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Earth Day 2018: One family’s small example

This Earth Day I’d like to share some small measures my household has taken and/or does take for the environment. These are not that special (well they were a little bit to us), but such efforts small though they be are not insignificant, especially on the very local level, and if joined by those of others has cumulative value.

Of course individual and even collective efforts to be environmentally responsible pale in comparison to the potential positive or negative effects of policy decisions affecting whole waterways, air quality of entire regions, and vast hitherto unspoiled natural areas. But we have our parts to play.

Composting

For the seven years we were in Falls Church, Virginia, we used a backyard compost pile. Into this went virtually all readily decomposable vegetative matter from the yard – to the extent that I even stripped green leaves off of pruned branches before discarding the latter (this went quickly with garden gloves) – as well as all kitchen scraps (non-animal and non-cooked) from meal preparation. The kitchen scraps were buried in the existing compost to reduce potential smell (which we never found to be a problem). Ashes from the fireplace insert also went into compost. If there was any hint of any animal getting into the compost, I’d add powdered red pepper.

System was 2 pile, with 6 month rotation (each batch having 6 months active,and 6 months curing), and use of the old pile in late autumn and in spring. Mainly on the vegetable garden.

Compost pile. Left was active, then shifted to right in compost ring. Pole separating halves is marked with a red dot.

Lawn serf

We had a very modest front and back yard, which were easy to mow with a manual push mower (once as late as December), which also was a kind of exercise. Grass clippings were allowed to fall back int the lawn (not collected). Some hand weeding – moderately extensive on a couple of summers – with the plants of course going into the compost.

Never put chemicals on it with the exception of a couple of products (one supposedly eco-friendly) in 2011 or 2012 to reduce the mosquito population.

The big autumn leaf-fall went on the curb for pick-up (hand-raked and carried, not blower driven). The payback in Falls Church was leaf mulch offered by the city in the spring.

Yard wood

One ash tree brought down by an ice-storm, one magnolia branch that fell on my car in a thunderstorm, and a range of cut branches over the years from a small but exuberant lot, all were cut for use in the fireplace insert. Only the thin branches and thorny ones would go out for pick-up (again, probably the only household that had those stripped of leaves).

Fireplace insert

We had an insert put into our fireplace to allow for efficient use of firewood. This was expensive, but the year we did it we were able to take advantage of a significant tax deduction. Ultimately it paid for itself, notably one winter when the old furnace gave out and had to be replaced. We used yard wood, in one case a neighbor’s tree that had to be cut, and purchased local wood from felled or cleared trees. (My writing on criteria for “good” biofuel, in 2016 and on Earth Day 2017, were influenced in part by this experience, as well observations from living in rural West Africa.)

Rain barrels

We ultimately had five 50-60 gallon rain-barrels out during the warm months to collect rain for use on the flowering plants and vegetables. This was useful, but it sometimes seemed the barrels were full to overflowing during rainy stretches, but then empty during the dry spells. It is significant how much water one can use on gardens even in a humid temperate zone.

Vegetable garden

We had two 3′ by 11′ raised beds for vegetable gardening (size convenient from four 14′ planks (I think they were 2″ by 8″).  The story of the garden itself would be a whole different write-up, but suffice it to say that it was a mixed success depending on crop, but on balance a lot of production and some very tasty results. The residues were all chopped up into the compost in the fall.

Kitchen

As mentioned above, all kitchen scraps went into compost. For a while we included eggshells as well. These were collected in a double plastic bag held in a small container attached to one of the under-sink doors. So basically things to throw out were: 1) trash (see below); 2) recycling (handled by the city); 3) compost; and 4) the few items that went down the disposal (minimal food waste is fundamental for any environmentally-conscious system).

Cooking is cooking, but since I’m currently living alone, I’ve added an innovation to steam something on top of whatever I’m boiling to get double use from one burner (e.g., pasta below, and broccoli on the steamer insert on top of that pot). Conservation in meals is another topic for another day, however.

Shopping bags, not trash bags

I forget where we started this, but it may have been in China. We have used smaller waste receptacles that permit use of plastic shopping bags or the smaller bags you put loose vegetables in to take to the checkout. We really didn’t need bigger bags even in the kitchen given we recycled or composted so much. I can’t recall buying packages of trashbags except for a specialized packing need almost a decade ago. We also bring reusable bags to market, but it always seems that one collects plastic bags from stores. Some of these handle trash no problem; the rest can be recycled.

Hardly exceptional, any of this, but useful perhaps in illustrating one family’s system, and more or less coherent approach to the proverbial reduce, reuse, recycle.

 

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