Friday, May 17, 2013

Beyond "zero waste"

A big mind-shift I'm experiencing is around waste, and I'm seeing the earth- and God's provision here- as a new kind of perfect.

I'm reading a book called "Food and Faith" by Norman Wirzba and just finished Michael Pollan's "Cooked." I highly recommend them both. Another book that I found totally inspiring and which you can read for free is The Humanure Handbook:  it made something that seems so radical if you're situated in mainstream western life (composting human feces and urine) seem like common sense, and our current complex systems for using drinking water to flush feces seem completely absurd.

When I first read about Zero Waste it was mainly about packaging and unnecessary travel: reducing packaging, not putting out the trash too often, and not going on too many exotic vacations or long drives. This is still really important and our lives are very imperfect- we still do have trash. Water down the drain and flushed toilet didn't seem terribly wasteful because for the most part, out of sight meant out of mind. And composting was great mainly because it kept things out of the landfill.

The overlap between Food and Faith, Cooked, and the Humanure Handbook is in their description of the relationships between organisms here on earth. There's this perfect cycle whereby death and life co-exist and our disassociation and specialization has meant that suddenly our leftovers- whether poop or food scraps or water from washing- is toxic rather than something valuable and necessary to keep the world healthy.

These books have also helped me to understand some of the ways that the convenience of the city can blind me to the high cost of these conveniences.

So what to do, here in the city, in a really imperfect world? I'm trying to think beyond reducing plastic waste and packaging waste in general, though I think that's hugely important.

  • I can't compost feces safely in the space we have, but urine is fine so I've started doing that by putting the potty in the toilet and emptying it into the worm bin when I remember. Noah pees directly onto the lemon trees. I read that a year's worth of pee has enough nitrogen for a year's consumption of wheat. I found that remarkable.
  • There wasn't a simple way to catch rain water (yet) or reuse our greywater for the plants via pump or pipe, but I've started watering the garden exclusively with reused water. This means a little work: taking the water from the bath down to the plants, waiting for the pasta water to cool before watering the plants with it. 
  • To my surprise, in just a month this meant saving R80 in water/sewage costs. We pay less than R10 (about $1) for both per month. The savings may seem like a pretty trivial amount, but it's 4 trays of seedlings, or around 6 packets of seeds, or the difference in costs between a month's worth of organic, free range eggs vs. caged eggs! Isn't that pretty amazing? These are all things that are sometimes hard for me to buy because they seem expensive, but it's mainly my frame of mind. 
  • Attempting to reuse potting soil (after cycling it through the worm bin) so that there's pretty much a closed system- no fertilizer, no purchases necessary. It's by no means perfect and I'm no farmer yet, but I'm amazed by the possibilities.
  • We don't use non-solar energy for water heating. This means fewer showers in winter, which kindof makes sense because we're not as sweaty.
This isn't about becoming more radical or feeling more self-righteous. I'm just excited that there are real, meaningful life alternatives in the space between living here in the city and living an agrarian life off the grid. Join me in these dreams!

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