Composting Case Study: Holistic Waste Management

I’m not sure whether it is a quaint notion, or a condescending one, but there appears to be a sense among some people that sustainability is easy to ‘do’. I admit they are right in that it is easy to do poorly. To do it well takes a number of attributes: knowledge/understanding; commitment; experience; and, a holistic approach. It is not child’s play.

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I would argue that the last two are the most critical to achieving excellence, and that they go hand-in-glove. There is nothing wrong with commitment and knowledge – indeed, they are the essential starting points – but everyone should be prepared to make mistakes on the way.

Along the rocky road of mistakes and embarrassment is where one meets experience and holistic thinking. They do not come by Waiting for Godot, but by seeking the Good Life.

Of course making mistakes in the privacy of our own homes and sections is better than making them in public. But if one wants to reach out to their community, she or he must be prepared for public scrutiny, particularly from those who will take every opportunity to criticize the conservation movement.

This is the reality of the world we share, and unfortunately, this is where sustainability can get a bad reputation: when well-intentioned but inexperienced people take on public projects for which they are not qualified. There have been a number of such failed projects in Whanganui, and I wonder if those failures have diminished the potential for subsequent projects.

In almost every case, I put down failure to reductionist approaches to what are inherently holistic challenges. Put another way, applying simple solutions to complex problems. Nowhere is this more evident, in my experience, than with waste minimization efforts.

In schools and organizations, and at large events, I have observed the failure of recycling efforts as a failure of the planners – as well-intentioned as they may be – to design and manage the systems holistically.

In a strange and unpredicted series of events, I found myself facing exactly such a situation recently. I was volunteered by my wife to help a local organization minimize waste at a large community event. It was last minute, but I agreed to advise them, help them set up, and remove compostable material afterward.

Everything looked good until a series of reductionist interpretations of sustainability complicated what otherwise would have been a smooth, easy, excellent example of waste minimization.

First of all, a Council employee informed us there would be a charge for wheelie bins that had been purchased using ‘waste minimization fund’ dollars specifically for event use. Put simply, charging for bins is a barrier to waste minimization, and would appear to go against the spirit of money specifically earmarked for waste minimization. Pretty straightforward, eh?

Next, and much more complex, is the use of so-called bio-cups. When my wife told me that the caterers had agreed to purchase biodegradable products, my first reaction was not elation. Here is why.

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Following what was likely a best ever in NZ waste minimization programme at the Masters’ Games last February, I found my 30-day compost contaminated with 548-day ‘bio-cups’. In other words, the hot compost regimen I embrace produces an excellent, finished product in one month, but upon contacting the distributor of the cups, I was informed to expect 18 months.

I see bio-cups as a reductionist approach to a holistic challenge because somewhere in the world, a perhaps well-intentioned group of people invented a product to replace plastic cups. How honourable!

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But from a holistic perspective, bio-cups actually get in the way of waste minimization because they make the entire composting process much harder. On the one hand, I don’t know of many home composters who would tolerate a year and a half of plastic-looking cups lingering long after everything else had rotted down. On the other hand, I know of no commercial composting operations that would accept this product because time is money, and bio-cups would be seen as a contaminant that could result in them rejecting an entire load of green waste and redirecting it to landfill. Waste not minimized.

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So here we sit, Verti and I, sieving thousands of bio-cups out of our Master’s Games Gold Medal Compost. Despite how Verti makes it look, this is not child’s play.

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Sleep Success (17 months later)

Can you call 2 days a streak? If so, then we are on one super sweet bedtime streak. Actually, hold on a second. I might have to stop writing this post.  I don’t want to jinx it. Oh what the heck, there isn’t a jinx in the world that could possibly make Eco Thrifty Baby sleep worse than she did in her first year and a half of life.

