The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

When Recycling Fails: Home-Scale Solutions for turning Paper and Plastic Waste into Resources August 18, 2019

For decades here in the USA, recycling was touted as one of the more easy environmental things you could do. I, like many others, assumed that local recycling facilities processed materials, they were sent to factories, and then later, re-integrated into various products.  Boy was I wrong!  Turns out that recycling is an industrialized business like any other, and part of the reason is that it was so promoted is that there was profit in waste.  In fact, from 1992 – late 2018, most recycling produced in the US shipped to China, who paid top dollar for recycled resources that were used to build their own economy. China had very lax environmental laws, and the more “dirty” recycling the US produced was sent to China for cheap sorting and processing.  While some of those materials were recycled, many of the recycled materials ended up unusable and were discarded, moving down rivers and contributing eventually to one of the many garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean (Sierra Club has an overview of this situation here). This dark secret of recycling wasn’t well known–you simply put your materials in a bin, and felt good about not sending them to the landfill, and off they went–out of sight, out of mind. In late 2018, China tightened its own environmental laws, and has become extremely strict on what recycling it would take. Contaminated recycling (which is often the result of “single stream” recycle systems) is no longer accepted.  And most recycling in the US is quite contaminated. Other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, started buying up recycling for a while, but they have since decided they can also no longer take recyclables due to the volume and environmental impact. 

 

Recycled handmade paper in progress

Recycled handmade paper in progress

Long story short, this developing situation has resulted in a recycling crisis in the USA and in other developed nations. While some see this as an opportunity, many municipalities are resorting to simply filling landfills with recycling or worse–incinerating it.  Locally, many communities in my region are experiencing these shifts: we’ve seen changes to what can be accepted in recycling or the eradication of programs entirely. For example, most of Pittsburgh is no longer accepting glass and is cracking down on plastics it accepts; here on my campus, no shredded paper is allowed to be recycled). We are also seeing higher costs for recycling, or simply programs ending entirely.  But more broadly, what seems to be taking place is the lack of a good recycling infrastructure to actually support recycling processing here in the US.

 

But the truth is this: even when it was being shipped to China, recycling isn’t the solution to plastic problems.  Some new research illustrated that microplastics are so pervasive that they are literally in our rain, drinking water, and everywhere else–plastics are lethal to many inhabits on this planet.

 

Given these challenges, I’d like to take some time today to reflect on this problem and talk about some possible ways forward centered on two possibilities: reducing one-use plastic and paper consumption and turning waste into resources. I also want to note that not all “waste” is the same with regards to this recycling crisis. The real problem materials at present are paper and plastic recycling. Aluminum cans and other recyclables don’t seem to have changed much, and they still seem to be being recycled at high rates, at least according to this article. Given this situation, I’m going to focus my discussion primarily on paper and plastic for the remainder of this post and discuss some “at home” solutions that I’ve been exploring in response.

 

Waste and the Sacred

The thing I ask myself is: from where do these things arise?  All of these “waste” products ultimately come from one place: the living earth.  It is the living earth that provides the raw materials that humans use.  It is the lifeblood of the earth, the oil, that creates most plastics.  It is the creation of these materials that is problematic–synthetic materials that are so altered from their natural state that they cannot break down.  It is also the gross misuse, abuse, and disposal of these materials that have polluted our world, such that some of these issues, like microplastics, may *never* be solved–at least not in the next 500 or more years.

 

I believe that this calls for a shift–not only to some of the practices that I am going to share next, but in our own relationship with these waste products.  We need to start seeing *all* resources as not only “non-disposable” but sacred.  These are things that are ultimately derived from the earth, and their proliferation on the earth is seriously harming all life.

