Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible. So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now. So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall. This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling. Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board. My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture. Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).
There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living. I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.
We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.
Advantages and challenges
In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy. Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to the cardboard rolls from toilet paper. Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal. Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game. That equals a significant waste stream reduction.
There are however two big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation. Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure. Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:
1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station. It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).
2. I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself. I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).
3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite. Well, there is no getting around this one. Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags. Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap. I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.
4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one. New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon. If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic. The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can). If you are buying trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).
5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together. It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots. Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.
6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies. In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time. No more. Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans. Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.
7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again. That means less going to the landfill. For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable. This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out. I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out. The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.
8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo. Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.
The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short. In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce. I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts. I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up. Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.
This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop. Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.