Since birth I can count on one hand finger the number of times she has slept longer than 6 hours in a row. A poster child for every sleep-training mistake, Eco Thrifty baby generally nurses to sleep in my arms, screams if we try to put her down, ends up sleeping in our bed, and then wakes 4+ times a night to nurse. We have tried several times to “sleep train” her, but she wasn’t ready. And by that I mean we weren’t ready.  But somehow, for some reason, it has all clicked for her this week.

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Maybe she has finally tired of kicking her papa while simultaneous head butting me in the chest, looking for milk. Maybe her newfound love for “duck duck” has inspired a sense of courage to take on the thus far unused furniture item we like to call “crib”. Maybe her linguistic skills have advanced far enough so that she feels slightly guilty when we get the inevitable “She still isn’t sleeping through the night?”. Or maybe, just maybe, (as evidenced by her ability to navigate the ladder and slide by herself today at the playground) my baby is turning into an independent toddler. Nope. I refuse to believe it.
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Whatever the reason, all I know is that for the past two nights we have done milk, 2 stories, a song and then she lays down in the crib without a peep. Not a peep! It is amazing.

At some point I will write a post about how and why we finally managed to get into a good bedtime/sleep routine. But for now I’m going to enjoy my newfound evening freedom and do a few productive things (like watch the finale of Survivor).  IMG_0691

Beach as Eco-Thrifty Design Exercise

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When I first wrote in October about what appeared to be the needless waste of rates “grooming” Castlecliff Beach it was in response to a comical situation: moving sand to windward with heavy equipment only to have it blown back into place within weeks.

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Then it happened again and again. Weeks after a second massive effort pushing hundreds of tons of sand to windward, it was all back in place, and an excavator was moving it a third time while damaging the car park in the process.

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When the first piece ran, the editor of the Chronicle gave it a title something along the lines of “Fighting Nature is Expensive.”

Eco-design has shown millions of times that working with nature is almost always cheaper in the long run. With this in mind, my suggestion was to take an eco-design approach to downsize the massive and underused car parks, which would save us all money and release less pollution through diesel fumes. I used the phrase ‘managed retreat’ because I had heard it used in reference to parts of the flood zone, and that it suits what would probably be a carefully considered, staged programme of right-sizing and retreat.

What I saw as a common sense win-win situation has made me the target of a few individuals who appear desperate to keep the beach as it is. I think we’d all admit that change can seem difficult, and these people are probably afraid of changes to our beach so they lash out at anyone suggesting new ideas. I can assure them that my vision is for a better beach attracting more visitors at less expense.

Living in a democracy, we all have the right to express our opinions on how our rates are spent. Elected officials choose to listen or not.

In key ways, the context of Castlecliff Beach is similar to the context of our villa when we bought it: big, draughty, expensive to maintain. As such, we can use the beach as a thought exercise in eco-thrifty renovation.

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Form follows function: Although the area groomed appears larger than the infield at Cook’s Gardens, well over 90% of beach goers congregate only around the swimming area, which is usually about the size of a church hall. As such, why spend thousands of dollars grooming a large area of black sand into the Gobi Desert when the swimming area looks like Omaha Beach on D-Day? In terms of customer service, this arrangement falls apart: the dollars are not spent on what beach goers actually use.

Right-Sizing: Along those lines, the parking areas at the beach are oversized and underused. It reminds me of a birthday party I once attended where the host prepared massive amounts of food and drink and almost nobody came. I left feeling sad.

Again, comically (why does this term keep reappearing?!?) Council recently spent thousands of dollars resurfacing the least used of six distinct parking areas. I liken it to having your least worn of six suits dry-cleaned: fine if you have the money, but probably not if you’re on a budget.

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As the first diagram shows, most money is being spent on places where no one goes, creating the look of big, empty, uninviting expanse.

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I suspect our mayor, who has an awesome stall at the River Traders Market, will tell you that to attract people, the front of a stall must appear full of goods – giving a look of abundance, not scarcity.

