Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the Permaculture Principles is "Produce No Waste". I'm constantly working with this principle in my home and on my small patch of earth.

How can I close the loop on waste? How can I get out of the importing and exporting business and instead cycle resources continuously around my patch of earth, with nothing entering or leaving the property? These are questions I constantly ask myself.

While getting to the point of having absolutely nothing enter or leave might be difficult, I believe I can make great strides in that direction.

The basic loop on my property is garden to plate to compost bin back to garden. But of course that's not all there is to it and even there there's much to learn and many things that can easily be overlooked.

The kitchen drain is one weak area in the loop. It's easy to have momentary lapses where nutrient-laden water from the steaming of veggies, or the boiling of bagels or pasta, gets poured down the drain instead of being saved for watering the garden or the compost bin, or for use in soup stocks). In moments of laziness I've also rinsed moldy jars of spaghetti sauce down the drain, instead of carrying them out to the compost bin. Fortunately there's no garbage disposal here, so I can't be lazy about my solid wastes.

And without a graywater system installed, perfectly good bath water, dish water and laundry water goes sailing off to the treatment plant instead of out into the garden. Likewise, the lack of gutters and downspouts means that I can't collect water from the roof. If I ever buy this house (and I have a standing offer) then that's something to add to the to-do list. But in all likelihood, since I'm planning to move back east in five years, it won't happen.

The kitchen in general is a dangerous part of the loop, because a lot of things can get overlooked. For instance, when I buy (import) chicken I always buy whole birds instead of parts. I get soup, soup stock, and another meal or two out of one bird. When the carcass has been boiled to death, I'm still left with bones and gristle, which I end up sending to the landfill. I've been trying to figure out how to make use of this, instead of exporting it. I thought about drying the bones and then grinding them to use as bonemeal in the garden. But I'd have to dry them in the oven to keep them away from the cats and other vermin, and that would mean importing the energy to do so. My other option (probably the best one) is to bury them in a deep enough pit to keep away the critters and just let the nutrients slowly return to the land.

Likewise, I need to figure out a use for kitchen grease. I could get into soapmaking I guess, use it as suet to feed the birds in winter, bury it in my bone pit. Right now it goes to the landfill.

I'd also like to raise my own chickens, but the property can probably only support a few laying hens, rather than a whole flock that could give me meat. Meat rabbits are something I've given some serious thought to as well, because one buck and two does could very easily supply most, if not all, of our meat requirements and they have a small ecological footprint and rabbit manure is such a valuable thing for the garden. Having no meat imports would be ideal. Dealing with the dairy issue is another matter. When I move back east I plan to have enough space to get some dairy goats, but I can't see that happening here. I've seen it done here in town, but it would require me importing almost all of their feed.

The garden is another part of the loop where I have to be very careful. Last year a lot of food went to waste because I didn't keep on top of harvesting as well as I should have. The spinach bolted, zucchini grew to monstrous proportions, some cantaloupe rotted because I didn't prop them up. This year I'm determined to stay on top of everything. At least with this part of the loop, waste isn't really waste since it goes on to become compost if it rots on the vine. But it would be nice to cycle all of that nutrition through some human bodies.

Which gets me to the uncomfortable topic of humanure. The cabin I'm planning back in Pennsylvania will have a composting toilet, and the product of that contraption will be returned to the earth. But here, there's not much I can do. I've heard of people using their diluted urine on their gardens--I could do that--but I'd feel like a total freak.

In John Jeavons method of intensive gardening, cover crops are used to improve soil fertility--in place of using animal manures. I'm still importing manure from my friend John (it travels just two miles to get here, but still...). I'd like to incorporate cover-cropping into my gardening routines. With that, and my compost and possibly rabbit manure at some point, I should be able to keep the garden quite fertile. A worm bin would be a nice addition too.

Since I only use hand-tools in the yard and garden, I'm not importing any carbon. I've got a reel mower, shovels, rakes, grass clippers, pruners, forks, wheelbarrow, etc. and not a single motorized device to speak of. Just human power, fueled more and more by the products of the land here.

A fully closed loop (or nearly so)--what I hope to accomplish when I move back home--would look something like this:

  • Passive solar heating, high thermal mass.
  • Supplemental masonry fireplace for winter, fired by deadfallen timber from the property.
  • Chickens, rabbits, dairy goats, bees, worms, and sheep--providing meat, eggs, dairy, honey, fiber and manure.
  • All fruits and veggies grown on site.
  • Small-scale grain production.
  • Cover-cropping.
  • Haymaking for winter feed, harvested by scythe.
  • A graywater system and rainbarrels.
  • A composting toilet.
  • Seed-saving.
  • Root-cellaring, a springhouse if suitable, non-electric fridge contraption (can't remember where I saw that online--I'll post the link when I find it). [Here it is: Four Mile Island Icebox]
  • Efficient wood cookstove indoors and out, outdoor bread-oven, bean pit.
  • Homemade soaps, candles, wool items, rabbit skin items.
  • Compost bins.
  • Spring or well.
  • Off-grid, totally non-electric house and property (unless solar or wind needed to pump a well).
  • Hand tools (but I'll probably cave in and get a chainsaw).

Until then I need to work with what I've got and continue to examine and re-examine all of my habits, looking for ways I can continue to close the loop here.

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