There was a time when we threw out our trash like everyone else. That time ended this January after I saw an article about a lady in Mill Valley, CA who is trying to get to zero waste. Her emphasis is on not using disposable items in the first place. She brings pillowcases and mason jars to the store to put her bread and bulk items in. The idea being that if you don’t bring home stuff you are going to throw away in the first place then you have dealt with the problem at the front end. While her approach is admirable I’m not quite ready to take on all the forethought and behavior changes required for me to implement it. We were already recycling metal, plastic and glass as well as saving kitchen scraps for our chickens. A good start, but really, sorting recycling is still just pushing the problem out of your house and giving your leftover stuff to someone else to deal with. I think its more interesting to figure out what to do with all the stuff we bring home. Rather than looking at it as trash I’m seeing it as “free” raw materials. Looking at what we get rid off I found it could be easily sorted into the following classic categories: Food scraps, Compostable trash, Paper/Cardboard, Plastics, Glass and Metals.
Food Scraps & Compostables
This one was easy. We have chickens and a couple of compost piles. We were already saving the food bits for the chickens. A fair proportion of our trash can contents was stuff that was compostable like paper towels or food containers. All that we needed was a second container on the counter to gather stuff in. The bin in the back is the “Chicken Bowl” and the one in front gets everything else.
Paper and Plastic
Two years ago I built a papercrete mixer which is essentially a giant blender that you tow behind a truck. It gets filled with scrap paper, cardboard, cement and water. Inside of the mixer is a lawnmower blade that spins as the mixer is towed. After driving slowly for a mile or so you end up with a bunch of pulped paper mixed with cement. You can then cast this goop into blocks or any other form you like. After the block has dried its light weight and very durable. The blocks can be stacked and used as walls in buildings. You can even use papercrete to mortar the blocks together and then plaster over them.
I have been using papercrete as a building material around our place with good results. All of our junk mail and other scrap paper has been going into papercrete blocks.
At the sorting station the paper gets put in the pink drawer under the shredder. It occurred to me that there is no reason we couldn’t shred all of the plastic we were recycling and stick it in the papercrete mixture as well. Now, every time we finish a gallon of milk it gets cut up with the red scissors and fed into the shredder. Any plastic bags or containers that aren’t getting re-used get shredded too.
Any other little bits that can’t be shredded like soda bottle caps are collected and put in with the papercrete materials.
The glass goes into the wire basket. My plan is to crush it and use it as aggregate in concrete for building projects. Crushing glass can be a bother so I’m going to try making an metal cage to fill with bottles and heat them over a fire. Once they are good and hot I’ll dump them in water which should do all the shattering work for me. Since I have several huge piles of branches from dead trees I will get to use some of them up as well in the bargain.
The metals go into the cardboard box inside of the wire basket. They are a pretty small part of our waste stream. Aluminum is easy since I already have a small metal casting furnace. It will get melted down and cast into something interesting. The steel consists of mostly food cans. Some of the cans will get re-purposed as containers. The rest I’m not sure yet. Luckily, there isn’t a whole lot of it so it won’t pile up too quickly.
One of the issues with this plan is what to do with the stuff that’s being collected until it gets used. The main storage challenge is the paper and plastic. Papercrete making is a summer activity so the paper and shredded plastic gets bagged in contractor bags until I’m ready to use it. Someday I want to build a bin or small shed to store them in.
My pile of plastic bags by the chicken house isn’t the most aesthetic component of our landscaping but they get used quickly when I’m making blocks. In fact, I end up going to the recycling place and making withdrawals rather than deposits much to the amusement of the people who work there.
Obviously this approach to trash management isn’t going to work for everyone but that wasn’t the point. I’m just experimenting with using what I have in the most useful way I can come up with.