Archive for March, 2011

Compost (or how I learned to stop worrying and love worms)

I share my house with about 20,000 worms. They live in a Can O Worms composter. It’s a great composting solution for me because I haven’t got a garden big enough for a compost heap/bin, and because the organic waste I produce is all from cooking (rather than gardening). It’s particularly fabulous that I can keep it indoors (in my utility room) so I don’t even have to go out in the cold or rain to put my fruit and veggie peelings in the compost. And you can put cooked food in it (which you can’t put in a regular composter as it attracts rats). Not that I throw out much cooked food.

Can 'O' Worms composter

My Can O Worms composter in the corner of my utility room

When I got my Can O Worms and started composting for the first time, I was amazed by how much it reduced the waste I sent to landfill.

You can see from the photo that the Can O Worms consists of four layers, covered by a lid. The bottom layer collects liquid (which you drain off using the tap) and the other three layers contain the organic waste (mixed with torn up cardboard). When the top layer is full, you take it apart, empty out the bottom layer (which is now full of rich, dark compost) and put it back together with the now-empty bottom layer becoming the new top layer.

Emptying it is quite a job. The full trays are  heavy plus I’ve never done it without making a mess of the floor. I clear other stuff out of the utility room first and mop the floor afterwards.

However, it was five months between the most recent time I did it and the time before that. And it’ll probably be longer than that before I need to do it again because summer’s coming and, when the air’s warmer, the waste rots down faster, making room for more.

Here are my tips for happy worm composting.

1. Don’t leave it too long

Don’t wait until the top tray is full to the brim before emptying it. Remember the top tray will become the second tray and the new top tray needs to sit within it. If it’s brimful, the new tray will sit on top and the worms won’t be enclosed. They like to explore so they’ll climb over the side, fall out and expire on the floor.

However, it can be fairly full. The waste in the tray below will have broken down making some space so you can move some of the waste from the new second tray into the new third tray. Plus it seems to work for the new top tray to sit slightly high at first, as the waste in the new second tray soon breaks down and, within a few weeks, the top tray is fully slotted into place.

2. Protect your wormery against the rain

I did encounter a few challenges at first. My Can O Worms was outside for several years (my utility room is a relatively recent addition to my house). It rained heavily not long after I’d first got it and lots of worms got washed into the liquid tray, where they drowned. While it wasn’t enough to stop the Can O Worms being effective, I felt bad about it. I know they’re only worms. Still, though, I feel responsible for their wellbeing.

Even once your wormery is well established, rain is a nuisance as it fills up the liquid tray. If you’re going to keep your composter outside, you might consider getting a raincover for it. (They’re a tight fit by the way. I could just about get one onto my Can O Worms using both hands and one knee! You might want to get someone to help you).

3. Keep your worms cosy

If you’re keeping your wormery outside, and the temperature falls below freezing, wrap your worms up. You don’t have to knit them each an individual worm sock, just tie a large piece of plastic (e.g. bubble wrap) around your wormery. I was lucky enough to find a roll of plastic that someone was chucking out on my street. You could try asking on Freegle/Freecycle.

4. Follow the instructions

I thought I’d be able to get away without adding ripped up cardboard. BIG MISTAKE which resulted in a disgusting smell and an infestation of fruit flies, which took years to die down. Each summer, whenever I lifted the lid, they’d swarm out. They don’t do any harm. They just make putting waste into the compost less pleasant and they tended to get into my kitchen too.

To solve the problem, the first thing I had to do was work loads of ripped up cardboard through the slimy, sludgy mess my organic waste had become. I wore rubber gloves for this task, which helped. It didn’t stop the smell though. Man, it was bad. Bad enough to make me gag.

Moral of the story: follow the advice that comes with your Can O Worms! The flies continued to be a nuisance for years afterwards: until it occurred to me to put cardboard on top of the waste I added each time, instead of the other way around. It’s never smelt bad since by the way.

