Bin, bokashi or worms?

Composting is totally win-win. You divert waste from already-heaving, methane producing landfills, plus you create fertiliser which enriches your soil.

When you’re ready to start, first thing is to decide where you’ll put your waste. Once you’ve got that sussed, the rest is easy – it’s as simple as chucking your kitchen waste onto your heap, applying a few basic principles, and waiting for it to decompose into beautiful rich soil.

Whichever container you choose needs to have a lid. For urbanites in compact spaces, the best options are a compost bin or a bokashi system. If you’re feeling adventurous, or don’t mind a bit of muck, you could try worms. Here’s the lowdown on each:

*Bokashi*
Bokashi (meaning ‘fermented organic matter’) uses enzymes to ferment (‘pickle’) your waste. All food waste, including cooked meat and dairy, is thrown into a plastic bin and covered with a layer of bokashi (a powder that looks a lot like bran). When the bin is full, you close it and let it stand for about 2 weeks. It’ll then be ready to add to your compost heap.

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Kitchen waste sprinkled with bokashi powder. Because a bokashi system needs to be anaerobic (oxygen free), flatten your waste with a potato musher to get rid of any air pockets. This also helps you fit more waste into the bin.
bokashi-container
Sealed bokashi bin – store it anywhere in your kitchen or scullery. Most have a tap at the bottom for pouring out any liquid run-off. The principle here is the same as with worm tea (see below). If it smells bad, don’t use it for your plants – rather pour it down your drains as a natural disinfectant.

Pros
– can be kept inside
– can add cooked meat, dairy and bones
– speeds up the decomposition process

Cons
– does not fully decompose waste – it still needs to be transferred to your compost bin or dug into your garden so it breaks down completely.

*Wormery*
Worms are a great way to return nutrients to the soil. Worm casings (essentially their poo) create nutrient-rich vermicompost which improves soil fertility.

A wormery consists of a series of stacked buckets – we use three. The top two buckets are where the worms live and eat their way through our waste. When the middle bucket is full of compost, we start filling the top one with waste. Eventually all the worms will move into the top one (through a few holes in the lid), allowing us to harvest the compost in the middle bucket.

The bucket on the very bottom collects the liquid run-off, also know as ‘worm tea’, which is a great tonic for your soil if your compost is healthy. Worm tea can be diluted and used as a fertiliser.

A layer of egg cartons or newspaper on top of the food waste is handy for keeping fruit flies and other miggies out.

stacked-bins
A stacked worm bin. Inside the top two bins are worms munching their way through our food waste. The bottom bin contains the ‘worm tea’, which is not so much worm wee as run-off from the decomposition process. If your worm tea is in any way smelly, don’t use it, as out-of-balance compost can be damaging for plants.
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Peering into the top bin with the lid slid across (not convinced we have the balance right as there are always miggies and other creatures crawling around, though thankfully no rodents). It could be that onion? The strong odour of onions is said to attract critters.

Pros
– good for compact spaces
– produces nutrient dense compost + worm tea

Cons
– can be a bit mucky to deal with
– can’t add meat or dairy.

*Compost bin*
A large container – an old tyre, a plastic bucket or a wooden container – where you throw your organic food waste. This includes fruit and veggie peels and scraps, egg shells, tea bags and coffee grinds.

For convenience, keep a little container on your kitchen counter and transfer the waste to your large bin every day or when it’s full.

To keep the acid / alkali balance of your compost bin in check, layer it with organic garden waste (grass clippings, leaves, plants, ash from your fire or paper products).

compost-bin
Our bin is open at the bottom and rests on soil. When the compost is ready we dig it out from the bottom, creating space for more waste on top. It’s quite tricky to turn the compost in this bin – you need to jiggle it around or dig inside from the top. If you can, opt for a bin with built-in turning handles. Most nurseries have a range of compost bins, and some may even have bokashi systems.

Pros
– good option if you have a garden or outdoor area

Cons
– can only take organic waste (meat, dairy and oils will make your pile stink and also attract rodents and other pests).

Top Composting Tips

  • To keep your compost balanced, aim for a good mixture of nitrogen-rich green waste (grass clippings, plants, organic food) and carbon-rich brown waste (branches, sawdust, paper products such as cardboard and egg cartons, straw). This helps keep the acid / alkali balance in check.
  • If you want your compost to be more acidic, add lots of citrus (orange peels) and coffee grinds. By contrast wood ash and egg shells are great neutralisers (wood ash has the added bonus of repelling slugs and snails).
  • Turn your compost regularly (every 6 weeks or so) and keep it moist (but not wet). Keep an eye on the temperature too – waste needs heat as well as moisture to decompose.
  • Keep it covered, in a dry, shaded area.