 

Reducing Consumption of Paper and Plastic

The most obvious solution to the plastic and paper recycling challenge is to work to eliminate paper and plastic waste. This is a very noble endeavor, and there are many ways that you can greatly reduce the amount of paper and plastic you consume–but it seems nearly impossible to eliminate entirely.  There are a lot of good ideas floating around out there at present, so I’ll share a few here:

  • Avoid any single-use plastics. These include things like straws, plastic silverware, styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, etc.  You can almost always pre-plan or simply decline.
  • Even single-use paper cups can largely be avoided by bringing your own reusable cup.
  • Eliminate plastic packaging whenever possible; opt for things that aren’t packaged (such as bulk food purchases) or packaged in paper over plastic. Being selective here can make a huge impact.
  • Eliminate plastic toothbrushes and toothpaste containers by purchasing alternatives (like bamboo) and toothpaste tablets from small online startup companies
  • Eliminate plastic bags or paper bags by bringing your own or opting not for a bag (or shopping at stores that don’t provide them, in the USA primarily this is Aldi)
  • Ask to be removed from all mailing list and reduce junk mail
  • Be contentious about paper use; print on both sides of paper and use scrap paper
  • Shop locally at farmer’s markets and so forth to eliminate plastic packaging (food packaging is a source of much waste)
  • If you enjoy soda or fizzy water, invest in a Soda Stream or something similar to eliminate drink plastic
  • Obviously, stop drinking bottled water and fill your water bottle up from the tap
  • Eliminate one-use paper products as much as possible – use rags and cloths and wash them rather than paper towels, etc.
  • When purchasing online, ask before buying about the plastic packaging.
  • Write to companies about their packaging and encourage change.
  • When purchasing clothing, purchase clothing that is of natural materials rather than synthetics (a big contributor to microplastics)
  • Try to purchase items that are made of materials close to the earth: natural fibers, woods, etc, rather than those synthetically derived and that will take much longer to break down
Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin!

Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin! I didn’t even know they were in there!  The worms couldn’t break them down and ignored them. What to do?

 

There are many opportunities out there to reduce plastic and paper consumption. By reducing demand and seeking alternatives we can help stop these plastic and paper waste streams before they start. And to me, that’s a really important piece of this larger systemic issue: eliminating the problem as close to the source as possible.

 

At the same time, even with extremely conscientious purchasing and attention, it is almost impossible to get paper and plastic consumption down to zero. Unintended plastic, in particular, always seems to make it into your life. It might not even be stuff you buy, but stuff other people bring in: for example, a family dinner, a gift someone gives you, unexpected layers of plastic packaging, garbage you pick up in the woods or along the beach, stuff that literally blows into your yard during a storm, and so on.  These plastics are present, and I believe, once they are in our lives, we are responsible for their cycle and making sure they don’t become pollution. So, let’s now move on to some home-scale solutions for turning both paper and plastic waste into resources!

Paper Waste into Resources: Handmade Paper, Sheet mulch, and Mushroom Cultivation Opportunities

For years I’ve been trying to eliminate as much paper use as I can. I love trees, and paper comes from trees.  Thus, I don’t like to see wasted paper because each bit of wasted paper is literally from something I hold so sacred.  So let’s explore a few uses for paper that would otherwise go to waste.

 

One of the ways I’ve worked with waste papers for over two decades is to create handmade recycled papers. I save up clean papers (usually colored or simple computer paper, often from my classes and university work) and when I have enough, I spend a day making delightful papers. These papers can be turned into handmade journals, gifts, cards, and many such resources. While this can handle some of the paper in my life, it certainly can’t handle it all, and not all papers are good for papermaking. Cardboards and newspaper, for example, do not make good handmade papers due to higher acid content and poor fiber content.

 

Sheet mulch in progress

Of particular concern to me is the cardboard and newspaper that seems to pile up.  Despite repeatedly removing myself from every mailing ad campaign and magazine, each week I still seem to get more junk mail than the week before. This, combined with various boxes and other packaging seem to add up quickly. Thus, one of the other things I’ve been using these materials for many years on my homestead is for sheet mulching; newspaper and cardboard are both excellent resources for making paths, weed suppression for garden beds, and so on.  For this to be successful, you need a lot of cardboard and newspaper!  A 20 foot path may require at least 20-30 cardboard boxes or a huge stack of newspaper.  Using these in this way transforms waste into resources!

 

Another option that is useful is to use vermicompost to handle some of your paper waste.  Worms will break down not only vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, but they also will make short work of damp paper and shredded cardboard. Their process takes time, but it certainly can be a good supplement to other methods.

 

A final way I’ve been exploring with home paper recycling is through mushroom cultivation; oysters can be grown on cardboard and paper (see a good discussion of this at Permies.com)! So far, I’ve been successful in growing mushrooms in fresh coffee grounds layered with pizza boxes. The key, I’ve found, is not to compact anything too tightly (I will post about this process once I have it perfected enough to share something that is consistent and works).