By right-sizing the car parks and beach, we can have a more inviting, less costly venue for free recreation. The second diagram shows what a beach might look like when money is spent where people go instead of where they don’t go.

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I will leave the next stage of retreat to the experts, some of whom may even live in our community.

The Bottom Line: We are facing a situation where more frequent extreme weather events are pushing more sand around at the same time we have a large debt, and an inequitable and unsustainable rates structure. The practice of beach grooming will end one day. The question is: Do we continue to throw good money after bad, or do we invest in a more sustainable re-design that will save money while working with nature?

Here is a suggestion to my editor for the title of this piece: “Sustaining the Unsustainable.”

MLK and LBJ and me and you

Editors note: This is an opinion piece I wrote for our newspaper, The Wanganui Chronicle, on Monday. Part of an eco-thrifty life is working with our community to move toward fairness and resilience. I have found the newspaper is an excellent forum to address important community issues.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed less than three weeks before my birth in April, 1968. Within two months, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy had also died from an assassin’s bullet.

But to say I was born into an age of turmoil is nothing compared to that of my best childhood friend. He was born in Detroit to mixed-race parents seven months after the riots of ’67 that resulted in 43 dead, over 1,000 injured, over 7,000 arrests, and 2,000 buildings destroyed. His mother was two months pregnant at the time.

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He was given up for adoption, and spent most of his childhood living next to my family in one of Detroit’s suburbs. Today he is a successful professional with a fabulous wife and two adopted mixed-race children.

There is no way of knowing he would have ended up differently if he had not been given up for adoption, but statistically his chances would not have been good.

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Growing up 16 miles outside of downtown, we were in a different world. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, we watched from a safe distance as jobs, people, and wealth exited the Motor City, leaving behind debt and poverty. Last year, 50 years after King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Detroit faced the nightmare of bankruptcy.

Research shows that very few people who grow up in poverty ever escape it. Those who go on to achieve great success are rare, and often adopt one of two diametrically-opposed viewpoints: one of empathy for those still in poverty or one of callous disregard for them.

Of the latter, recent research shows that many so-called “self-made” people are not generous with their riches toward those in need, and often adopt right-wing capitalist ideologies. Their thinking may go something like this: “I lifted myself out of that situation, why don’t they.” When interviewed, these people tend to discount luck and timing as factors in their success.

One notable exception to this was Lyndon B. Johnson, who took over as President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Fifty years ago this month, his State of the Union address included the declaration of a War on Poverty in America.

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Johnson, who spent much of his childhood living in poverty, said in his speech that the causes of poverty may lie “in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live.”

He went on to state that too many people were “living on the outskirts of hope”:

“Some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

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Although my best friend still experienced racism in our suburban community, he had a warm and dry home, good medical care, and an excellent education. Taking poverty out of the equation, the color of his skin has not in itself held him back from achieving many successes in his life.

I am sure that New Zealand is full of similar stories, but unfortunately we also hear too many tales of poverty in this nation and in this city. I believe there is ample evidence that the Wanganui District Council rates structure exacerbates poverty in our community, and that it is one of the few things that our councilors can address to actually improve the quality of life for many residents.

While not declaring war on an unjust and unsustainable rates structure, I would not hesitate to call it a skirmish. I am eager to hear from all those who wish to join me, especially sitting councilors who made statements about rates during their recent campaigns and/or any councilors who see themselves as left-of-centre.

Nature Directs Us for Best Design

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Holy Wellington, Bat Man, the winds have wreaked havoc on Whanganui holiday-makers and on our recently groomed local beach. On the heals of what has been called the windiest October in decades we’ve been hit by another blast in late December/early January.

This tumultuousness appears to exhibit what has been observed by climate researchers, such as Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University (USA): The hotter the world’s climate gets, the more energetic its weather tends to become.

The good news is that eco-design can address this to a certain degree. The bad news is that non-eco-design is likely to fail with greater frequency over time.

