Get EcoBricking!

Ever wondered what to do with those pesky bits of unrecyclable plastic so they don’t end up in landfill? EcoBrick them!

EcoBricks

Ian Dommisse of EcoBrick Exchange gave me the scoop on what exactly EcoBricks are and how to make them. Here’s the lowdown:

What are EcoBricks?
Essentially, it’s a technology to replace traditional building bricks. EcoBricks are 2 liter plastic bottles stuffed with unrecyclable plastic. The concept was born in Guatemala after a major flood created an urgent need to rebuild houses. The bricks are not load bearing, so they need to sit as a fill within a concrete or steel structure, making them particularly well-suited for insulation purposes or for use in multi-storey structures.

Bright and cheerful, the bricks are used to make raised garden beds, benches, furniture and other structures such as play centres. A recent project includes the building of a Learn and Play Centre in Port Elizabeth – a collaborative (and super inspiring!) project which you can read about here.

How are they made?
Once you have a stash of unrecyclable plastic — sweet wrappers, plastic bags, food packaging, foil, photos, cling wrap, polystyrene, toothpaste and cosmetic tubes, plastic straws, elastics, and small plastic toys (Stikeez!) — you’re good to go:

  • Clean the plastic and begin compressing it into a 2 liter coke (or other) bottle
  • Use a stick to pack each layer as tightly as you can; it needs to be firm. You shouldn’t be able to squish it with one hand, or more than around one tenth of its weight
  • It’s best to use bottles of the same size and to keep them out the sun
  • Once your brick/s are done, you can take them to one of the drop-off points around the country. Keep an eye on the EcoBrick Exchange website for a growing list, but for now, here’s where you can drop-off:

Cape Town
– Montebello Design Centre (Newlands)
– Gugu S’thebe (Langa)
– Health Connection (Fish Hoek)
– The Daily Grinder (Simon’s Town)
– Foragers (Scarborough)
Port Elizabeth
– The Re-trade Project (Walmer)
Johannesburg
– Wecreate (Maboneng)
Pretoria
– Mamelodi West Community Hall

Building communities
EcoBricking is a novel way to reduce litter and divert waste from our toxic, heaving landfills, which are fast running out of airspace. But it doesn’t just have environmental benefits. EcoBrick Exchange, the NGO spearheading the technology, run various projects for government, schools, NGO’s and corporates, and most programmes have a job creation component built in. The response from across South Africa has been amazing; communities have been mobilised to get EcoBricking — protecting the environment and learning new skills in the process.

It’s an informal, untested technology so there’s been some red tape in getting projects off the ground – but its gaining momentum and EcoBrick Exchange are continually experimenting with new technologies (such as wobble blocks) and refining their various programmes.

Learn more and get involved!
To see some of the beautiful creations yourself you can visit the Guga S’thebe Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa, the site of many workshops and a storage facility for the bricks.

To hear about upcoming workshops and events, keep an eye on the EcoBrick Facebook page here.

And if you’d like to get your school involved or open up a drop off point please email the EcoBrick team at info@ecobrickexchange.org with your idea in the subject line.

EcoBrick Tower
A tower of EcoBricks!
How to make an EcoBrick ppt
Handy EcoBricking graphic

 

 

Much more mulch

My parents taught me many things. Gardening and a love for the outdoors wasn’t one of them. Our gardens were unloved extensions of our houses; we were seldom in them. A love for all things green is something that has, over time, trickled into my consciousness.

Over the years, in between all the moving, I’ve dabbled with growing things. Mostly with succulents and herbs, and usually in pots. But the urge to stick stuff in the ground, watch it grow, yank it out and eat it, is growing stronger.

As I muddle along and experiment, I’m constantly learning and adapting what happens in our tiny patch of suburban land. I have a gardener who helps me a few hours a week and every week for the past few years, he’d diligently stand in the beds and poke holes in the soil, to aerate it and prevent it from becoming compacted. Next he’d rake up all the leaves, bag them up and toss them in the trash – creating a neat, manicured garden where everything was trimmed back and contained.

We’ve wisened up since then and learnt a thing or two – about mulch and about microlife in the soil.

Mulch, the layer of organic material on top of your soil, does wonders for your garden:

  • it regulates the temperature, keeping heat out and moisture in – crucial if you’re gardening in a water scarce place
  • mulching with nutrient-rich compost or leaf mould allows microlife to thrive in the soil. Soil teeming with microlife is naturally aerated (from worms wriggling and burrowing) and unlikely to become compacted. Poking holes in the soil only upsets the delicate balance of the tiny creatures working their magic in the layers of your soil
  • a mulch keeps weeds from popping up
mulch
A mulch of fallen leaves and bark. Time will tell whether the bark is too acidic for that patch of soil.

We don’t turf our fallen leaves anymore, we treasure them. We let them pile up in our beds or we chuck them in our just-acquired leaf mulcher, in the hope of making leaf mould.

leaf-mould
The start of our leaf mould experiment – no doubt one that will be replete with lessons. I’m letting it pile up and will turn and moisten occasionally. I’ve heard coffee grounds help kickstart decomposition so will try that too and see what happens.

The ‘no dig, chop and drop’ approach to gardening is resonating more and more. Less primping and pruning and trying to bend the garden to our will. Our focus is shifting –  we’ll aim to get the basics right – enrich the soil, plan the best position for plants, strengthen them, and then, as much as possible, let nature take over and do what its perfectly designed to do.

Mucking in

Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.

Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin.  Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:

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Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
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Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
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More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
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Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
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Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
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More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
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Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
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Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.

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.

bokashi-powder
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.
worm-bin
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.

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