Composting Can Change Our Culture

Composting can change our culture and the way we view waste. Before you scoff or laugh, hear me out.

Egrets Standing on Garbage in a Landfill

I was as unlikely a composter as they come. I wear rubber gloves to handle food scraps and spoiled food, do not like creepy crawly things at all, and have a low tolerance for yuckiness. Yet I am in my third year of composting and I actually enjoy it. The weird thing is, composting fruit and vegetable scraps led to other unexpected changes.

In part one of this 2-part post, find out how composting can fundamentally shift the way you view waste, not just food waste, and how that influences what you eat, how you shop, and what you buy or don’t buy. Then in part two, learn how easy it is to compost.

Composting Experiment

It all started with a birthday card from my parents in which they generously enclosed a $100 bill. I had been searching for a green project, a way for us to reduce our footprint on the planet. I decided to undertake a food composting experiment and used my birthday money to buy the necessary equipment. My family was highly skeptical of this undertaking.

Composting appealed to me for two reasons. One, grinding food scraps up in the garbage disposal using potable water or tossing them in the garbage seemed, well, wasteful. Two, I wanted to challenge myself by doing something way outside my comfort zone and that would require a lifestyle change.

I chronicled my composting experiment in three posts: Composting Part 1 – You’re Going to Do What?, Composting Part 2 – Doing It, and Composting Part 3 – Lessons Learned.

Tales from the Unlikely Composter

The composting experiment began with fruit and vegetable skins, peels, pits, scraps, and spoiled pieces, coffee grounds and filters, and peanut and pistachio shells. Because of the wild critters in the area, we opted not to include meat scraps or bones.

We collect composter food in a one-gallon stainless steel bucket with a lid and I dump it in the composter outside when it gets full or at least every few days.

Strategic Fruit and Vegetable Shopping

The first change I noticed was my reluctance to put spoiled whole fruits or vegetables in the compost pail. I used to toss overripe avocados and wilted lettuce in the trash or garbage disposal, so I should feel good about composting them instead. Right? Well not exactly, now it felt wrong to let produce go bad. It was, uhm, wasteful.

Instead of buying whatever produce looked fresh and tasty without paying much attention to quantity or shelf life, we began to shop more carefully. Now we purchase only what we think we can and will actually eat and then made a point of eating it.

China Plate with Fresh FruitFor instance, I might walk into the kitchen with the idea of grabbing an apple, but if a banana smells like it is getting close to the only-good-for-banana-bread stage, I’ll eat that instead. My spouse, our main cook, chooses or creates recipes that use the produce we have on hand.

As a welcome side benefit, we save money by not wasting food we pay for.

Food Packaging Reduction Challenge

Next, I became intrigued and disturbed by the large volume of packaging that came with our food: wrappings, boxes, jars, bags, cans, cartons, pouches, and bottles. Sure, some of it was recyclable like cardboard cereal boxes and glass pasta sauce jars, but plastic wrappings, safety seals, and containers made of multi-layer materials were not.

Plastic Crate with Plastic and Paper PackagingRecycling is a good habit, but transporting, sorting, and processing recyclables still consumes energy, water, and resources, and generates waste and pollution.

Having less stuff to recycle became a desirable goal. To accomplish this we needed to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of packaging coming into the house.

We began filling up reusable bags with items like coffee beans, pasta, and pistachio nuts from the bulk bins. As we purchased more whole foods and fewer packaged items we brought less packaging home and vacant space appeared in our small pantry. We found farmer’s market vendors were receptive to us returning fruit boxes, egg cartons, and olive oil bottles and some even offered rebates for them.

Personal Care Product Make Over

Non-food items seemed to offer another packaging reduction opportunity so more recently I turned to personal care items.

I discovered I could refill my shampoo and conditioner bottles at a co-op we tried out. Better yet, it was the California-made brand I switched to several months ago.

Refillable Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion Containers and Soap Dish with Bar of SoapA local shop, within walking distance of our house, makes and bottles rich moisturizing lotions with lovely scents. I’d bought a few bottles over the years and enjoyed them, so one day I walked into the shop and asked the proprietor if I could bring my own lotion dispenser. She said, “Sure.” Now I have a bottle of delightful plumeria-scented lotion on my bathroom counter. I also purchased a bar of glycerin soap they make in-house with natural ingredients I can actually pronounce and that does not come in a cardboard box.

The Waste Frontier

Plastic Garbage Can and Recycle Bin in front of Trash CompactorDuring a typical week, our 2-person household fills up the 21-gallon garbage can in the photo about 1/2 to 3/4 full. The one with the lid is our decades old, much patched, recycle bin. It’s usually full or almost full by trash day. Notice the trash compactor in the background (apparently, they were all the rage when our house was built in the 1980’s). We keep our garbage can in it.

Nowadays, I find myself looking at an item before putting it in a garbage can or recycling bin and posing questions to myself.

“Can cotton swabs be composted?”
“Is this blister pack containing 12 packs of dental floss recyclable?”
“Which beverage container is greener: plastic, glass, or aluminum?”

My inner waste monitor follows me to the store and the websites of my favorite online retailers.

“I want this lavender t-shirt.”
“You already have several t-shirts in your closet and you don’t need it.”
“I know, but I don’t have one like this.”
“Really.”
“Fine, I won’t buy it.”

