Through the building process here, we became accustomed to patting ourselves on the back. Aware of the mountain of garbage produced at most construction sites, we would brag to one another, our feet up at the campfire, as to how we made it this far…and then this far…and now this far…without filling even the standard outdoor rubbish bin.
We’d repurposed the bulk of the wood that went into our house and bought most of the rest from salvage yards. Scrap pieces and off-cuts were saved for future projects, such as a hodge-podge pantry floor or mismatched shelves. Some stuff, say with split ends or too puny to use, we transitioned into firewood. There is still a rogue pile of not-so-nice wood that gets stacked and moved about every so often because we’ve not yet figured out what to do with it.
We bought insulation with recyclable packaging and actually recycled it. We’ve recycled off-cuts of tin roofing, bent nails, snipped electrical wires, and almost everything we couldn’t find a use for. Sure, recycling isn’t the best answer, but it isn’t quite the same as sending things to landfill, either. Where we couldn’t avoid packaging, hemmed in by the inspections department, we sought recyclable and natural alternatives as the better choice.
Cardboard boxes were saved and used as sheet mulch. We’ve held onto the larger sheets of plastic and used them like tarps, meaning they’ve been repurposed several times over at this point, covering things and temporarily sealing sections of the house off. Errant bits of plastic here and there got sealed up beneath the floor or in the walls, which were fairly standard framing so as to meet North Carolina building codes. We reused old nails and screws and brackets when we could and tried to buy them from bulk bins when we couldn’t. I even disassembled the crate our cookstove was sent in to build a firewood rack for next to the stove.
The biggest irony of our home construction was that the most problematic item brought into the mix—garbage-wise and logistically—was our off-grid solar power system. Right there at the end of construction, we got a bevy of boxes lined with Styrofoam and all sorts of accoutrements sealed in little plastic bags. The dive into sustainable energy produced more garbage than the rest of our build in total.
It was heart-breaking taking it all to the dump, so much so that we condensed the packaging as best we could into a couple of large boxes and moved it around the house for quite a while—months maybe—before finally buckling and getting rid of it all. Even now, I’m thinking we could have just tossed some of it in the attic so as not to add more to the landfill. It might have added insulative value. Damn it!
Somewhere along the way, Nicaragua to be precise, Emma and I decided to hold ourselves accountable for the trash we created, which is to say we own up to it without simply shrugging it off. We worked at a farm on Isla Ometepe where the owner refused to send any garbage created onsite offsite unless it could be recycled or was going to be repurposed.
He’d used chicken wire and old lumber to create huge bins that were filled with sorted rubbish: bucketless plastic lids with no known destination, glass liquor bottles (it was attached to an eco-hotel) awaiting a trip to town… There were piles of trash all around the volunteer space. The outdoor shower stall was a collection of those plastic lids fastened to more chicken wire so as to provide privacy. We used upturned pretty bottles as garden borders. We did what we could.
We took this effort to heart and took it away with us, and from then on, we upped our game at reducing waste. It helped to lead us into making our own toiletries and cleaning products, much of it with vinegar and baking soda, both for health reasons and less packaging. We properly got into bulk bins for food and brought our own homemade bags to the market so as not to use plastic baggies. We bought our fruit and veg loose, just tossed willy-nilly into reusable shopping bags, which we used until they literally fell apart beyond basic repair.
In Panama, we briefly ran a volunteer program at a house where we were doing some garden designs and care-taking. We were there for six months and left the location having produced less than a garbage bin of trash. We recycled and repurposed and reduced like never before. It had worked. When the owners had returned, they’d create over three full bins upon arrival. It hurt.
Once we were on our own again, we reduced our trash output to less than a typical plastic (repurposed and not ours) shopping bag of garbage per month, and it didn’t take long for that to advance into every other month and into every few months. It felt great, and we keep and continue looking for ways to get better. To be honest, we have moments of regression, what would seem a noble effort to many but feels a complete failure to us.
We just took our first trip to the skip after living at the homestead for six months now, and we had two small bags (think 5-gallon/20-liters) worth. Emma was devastated. It’s one of those moments when I have to remind her of how positively such a feat can be seen as well. Lots of houses produce that much every day.
But, of course, deep inside, I feel her pain. I, too, know that we could have done better. We could have not had packets of chips/crisps and made them at home. We could’ve found ways to avoid this or that packaging or simply gone without something. However unavoidable some packaging may be, there were all sorts of moments of weakness that we carried away as rubbish. No matter how industry works now, we can’t deny that we made choices that lead to that garbage creation within our homestead.
