80% of Austin trash isn’t trash

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The city of Austin adopted a Zero Waste plan in 2009 with the goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill by the year 2040, and they’ve just released the results of the 2015 Community Diversion Study. This is the first study of its kind done here in Austin. I haven’t read the full report yet but wanted to share the overview of findings.

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet the 50% diversion goal for 2015. Only 42% of waste ended up reused, recycled, or composted this year. But it may give us some of the information we need to forge ahead.

“I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study,” said Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert. “The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.”

Here’s the breakdown of the material analyzed on its way to be landfilled. 18% could have been recovered and reused as is. 26% could have been recycled. And a whopping 37% could have been composted. Less than one-fifth of the load would have gone to landfill if those resources had been sorted to the right place.

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Fortunately, there are several steps already lined up to help us improve.

  • An ordinance already exists to require recycling for multi-family properties in Austin with at least 10 units, but as of this fall it goes into effect for properties with at least 5 units.
  • Also starting this fall, businesses over 15,000 sq. ft. will be required to divert organics material for composting, and over the next couple of years all food businesses will have to take part.
  • Austin is also hosting the 2016 Zero Waste Business Conference in June, which should both get some much-needed attention on the subject and present more ideas for improvement.

There are also some hopes to roll out curbside organics collection for more than the pilot group of residential customers, but I don’t think there’s any budget allocated yet for it.

Personally, my guess is that at least half (probably much more) of the big number above could be reduced by source reduction–that is, buying less stuff and using less packaging for the stuff that is bought. It’ll be an interesting read to see how reduction is handled in the report.

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Paper Towels FTW!

Normally, I hate paper towels. I use cloth towels or rags in the kitchen. I keep a clean handkerchief with me at work to dry my hands after washing up. And I no longer make bacon or fried potatoes (for health reasons). Napkins and paper towels just fill up the trash or compost bucket too quickly.

But lately I’ve been washing my hands several times throughout the day and using a fresh paper towel to dry my hands each time. And it comes down to one of the few reasons that can make disposables worth the waste–health.

You see, since we moved into our new house, I’ve been occasionally going out back to pull some of the poison ivy. I’d wash my hands and arms once I got back inside and didn’t have any ill effects. Everything was working so well. I felt invincible!

Unfortunately, I must have gotten a bit overconfident. In this past week, what I at first thought were bug bites on my arm multiplied and spread after scratching them. And there are more of the little bite-like marks now across my arms and wrists, just begging me to scratch them. I even have some redness and itchiness on my abdomen and belly button. Overall, it’s not bad for me compared to horror stories I’ve heard about poison ivy, and I’m pretty sure some of the itchiness is psychosomatic. But it’s made its point, and I’ll be more careful in the future.

For this week, though, in case the urushiol oils are still around somewhere, I’ll be doing a bit of cleaning, rewashing clothes, and throwing out a paper towel every time I wash my hands.

Book Review: The Third Plate

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of stories of people who are trying to create a more sustainable food future, from eating smaller fish to growing local grains. We haven’t gotten to this book yet in book club but I read it anyway because I’m curious to see what foods other people consider to be the most sustainable.

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The stories are those of people who are working to create more sustainable versions of fois gras, Iberico ham, fish farms, wheat, veggies, and more. Considering how eating less meat is recognized in the intro as a necessity for sustainability, it amazed me how much time Barber spent describing how geese, pigs, and fish were being raised with minimal harm to the animals and with minimal or even positive impacts on the ecosystem. But I suppose if a foodie is eating less meat, the meat s/he does eat had better be damn good.

The book also discussed how wheat flour became white–less healthy but longer-lasting. How farmers are growing veg from heirloom seeds to help protect seed diversity in a world where many seeds are now owned by corporations and can’t be saved for replanting. How companion planting can create better plant health, improve the soil, and prevent the other dangers of monocropping.

The following quote was particularly interesting:

If you have a hankering, as I do, for the old days of our young republic, when farming was what farming should be–small, family-owned, well managed and manicured, a platonic paradigm of sustainable agriculture–think again. Today’s industrial food chain might denude landscapes and impoverish souls, but our forefothers did much of the same.

This is something I’ve read more about since. When Europeans discovered the Americas with so much fertile land that had been well-tended by the Native Americans, they felt no qualms about sapping the life from an area before moving on to another plot. (In the past week I’ve also read a bit about how Native Americans were used as slave labor before the Europeans realized they succumbed too easily to smallpox and other diseases and opted for African labor instead. I need to look into this a bit more, but what I’ve heard so far is really disturbing.)

