The Dirt: My Adventures in Urban Composting

The Dirt: My Adventures in Urban Composting

Whenever one decides to make a huge change, especially when it’s a change for the better, the impulse is to jump in wholeheartedly and with both feet. I don’t think, however, that this is always the wisest tactic in the long run. How many New Year’s resolutions – to either quit something or start something – are abandoned by Groundhog Day? The longest lasting change is that which is adopted gradually.

Easier said than done. When I started looking at my and my family’s lifestyle and environmental impact, and decided that it was time to make a change, I wanted to do it immediately. All of it. Every piece of plastic, toxic, non-biodegradable, single use (the list goes on and on) had to go. I recoiled in horror at the bottle of Windex in my laundry room. WE SHOULD BE USING WHITE VINEGAR!

I had to stop myself from throwing everything out because that would only actually create MORE waste. I took a deep breath and decided instead to use up what I’ve got while researching sustainable and eco-friendly options to replace them with for when I run out.

If I could give you one piece of advice if you are reading this it would be that. See what everyday items and products you have around your home and farm that you can replace with environmentally friendly options. Then do it. Easy, right?

One area in which I did not take my own advice was composting. Yes, you read that right. Composting. Why, you may be asking yourself, did I decide to start composting in my sixth floor apartment in New York City and not in a few weeks from now when our family will move full time out to the farm where we will have things like space, grass, and other necessities to start a giant dirt pile?

I love to cook. I drink a homemade green juice every morning. I realized as I inventoried our family’s trash, a large proportion of it was food waste. From the leftover pulp of my morning juicing, to egg shells, peels, rinds, there was a huge amount.

Quick aside on why to compost in the first place. Isn’t food matter biodegradable? Well, yes, it is. However, when compostable items get dumped in a landfill, they lack the oxygen to decompose properly resulting in methane gas emissions.

Methane = greenhouse gas = global warming

YUCK

YUCK

We are among the luckiest of the lucky to have not only a terrace of our own, but access to a ton of green space as our building sits on the grounds of a theological seminary. It’s like living on a mini college campus, grass quad and all. I figured there were tons of plants in my own literal backyard who could benefit from my urban compost, and if I had a huge surplus of it, I could find tons of neighborhood houseplants who would enjoy the natural fertilizer. I could be the compost fairy!

Sage, opal basil, lemon balm, thyme, oregano. My veritable “herban” oasis. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

Sage, opal basil, lemon balm, thyme, oregano. My veritable “herban” oasis. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

Such pretty greenery, even on a dreary day

Such pretty greenery, even on a dreary day

I ordered this bin online – all the while feeling guilty about the cardboard box it came in! – and found it fool proof to set up. Thankfully the company did not use extra and unnecessary plastic wrapping, so the box went into recycling (after making a brief detour as a fort for my son) and my conscience was somewhat assuaged.

This is called the cutest composter in the world. Even cuter with an Empire State Building View! I ordered the black one (I  am  a New Yorker through and through), though it does come in pink as well.

This is called the cutest composter in the world. Even cuter with an Empire State Building View! I ordered the black one (I am a New Yorker through and through), though it does come in pink as well.

I also purchased this countertop bin to collect food scraps throughout the day, so we are not constantly running back and forth to the balcony. This is optional, however. Many people just keep a big bowl in their freezer to store scraps until they head to the compost bin. The important thing is to keep them either frozen or well-sealed, so your kitchen won’t start to smell like rotting food.

Stainless steel, wooden countertops, sharp knives and a bright backsplash make me so happy.

Stainless steel, wooden countertops, sharp knives and a bright backsplash make me so happy.

 So, I had the tools and the motivation to begin. But, me being the perfectionist that I am, I needed to do an endless amount of research and read a lot of manuals before starting. Hey, my nickname isn’t Straight-A for nothing.

I was promptly halted in my tracks when I read the following:

A compost pile needs to have a 50-50 ratio of nitrogen to carbon

Wait. I have to do math AND chemistry?

Suddenly I flashed back to 10thgrade chem with Mr. Chapnick. Absolutely nothing he said at any point during the year penetrated my gray matter. I didn’t fail, exactly, but it wasn’t a shining moment in my academic career.

In rides my husband, like a knight in compost armor to translate for me, and now I can relay that to you.

Put about the same amount of brown stuff (leaves, twigs, wood chips) as green stuff (food scraps).

