©1995 PEP

The ULS Report

Helping people conserve resources and reduce waste by Using Less Stuff

July-August 1995 Volume 2, Number 4


A Toast to Compost

It seems as if the number one waste prevention question on everyone's mind has to do with composting.How do I do it? What goes into the pile? How do I know it's working?

Given that yard and food wastes combined account for about 22 percent of the household trash we generate, reducing and reusing this stuff at home can make a big difference: A 20 percent reduction would save 9 million tons of material, while a 50 percent reduction would save 23 million tons -- enough to reduce total solid waste generation by 11 percent. This would reduce annual per capita trash generation from 4.4 pounds per person to 3.9 pounds, an enormous drop.

Composting also cuts waste by replacing some, if not most, of the inorganic fertilizers you may be using on the lawn and in the garden. Substituting compost for chemicals reduces the potential for water pollution while saving materials, time and money.

Getting started is easy. Choose a spot away from wooden structures including homes, garages and fences. You'll want a spot with good drainage, but near enough to a hose that the pile can be moistened if necessary.

A simple 3'x3'x3' pile will do. Cover it with plastic when it rains to keep it from getting drenched. (Waterlogged piles smell.) If you prefer an enclosed composter, there are many good ones on the market, including a few made from 100% recycled plastic. Call your local waste management department or garden center for special offers that may be available on these units.

Next, keep in mind what you can and cannot put in the pile. Fruits, vegetables, skins, peels and husks are fine. So are leaves, grass clippings, and small branches. (Stay away from heavy sticks and weeds that have gone to seed.) DO NOT include meats, dairy products or eggs. You'll attract all sorts of nasty things like flies, maggots and hungry animals.

Now, it's time to stockpile the materials, outside of the bin if you're using one. Start with leaves, wood mulch, grass clippings, shredded paper, pine needles and cones. You'll also need a starter such as old compost, bagged compost or manure.

Layer the various ingredients outside the bin, watering each layer as you go. Think green and brown when you layer. Brown items provide carbon and green ones add nitrogen. Make sure to add some bulky items like wood chips to keep the pile loose.

Next, fork the layers into the bin, mixing as you go. Blend wet with dry and water as necessary to make the entire pile moist and damp, but not soggy. Add table scraps at this time or over the next few weeks.

Aeration is critical. Recent studies indicate that the old method of aerating by continually turning doesn't work as well as a continuous ventilation process. Use a dowel or broom handle to poke the pile from top to bottom in a number of places. This will set up convection currents that will do the work for you.

Active composting will begin within 48 hours. The pile will cook by itself, with temperatures in the 120 to 150 degree range. Stir once a week and add water as necessary to keep moist.

You'll soon see steam rising, indicating an active pile. In about three weeks, the steam will stop and the pile will cool. Contents will be brown and crumbly. It's time to put your newly made compost to work in the beds and on the lawn.

Return to Index


Oops! No way to put the crossword in the on-line versions. Why not download the PDF version of the report and check it out?

Return to Index

Ask Bill and Bob

Our hats are off to Marilyn LaRonde, a teacher from Austin, TX. She asked us four of the toughest questions we've ever seen. All deal with the complexities associated with a product's lifetime environmental effects, from cradle to grave. We'll answer two as best we can:

Who won the diaper debate? Cloth or disposables?

New cars get better fuel mileage than old ones, but old ones 
are already manufactured and thus use less stuff. Which is 
the better choice?

Return to Index

Summertime, and the Livin' Is...

By Dr. William Rathje

. . . wasteful? Sometimes it can be. Take "the cookout."

Does this bring to mind a few half-eaten hot dogs and mounds of soggy chips? There is plenty of wasted food, but that is less than half the volume of cookout waste. Don't forget the disposable paper/plastic plates on which much of the food is stuck.

And, waste-wise, drink containers are even worse. Cookout attendees become transformed into addle-pated amnesiacs who can't, for the life of them, remember where they put their last beverage—so they trudge back to the dispenser for another. The result is that a cookout for 15 friends can easily leave every raised horizontal surface in the backyard covered with 50 or more cans or cups, all partially full of some kind of fluid.