On the seed front, although heirlooms are trendy right now, this book presents a counterpoint which is actually pretty compelling. Heirlooms are varieties that are as much as possible unchanged from older generations. But they’re usually not local to our area. And our environment has changed, too. So there’s something to be said for scientists who do the work to continually breed new varieties that grow well in different areas, that are resistant to diseases, that have been developed to make that variety economically viable to farmers as an alternative to the same old monoculture varieties. As long as the seeds are open-pollinated and not patented, it doesn’t seem so bad to me.

The problem, he said, is that farmers are often, like Klass, planting very old varieties with low yield–the problem with heirloom anything–or they’re planting conventional varieties with  no flavor. “Without a breeder to support the continual betterment of the plant, an alternative to conventional wheat will never establish itself.”

But the focus with farming is on improving the soil to create plants that are nutrient rich instead of fed artificial NPK fertilizer. This may mean growing perenials that grow deep and persistent roots to improve the soil. It may mean rotating crops, growing cover crops, and providing compost as the ideal soil amendment. Not building the soil could have devastating consequences, as he described from the wisdom of Dr. William Albrecht.

Of the diet-related diseases that have spiked in the past century, the obesity epidemic would seem to have been impossible to predict. And yet, in the 1930s, Albrecht came close. He knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But when kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrect believed our bodies would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, he said, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.

Although this book was really oriented towards foodies, I found most of the stories very compelling and informative. Personal changes this book has helped influence:

  • In the future if I’m craving seafood I may try eating smaller varieties of fish. (Although if I go to Luby’s I’ll probably swap out my usual fish for some broccoli.)
  • Not sure if this will happen, but I’m seriously considering growing some of my own grain next year. Not much but some.
  • Next year I’ll definitely also try out the Three Sisters planting of corn, beans, and squash.
  • On my next seed-shopping trips, I’ll look more at open-pollinated non-heirloom seeds (still staying away from the patented stuff) in addition to the heirloom options.
  • I’ll continue to cut down on eating out. (It’s rarely anything good for me).
  • I’ll regularly buy our whole wheat flour from the vendor at the farmers market. It’s way more expensive, but I have to support it to help make sure it stays available.
  • (But no, don’t expect to see any foie gras or Iberian ham on my plate.)

In conclusion, the best note to leave on is the wisdom shared throughout all of the stories, that “knowing about the natural world is a more enjoyable way to be in the world.”

Not New Thread

For a long time I’ve been dangerously low on thread (other than travel-sized pieces). My patchwork denim reupholstery project has been on hold for a couple of months now, and this weekend it was time to be more active in replenishing my supply.

I’ve had success with Craigslist for other things previously, so I scoured the site for any hope of people who wanted to part with excess spools of thread. Fortunately, there was a yard sale not too far away and the pictures included a bunch of yarn, so it was a good bet. And best of all, everything was free! Sure enough, I found a spool of thread but it was tiny. And, well, since everything was free I ended up grabbing a bunch of other stuff.

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Much restraint went into choosing only these free items

You may see some larger spools in this picture, but those are actually crochet thread and it may not be a good idea to try using them in the sewing machine. I also got some gold sequins and beads that were bundled up with the thread, a tablecloth, tv tray, salt shaker, grater, jar of paper clips, dishwashing liquid, pinking shears, kitchen spritzer (for oil), glass baby food jars, curtain rod holders, a drying rack, and a bunch of embroidery hoops. Good thing I’ve made my peace with not being a minimalist (although I sometimes still ooh and awe over pictures of minimalist homes).

For the next promising lead, someone was offering a set of extra sewing items for just $20. The ad was posted a week and a half ago, so I didn’t have my hopes up but it turned out to be a smashing success!

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So much thread!

Three huge spools of thread. They’re all polyester, but I’ve also made peace with the trade-off of plastic goods vs. buying new. Since everyone recommends having a pair of shears just for fabric, the heavy-duty pair that came with the set is really sweet. There’s a tracing wheel, which I would never have bought new for myself but will definitely use, zipper feet which may or may not fit my sewing machine, and a couple of different types of snaps.

The seller was an awesome woman who was interested in selling these to someone who would use them and kept the other items from the set which I didn’t need to share with someone else. Thanks, Savannah!

Shoe Tossing

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I see a pair of perfectly good shoes just sitting by the sidewalk at least once every month. Where do they come from? How is it that not a single person passes by and thinks “Awesome! Free shoes!” and grabs them before I see them? And how is it that some people think the best use of them is to play a game of shoe tossing, leaving them in a rather curious position?

And yet, seeing this pair of shoes on a streetlight awakens a challenge inside of me. I’m tempted to toss another pair of shoes up there just to see if I can do it. I have some shoes that are falling apart, so it wouldn’t be a huge waste. But that might inspire someone else to do the same thing with a pair that still has plenty of life left in them.