Give it a turn about once a day. If you have the cool spinny one like I have, that is super easy and fun, especially for kids.

Stuff I didn’t know you could compost, but can:

Tea bags

Coffee grinds

Egg shells

Paper

Sawdust

Compostable packaging, bags, dinnerware (check these out for your next party - they’re made from avocado pits!)

How’s it looking? So far so good. It doesn’t smell at all (yay) and it seems to be breaking down in a sort of brown mulch-y substance that looks like it would be delicious – if I were a plant.

My cutie little rooftop strawberries are going to very happy with me soon

My cutie little rooftop strawberries are going to very happy with me soon

The Rise of the Bottled Water Empire

Does anyone else remember a time when water wasn’t a thing

 

As a kid, I think the only time I drank water was from a little wax coated Dixie cup at my bathroom sink when I needed to swallow a Children’s Tylenol. With my school lunch was a juice box; summer camp meant Capri Sun, or Nestle powdered iced tea and lemonade. At a horse show, if we were thirsty, there was always an orange Gatorade brand thermos filled with water (probably from a hose) and a sleeve of paper cone cups. I drank soda – coke and sprite mixed together – and occasionally Pellegrino because we were Italian and that was just something we did.

I can’t remember giving a single thought to being hydrated, much less ever buying a bottle of water, although I do remember it being widely accepted by my family that the tap water at my Grandmother’s house in Brooklyn was superior to that of our apartment in Manhattan. 

Though mineral water is not new, and Hippocrates himself (father of Western medicine as we know it) invented what is likely the first water filtration system, the total reliance on getting one’s daily 8 glasses from bottled water was a paradigm shift that I believe I witnessed in my lifetime. 

I can distinctly recall this shift at some point in the 90s, and a little online research corroborates my memory. According to an essay written for Serious Eats, online mecca for all things related to food and drink nerd-dom, the rise in the public awareness and consumption of bottled water can be traced to, among other health scares, a water-borne parasite epidemic in Milwaukee in 1993 that made tens of thousands of people sick.    

Pepsi cashed in on the newfound fear of tap water and launched Aquafina. Coke followed soon after with Dasani. Though the Aquafina bottle portrays a golden sun setting behind a majestic blue mountain, the water comes not from an idyllic spring but rather public municipal water sources. 

 

Yes, folks, you read that right. Aquafina is just filtered tap water. 

 

So is this just a slick marketing ploy to make the hapless American consumer spend money on useless status symbols?

Does anyone else feel totally water logged? Sorry for the TMI, but all this hydration means I reach my daily step goal by walking back and forth to the bathroom.

 

Forgive me another foray down memory lane. I recall distinctly a time when we were taught in school the importance of the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This triumvirate was invariably paired with the iconic recycling mobius strip logo that had been designed by Gary Anderson way back in 1970 (before my time….I’m not that old!). 

As far as I remember, the first step was to REDUCE the use of disposable and single use items, then figure out a way to REUSE them. Once those two possibilities were exhausted, RECYCLE was the final option. 

At what point did we forget about the reduce and reuse and skip straight to the recycle?

Recycling, especially plastic, is a decidedly imperfect system, and is not, in fact, a closed loop as the logo would have you believe. Whereas glass and metal can be recycled an infinite number of times without degradation of the material, plastic has only a few cycles before it is recycled into unsuitability. Moreover, water bottles are usually recycled into materials such as fabric, shoes and the stuff of park benches and playground equipment. What happens to that stuff once it has reached the end of its lifespan? It gets trashed. 

The bottom line is that all plastic will eventually end up in a landfill where it will sit for all of eternity.

If you are like I used to be, and think that every time you toss your water bottle into the blue bin, magic recycling fairies turn it back into a water bottle, you’re wrong. Sorry!

 

The takeaway:

-      Get into the habit of bringing a reusable bottle with you wherever you go. If you forget, ask yourself if you are really thirsty.

-      Ask your horse show managers to provide large water dispensers rather than selling or giving away small bottles. 

-      Worried about the cleanliness of tap water? Invest in a filtration pitcher. Many brands of reusable bottles (such as Britta) have their own filtration system built in so you can refill on the go.

-      Try charcoal! Sticks such as these are an easy and portable tool to have in your going green arsenal that allows you to turn any water into filtered water. Unlike traditional filters, which are usually wrapped in plastic casings, these can be composted or even ground up and used as plant food. 

☼,

SRB