The Bottom Line

If we hadn’t begun composting, we might still be buying pistachios in the bulk aisle, shopping with reusable bags, and refilling shampoo containers, but I believe composting gave us a fresh perspective on waste and nudged us in a new direction.

We’ve discovered new and interesting places to shop, met some of the people who grow our food, and found some great locally made products. It’s fun and feels good to support local businesses. Except momentarily, I don’t miss the stuff I didn’t buy, and it won’t require composting, recycling, or landfilling.

As I spread the compost around the Monterey Pine trees and native plants in our yard, I feel a sense of accomplishment and connection to the natural world. In nature, waste equals food—it’s a good model that humans should follow.

In the next post, pick up a few tips and learn how to make composting easy.

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Sustainable Forest Management and Certified Wood

Deforestation - Logging in Tropical RainforestPeople rely on trees and forests for survival, livelihoods, and convenience. Products made from wood surround us in our daily lives. Trees take years or decades to grow so sustaining a steady supply of wood requires pre-planning. As the last tree in a forest falls to the ground it is way too late to say “Let’s plant some trees”.

Humans are not great at thinking ahead. If we were, we might not be in our current predicament of living on a warming planet with a growing population and shrinking resources.

Luckily we do have a good track record at adapting and changing even though we don’t always like or want to. By practicing sustainable forest management we can and are reshaping our relationship with forests and looking to the future.

Why are Forests Important?

First and foremost forests are beautiful magical places in their own right. Forests offer us a place to walk, sit, and explore, a place to renew our spirit and connect with another part of nature.

Humans seem to view practically everything on earth as a resource for our use. Forests provide “services” like absorbing and storing CO2, moderating the climate, retaining and distributing water, preventing erosion, and furnishing living quarters for 50-70% of the world’s plants and animals 1, 2 as well as millions of people. Forests supply a renewable flow of “goods” such as wood, food, and rubber, and support the livelihoods of over a billion people 1.

We cannot survive without forests and yet we cut down or burn 30 million acres of forest each year 1. A prime example of not thinking ahead.

Fortunately, some people in every generation are good at looking to the future, planning, and getting other people on board. Forward thinking people have been practicing sustainable forest management for millennia by making sure some trees are always left standing in a forest, respecting the interconnectedness of forest trees, plants, and animals, and planting new trees to replace trees that have died or been cut down.

Sustainable forest management is not new. Its globalization is.

What is Sustainable Forest Management?

Definitions vary but in general sustainable forest management is the thoughtful and careful preservation, use, and management of public and private forests. The overarching goal is to ensure forest goods and services are available for current and future generations. It’s a human-centric approach that happens to benefit all denizens of earth.

How Does Sustainable Forest Management Work?

Over the past couple of decades, sustainable forest management organizations have sprung up across the globe. They endeavor to help balance the needs of the environment, people, and businesses. These organizations include Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and PEFC, to name a few.

Sustainable forest management organizations develop standards, establish certification criteria, and promote sustainable forestry. Third party companies ensure that criteria are met by forest managers, forest product manufacturers, and others wishing to obtain certification.

Forests and companies that achieve certification may use the seal of the certifying organization to inform potential business partners and customers that they practice sustainable forest management and / or source materials from sustainably managed forests.

Sustainable Forest Management Certification

Standards for sustainable forest management certification may vary depending on the certifying organization but generally include:

  • Trees, Ferns, Stream in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA - Photo by AuthorMaintaining forest health and productivity
  • Conserving biodiversity and protecting endangered species
  • Complying with laws and international treaties
  • Respecting indigenous people’s rights
  • Enhancing worker and local community social and economic well-being
  • Documenting, monitoring, and assessing management plans and outcomes
Chain-of-Custody Certification

A lot can happen between the forest and the store shelf. Chain-of-custody certification ensures that wood and other forest materials sourced from certified forests are tracked through the supply chain to the end user.

Mixed and Recycled Certifications

In order to encourage more businesses to source at least part of their forest materials through responsibly managed forests, some organizations offer a mixed certification. This allows forest products manufacturers to mix certified material with non-certified material. Generally, the non-certified material must also meet certain requirements, like it was not obtained by illegal logging.

Reclaimed wood and recycled wood fiber certifications recognize companies for reusing forest materials.

Watch the video below for a brief history of how the Forest Stewardship Council started with one business partner on board and grew to be an international organization.

Imagine Your Daily Life without Products Made from Wood

Stop for a moment and look around you. Now make a list of the first 10 things you see that are made from wood or another forest product.

I did this exercise while sitting in my home office writing this post. Here’s my list: house, desk, calendar, printer paper, note pad, box of facial tissue, book, picture frame, cardboard box, and a pad of sticky notes. I could have gone on but stopped at ten.

Author's Book, Calendar, Rubber Gloves with FSC SealIt’s unrealistic to think we will stop buying toilet paper, furniture, or items packaged in cardboard boxes but we can look for and buy products that come from responsibly managed forests.

Thousands of items from lumber to paper towels are available with FSC, SFI, PEFC, or other sustainable forest management certification. So, the next time you shop look for the seal.

For a global perspective on the world’s forests (past, present, and future) read State of the World’s Forests 2012 prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

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References

  1. Forest Stewardship Council United States – Overview
  2. World Wildlife Fund – Forests as habitat

Resources