Fortunately, that streetlight is really high and I know I’d fail in my shoe-tossing attempts. Crisis averted. 😛

The Garden After 3 Months

It’s been a month since my last garden update, making it three months since we moved into this new home and started attempting to grow some food. It’s been storming a lot lately, so it’s great that the plants haven’t been damaged by the harsh weather. Plus with all the rain, I haven’t had to water much.

Lately I’ve also been reading articles and blog posts about people just starting their veggie garden now, and there’s always a brief moment where I think to myself “Wow, they must be crazy!” Living here in central Texas, the clock is already counting the days until the sun becomes insanely menacing and kills the garden for the summer. So without further ado, let’s get to business.

Squash Bed

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Yellow squash blooming

It was only about a month ago that I planted this found pallet with a bag of compost, yellow squash, and a couple of nasturtiums. There are plenty of leaves, I haven’t seen any insects yet, and I think that little guy at the bottom center of this picture may be the beginning of my first-ever homegrown squash.

Melon Bed

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Various melons and nasturtiums leafing out

I planted three varieties of melon in this bed–cantaloupe, canary melon, and watermelon–and expected them to be sprawling out of the bed more by now. But it’s okay, they may just be waiting for the warm weather that’s coming very soon.

You can see from this picture that my bright idea to use these hollow-frame doors for the garden beds turned out to be a rather poor idea. They’re not holding up to the weather as well as the plants are. Lesson learned: even with the best intentions upcycles sometimes quickly become downcycles.

Cucumber Bed

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Cucumber vines taking full advantage of the tomato cages
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An infant cucumber!
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Holey radish leaves

The cucumber plants look pretty healthy so far. They’re vining out everwhere and I’ve seen at least a couple of baby cucumbers. The radishes that were planted in the bed haven’t fared so well, but I didn’t expect much from them since they’re a cool season crop and were primarily here as a companion plant for the cucumbers. I did get to eat a few of the radish leaves before insects got to them, and the roots are pretty much non-existent.

Tomato Bed

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This is what happens when you grow tomatoes without support.
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Adolescent tomatoes

I’ve gradually been eating the onions from this bed. They’re not big-bulbed, but they’re still oniony and with plenty of greens. The tomato plants have been crowding them out anyway.

Speaking of tomatoes, I bet these two plants have a gazillion little tomatoes growing on them. I can’t bring myself to cut any of them off, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the plants have the strength to bring all of these babies to adulthood. I’m eager to try a truly fresh tomato for the first time.

The real star of the show in this bed, though, is the borage. I didn’t know what this was before this year, but it is beautiful. And surprisingly huge. The leaves are supposed to taste a bit like cucumber and they really do! A bit fuzzy, but you can either just deal with it or cook them so the fuzz texture goes away. I hear they’re also prolific self-seeders so there just might be even more borage in my future.

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Flowering borage
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Borage flower

Lemon Tree

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Meyer lemon at 1 year 6 months of age

My first Meyer lemon plant is still sprouting more leaves, so I think it’s going to make a come back. It’s still many, many years from fruiting though (if it ever does). Sadly, it looks like the other lemon plant didn’t make it. It maybe time to start a couple more, which means it’s lemonade time!

Front Yard

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Small transplanted Jalapeno and tomato plants with a couple of marigolds in between (and grass and weeds)
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Front bed in progress

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve started pulling some of the grass and weeds from the area by my house. My mom brought some rounded brick pavers she didn’t want anymore, which has blocked off a section of grass-free zone. I mulched lightly with some newspaper ads and planted some marigold and zinnia next to the couple of rosemary plants that I added almost immediately after moving in.

Digging up the beds a bit has unearthed tons of small stones, and I’ve already started on adding a row of these stones right next to the house, both for walking on and to keep bugs slightly further away from the structure.

Up front, I also transplanted a couple more tomato plants and a jalapeno plant. Not sure yet how well these will grow since they’re on the north side of the house, but any greenery up front will add to the curb appeal.

Coming Soon

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Lonely bell pepper infant

I have a large hollow brick so this weekend this little guy can go outside and be amongst friends. If there’s one thing I’ve learned gardening, it’s that plants hate being pampered and are most likely to thrive if you let them do their own thing. Maybe I’ll get better at gardening eventually, but why worry if they do just as well on their own.

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Rosemary babies

I’d read online that rosemary is very reluctant to start from seed, so I wasn’t expecting much. But they must have liked some of the warm weather we had when they were planted because these sprouted right up. Then again… we’ll see how long they survive.

Well, that’s it. There are so many other foods I wanted to plant, but I’m still a novice and shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself. As the storms ease up, I’ll need to be extra vigilant about insects who want my delicious veggies for themselves. No way, insects! They’re all mine!

Eating Less Meat

I was looking at the Extinction Facts campaign today, and no matter how many times I’ve heard it already, it always strikes me the amount of resources that go into meat.