Inside of Can 'O' Worms

What it looks like under the lid and moisture mat

5. Make your own moisture mats

Don’t spend money on replacement moisture mats. The moisture mat is a mat of organic matter which sits on top of the top layer of waste/card. It keeps it moist and dark in there, which encourages the worms to come to the surface and eat the freshest waste (which speeds up the composting process). Eventually the worms eat the moisture mat too.  They get through one every six months or so.

You can buy replacement ones made of, for example, hemp. I make my own though. I just cut a circle of fabric out of a worn out piece of clothing, a towel, bed linen etc. You can use anything so long as it’s made purely from organic fibre (e.g. cotton including denim, wool, hemp, linen, flax). You could even use a newspaper or a piece of cardboard. If you make a mistake and put in a worm mat that’s got some inorganic fibre in it (like polyester, nylon or rayon), all that will happen is that the organic fibre will break down and the inorganic material will be left behind. It won’t do any harm.

By using waste material rather than buying a moisture mat, you not only save money, you reduce your environmental impact even further.

6. Don’t accidentally start an allotment in your wormery

I avoid putting in seeds (tomato, pepper/capsicum, butternut squash, orange, lemon) as they sprout. I came back from holiday a few months after I’d got my wormery and lifted the lid to find a small crop of etiolated sprouts fighting their way out. While it doesn’t matter if one or two get in, I put seeds into landfill. Celery bases sprout sometimes too though it doesn’t cause a problem. Apple and pear pips don’t seem to sprout.

7. Other than that, if it’s organic they’ll eat it (mostly)

The booklet that came with my wormery says that the worms will eat foods they prefer first, which means that acidic items like citrus peel and onion skins will take longer to break down. I can’t say I’ve noticed this. What I do find is that some waste, such as tomato skins and avocado skins, doesn’t break down at all, and I no longer put such items in.

I do put in the paper bags that my veg box people put mushrooms and other veg in, empty flour bags, worn out cotton knickers…anything made of paper, card or organic fibres will break down and get eaten.

Watch out for paper items that have layers of plastic in them though (e.g. paper plates, the internal bag of a packet of icing sugar). Not that it’ll do any harm. The plastic just won’t break down so it’ll still be there in your compost when you empty the tray.

8. If you don’t like the muck, wear gloves

I keep a pair of rubber gloves by the composter which I use exclusively for it. Not everyone would bother. I’m sure people who are into gardening and used to digging their hands into earthworm ridden mud wouldn’t feel the need. That’s just not me (I’ll talk about gardening in a later post).

Anyone else out there a worm composting fan? Anyone trying it and having problems? What other composting methods work well for you? What prevents you from composting?

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How do you decide when your towels are worn out?

How do you decide when something is ‘worn out’? For me it has to be no longer capable of fulfilling its original function before I’ll call it done for (and then I can sometimes find another use for it). Now part of the function of (most) clothes is to make us look good so I suppose you could argue that they’re ‘worn out’ once they’re so scruffy they no longer do that (though they can still be worn for messy jobs – trouble is I’ve got more clothes for messy jobs than messy jobs to do in them).

When it comes to things whose appearance is less important though, you’ll find me still using them way beyond the point when most people would chuck them out. Dishcloths, teatowels, bath towels, facecloths, (whisper it) knickers (so long as no-one else is going to see them!), bed linen, gym T-shirts. Until a towel no longer gets me dry when I’ve had a shower, I keep using it. And when it reaches that point, it goes in the compost (by that point, there’s not usually enough of it even to cut up to make a moisture mat for my wormery (more of which in my next post).

My friends think I’m bonkers of course (even though I always give guests my best towels). And I have been known to hide the most hole-ridden, thin items before I have visitors. At least I’m not as obsessive as Monica from Friends. Remember episode 4.12 of Friends, when Monica & Rachel go head to head with Joey & Chandler over who knows each other the best?

