative uses for all of them.  Then I quickly realized how horrid even a small amount of month-old trash was and I promptly threw everything the garbage and took it outside.  This was only the stench from 30 days and a few ounces of trash, how about 1600lbs of trash (yearly trash produced by the average American), yikes.  I’ve learned so many things about sustainable living this month and much of it is actually very easy if you’re willing to modify a few bad habits.  It really deserves many years of study in order to do it proper justice but every little bit helps.  I have one more blog post in the works to wrap up this month’s “life without the landfill” challenge, however, I don’t believe that I’ll really ever be finished with this challenge.