an itsy bitsy update

Following on from my musings on microfibre pollution the other day I have taken action (well, you know me, I don’t hang around) and I’ve done a bit more research.

First, the action. As I mentioned in the comments on my original post, a Twitter friend pointed me in the direction of some resources and information, leading me to the Guppyfriend washing bag. Sending all our manmade fibre garments to be recycled (even assuming that is possible) is probably not the most environmentally friendly option until they are actually unusable, so for the time being we need to maintain them whilst doing as little harm as possible. Reducing the shedding of microfibres when we do our laundry can be achieved by washing at low temperatures, using liquid detergent rather than powder, filling the washing machine (to reduce friction) and washing garments made of synthetic fibres less frequently. I do all of these already, so the other easily achievable action is to install a filter. I wanted a quick fix that avoided any plumbing (at least for the time being) and the best option seemed to be to buy a Guppyfriend – a monofibre polydamide laundry bag that you put synthetics into in the washing machine. The bag catches the fibres, which can be cleaned from it and disposed of appropriately (whatever that is) and when it reaches the end of its life, it can be recycled (once the zip is removed). I bought two – I will report back once I’ve used them.

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Guppyfriends

The other thing I did was a spot of research. I have been wondering for a while about whether the fibres from rayon are problematic. In case you don’t know, rayon is a manmade fibre, but made from plant material (cellulose) rather than petrochemicals. For example, viscose is a sort of rayon made from wood pulp; Tencel is a sort of rayon made from eucalyptus wood; bamboo fabric is a sort of rayon (unless it is referred to as bamboo linen, in which case it’s woven directly from the natural fibres). There are all sorts of issues associated with the chemical processes required to create these products (with the exception of Tencel, which is produced in a closed loop system that avoids chemical pollution). However, my particular interest this week was microfibre pollution. I discovered that rayon fibres are biodegradable. Indeed, they break down at approximately the same rate as cotton, if not a bit quicker. However, they do seem to be included in the figures for microplastic pollution in the sea, so I’m still not sure how ‘bad’ they actually are in this respect.

When it comes to the worst culprits, however, cheaply made fabrics are a real problem as they are not designed to last (for this and many other reasons we should avoid ‘throw-away fashion’ at all costs). Shedding seems to increase, too, with age, so I think that there comes a point  (when, I’m not sure) when we should think about recycling or repurposing (I’m considering stuffing a dog bed with some of mine). I’m afraid that acrylic does not come out well in the analysis, so all that cheap knitting yarn is not just a problem because it’s a product of the petrochemical industry, it’s also shedding fibres and damaging our aquatic systems.  The time has come, wherever possible, to move back to natural fibres and to be very thoughtful about our use of synthetics.

oh, and before I go, just a reminder that there’s still a few hours left to leave a comment on by 1001st post to be entered into my little celebratory prize draw… I’ll turn commenting off tomorrow morning (Saturday 2 December) to give US readers a little extra time (originally I was going to call a halt at midnight tonight).Please don’t be shy – I really do want to send you a lovely gift!

 

Oh, poo!

Over the past few days, a link to an article on the Guardian website has been doing the rounds on Facebook (at least in the circles I mix in, which are mainly related to sustainability). It’s entitled Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design and explains why we might not want to keep our toothbrush next to our toilet and why it’s such an environmental issue to mix the water we wash our hands in with the waste we flush down the toilet.

Basically, the issue with water disposal is that grey water (from washing) can safely be used to irrigate the land, whilst black water (from the toilet) needs to be processed to make it safe. By mixing the two together, we end up with a lot more highly contaminated water that has to be processed in some way. According to the Guardian:

Over 10bn litres of sewage are produced every day in England and Wales. It takes approximately 6.34 GW hours of energy to treat this volume of sewage, almost 1% of the average daily electricity consumption of England and Wales.

I don’t know what the figures would be if we separated the two sorts of water, but I know they would be significantly lower. The real issue in my mind, however, is that we see everything that goes down the drain as a problem – all waste water is pollution in the current paradigm. What we need to do is realise that, in fact, all waste water is a resource… faeces and urine contain valuable nutrients, and water itself is an increasingly rare commodity globally.

