March 25, 2010

Worm Keeping for Beginners

A year and a half ago, my partner and I went to a workshop on vermicomposting. We came home with a bin, worms, and heads full of knowledge. We were prepared. We were excited. We were in for months of fruit fly invasions, swampy smells seeping up from our basement, and various other surprises. Like slugs. And slimy mould.

But we survived and so did the worms. Those little critter are so prolific that last month I gave away 7 litres of them to good homes. I also gave lots of advice. Here are the basics for starting your own worm compost bin.

Reasons to Vermicompost
  • It can be done anywhere as the worms don't take up much space.
  • Valuable resources are kept out of the landfill and it helps reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Your garden will love you!
  • Worms are quiet, low maintenance and actually quite interesting.
  • Worms work fast, so you'll have compost in no time.

Feeding Your Worms
Red Wrigglers will eat most kitchen waste. Any fruit or vegetable waste that you generate during food preparation can be used, such a s carrots, lettuce, cabbage, celery, apples, banana peels, and tea leaves and bags. Citrus peels, coffee grounds and tomatoes can be added, but only in moderation, as they will acidify the bedding. Adding dried crushed eggshells will help to control acidity, and will also provide the worms with valuable nutrition. The worms are even interested in very small amounts of such leftovers as spaghetti, grain cereal, bread and pancakes.

NOTE: Avoid feeding your worms meat, fish, bones, dairy products and oily foods. These foods will cause odours and attract unwanted insects. Garlic, salt, vinegar and spicy leftovers should not be added, nor should large quantities of onions. These foods can hurt the worms.

Climate and Temperature
Red Wrigglers prefer temperatures between 15 – 25°C. Lower than 10°C or higher than 30°C can result in death. I've been told that red wrigglers can be added to your outdoor compost bin, but I haven't tried this yet. They will apparently move to the areas of the bin that aren't too hot, though in some climates, I think the temperature would be too much for them. They will not survive the winter in cold climates, but their eggs should, and they will hatch baby worms the next spring.

It is necessary to provide a bedding for the worms to live in, and to bury food waste in. Suitable bedding materials are shredded newspaper and cardboard, shredded fall leaves, chopped up straw and other dead plants, seaweed, sawdust, compost and aged manure. I usually use either shredded newspaper or chopped up cardboard egg cartons, since we have both around the house. I don't use glossy magazine or flyer paper, though I'm not sure if that is really a no-no, or if it just seems more toxic to me.

Divide and Harvest: Shift all the old bedding, castings and worms in the bin to one side. Add fresh bedding to the other side. Bury fresh scraps in the new bedding for a few weeks, and keep the new bedding covered. Leave the old bedding uncovered. Check after a week or two; the worms will have migrated to the fresh bedding. Harvest the compost then fill the empty side with fresh bedding. This only works well if you do it regularly. If you get too much compost in the bin, the next method works better.

Dump and Hand Sort: Place a large sheet of plastic on the floor or on a table. Dump the entire contents of the bin onto the sheet. Shape the compost into cone-shaped mounds. Shine a bright light above the mounds; this will drive the worms toward the bottom interior of each mound. Wait 5-10 minutes then gently scrape off the layers of compost until all you have left is worms. (You may see tiny, lemon-shaped cocoons; these contain baby worms, so be sure to add them to the new bin.)

Smells: When the lid is on, a well-maintained bin is odorless; when opened, it should have little smell - if any, the smell is earthy. Worms require gaseous oxygen. Oxygen can be provided by airholes in the bin, occasional stirring of bin contents, and removal of some bin contents if they become too deep or too wet. If decomposition becomes anaerobic from excess feedstock added to the bin in wet conditions; or layers of food waste have become too deep, the bin will begin to smell like ammonia.

Moisture: If bin is too wet, the smelly, excess waste water must be removed and the bin returned to a normal moisture level. To do this, first reduce addition of food scraps with a high moisture content and second, add fresh, dry bedding such as shredded newspaper to your bin, mixing it in well. If the bin is too dry (not a common problem), then lightly moisten the bedding before adding it. To control both moisture levels and fruit flies, I freeze everything first, then thaw it, drain off the moisture, and then add it to the bin. We also have our bin set up on and angle, and drain the compost tea from the one corner using a turkey baster. If you are just setting up a bin, then get two containers. Drill holes in the bottom of one, and then set it into the other. Make sure it is a tight fit, or you will have fruit flies.

Pests:  Fruit flies breed in the bins if fruit and vegetable waste is not thoroughly covered with bedding. This problem can be avoided by thoroughly covering the waste by at least 2 inches of bedding. Maintaining the correct pH (close to netural) and water content of the bin (just enough water so that the compost is like a squeezed out sponge) can help avoid these pests as well. Slugs can also be a problem if outdoor leaves or grass clippings are added to the bin. Slugs found in the bin can be picked out and disposed of. Do this regularly until no slugs appear. To avoid slugs, do not use outdoor materials.