One essential part of the eco-design process is looking for patterns in nature. This can be as simple and predictable as morning and evening sun angles during winter and summer.

For a passive solar building, the aim is to allow winter sunlight to penetrate deep inside the structure while preventing direct summer sunlight from entering. Along with the strategic placement of windows, something as simple as eaves can achieve these aims.

Other patterns in nature are slightly more difficult to observe, but still obvious to those who engage eco-design habits of mind. For example, part of the permaculture design process is called a sector analysis, which includes identifying the directions of both the prevailing winds and strong seasonal winds.

There are lots of ways to find out this information: live in a place for a year; do some research on the internet; ask trustworthy locals; look for sub-patterns in nature that reflect wind direction.

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In Castlecliff it is fairly easy to ascertain the direction of prevailing winds. One way is to look at the pattern of trees listing to leeward. On our section we have a large willow that grows 30-degrees from vertical, leaning away from the northwest as shown in the photo. To quote Paul McCartney (and Wings), “The willow turns its back on inclement weather; if he can do it, we can do it.”

Another way is to go to the beach and look at patterns in the sand. The photo shows small ridges that form perpendicular to the wind as well as scour marks that run parallel to the wind and appear to converge at a “vanishing point” in front of Duncan Pavilion.

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While part of eco-design is recognizing patterns in nature, and part of it is working with nature, another part is protecting human constructions from its destructive power. An easy example of this is the New Zealand Building Code’s strict rules on weather-tightness, and earthquake and wind resistance.

Another example is protecting fruit trees and vegetable gardens from coastal winds. We have spent many hundreds of dollars on wind protection on our section. Almost all fruit trees – even those that are marketed as tolerant of sea winds – need a certain level of wind protection to thrive or even survive.

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This is clearly evident at one poorly designed community garden in Castlecliff that lacks wind protection, and where roughly half of the fruit trees have died. Planting a tree without adequate site preparation is neither eco nor thrifty.

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It is hoped that the advice in this column will inspire others to engage in eco-design habits of mind that will result in a healthier, happier, more resilient community for us to share. Again, quoting McCartney and Wings, “With a little luck we can make this whole damn thing work out.”

Peace, Estwing

A Picture and 1,000 Words

Today we printed out the final draft of our family profile book for one last edit before we submit it on Monday. This is what birth parents and social workers will look at to determine if we are a good match for their child. They don’t get to meet us or talk to us. Just. This. One. Book. Can you say nerve-wracking?
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I seriously spent about 5 hours deciding on fonts. Don’t even get me started on pictures. And the words??

Honest, but not too honest. Selling ourselves, but not fake. Greenies but not too hippie (nah who are we kidding, we could never cover that up). I mean should we tell them that one time we composted a goat? Probably not.

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And now its done. All 40+ pages of it. All 150+ pictures. I can’t post all of it because they ask some pretty darn personal questions (fair enough). But I’ll post a few pages so you can get a feel for it.

Text is based on a list of about 50 questions we were given by the social worker. It was very difficult trying to pare down everything we wanted to say to birth parents into concise paragraphs. Because really what we wanted to say was “We will love this child so much, and are so appreciative, and look how cool we are, and we are really nice people.” But we felt like that wasn’t quite grown up enough.

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In the end this step in the process, like every other step so far, was a blessing. Allowing us a chance to reflect and learn as a family, that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. I mean how many times do you, as a couple, get to sit down and really think about the fibers that make up the fabric of your marriage? How many opportunities do you get to articulate your parenting philosophy? Or the goals you have for your children and family? To sit and really define what your important events and traditions are? To pinpoint who you are as a family?

So, if you have about 100 free hours on your hands, I highly recommend sitting and making a family profile book for yourself. It won’t disappoint.

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PS- for all you font-ophiles – in the end I went with KG Secondchance Sketch for the Headings, That’s All Folks for the Subheadings, and Tin Birdhouse for the text.

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