Ross: Monica categorizes her towels. How many categories are there?
Joey: Everyday use.
Chandler: Fancy.
Joey: Guest.
Chandler: Fancy guest.
Ross: Two seconds…
Joey: Uh, eleven!
Ross: 11. Unbelievable. 11 is correct.

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What can I get rid of this month?

This month, it was half a dozen presentation folders – card folders to present a file of papers attractively. I think I bought them about 23 years ago and they’ve been in the top drawer of my filing cabinet ever since. Didn’t look like I was ever going to use them did it? Someone on GreenCycleSussex was delighted to have them though.

About five years ago, I noticed how anxious I was becoming about the amount of stuff I owned, and the sense that it was ever-increasing. I’d been living in my house for about seven years by that point and, without a house move forcing me to go through everything, I was starting to forget what I’d got. I’d find myself buying something only to realise I already had it, not to mention running out of storage space.

So I came up with a schedule for decluttering my house. I created a Word document containing a table, in the first column of which I listed, by room, every drawer and cupboard in my house. And each month since (give or take a few busy periods, when I’ve missed a month or two and caught up later), I’ve gone through the next cupboard or drawer on the list, seeing what I can get rid of (usually by Freeglingor Freecyclingit). I then put the date that I decluttered that place in the next column, creating new columns each time I’ve been right round the house (which takes about three years).

Without fail, every month, I think to myself ‘I doubt there’s anything in this drawer/cupboard that I can get rid of’. And there always is. Plus stuff I find a new use for, or a more logical or handier place to keep.

It takes me no more than half an hour a month and, as a result, my stuff is well-organised, my house is clutter-free, I’ve got plenty of storage space and my environmental impact is lower (because stuff I don’t use gets used by others and because I don’t buy things I’ve already got).  When I pick up something from a charity shop or freegle/freecycle, the pleasure of the new (to me) item isn’t sullied by anxiety about constantly adding to the stuff I own and the clutter in my house.

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Launching greenandtidy

I’m Rachel Papworth. I’m a bird-loving, green-minded, semi-vegan fitness freak living in wonderful Brighton (on the South coast of England), within walking distance of the sea and the South Downs National Park. I’m blogging as part of the process of developing a new business, based on two things that run through me like Brighton runs through seaside rock: decluttering and reducing my environmental impact.

I’m proud that I live a relatively low impact life (at least for someone living in the UK). Using The Resurgence carbon calculator, I worked out my carbon footprint for March 2010 to March 2011 as 6.3 tonnes. That’s 63 per cent of the UK average. Yet I wouldn’t describe my lifestyle as radical or alternative. I’m not living off the land or opting out of mainstream culture. I even went on holiday (to Morocco) during the period for which I’ve calculated my footprint.

It is a clutter-free life though. I hate clutter! Always have. I used to try to make my younger brothers declutter their bedrooms when we were kids. Emphasis on the ‘make’. And the ‘try’. These days I recognise that people can only be helped to declutter if they actually want to. And that only they can decide which of their belongings actually IS clutter. 🙂

And, for me, decluttering and living a low impact life are inextricably linked.

I’m not complacent by the way. If you check out Resurgence’s carbon calculator, you’ll see that the sustainable global CO2 quota is only 2 tonnes per capita, so I can’t be said to be living a sustainable lifestyle. And I’m constantly finding ways to tweak my lifestyle to reduce my impact.

I recently realised that focusing solely on my personal impact isn’t enough to satisfy me. I want to make a bigger difference than that. I want to help others to live lower impact lives, and create spaces that they love to live and work in, and that work well for them.

So I’m going to launch a new business. A green decluttering company. I’m going to help other people reduce their environmental impact while organising their stuff and creating spaces they love to be in.

If you long to (or love to) declutter, and/or you’re looking for ways to reduce your environmental impact (without going to live on a commune), click on the link to subscribe, and watch out for the products and services I’ll be offering soon.

And please comment on my posts. I love feedback. And I’m always open to new ideas for ways to declutter and go green.

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