Worms escaping:  Worms generally stay in the bin, but may try to leave the bin when first introduced, or often after a rainstorm when outside humidity is high. Maintaining adequate conditions in the worm bin and putting a light over the bin when first introducing worms should eliminate this problem.

Preventing die-off: Worms will regulate their own population according to the conditions of their environment. These conditions include space, moisture, pH, temperature, bedding material, and amount of food, among others. A typical household worm bin might start out with one pound of worms (approximately 1,000 adults), which will soon multiply to 2,000–3,000 if conditions are good. Conversely, if one or more of the above conditions are unacceptable, the worms may “crawl” (leave the bin) or die off. Maintaining adequate moisture and harvesting the compost before the bin gets too full are the most important things to do to prevent die-off.

March 18, 2010

Spring Greening

March. I love this month. It's filled with birthdays, the first warm sunshine of the year, birdsong all day long, and fresh green shoots. The 20th is the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox this year, the official beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. At last! This is a month of change, and a perfect time to make and break some habits.

In light of this, (and because this is my first post and I want you to get to know me better!) I thought I'd let you into my mind a little today. Being a maker and trying to be green don't really go hand in hand - after all, the things I make are luxuries. Frivolous. Unnecessary. So I try to use the greenest materials I can and create the greenest product I can, but where do I begin? There's so much conflicting information -- have you heard, for example, that bamboo fabrics are not all that green? That's not to say all bamboo products are bad, it just has to be used in the right way to be earth friendly.

It's so important to question the 'evidence' we're presented with, and to keep researching - this time six months ago I'd have been happy to tell you that bamboo fabric is a perfectly acceptable eco-product!

So I thought I would share with you the process I go through when picking my materials. It's simply a list of questions that I try to answer to help me determine "green" from "green-wash". (I'm sure this will be nothing new to many of you, but a refresher never hurts, does it? :) This can be applied to any product. It's not comprehensive, or in any kind of order. And these definitely aren't rules. This is merely a guide to keep me thinking, questioning and making better decisions. I hope it can do the same for you!

Who made it?
More of an ethical issue than an environmental one, but it's important to consider, particuarly as so many companies use cheap foreign labour for their products. Often they don't know enough about their own manufacturers, who could be employing children, providing unsafe work environments, and underpaying their workers. Fair trade is great - it means that the "little people" behind the product are given a living wage (i.e. enough to provide food and shelter for their family), given a safe working environment and helps make sure the vulnerable aren't being exploited.

Where was it made?
The country of origin can help you answer the previous question, but there are other things to consider. Some countries can legally produce items with substances which are illegal (for good reason) in your country. (Remember those big toy recalls a couple of years ago?) That doesn't make these manufacturers evil, as essentially they're just doing what they're told! Then you need to consider air miles -- how far has this product had to travel to get into your hands? Transport uses fuel, which causes pollution, which causes all kinds of hell for Mother Nature. This can have a huge environmental impact. The more local, the better.

Hemp & organic cotton bag using fair trade materials

What is it made from?
Sustainability is key. True sustainability means the product fits within nature's cycle - no harm is done to the environment when it is made, used or disposed of. Most 'sustainable' products fit into a grey area, where they fit some of the criteria but not all. Classic examples of sustainable materials include hemp and bamboo - they grow fast and organically (without use of pesticides), and are versatile and durable. Often, though, that's the extent of it. Substances used in processing these materials sometimes means that they can't safely biodegrade - but they can still be better than many alternatives!

When will it reach the end of its life?
We all know that disposal is a big issue. But to an extent, as consumers, we can control how much we send to landfill or throw in the recycling bin. Avoid anything over-packaged (i.e. anything that has more packaging than necessary to get it into your hands undamaged). Buy things to last. Save up your pennies and buy the best: quality over quantity. Then look after what you've got! Your jeans have a hole in the knee? Patch it. Broke your favourite mug? Mend it. Be inspired by the Japanese art of Kintsugi, find the beauty in old things and treasure them!

How do you use and care for it?
Most of a products environmental impact lies in how it is treated by the consumer. Clothes are a particularly good example. How often you wash your clothes, at what setting and using which detergent are all factors that determine the size of an individual item's environmental impact. Try to choose products which don't need too much of this kind of care.

Why do you want it?
This is probably the most important question! If you can talk yourself out of an unnecessary purchase, you're doing good for the environment. Ask yourself if you need it, if you'll really use it, how and where you will store it, could you buy a second hand version instead, what else could you spend the money on? Think thrifty. Learn to value old over new, you'll be surprised how satisfying it can be. But most importantly: value what you already have. Don't replace anything with a 'greener' option if all you're doing is creating more waste!

So, what are your tips for sussing out green from greenwash?