 

A combination of these options at the homestead means that we very rarely end up needing to take any paper or cardboard to the recycle center–instead, these materials are treated as the resources that they are: wanted, honored, and used.

 

Plastic Waste as a Resource

Paper is perhaps the more easy thing to recycle; you can do a lot with it and even if you can’t, it breaks down readily in the environment in a year or two. In my mind, plastic, which can literally last thousands of years in the ecosystem, is the more serious of my concerns. And in truth, plastic is literally destroying our world, getting into the bodies of animals and fish, trashing ecosystems, and it will persist for centuries and millennia. In early 2019, after seeing the crisis that was looming with recyclables, I began to explore options in earnest to reduce plastic consumption. Even with my many reductions, however, plastic was just flowing into my life all the time! A lot of this wasn’t even recyclable to begin with, so even with avid recycling, I was still ending up throwing a lot of plastic away. Each time I did, I thought about the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch and  hung my head in shame.

 

Plastic film, cellophane, styrofoam, packing peanuts, plastic wrap, plastic bags–these are the kinds of things that are almost never recycled, and do not often have even a number to recycle.  These are also the kinds of waste plastics that are filling our world. This video does a great job in explaining how “single use” plastic is really the worst, and that’s the stuff we see most often showing up in marine ecosystems. So what’s a druid to do?

 

Because I have an interest in building things and making things, I focused my energy and research on that route, and came up with two viable solutions for turning waste plastic into a resource on a personal / home scale. Before I present my two options, I will also note that there seem to be some options at a community level for more industrial scale models for plastic recycling, like this cool machine that turns plastic recycling into bricks that can be used in homes. But these kinds of things aren’t home scale, and therefore, out of reach of a single person.

 

The first thing I looked into is a great open source community called “Precious Plastics.” This community offers open source plans, resources, and video guides to produce a number of different machines that actively convert different types of plastics into cool stuff. There is a global community doing work with these machines and maker spaces, and it is really a wonderful idea! Precious plastics does require that you pay attention to certain kinds of plastic and does seem to have some limitations.  At the same time, it is a worthy, open source endeavor and might be of use for many people!  I ultimately decided a different route due primarily to scale: I don’t have the fabrication skills needed to build many of the machines, I don’t know how much use I’d get from them for the investment, and my needs and uses ended up being different.

 

What I decided to pursue was a building block method called “ecobricks” or “bottle bricks.” This video gives a great short introduction to the concept (complete with the spiritual and meditative aspects of ecobrick making, which I adore). Ecobricks are very simply made: you take a 2 liter soda bottle (readily available in any recycling bin along any street, or simply ask people who drink soda) and fill it with as much plastic as you possibly can. You mash it down with a stick or dowel rod as you fill it, and keep filling it till it is completely full of plastic. This, you use as a building material. In next week’s post, I’m going to go into more depth about how to make ecobricks and how you might build with them (and my own plans for them over the next 2 years.) I’ve been excitedly making ecobricks for about a month now, and I’m surprised at how much waste plastic can go into a single brick.  So stay tuned for more on this next week.

 

Spiritual Dimensions of Waste

 

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

It’ss easy to live fully immersed in industrialized culture, where waste streams are part of daily life.  Where we throw things away without a thought; where generating waste is literally an automatic behavior.  However, I think that shifting away from these practices, and putting in the effort to do something different, is not only an environmentally conscious act, it is a spiritual one. Thus, I want to conclude by talking a bit about the spiritual dimensions of waste.

 

I’m an animist druid. I see the world, all of nature, as sacred. I also understand that all natural things on this planet have spirit. Knowing now, that even my recycling (while well intentioned) caused the land suffering, has really had me reflect on my current and future actions.  The animals, oceans, rivers, fish, amphibians–all are my sacred brothers and sisters. Throwing away even a single bottle brings my waste into their world. Thus, I see reducing plastic waste and doing all that I can to repurpose it as an absolutely critical part of a nature-centered and earth-honoring spiritual practice. There is no such thing as away–all stays here on this beautiful planet. Let us treat our mother with all the respect and love we can.

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!