And if we are thinking about fertility, The nitrogen fertiliser industry is big business, closely tied in with fossil fuels… according to the International Plant Nutrition Index:

All N fertilizer begins with a source of hydrogen gas and atmospheric N that are reacted to form ammonia. The most-used source of hydrogen is natural gas (methane). Other sources of hydrogen, such as coal, are used in some regions. After hydrogen and N are combined under conditions of high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, many other important N-containing fertilizers can then be made. Urea is the most common N fertilizer, but there are many excellent N fertilizers that can be made from ammonia. For example, some ammonia is oxidized to make nitrate fertilizer. This same conversion of ammonia to nitrate takes place in agricultural soils through the microbial process of nitrification.

Because the production of hydrogen gas required for the synthesis of ammonia largely comes from natural gas, the price of this primary feedstock is the major factor in the cost of ammonia production. Ammonia factories sometimes close or open in various parts of the world in response to fluctuating gas prices. Higher energy costs always translate into higher prices for all N fertilizers. (IPNI)

The classic image of a compost toilet

The classic image of a compost toilet

So, we flush great fertiliser away down the toilet (remember a key function of urine is to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies), pay for that to be treated to make it safe and then pay even more to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to apply to the land to grow crops. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem sensible. Why not turn the waste into a useful resource and avoid a whole bunch of pollution?

I know that most people are squeamish about composting toilets and they are currently not readily available for use in ‘normal’ houses, but technology is changing. Soon, you won’t have to deal with the waste yourself if you want to avoid the standard flush toilet, and you wont have to have a compost loo in the garden either. Take a look at Toilet Revolution if you want to see a whole range of options suitable for real homes.

 

A tyre-some problem

Reading a post by Mischa Hewitt on the Brighton Permaculture Trust website this morning, got me thinking about using old tyres*  in the garden (and elsewhere).

Tractor tyres… not in my garden!

When I was an enthusiastic young gardener, I heard that you could use stacks of old tyres to grow potatoes in…. simply place a tyre on the ground, fill it with compost, put your chitted seed potatoes in and when they sprout, place another tyre on top and fill with more compost. It seemed like a good idea to me and we duly acquired some old car tyres and gave it a go. All went well to begin with, although lots of compost was used and filling the enclosed part of each tyre was a little tricky (I’ve since learned that many people stuff them with straw). The potatoes grew, as did the stacks of tyres… they didn’t look very attractive, but that wasn’t the point. Then came the time to harvest…

Mr Snail-of-happiness was not home when I wanted to harvest the first lot, so it was up to me. Do you know how heavy a tyre is? No? Well, let me tell you that rubber is not light and that they have steel inside too. Now imagine this already heavy object filled full of soil and compost. I tried to lift the first one off the stack… I couldn’t. Not only was it heavy, it was also quite high up (a pile of four or five tyres is not an insubstantial structure). So, I decided to push the top tyre off and empty it once it was on the ground. Then I discovered that tyres are designed to be grippy. OK, I knew this, but I had never really experienced it before. A good shove is certainly not enough to slide one tyre off another. In the end I used a lever and the top tyre thudded to the ground, distributing soil and compost but no potatoes. I eventually located a few tubers  and about a gazillion slugs… which seem to love living in the rims of compost-filled tyres, particularly those that have nice air spaces in them because the person who filled them up didn’t pack the compost into every available space. Turns out that slugs also like something to snack on whilst they are living in the tyres and potatoes make an idea meal. SIGH.

We did try using them again the next year, but never had the great success that was promised and the whole harvesting business just put me off using them. Since then, I’ve never planted anything in a tyre. I’m not saying that some people don’t grow brilliant crops in tyres, it’s just that they are not for me. Now I grow my potatoes either in soil in the garden or in bags (light and easy to empty). I have some bought bags, but have been collecting suitable ‘waste’ ones for future years, so I will be doing my bit for re-purposing even without the tyres.

Tyre slices used in a construction project – these will be covered in earth eventually

Of course, there are other reasons we might not want to use tyres… either in the garden or elsewhere. They do have lots of toxic chemicals in them… after all they now seem to be classified as hazardous waste and cannot be placed in landfill (either whole or shredded) in Europe. But they are increasingly being used in engineering projects… whole in the construction of ‘earthships’ and shredded or otherwise processed in other construction projects. What proportion of the toxic chemicals leach out or are emitted as gases seems to be unquantified as yet. It would be good to see more research on this, so that we can feel confident that, whatever is being done with worn-out tyres is appropriate and safe.

-oOOo-

* or tires… which are rubber things in the US but means ‘grows weary of’ in the UK!

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