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And the really sad part of it is that about 20% of the meat that gets to market doesn’t get eaten. A huge contributor to the following:

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At the start of the year, my husband I decided to drastically cut back on meat and dairy consumption for our health and for the planet. And so far, so good. It’s given us a chance to try new veggies, new fruits, new grains. He’s lost weight. I have more energy. And my favorite part is not having to deal with stinky meat wrappers.

Initially I thought this would just be temporary. I am, after all, a Texan and love some brisket. But amazingly it’s become normal now. We eat meat only a couple of times a week and even then in much smaller portions than previously. Sometimes our normal meals are something as simple as lentils and rice. Or we chop up a variety of veggies to go into our fried rice or vegetarian chili.

My husband is still generally sold on the concept of meat as part of every meal but is more than happy to get some tofu, chickpeas (which to him really do taste like chicken), black bean burgers, TVP (soy shaped like beef crumbles) much of the time. Surprisingly, he also loves the lentils and rice. I wish I had known that back when money was really tight!

If you’re a meat-eater, I’d encourage you to also try going vegan every once in a while and try new foods to see what you like and what you love. If that’s unthinkable, I encourage you to just take your leftovers to go at the restaurant. Even if that means taking home a foam clamshell. Eat them for lunch the next day, or reinvent them into a new food creation. If you buy meat at the supermarket and aren’t going to eat it right away, freeze it until you need it and put it in the fridge to thaw the day before to ensure it doesn’t go bad. And don’t ridicule you’re uncle Harry for gnawing on the chicken leg until every last bit of meat is gone; that’s the way to do it.

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With some simple changes, we can make less food go further. We can prevent meat waste and savor every delicious morsel. Apologies to the vegetarians out there, but I still find meat to be truly appetizing and appreciate it even more now that I don’t eat it every day.

Bee Magic

Three bees in a squash flower

Since moving in, I’ve seen wasps, dragonflies, butterflies, regular flies, lightning bugs, and all kinds of ants, beetles, other insects. But not a single bee. However, the moment that the squash flowers were in bloom, they knew instantly. Not just one of them, but three are crowding into a single flower at this moment. It’s magic. And if delicious yellow squash is the result, well, that’s magic too.

The Not New Laptop

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My beautiful laptop. I’ve obviously done a lot of clicking.

I bought this baby in 2008. An Dell Inspiron n-series. (The “n” was for Linux, meaning that it was free of both Microsoft and Apple. It’s a shame this series was discontinued.)

There have been many days where I’ve worried that it would soon bite the dust and that I’d have to go out and buy a new laptop. But it’s always pulled through, and I will cherish this laptop until it’s last breath.

I love it for all its imperfections….

The disk drive regularly pops open if it’s just barely tapped.

The battery life grew shorter and shorter over the years. Then one day it just stopped working period. No worries, I could just keep it plugged in while using it.

Then one day the power cord also failed. My caring husband was quick to find a secondhand replacement cord to get it back in business.

Then one day it started giving me an error message upon start up but with the option to continue anyway. I continued.

Then one day when I turned it on the screen stayed black. I discovered that if I kept the lid closed until it beeped at me, the display would then be fine when I reopened it.

Then one day a piece from the hinge for the screen chipped off. Gradually more pieces chipped off until only the cords held it in place on that side. There are a few positions that it will happily stay opened in, or I can support it. No worries.

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It didn’t always bend this far back.

Then one day I couldn’t connect to the wifi. There are two wifi networks we can connect to for our router and amazingly the other one worked. The wifi will still refuse to connect occasionally, but usually the other one will be just fine.

This laptop has outlived its normal life and is no longer as lively as its brothers. There may be even more hiccups in the years to come. But at the very least I can take pleasure in the fact that this computer will never be capable of becoming self-aware. Because, hey, I can understand a machine’s imperitive to destroy all humans, but I’ll resist it as much as possible.

Want to see what happens after you send your computer to the recyclers? Basel Action Network tracked some and it wasn’t pretty.

Rest In Peace, Brightbutt

Firefly on a man's hand
(not our firefly) Photo by: Marty Gabel

My husband and I were just talking in the living room when a bright light suddenly flashed in the kitchen. Not stationary but moving in that moment of glow. Until recently, we would not have recognized it because it had been decades since we’d seen one. But they’re a regular visitor in the yard of our new house by the creek. Yes, a precious little firefly. It must have snuck in when I came in from the yard earlier.

We wanted to release it outdoors again but had never caught a firefly before. While it was sitting on the curtain, I tapped it into my coffee grounds collection jar so we could take it outside. Unfortunately, it wasn’t moving. And it moved no more.

Brightbutt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill you. In memory, my grass out back is growing long so your old friends can frolic and remember you happily.