The excess discard of disposable serving items is one of the reasons why the flow of the household refuse stream is so much heavier in the summer than the winter. In the past, much of the blame for this has been placed on canned and bottled beverages, but many of those containers are now being recycled and the summer solid waste tsunami has still not abated. The backyard "cookout" is one of the clearest cases where recycling just doesn't cut much mustard—few recyclers want plates drenched in this yellow goop or hamburger grease, or mayo from the potato salad.

At this point, source reduction can step to the fore. I toyed with the scenario of suggesting that those planning cookouts should lay out their regular plates, silverware, glasses, etc. and wash them. But, no. I wouldn't use that kind of stuff outside myself. The answer has to be the same as with most solid waste problems — convincing people to take responsibility for their actions.

Disposables serve a useful purpose at cookouts; but, except for the occasional "act of god," one set of plates and utensils and one drinking vessel should be enough for any attendee (napkins, of course, are exempted from this rule at cookouts). How can this "one person-one set" goal be accomplished? With a little inconvience (not much, really) and maybe some added fun.

Try tethering a few magic markers at critical implement-dispensing points. Ask your guests to mark their implements - nothing complex, just an initial or a symbol. Each guest will only have to do this once. In this day of concern about communicable diseases, most people are willing to play along. Think, for a minute. If each cookout guest uses just one less disposable plate or one less disposable cup per cookout, because they can identify their own from among a raft of others, this simple act could reduce summer garbage considerably.

Now, if we can just figure out how to keep the magic markers from getting trashed in the process!

I've got it. How about asking one of your kids or a neighbor's kid to do the marking? The added side-benefit to this is that kids may enjoy the game, especially if they are trying to "save the Earth." Even better, if any of your guests think that the idea is a little weird, you can explain that it's the kids' school science project . . . and maybe it should be.

Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor of Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. The Project studies contemporary cultures by digging up their landfills and examining the resulting debris.

Return to Index

Low Impact Picnics

Here are simple and clever ways to use less stuff and reuse old stuff while enjoying the great outdoors:

Return to Index


Do you know how much it costs to collect your trash? We didn't think so. Like garbage, the cost is buried. It's hiding in your property tax bill or apartment rent. That's why we act as if it's free. It's not. We spend about 40 billion dollars annually for waste disposal in the U.S.!

If you knew the cost, you'd probably want to save money by throwing away less stuff. That's the idea behind the EPA's promotion of unit pricing, or Pay-As-You-Throw disposal programs. Families pay for garbage pickup by the bag, barrel or bin. Those who create lots of trash pay more than those who generate little.

These programs are not new. The first was begun in 1916 in Richmond, CA. Berkeley followed in 1924. Austin, TX converted recently, as has virtually all of Minnesota, Oregon and Washington.

Pay-as-you-throw programs have reduced garbage collection by as much as 25-45 percent. Recycling rates have also gone up as disposal went down. For more info, contact the EPA at 800-424-9346.

Return to Index

Reduction Roundup

On Target -- By eliminating bags, pins, tissue, clips and tape used to package each clothing item, Target Stores has cut about 1.5 million pounds of packaging waste, and saved 4.5 million dollars, annually.

Salad Days -- P&G changed the shape of Crisco Oil bottles from round to rectangular. This allowed for thinner walls, reducing annual plastic use by 2.5 million pounds. The new bottle shape makes for more efficient shipping containers, cutting annual corrugated use by 1.5 million pounds as well.

Think McThin -- McDonald's decreased the thickness of trash can lines, reducing plastic use by 2.1 million pounds. Converting hashbrown packages from paperboard cartons to paper bags saved another 2.9 million pounds of packaging.

Comforting Thought -- Dan River Co. eliminated 175 tons of cardboard boxes per year by switching to reusable plastic pallets for shipping sheets and comforters.

Return to Index

The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to uls@cygnus-group.com. Snail mail address: P.O. Box 130116 Ann Arbor MI 48113 Phone: 313-668-1690 Fax: 313-930-0506 Editor: Robert Lilienfeld Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje Editorial Advisor: Tony Kingsbury

Feel free to reduce, reuse and recycle this newsletter and its contents. (But please give appropriate credit when referencing our material.)