Editor’s Introductory Note: This article will prove to be instructive for anyone preparing for a grid-down societal collapse, where public services are disrupted.
Living off-grid, a 20-minute flight from the nearest road means not only that we receive no electricity, but also no municipal services at all, including those for disposal of garbage, trash, sewage, and gray water. So we have become very intentional about what we buy, make, and use, because we have to figure out how to dispose of or repurpose what remains.
The following are some examples of what we do with wood ash, packaging, vegetable and meat leftovers (including bones), animal and human waste, and construction debris. Some ideas are pertinent to suburban and urban homes, too.
As a fertilizer, wood ash reads 0-1-3 and softens acidic soil, which is exactly what our property needs. Hardwoods are higher in the desired nutrients than softwoods, according to the U of Oregon extension office. Do not use wood ash on potatoes or the related families of blueberries/azaleas/rhododendrons, which like acidic soil. I also toss it with the chicken straw in the coop
as a deodorizer. The hens seem to like to dust their feathers with it to discourage mites.
Kitchen and garden scraps can be fed to any of the animals (except citrus, potatoes, and onions) or trenched directly into gardens to enrich the soil. Some items work well in a compost tea or insect repellent. For example, sprays made from onion, garlic, red pepper, rhubarb, and tomato leaves repel many pests. Coffee and coffee grounds are best for acid-loving plants. In fact, the Botanical Garden in Anchorage plants its potatoes in pots filled only with coffee grounds scrounged from local coffee bars. Banana and orange peels deter aphids, deliver potassium, phosphorous, and some nitrogen. Great around roses. I also dry all citrus peels (orange, lemon, and lime) for use in cooking. Do you like Chinese orange chicken? It is prepared with dried orange or tangerine peel. Marmalades, anyone? My husband adds orange peel to his beer recipe. When I press berries through the food mill, I save the seedly pulp as a winter treat for the hens. They love it!
Eggshells deliver calcium – particularly important to tomatoes and squash and the poultry themselves (pulverized) and they deter slugs (but are safe for red wigglers in vermiculture). One winter, when we have fewer animals and frozen gardens, we kept red wigglers in the cabin and fed the excess vegetable matter to them, but now I have all these alternatives. I have not been successful with a compost pile.
All bones are made into soup stock, then offered to the poultry. After they have picked them clean, the bones are tossed into the fire box of the wood fired hot tub to burn to ash for the gardens (0-12-0 nutrients). (Burning bones smells bad, so I do not do so in our woodstove.) I cut up meat fat and chicken skin and feed it occasionally to our ducks and chickens both of which make their happiest discovery noises when they get those snacks. Ham fat I save to add to pots of beans. Many gardeners add fish bones to their gardens, but I am leery because of our bear population.
Weeds and Yard debris:
Flowers and plants:
Despite the name, chickweed never appeals to my ducks and chickens until it sets seedheads. I dry some to put in winter tea, and put small portions of raw chickweed in salad, but I don’t really care for the grassy taste raw.
The rabbits adore fireweed and dandelions, and will eat other plants as well. I am fond of dandelion leaves cooked (with garlic and butter) and in teas, and make dandelion “capers” (with the buds). Some friends, more patient than I, have made dandelion wine and jelly from the flowers, but these recipes require LOTS of flowers, carefully separated from the green sepals. Fireweed flowers have a gentle flavor between a rose and a berry and are tasty in jelly. The leaves and flowers I dry for tea. If you ferment the leaves (bruise them before you dry them, they taste like “real” tea. I have read that Russians and nordic countries sell this product widely. I also dry the leaves of berry bushes and alder for tea, as well as rose petals and clover flowers. Raspberry leaves taste better than currant leaves.
I add minced spring larch and spruce needles to scones and other baked goods. They both have a citrusy flavor at that time (not resiny).
We have lots of birch, spruce, and alder on our property. Every spring and fall I layer gardens with their fallen leaves. Branches and limbs are laid in low spots on trails.
Spruce cones make great fire starters.
Rotted and damp wood feed a smoky fire in the yard that we light almost every day in June to reduce the mosquito population.
With slim straight and curved branches, I have created a “lattice” divider to obscure the view under our porch, on which I have trained some wild currants growing nearby. Long, straight branches work as stakes, trellises and teepees for various top climbing and heavy plants, like beans and sunflowers, and also as banisters and railings on porches. I have made short wattle fences with whippy green alder branches, but they are not as well suited as willow. Slim black spruce trees make great poles for barns, sheds, and fences. Centrally rotted log rounds I ream out with a crowbar and use as planters.