If you find yourself running out of space, have two or more containers on the go. That way you can use a second or third container when the first is full and doing. Here are some possible combinations:

  • Two bokashis in your kitchen
  • A bokashi in your kitchen and a bin outside
  • A worm bin and a bokashi.

We’ve got a large compost bin in the garden and when that’s full we top up our worms and use the bokashi for a few weeks, giving the bin time to break down and do its thing.

#not unlike dating

The irony of writing a blog post about the travails of social media is not lost on me. That’s the thing about it – it’s a beast fraught with contradictions. On one hand, it’s power to shape our thinking, give a voice to the voiceless and mobilise people into action is unparalleled. On the other, at the level of the everyday mundane, it’s a lot of meaningless chatter, an incessant buzz.

The online personas people craft may or may not be a true reflection of their real, everyday messy lives. We all get this, yet who can resist a vicarious scroll though the lives of those we’re secretly crushing on. Anyone not had a snoop around the profile of the one who got away, or of the one you’re happy to have gotten away from?  When I lived overseas, I loved seeing snaps of the weddings I’d missed and of friends’ newborns I’d loved to have squeezed in real life.

Social media has always been just that for me – social. Until now, when I started an Instagram account to help grow my blog. Releasing my privacy settings gave me the jitters at first but it got me 7 whole followers. I had 9 a few days ago but I lost two.

The first time a stranger followed me I was super excited and secretly congratulated myself on my clever hashtags. The second time it was as thrilling. But, in a naive attempt to keep it real (we all want to grow our brand organically and authentically right) I thought I’d suss them out, see if I liked their feed and if we seemed compatible,  and if we did, I’d follow them. I thought they’d give me time and space to do this but, within a day, poof! – they’d vanished. Unfollowed. I was back down to 7 followers.

It’s here that I checked in with my wise and hilarious yogi friend who’s generated an impressive Instagram following – she’s been coaching me and giving me titbits.  She told me you have to play the game. So, curious to see if I could woo back my ex-followers after they’d dumped me, I started following them. But they weren’t prepared to forgive my tardiness or dish out second chances, they’d moved on. So I unfollowed them – and I still have 7 followers.

Apparently it’s a thing – people follow you just to get a follow, then unfollow you. And there are bots that generate automatic comments to attract followers – and apps that can track when people unfollow you. It’s a minefield and I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes. Having crossed over from social media as a mindless time waster to a potential marketing tool the goalposts have shifted and I find myself thinking more strategically, more sneakily. What tricks can I learn to bump up my following from a single digit to a double digit number? Can I compromise my morals, be a bit promiscuous and follow new followers without even checking them out? Like or even gush over the posts of complete strangers in the hope they’ll notice me? Have a few more ill-fated flings? I think so.

Social media – we can vilify it, ridicule it, and hypothesise about it’s detrimental effect on the very fabric of our society. But we can’t dismiss it. We can manage it’s intrusion into our lives and of course we can opt out completely, but despite our misgivings, how many of us feel able (or willing) to disconnect from it all. Social media is a platform, it’s a way of communicating a sliver of ourselves, presenting our shiny bits to the world. A place to showcase our professional wares, to broadcast our beliefs. It is, as anthropologists like to say, a construct. Be too much of a purist and it becomes very un-fun. Get hung-up on the authenticity of what people post and you might get jaded. Most of the time it is, essentially, a game, not grounded in reality, and I think we all get that, which is why it can be such fun to play.

My Instagram handle is @backyardanthropologist and I’m on the market.

Pee on your tree

lemons
Big juicy ones from a friend’s garden

Everything about lemons scream summer. That colour. The zestiness of lemonade and G&T’s, that cleansing hot drink first thing in the morning. One of the best degreasers, polishers and odour neutralisers around, they should be a household staple.

A potent source of Vitamin C, the trees are evergreen and produce fruit all year round. And best of all, growing them is easy, perfect for novice gardeners. What’s not to love?

To flourish, they just need the basics – sun, water and fertiliser. The last being free if you pee on your tree – the nitrogen in urine is said to be the best natural fertiliser (double bonus as you save on flushing the loo too). We’re trialling this at home and will report back on whether our lemon tree survives, thrives or dies.

