Saturday, August 27, 2011

Slow Trash

One of the yard's back corners is our slow trash landscape patch. Five foot circle of food grade compost. Six foot tall brush pile with lazy anoles. One circle of wire mesh holds in pine kitty litter, and another, unbleached baby diapers. Taking up about a hundred square feet, this garbage collector leisurely breaks down our household biodegradable waste into soil and mulch for the yard. Who knows how long it will take?

The word trash (originally Old Norse for "fallen leaves and twigs") litters the English language with all kinds of referents, from broken objects to undervalued people. It shares in a dirty ontological category of stinky, rotten, untouchable things, dangerous with polluting powers. Trash is also an action. Mulch comes from the Proto-Indo-Eurpean base "to grind up," while litter’s etymology indexes how life forms lie down to sleep, reproduce, and shed waste. "Litter" referred to straw strewn on the ground for beds, but also all the animals born to a mother in a birthing bed. By the 1900s, "litter" had become a synonym for an undifferentiated mass of trash, garbage, waste, refuse, and rubbish clotting urban areas. In 1948, Ed Lowe marketed a clay-based product called Kitty Litter to replace the sand used in cat bathrooms. The name stuck as a generic one for all brands of litter box fill.

Like many other commodities, cat litter has a worrisome ecological life-cycle. Around 2 million tons of kitty litter enters landfills every year to join an estimated 3.4 million tons of diapers in a geological lump. Because the clay-based litter we used couldn’t be composted, we put it in plastic bags and threw it in the trashcan, the heaviest part of our household wastestream. By switching to pine litter that we compost in the yard, we cut the weight of our garbage roughly in half (but we still bag and toss the toxoplasmosis-laden feces).

The problems with kitty litter’s final resting place only add to its troubling origins in clay and bentonite strip mines. In 2001 the Oil-Dri Corporation (makers of Cat’s Pride and Jonny Cat brand litters) proposed new strip mining operations in Nevada’s Hungry Valley to save on shipping 140 thousand tons of litter to the western US. Their mine would be located 100 yards from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, prompting Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe to fight the project with nonprofit environmental groups like Earthworks and the Sierra Club. Their concerns include respiratory illnesses caused by dust blowing in from the mine, potential groundwater contamination from arsenic used in processing, increased traffic, noise and light pollution, and irreversible violence against the land. In the words of colony resident Diana Coffey, “I want my grandbabies to have this land, and a lot of this has remained untouched for thousands of years ... Our people never had written language, so everything was handed down from showing and telling in stories. That means it needs to be quiet.”* The Washoe County Commission denied Oil-Dri the right to mine, but the corporation is suing for damages in federal court based on an outmoded 1872 Mining Law.** The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony remains poised to fight the kitty litter strip mine.

Our kitty litter and diaper composters are cylinders of wire mesh leftovers from garden fencing. Cardboard and green glass bottles stuck through the mesh keep the kitty litter in place. Plates, napkins, forks, and food from our wedding form the diaper column's bottom strata. Two-and-a-half year old diapers on the second layer are decomposing nicely, almost ready to become mulch. Very few of the diapers are poopy. Some agave and prickly pear cactus on top seem to be surviving. We never stir these piles to speed up the mulching process, because we have all the time in the world.

Once in a while I fluff the food-grade compost with a pitchfork and throw in some water. Maybe next spring it will be ready to use as a soil ammendment. Meanwhile we buy bags of "triple power compost" locally produced by Organics By Gosh. In 2011 the Keep Austin Beautiful program arranged a tour of Organics By Gosh's composting facility. Giant machines work among twenty-foot tall compost mounds – valleys of death full of vegetable scraps, meat, and bones. Dillo Dirt is also bagged here.*** Giant composting facilities like these are the very large intestines of the City of Living Garbage.

On the tour we learn that landscaping companies, grocery store chains, and large public events all contribute organic waste to the composting facility. The prison nearby is the biggest supplier of food waste: the worse the food, the more waste. Hospitals are finally getting on board. Organics by Gosh is one of only two facilities in Austin permitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulatory agency to process meat, bones, fat, and dairy. Their compost piles are so large they form valleys around you that steam when mixed with the front-end loader. Microbial digestion inside the piles pushes their temperature up to 160˚ F, killing off pathogens and slowly cooking non-vegetative trash.

To keep the microorganisms happy, the piles should be moist, so in the summer they spray water from a rain and well water retention pond on the low side of the property. Rainwater coming off the piles picks up microbial life, making the pond an accidental vat of compost tea. When it gets too hot, they do not water the piles since moisture soaks up solar heat and would cook the life forms inside.

As the front-end loader stirs up a pile, wafts of manure and carrion float by. Biomass ages in the piles for 9 months to two years before being ground up in a Dr. Seuss contraption with a long rotating tube and conveyor belt that churns out finished humus. It falls in a perfect cone that no longer stinks. Mo, one of three Organics by Gosh employees leading the tour, says “that’s how you make dirt look good.” It also looks good on my baby’s face. He’s been clambering up the foot of the mounds, digging his hands in and smearing it all over.

At whatever scale, making soil out of trash puts us in the position of running a science experiment. Hands-on, self-taught ecological knowledge comes through slow learning over the years in close collaboration with microorganisms. It also puts you into daily relationships with nasty trash. In response to concerns about soil loss and overfull landfills, or localizing organic food production to cut out oil and petrochemicals, people proudly and affectionately hoard strange trash like my kitty litter and diapers. There's the guy who discovered that pine mulch breaks down into great soil in about a year. "The following January, and every year since, I have obtained all of the Christmas trees that my city collected."**** And the visitor to Ephemerata Gardens who collects hair from eight salons every month. Organics By Gosh wants your rotten meat.

Something happens to slow trash even before it becomes good compost, as if the untouchable category itself had decomposed. I find myself liking garbage, wanting to get to know it a little better, spend some time together. Curious about the life forms it attracts, like the giant zipper spider that spins its web right over the compost, or the seeds that slow trash sprouts after a good rain.

*Nancy Wride, “Plan to Mine Clay for Litter Boxes Stirs Cat Fight in Desert,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2002, Also see Scott Sonner, “Nevada Balances Economy, Environment in Cat Litter Fight,” The Berkeley Daily Planet, December 14, 2001,
**Ann Ronald, Oh, Give Me A Home: Western Contemplations, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (2006), 129.
***Dillo Dirt is a product of the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Sludge from Austin’s two wastewater treatment plants is pumped to the Hornsby Bend facility where it is mixed into mulched leaves and branches from curbside pickup and allowed to age long enough to ensure all pathogens in the sludge have been cooked out of existence.  If you buy Dillo Dirt in Austin, chances are you are purchasing your own shit.
****Tom Clothier, "Making Your Own Soil," Clothier's site is a proto-gardening blog that started in the 1990s, a repository of experience-based, self-educated ecological knowledge. Clothier's interests range from biological pest control to the packets he has recieved by "trading seeds around the world." Over the years Clothier carefully tests the theories of experts while advancing his own Fortean concepts: "I have a theory that seeds are living breathing entities that appreciate a bit of air exchange" (


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