Bryan has planed long planks from downed, dead spruce trees for use as decks, benches, and raised bed gardens.
Rocks and stones disperse rain under drip lines of buildings, line gardens, outline paths, and soften the angle of steep terrain (grass and plants grow over them, to reduce or slow erosion).
My husband actually collects, dries, and smokes moose pellets to smoke the bees into lethargy when he checks the hives! [JWR’s Comment: Moose skat might have a distinctive, smell, but… “It’s Good, Though!”]
Domestic rabbits are one of the few animal manures that can be used fresh in the garden, and its pellet form makes it easy to distribute when dry. We store three plastic sleds under our rabbits to make collection and transportation easy, and we purposely positioned the greenhouse and two exterior gardens very close to the rabbit hutches. We raise the animals for meat, and their light bones burn easily to ash for the garden (0-12-0) nutrients, plus calcium, which Alaska soils need. We have tanned a few hides, which I simply wrapped over the wooden arms of our love seats as a soft surface. I should learn to sew them into something useful.
When my husband butchers the animals, we bag the remains and kayak across the lake, away from people, to deposit them in the bog for predators. In three days, Mother Nature takes care of the remains: they are picked clean or dragged back into the woods.
Poultry: We free-range chickens and ducks, primarily for their eggs, but we derive other benefits as well. For example, they fertilize, weed, and dig up various spots throughout the yard. They reduce the insect population. The coop’s mucky straw is dried and mulched, fall and spring, and distributed among the raised bed gardens.
Bees: Bees produce several types of useful “waste” products: Pollen can be sold or bartered as an expensive health food product ($25/lb), although we have never collected it ourselves. I make a number of household products with beeswax, such as lip balm, skin cream, furniture polish, and leather keeper. Propolis can be mixed with alcohol as a tincture. I read that it is currently being researched as a cancer treatment. I won’t talk about honey here, since I do not regard that as trash in any way!
Dead flies, mosquitoes: We do not have a mosquito magnet anymore, but when we did empty the net bag of dead bugs, my ducks and chickens acted like I was serving up a feast. In July, when we get a lot of flies in the outhouse, I send the chickens in before me. I hear them tap-tap-tapping the floor, like an avian version of “Whack a Mole” as they snap up dead (or live) flies.
Urine: the average person produces 500 liters of protein-rich urine per year. In the summer I save the nighttime accumulation in our indoor chamber pot, dilute it by five to ten times as much water, and pour it around the yard on wildflowers or around the base of berry bushes. In winter, I can pour it directly into the snow for natural wintertime dilution. (Note: anyone who is taking medicines might need to check the effect of those chemicals on plants).
Excrement: According to my research, it is too cold here for a composting toilet to work (outside for sure, and perhaps even with our cool interior temperatures). However, this might be an option in other parts of the country where the ambient temperature surrounding the toilet is in the 70s or above. We just use an outhouse with a big pit and pour lime down there occasionally, to help decomposition.
We burn a lot of the little bits and pieces but repurpose the following:
Log ends from cabin construction: These have worked well as side tables, benches, footrests, and steps to shallow porches. We use eight to elevate the freight sled skis so the sled is easier to dig out in winter. A neighbor took a bunch of our log ends to prop up his sagging summer guest cabins, which were shifting and leaning from ice heaves and snow weight on the roofs. Thin log rounds of spruce rot within a year or two, but I covered the whole floor of the greenhouse with black plastic held down by thin spruce rounds. The goal is to kill the weeds (mostly chickweed) that carpeted the place. This summer will be the second year. Let’s see if it works.
2” thick polystyrene insulation: a winter toilet seat for us (the air holes make it temperature neutral) and insulation for our batteries and bee hives.
Wooden Pallets: The internet lists hundreds of creative and useful ways to repurpose wooden pallets. We have used these in a variety of ways, but currently they serve as a surface to keep stored wood off the damp ground under the wood fired hot tub deck and in the wood corral.
Short lengths of 2 x 4s: Exterior bear bars on shed doors. We kick two under each ski plane ski so they don’t freeze to the snow or ice below, and drop two down into an augured hole in the frozen lake with nylon ropes looped through a hole to tie down the plane from high winds. With pyrography (wood burning), I have made signs and decorations on short lengths of wood.