  • Lemon trees grow well in pots and look fabulous on balconies and terraces. And they transfer well if you want to plant them out.
  • Like many fruit trees, they may take a while to get going, not producing any fruit for the first few years, so hang in there.
  • They’re self-pollinating, which means you’ll only need one of them to bear fruit. Avos by contrast are cross-pollinators – you’ll need two or more trees for them to fertilise.
  • Choose a sunny aspect – too much shade makes them susceptible to disease. You’ll know your lemon tree is sick if the leaves start curling or become bumpy. Check under the leaves for scale and sooty mould (which look like white mould). Neem oil or good old cloth and soapy water is supposed to help here, or you could ask your local nursery for an eco-friendly spray.
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Our lone lemon tree in need of some TLC – few bumpy leaves on the bottom

Plastic not-so-fantastic

Modern life is unimaginable without plastic. Lightweight and durable, it’s infinitely useful and is everywhere – in our homes and workplaces, our public spaces, our landfills, and – perhaps most disconcertingly – in our oceans. Estimates are that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish.

Plastic pollution has a devastating impact on marine eco-systems. Turtles, birds and other sea creatures mistake bags and other plastic debris for food and choke on it, are suffocated by it, or starve to death as they can’t digest it. Particularly insidious are microplastics – pieces smaller than 5mm in length – which are ingested by fish and ultimately find their way into our food.

Though a relatively small part of the problem (other single-use packaging is a much bigger contributer to pollution), shopping bags are a very visible reminder of our addiction to plastic. Estimates vary, but the figure bandied about is somewhere between 4 and 8 billion plastic bags produced annually in South Africa. The number itself is disconcerting, but what’s even more troubling is that the bags aren’t being widely recycled, they’re ending up in landfill.

What does the law say?
Plastic bag legislation was first introduced in South Africa in 2003. Government adopted a two-pronged approach. It enforced the manufacture of thicker bags to replace the flimsy ‘national flower’ that could be seen littering our landscape (it was also hoped the thicker bags would encourage re-use). And it introduced a plastic bag tariff, to discourage their use.

In 2004 a manufacturing levy of 4c (now 8c) was introduced – the money collected was meant to be used for the creation of buy-back centres and recycling facilities. Buyisa-e-Bag, a non-profit organisation, was set up to manage the process, but failed to fulfil it’s mandate and was wound up in 2011.

Controversy continues to swirl around the nearly R1.3 billion collected in levies since 2004. Representatives in the plastic industry say it’s become a green tax that goes straight into government coffers (the money is not ring-fenced, so the DEA has to apply to access the funds). Annabe Pretorius, an independent consultant in the industry, says “the plastics industry has approached the government for funds to help with recycling on various occasions, through different bodies, and so far we have got zero.”

Where are our bags ending up?
John Kieser, the Sustainability Manager for Plastics SA, explains that there is a market for post-consumer (used) plastic bags – they can be recycled into irrigation pipes or granulated and re-made into plastic bags or black bags. But the reality is, they aren’t being collected and recycled, because – quite simply – they’re not a high-value recycling item. He says “The reason you see all those bags flying about out there is because there is no demand for them.” Because they’re very light, it’s difficult to collect enough of them to get the tonnage required to make recycling them viable, he explains.

plastic-bag-litter
Plastic pollution in Ladismith. Photos supplied by John Kieser of PlasticsSA

Steven Cheetham of Atlantic Recycling has been at the coalface of the plastics recycling industry for 30 years and also spoke about the low recycling rate of plastic bags. “Waste collectors don’t pick the plastic bags because recyclers aren’t buying them – there’s no weight in them. They’re also problematic to recycle. They’re very thin so tend to fold in the washing process, and they’re hard to dry.”

But the biggest problem, according to Cheetham, is the high percentage of calcium carbonate (essentially chalk) that’s added to the bags. “Virgin polymer is based on the oil price and when oil went to a hundred dollars the price of polymer shot through the roof. So to reduce the price of the end product – the bag – manufacturers put calcium carbonate in, which is half the price of virgin polymer. So it’s a huge saving to the manufacturer, and to the brand owner,” he explained.

Why is this cost-cutting a problem for recyclers such as Cheetham? He explains the science behind it. “We wash plastic and it floats because it’s got a 0.9 density, so any paper or sand or stone will sink. Anything with a density less than 1 will float. The minute you put calcium carbonate in, it goes over that and it doesn’t float anymore. It sinks to the bottom of our tank along with the mud – we have to throw it away, it goes to landfill. And we’ve paid for it, so it’s a loss to our company.”

He’s angered by what he calls ‘green washing’ on the part of retailers. It’s good for business to be perceived as green, so retailers print messages on the bags urging consumers to recycle them – despite the fact that the increasing levels of filler (and of ink) being added makes them hard to recycle.