The extent to which garbage fills and/or flows through our lives is never quite so apparent as when trying earnestly to reduce it. Funnily enough, as we pursue this in one part of our lives, eliminating tetra-packs, plastic and packaging of any kind, we inundate ourselves with organic materials.
We collect leaves by the truckload and distribute them as mulch in the gardens. If grass clippings are there to rake up, our property or elsewhere, we rake them up and distribute them as mulch in the gardens. Pruning’s from shrubs, anything that works as firewood, perfectly fine lumber from dumpsters, rocks—this stuff sits in piles and awaits a fate as a garden gate or heat source or pea trellis or garden border.
In other words, the composting-kitchen-scraps version of handling organic waste doesn’t even register in the amount of material that makes it onto our property. For every trash bag and/or recycling bin that departs, exponential amounts arrive in the form of weeds, leaves, grass clippings, chunks of wood, and so on. It gets piled in different places, upcoming garden beds or resting garden beds to decompose and add fertility. Earthworms run rampant beneath it all.
On days when the truck hasn’t been filled with something from work, I drive to a site nearby on the way home and collect a truckload of wood chips from a spot where tree trimmers dump them. These are used as garden paths, the driveway, mulch for trees, etc. The plan is to periodically move the chips from the paths to the gardens and replace them with fresh chips. So far, there is no limit to the amount we will, can, and want to use. We haven’t even gotten into the cycle of wood chips for a compost water heater, but it’s coming.
And, we have used a composting toilet (for that kind of waste) since moving in, though none of it has been aged enough to use yet. Nevertheless, as sure as mornings come and coffee gets imbibed, more organic matter gets dropped into the mix. So far, it’s looking as though we might get a couple of cubic yards of that each year.
Organic material, in our world, is 100% resource, not garbage, so much so that we collect it from others, creating a sort of biological junkyard. It smacks of being a collector. Each time we score a new pile a certain amount of joy comes with that.
It’s a difficult thing constantly analyzing one’s trash production, even when you are doing a pretty good job at minimizing it. We know that out there in the world there are people doing it better than we are. There are people who can fit their annual trash into a mason jar. There are people who say they produce none whatsoever. In terms of comparison, that makes us multiple times worse than we could be—it’s proven!
With that, a level of guilt comes at every failure in the effort. We can’t buy tofu (organic) that isn’t in plastic packaging, but we buy it anyway because we aren’t in a place to make our own yet and it’s something we really enjoy. The same goes for tempeh (organic). Coffee (fair trade, organic), and chocolate (fair trade, organic) are two other vices. We are in the bad habit of sharing a bag of chips once a week when we go on our shop.
There were times when we resisted these luxuries more often than we do now. When tofu was a treat every couple of months. There are moments when we still do resist. But, ultimately, however trivial such flourishes may seem in the modern lifestyle, for us, we know that we are bending our own principles to suit desires rather than needs. Not only are we playing with food miles and food production factories, but we are creating undue trash in the process.
It can be a heavy burden to carry, one that is seemingly easily solved but nonetheless requires commitment. Once the pantry door is opened, the traffic in and out becomes a challenge to get back under control. It’s easy to hide behind the [(organic) and (fair trade, organic)] parentheticals, and in some sense, even that effort—organic and fair trade—is noteworthy to the people around us. That’s an intoxicating justification as well.
We’ve not yet returned to bulk bins since the pandemic shut things down. In the big scheme of things, this has basically meant that grains, nuts, and pulses come in sealed plastic bags, which we put in a recycling bin that—in these times of international turmoil—may or may not be recycled. Regardless, it would mean our plastic bags are being shipped overseas to be recycled, and that seems an odd way of fighting for the planet.
Since the shutdown, we’ve bought spices in glass containers that we either repurpose or recycle. Peanut butter comes in a glass container, too, and there are only so many pint-sized jars a couple can repurpose. We drink beer—too much of it, to be honest—mostly from local breweries in cans because they are easier and more efficient to recycle than glass bottles, which also come with non-recyclable caps. We try to think through what we are doing.
We try, but when living the homesteading dream, a pile of garbage can become a complex thing, limiting what you can have and weighing ever heavier on your conscience. I guess we can get some organic cooking oil and start frying up some weekly potato chips at home. That’ll keep us spoiled but get us back on track. Of course, we aren’t producing our own cooking oil just yet, so…there’s always the option of simply doing your best, one step at a time.