P.S. apologies for the terrible title pun ;)

March 11, 2010

Shopping baggage

Late last year I read about a study that made me start to think a lot more about our use of shopping bags. We’ve been using the ubiquitous (in Australia, at any rate) green polypropylene shopping bags for our grocery shopping for years now, but the Woolworths Shopping Bag study, by RMIT’s Centre for Design, made me start thinking about all the bags we consume when we buy or receive goods.  The study looked at the whole life cycle environmental cost of a number of different types of retail shopping bags (paper and several different plastics), taking into account the production of the raw materials and manufacturing of bags from those raw materials, transport, use and ultimate disposal of the bags.

The study concluded that reusable bags had lower impacts than single use bags, but these benefits were highly sensitive to the number of times a bag was re-used. Not a surprising discovery, but more surprising was the fact that despite having the lowest impact on litter, and being made of renewable resources, paper bags had the highest environmental impact due to the energy embodied in their production. You can read more about the study and conclusions here and here. Since reading that, I’ve been carefully hoarding any bags (especially paper) we receive for re-use, and giving a bit more thought to the kind of bags we do use, or perhaps could use.

The shopping bags we use are polypropylene, which is recyclable when they reach the end of their useful life. In theory that is. In practice, I was surprised to learn here that because the thread used to make them isn’t recyclable they have to be unpicked by hand, they need to be shipped from Australia to China, where labor is cheaper, to make recycling economically viable. This is a great example of the fact that even though something may be recyclable, the process of recycling (if and when it is disposed of in a way that enables recycling) is not without environmental cost (and may well have some ethical issues too).

Perhaps I’m a tad cynical, but I do feel that recyclability is increasingly becoming an easy green-washing feature for advertisers, with a whole heap of ifs and maybes being swept under the carpet, out of the consumer’s sight. I guess it’s up to each one of us to consider why we choose the purchases we choose, and to be satisfied in our own minds that they are worthy justifications based on the best information we could access.

But back to bags- there are certainly some opportunities in the shopping bag arena for some environmentally beneficial creativity. First up, if you are lacking reusable shopping bags, make yourself some shopping totes that suit your needs- perhaps something that folds up nice and compact, a big roomy bag, a retro crochet bag (link to .pdf), or whichever size and shape you might need, perhaps re-purposing materials you have on hand (ideally natural materials such as cotton that will decompose at the end of their useful life). Second up, make sure you have them on hand when you go shopping, and use and re-use them for as long as possible.

Our household already has a useful stash of shopping bags, and are in the routine of using them, but I realized we could do with some reusable produce bags. Although we re-use them a lot of the time, I found that we were always coming home with a few more plastic produce bags every time we bought our fruit and veg. Inspired by some handmade mesh produce bags I saw on flickr, and this tutorial from Wisdom of the Moon, I hit our local second hand shops and found a sheer mesh curtain to re-purpose. One evening with my overlocker (aka serger) later I had a set of 10 mesh bags.

I sized them to minimize wastage from the materials I had, and to keep them similar to the plastic produce bags I’m used to, using some cotton yarn for drawstrings. I’ve been trialling them for a couple of weeks now and am really pleased. Responses from cashiers has varied, from the ditzy supermarket checkout chick who wondered if I wanted her to take the produce out to weigh it (Umm, no- that’s fine, they weigh next to nothing), to the ladies at our regular market vendor who remarked how nice they were (Oh thank you!). The only drawback is that we are now dependant on plastic containers to keep our veggies fresh in the fridge. At least they're re-usable, but I do wonder if there is a bag I could make for this purpose... Any suggestions?

March 4, 2010

Meatless Monday

While I have flirted with vegetarianism all my life I admit I enjoy eating meat. In university, I worked my way through Linda McCartney's Home Cooking, but by graduate school, and after being diagnosed with anemia, I started to eat meat again. I hoped with a more thoughtful approach.

Where does this come from? Did it live a "good life" before coming to my plate. I am trying to instill these same ideas in my girls. I am also working to reduce the meat we do eat. We try to mix it up. Fish, poultry and red meat are not strangers at our table. I am fully aware of the horrors of factory farming. I want to eat more meatless meals and slide a little away from our routine. My goal this year has been two meatless meals added to our weekly repertoire.

My catalyst is three-fold, really: compassion for living things; impact on our health; and the impact meat consumption has on the environment.

In my quest for ideas, I learned of Meatless Monday:
Meatless Monday, along with Wheatless Wednesday, were initiated as a World War I effort by the U.S. Food Administration to encourage Americans to "do their part" in aiding the war effort by reducing the consumption of key food staples. In 2003 the effort was recreated by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future to help Americans adapt to a healthier lifestyle. With an endorsement in 2009 by Sir Paul McCartney - and in turn Gwenyth Paltrow at GOOP - a movement is being built. (Check out the Meatless Monday website for lots of great ideas.) We have added to that "Soup Saturday" (a vegetarian soup) - which I can see morphing into "Salad Saturday" come summer (hopefully inspired by our own garden).

My family - mostly my husband and youngest daughter have made a few groans - but no real complaints. My challenge is two in the house with soy allergies - that makes it tough - and keeping it varied. Lots of lentils in the cupboard!

red lentil soup

So, what vegetarian fare scores high on your table?