Plastic bags – a money spinner?
Cheetham believes retailers are making money off the bags. “It’s their biggest selling single line item. They’ve got their spin doctors on it the whole time so the consumer doesn’t actually know what’s cooking.”

Retailers can charge what they want but the average price consumers pay for a bag is 50c. According to Pretorius, each bag costs 25c to make. On top of that, 8c goes towards the manufacturing levy. Who profits from the remaining 17c per bag is unclear. Retailers insist it’s a break-even situation with no clear profits for them.

Hayley McLellan, environmental campaigner and founder of ‘Rethink the Bag’ deals a lot with the major retailers and says “In terms of a plastic bag ban, retailers just want to know they’re not going to lose feet through the door due to a perceived inconvenience to the customer. They also want to know what the alternatives are; they are concerned it will cost them more. But in fact, retailers could have reusable bags made locally – benefitting both them and local communities. Win win and a win for the environment!”

Retailers do seem loathe to get rid of the bags. One said they’d need a clearer indication of how consumers would react and another believes it could have a chaotic outcome, because when trialled, they had strong push back from customers who demanded they be given a bag.

Which begs the question – where are we, the consumers, in all this? If  the levy is being mismanaged, our bags aren’t being recycled and are clogging up our landfills and polluting our seas after their short trip home from the grocery store, shouldn’t we rethink them?

Assuming our leaders lack the political will to ban the bags, our retailers are too invested in them to make any changes and recycling them is fraught with challenges, is the onus not on individuals to do something? At which point, it’s time to fess up. I only recently stopped buying plastic bags. I’d bought the re-useable ones years ago but was quite lukewarm in my attempts and could never get into the habit of carrying them around with me. It just comes down to awareness. At some point, when the busyness of modern life subsides, you read a statistic or see an image that stays with you or spend a morning walking on an infuriatingly littered beach and you realise that if you’re part of the problem you can be part of the solution.

It’s not unlike the recent Stikeez scenario – people reacted strongly and lambasted Pick ‘n Pay for their irresponsibility. I don’t think we should let Pick ‘n Pay off the hook, but retailers are profit driven, and can we truly blame them for giving customers what they want? We’re the ones that create the demand by being complacent and giving in to our nagging kids. Likewise, if shoppers keep buying plastic shopping bags, we are condoning the norm of supplying them.

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Abandoned church in Lusikisiki after a clean-up
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A Durban beach after the Umgeni came down

Stemming the tide
Dr Robertson-Andersson of the UKZN’s MACE lab has been studying the impact of microplastics on our oceans. As she points out, every piece of plastic dumped in our oceans still exists, it just eventually breaks down into micoplastics. She shared some alarming statistics on marine pollution – estimates are that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square km of ocean, or, put another way, over 3 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean.

But we can stem the tide. Here are a few small tweaks you can make that will help keep plastic debris out our oceans:

  • Use reusable shopping bags. Or re-use your plastic shopping bag as many times as possible.
  • Avoid or cut back on single-use packaging. Ditch the straws, steer clear of individually wrapped sweets and heavily-packaged groceries, invest in re-usable coffee cups and water bottles.
  • Use the power of your wallet. A growing problem are plastic micro-beads added to cosmetics. They get washed down the basin, into our rivers and ultimately, our oceans. Dr Robertson-Andersson says “South Africa has some of the best legislation in the world, we have to state what’s in every product. And because we do, as a consumer, we can choose whether to buy products that contain plastics or not. All you need to do is turn the product over and take a few seconds to read the ingredients.”

Just as you check snacks for ‘E’ ingredients, here’s a list of plastic-containing ingredients to look out for in toiletries and cosmetics:

–Polyethylene
–Polypropylene
–Polystyrene
–Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
–Polymethyl methacrylate
–Nylon

What do you think? Should South Africa follow the lead of countries such as Rwanda and Bangladesh and ban the bag?

It’s a complex issue with many stakeholders, each with vested interests which they vehemently defend. Those who support a ban on the bag point to the environmental havoc they cause. Those who take a more moderate line argue that plastic recycling creates jobs and that the plastic bags are a valuable source of recyclate. And then there’s the delicate balancing act of ensuring we don’t replace one problem with another – some would argue for instance that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic ones.

It’s certainly an issue that can’t be dealt with in isolation – tackling it will be a huge collaborative effort. Until then, our part is to help keep them out our landfills and our oceans.

To learn more about the problem of marine pollution, read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the 5 gyres.