Planks and partial lengths of spruce and plywood: We used leftover planks of various widths for shelves everywhere we could conceive of one being useful. For example, a plank above the outhouse door (inside) stores lightweight paper goods. A small shelf sits adjacent to the food shed door. We turned the dead space below cabin windows into low book cases and along the pony walls below the roof upstairs for storage above and below. Other planks work as temporary, late winter shelves in my south-facing windows for seedlings.
Larger pieces of plywood: bear shutters for all first floor windows, a table surface in the greenhouse, a lid for the cold hole.
Sawdust: Blueberries are the only plants I know that actually like sawdust. Otherwise, I mix it with “green” debris in the compost pile (which didn’t do too well for me).
Plastic and glass containers: We repurpose a number of containers. We used to use plastic vinegar bottles to catch sap in May. Gallon and half gallon jugs of distilled water and vinegar are used to water plants, winter sow plants, and feed animals. Small glass containers save seeds and store dried herbs and spices. Tall, wide mouthed glass jars hold long nails or excess gasoline to clean paint brushes. Rubber and plastic gaskets don’t last long in Alaska, but drippy drink containers with one large opening can be repurposed for storing grains or other dry goods.
Cardboard toilet paper rolls become chew toys for the rabbits, protect seedlings that suffer from cut worms, or function as fire starters. My mom always used them to store rolled up electrical cords.
Cardboard boxes: We flatten and cut large cardboard to line rabbit and poultry nesting boxes (under straw, for extra insulation), and as garden underlayment to reduce weeds. Intact, we use large ones as storage bins and yard debris or plant carriers. Small ones function as drawer dividers for items like electric cords and knives. Because we live in an active seismic area, I separate rows of glass jars with cardboard dividers.
Metal cans: We don’t have much use for opened, metal cans, so we used to just fly them back to town dumpsters since Alaska is pretty bad about recycling. However, for several years I had fun making whimsical yard art, like scarecrows, owls, and bears out of cans. I also paint and use #10 cans (the large ones) as planters and smaller ones for corraling pens and toiletries. See www.instructables.com for clever uses for various size cans. For example, I made a rickety, small rocket stove with a coffee can and five soup sized cans.
Old fuel drums: We cut them in half, perforate them, elevate them on logs, and use them for burn barrels and grey water barrels (under the cabin and shower house).
Food grade drums: At first we installed gutters and water barrels along most buildings, but plastic gutters do not last long enough here and have to be installed and removed each season. Still, we do position a drum near each garden and burn barrel. These are easy to find. For example, we bought empty 55 gallon drums (of malt) from a beer supply store for $10. Other food grade drums can be cut down for large water bowls and little pools for animals. In warm climates, you might be able to use them to house fish or use them for aquaponic agriculture. Our floating wooden dock is supported by about a dozen, plastic 35 gallon drums. Despite ice heave on the lake, these have lasted for over a decade, even without removal for winter.
Because we go up to five months without resupply, we buy bulk items, like 50 lb bags of flour and sugar, which reduce some volume of trash. But there is quite a bit that we need to burn, such as all that plastic packaging surrounding just about everything one buys in the U.S (what a wasteful approach, compared to packaging in many other countries). Benzene-derived plastic trash is burned in a burn barrel when the breeze is blowing the other way. That toxic ash is stored in a beat up metal rowboat at the back of our property.
Like many people, I bring my own shopping bags to stores. Mine are cotton knit bags. At home, I store my produce in them, hanging them on cup hooks in the kitchen. When I deplete the contents of a bag, I store them in the plane for our next trip to town.
Old gasoline is stored in small quantities in wide-mouthed jars for cleaning oil-based paint brushes.
Mail, newspapers, wine/beer bottles:
Even when we lived in a city, we did our banking on line and had been vigilant about cutting down on junk mail. The worst sources were my bank (They sold our name to nine different lists!), any retail store I shopped on line, my husband’s and my universities and AAA (which was nearly impossible to stop, including their affiliate mails). Ask your customer service (or alumni) contact about getting off all lists!
Paper can be composted or used in lasagna gardening techniques or given to the rabbits, which like to tear it up, particularly for their nesting boxes. We use it as tinder, except for shiny, colored paper, which we burn with the trash.
We make our own wine and beer, stored in carboys and kegs, so we no longer have to deal with those glass bottles.
Living as we do, I have become acutely aware of “my inputs and my outputs.” I think that recycling is a fine thing, but in some cities, it is a “feel good” exercise that does little to cover the carbon cost of transporting stuff to the recycling center. Reduced consumption and repurposing may be a more effective step, and for many products, that is not hard to accomplish.