The ULS Report TM

Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving
resources and reducing waste.

May-June 1997
Volume 4, Number3


When it Comes to Waste...
Think Organic, Man!

As we've discussed before, about one-third of your trash is organic material -- food and yard waste. The good news is that it's easy, economical and fun to reduce this stuff by gardening, composting and mulching.

The best way to start is by taking a systems approach and planning with the following objective in mind: to eliminate as much organic waste as possible. Thus, we need to develop ways to significantly reduce and reuse food scraps, grass clippings, garden materials and other yard wastes. We have many fun tips that can increase the odds of success while helping you to conserve green resources -- both the kind that come up in your garden and those that come out of your wallet or purse.

Let's start with those food scraps.
You're thinking about the compost pile, right? Well, before we do that, let's first discuss vermicomposting, or composting indoors with worms. A good wormbox, made of a shallow plastic utility tub and filled with redworms, will do wonders with virtually all of your food scraps -- including egg shells (but NOT meat and bones). In fact, unless you have a very active compost pile well underway outside, we'd suggest that worms are the best way to handle food waste -- in a box under the sink or in the basement, for example. Note: Do not let cats use the wormbox as a litterbox!

The castings that worms leave are excellent soil conditioners and fertilizers, and work well in your garden and as a dressing for houseplants. Castings are so nutritive they can even germinate avocado pits: Stick pits in the vermicomposting bin and forget about them for a month or two. When you see a tap root, transfer the pit to a pot and watch it grow! (See Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, published by Flower Press.)

Now we'll head outside to the lawn...
The best thing you can do for your lawn and your purse is to use a mulching mower. Leaving the clippings on the ground will reduce your need to weed and fertilize. (Also, people tend to put too many clippings in their compost piles. Keeping most of them on the lawn is thus good for the grass and your compost pile.)

Speaking of compost, it's great for the lawn as well as the garden. According to Smart Yard by Jeff and Liz Ball (Fulcrum Publishing), you should put down 250 pounds of the stuff per 100 square feet of sandy soil, 500 pounds on loamy soil and 1200 pounds on clay soil. That's a LOT of compost!

Another good idea is to reduce the amount of grass you have, thus cutting down on the use of fertilizers and the clippings that are generated. Put beds of ground-cover such as pachysandra, vinca or English ivy around trees. You'll also be helping the trees, by ensuring that you don't harm them by mowing too closely.

...and the garden.
One of the best ways to reduce waste is by sticking to plants that are easy to cultivate in your area. For example, melons don't do well in the North, as cool August nights and early frosts seriously reduce the chances of a ripe crop.

It's also very important to protect young seedlings. Shelter them by covering with paper bags, or for a see-through shelter, slice the bottoms off of plastic milk jugs and place them over tiny plants. Cut the bottoms into strips and use as markers. Recycle when done.

Save old seeds, too. According to Garden Answers (Rodale Press), the life expectancy of many common seeds is quite long, such as beans (3 years), cucumber (5 years), lettuce (6 years) and peppers (2 years).

And don't forget to reduce water use. Lots of mulch and compost helps. So does the use of soaker hoses and drip systems rather than sprinklers. Also, try to create level beds, eliminating water runoff.

A few words about weeds.
When it comes to pesty plants, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pulling. Here are a few tips from Barbara Pleasant's book entitled The Gardener's Weed Book, Earth-Safe Controls:

If you still have to weed, do it when the ground is wet. It's much easier to pull them out -- especially if they have very deep taproots (e.g., dandelions or pigweed).

Time to talk outdoor composting.
By now, it should be apparent that a good compost pile can be the basis for healthy lawns and gardens, while healthy lawns and gardens keep the compost piling up as well. This is a win-win-win situation: less trash, more beautiful and protective lawns and gardens, and reduced use of materials/increased financial savings.

There are many books available that can help you set up and maintain a compost pile. Here are a few tips we've gleaned that can increase the odds of success:

To summarize:
With a little planning, you can create your own household and backyard system that will significantly reduce the garbage you haul to the street, as well as increase the beauty of your home and even provide fresh fruit and vegetables. What's more, you'll save financial resources while you conserve natural ones. What a deal!

There's another valuable lesson in all of this. Thinking in terms of systems helps us step back and see the big picture. Grass clippings and yard waste will no longer be trash, but will become ingredients needed to produce inexpensive fertilizers, soil conditioners and weed inhibitors. Food scraps become grist for the redworm mill, turning into plant and garden food. These ingredients in turn help produce a more bountiful harvest, which means more food and fodder for next year's efforts!

This life-cycle approach is what source reduction, or using less stuff, is really all about. Looking at the big picture helps us find truly effective solutions and uses for materials -- solutions and ideas that we might miss by not seeing the forest, only the trees.

Finally, this integrated approach to organic waste applies to other types of waste as well. By stepping back and understanding all of the impacts created by, and options available to, local systems, it's far easier and cheaper to achieve long term solutions that really work... just a little food for thought.

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Ask Bill & Bob

Our last issue seemed to bring out more than its share of criticisms, questions and compliments. We thought we'd publicly respond to a few readers who we think raised issues that were on many people's minds.

Do non-recycled flexible pouches really reduce waste versus recycled containers?

The answer is usually "yes." The reason lies in the numbers. Most of these pouches contain at least 75 percent less material than do the containers they replace. Thus, to send less stuff to a landfill, an equivalent container would have to be recycled, on average, at the same 75 percent rate. The containers that achieve a rate closest to this level are aluminum beverage cans, which are recycled at about a 60 percent rate. No other container material -- steel, glass, paper or plastic -- comes close. (By the way, many pouches contain recycled material, further adding to their advantages versus more traditional rigid packages.)

There's a little bit more to the story as well. The lighter, flexible containers take less energy to produce and transport, thus also reducing fuel use, greenhouse gas production and air pollution. So once again, we have to look for the hidden benefits received from doing life-cycle analyses.

Why doesn't The ULS Report promote refillable bottles? Aren't they more efficient than throw-aways, regardless of the fact that they weigh more?

Much recent research has been done in this area, and the answer is generally "yes." Glass and plastic refillable containers tend to be more beneficial than lighter throw-aways, assuming a relatively high refill rate of about 20+ times.

The lack of refillables isn't a lack of industry concern, per se. In his book Why Do We Recycle? (reviewed last issue), Frank Ackerman points out that up until 1995, Anheuser Busch had a major refillable operation in New England. The problem was that, when given a choice, more people chose non-refillable packaging, presumably for the convenience of not having to deal with it after-the-fact or because the lighter disposables are easier to carry. So, if anyone can figure out how to broadly convince the public to use refillables, we're all for it!

Isn't it better to reuse old clothes than send them back to the manufacturer?

Sure, but if you have no one to give them to, it's still better to have the manufacturer find a home for them than to throw them away. Another option is to donate them to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Purple Heart, etc. While you won't receive a 25 percent credit toward your next purchase, you will receive a tax deduction that's hopefully of a similar value.

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Waste Reduction Resources

It's good to know that the quantity of reduction-related resources is increasing. Here are a few ways to get a hold of information that can help at work and home:

First, the Indiana Recycling Institute has just started an electronic reference center devoted to business and industrial waste prevention. Info is available via fax. Call 1-800-603-6277. Calls must be placed from the phone attached to your fax machine.

Also, The Yale Program on Solid Waste Policy has released a number of timely papers, including Does the Solid Waste Hierarchy Make Sense? A Technical and Environmental Justification for the Priority of Source Reduction and Recycling. For more info, send a fax to 203-432-5912 or an e-mail message to

For you Web-heads, here are a few sites worth a click:

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Reduction RoundupTM

Cool Savings. The U.S. government is set to require refrigerators to be 30 percent more efficient, starting July 2001. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that the new rule will eventually provide energy savings equal to the output of eight large power plants.

Systems Thinking. A public/private venture called The Green Institute is trying to set up an "ecological industrial park" in Minneapolis. It's hoped that all of the products in the park will be designed and manufactured so that the waste produced by one company can be used as raw material by a neighboring firm.

A Germ of an Idea. Stanford University researchers have demonstrated the use of bacteria to destroy the pollutant trichloroethylene, or TCE. The chemical was used prior to the 1990s as an industrial degreaser and dry cleaning agent, and has become a major source of groundwater contamination. Tests have shown that this method can successfully reduce TCE levels by at least 96%. Contact David Salisbury, 415-725-1944.

On the Skids. Dura Skid Inc. of Ontario, Canada has announced the launch of Duraskid, a wood pallet replacement made from 98% recycled materials, including post-consumer recycled plastic and post-industrial cellulose fiber. The company will also buy back and recycle worn skids. Call 416-679-0556.

Cereal Thriller. Hot on the heels of our Quaker Oats story in the last issue, Kellogg's of Canada is testing Hot Krumbly instant hot cereal in a stand-up pouch with a zipper reclosure. Eliminating the box should reduce total packaging by about 75 percent.

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Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
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Copyright 1997 Partners for Environmental Progress

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