Pee Ess

In my post on greywater, I forgot to mention that I included a urinal directly into the greywater system. So the men (and acrobatic ladies) can do what nature intended, and apply their nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, slightly diluted, directly to the ecosystem. It works great. Julie Williams chimes in on this topic here. When I plumbed the urinal, I put a simple shutoff valve into the line, rather than a flush system. That way, we’re only typically washing a cup or two of water down the drain with the deposit of liquid gold. Urine is sterile except in the rare cases when folks have urinary tract infections. Diluted 1:1 it is almost perfectly balanced like say, Miracle Grow.

Joel Salatin, my favorite sustainable farming expert, likes to say “when you smell manure you’re smelling bad management”. He is so right. In fact, I would say the number one ecological problem we face today is the fact that we have created an artificial break in all the natural waste cycles that we impact. It’s like we think the circles MUST be broken … to prove we’re in charge or something. In the case of manure, all you need to do is introduce a little carbon (wood chips, grass clippings, spent hay); the odor disappears, and compost happens. Instead, we have these huge eyesores of industrial agriculture, that can be smelled for miles around. Cesspools of hog manure; piles of raw chicken manure.

Some of the ways we break the cycle

Some of the ways we break the cycle

In the case of manure, good management involves a recognition that for nature to digest feces and urine, the optimal ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 30 to 1. Urine has no carbon, but it can be useful applied directly to plants. Feces has both carbon and nitrogen, but tends to have more nitrogen than can be digested by nature. The bacteria start working on it, but quickly run out of carbon … the excess nitrogen then gets made into ammonia gas (NH3) or nitrates (NO3). Methane gas is also produced by mismatched chemical balances … it is a combination of CN4 and CO2.

We extend our hatred of natural waste processes through the distribution nightmare of our food supply: We ship grain and animals to feedlots, where blood and manure overtax the land’s ability to handle it. We ship unnatural, destructive fertilizers to where the grain is grown and the young animals are raised, wearing out the land and creating wasteful energy usage patterns.

Allan Nation, who writes my favorite magazine, Stockman Grass Farmer, (as much about economics and marketing and philosophy as it is about farming) often has joked about the average beef cow traveling 3000 miles before it reaches our table. The result of all that shipping of animals, their feed, and their manure — and our failure to use the natural fertilizer they give us in a way that completes the circle of life — is that we have economically disastrous conditions festering across our heartland. And South America, which we’ve pressed into this awful symbiotic relationship of beef cattle production, is also facing a meltdown of the whole system. In the feedlots of the Midwest, liquified manure has become a disposal nightmare, because huge quantities of animals are assembled for the final fattening on grain in factory conditions.

Manure lagoons near factory farms

Manure lagoons near factory farms

When you go to Salatin’s farm, you see a barn where in the wintertime cattle are fed hay grown right on the ground where they live; as they eat the hay, the spent and wasted hay mixes with their manure to build 3 or 4 feet of trampled biological matter with just the right ratio for composting… 30:1. Joel keeps a few large hogs around each winter, who are sent into the barn periodically to root through the hay and manure, inverting the pile and aerating it in the process. By spring, the whole pile is composted, and Joel sends in his one old tractor with a frontloader to distribute the compost onto the fields.

No, he doesn’t use wet raw manure on the fields. That smells, and that’s bad management, producing flies and leaching nitrogen out of the soil to feed the bacteria who want to break it down. Instead he composts it during the winter when there are no flies, and spreads it after the bacteria have done their work. He showed us where he had to put it new fenceposts because he’s added over 18 inches of topsoil to those old Shenandoah Valley hills that had eroded since the Civil War.

But I digress. Our society’s bad management isn’t confined to manure. We waste our drinking water, by using it to drown our feces. We also recklessly overpump our groundwater, and prevent it from being replenished by rainfall and natural watershed management.

We use chemical fertilizers on land, which wastes energy and petroleum products. It also damages good soil bacteria while over-stimulating undesirable algae growth in our ponds and rivers… overtaxing the ability of the ecosystem to manage it.

As a culture we throw away huge quantities of goods, much of it just wrapping and packing material — and most of which cannot be biodegraded… and at the same time we fail to compost massive amounts of biological matter that could be returned to the environment to keep the natural circle of life going. And it seems like when we do return stuff to the environment, we have often added a devilish little potion to that poisons the critters and people who come in contact with it. For example, cities are creating huge quantities of “composted” sewage that contains brominated flame retardants and all sorts of toxic compounds, poisoning the soils around our cities.

So on my little spot of land, I take a little pleasure in at least breaking that cycle. I pee into the grey water. I let milkweeds grow because I like monarch butterflies to come. I let thistles grow because I like flocks of chickadees and goldfinches. I let trees die without hauling them away immediately so that woodpeckers can enjoy a year’s worth of termite meals on me. I compost our food waste, and the 2 cubic yards of algae that we pulled off our pond this summer because the farmer across the road puts too much fertilizer on his field. It’s hard to justify economically, but it’s one small thing we can do to try and stop our human habit of breaking cycles of life wherever we turn.


My greywater story

Ten years ago I created a compost toilet and grey water system so that we could have large numbers of guests without taxing our existing septic and spring-fed water systems. We were planning a wedding and my daughter was willing to have it on our picturesque front lawn IF we didn’t have those awful blue plastic outhouses for the guests. Soooo… a project was born. (We just had another wedding a couple of weeks ago… some shots are in recent posts).

I’ll talk about the compost toilet in another post… but with California under water restriction according to one of the Tweeters I follow, I thought I’d quickly mention what I did and what I learned from it.

My personal greywater wetland

My personal greywater wetland

I ran all the sinks and washing machine for the building into a simple 2 inch pipe… Made sure it had at least an inch drop in ten feet, and ran it about 150 feet to a suitable spot. I rented a backhoe and dug the trenches myself, and scraped away the topsoil down to clay for the wetland… about 10 feet wide and 50 feet long. I lined the area with 7mil Milar, and then laid the termination of the pipe about 5 feet past the edge of the area. I split the end of the pipe into 3, and drilled holes along the way, capping it at the ends. Then I brought in a load of 4-inch river rocks, followed by gravel and sand, and replace soil around the edges. My thought was that the water would flow out into the gravel, etc.

For 9 years, it worked flawlessly. By the end of the first year, cattails had established themselves, with frogs and flowering lily pads not far behind. My mom, who lived in the garage we converted into that house, enjoyed it and followed our rule of not using chlorine bleach, detergents, etc. Just ivory soap… which the cattails converted into clean water.

A year ago, the system backed up. We excavated the end of the pipe and found that the three prongs were filled solid with black sludge.

All 3 prongs were completely plugged

All 3 prongs were completely plugged

It had then backed up all the way up the 150 feet to the house.

Closeup of the sludge

Closeup of the sludge

This time, I used a new kind of termination … expanding the pipe to 4 inches, into a wye, and then putting both sides of the wye into two 10-foot lengths of “Quick4 Leaching Chambers”.

Quick4 Leaching Chambers

Quick4 Leaching Chambers

They’re very cheap, available at plumbing supply stores. They come in 4-foot lengths, and snap together with a pivot like sausages. You lay them on the gravel, cover them with a filter cloth, and then backfill the sand and dirt over them.

Here’s the main takeaway: many plumbers consider kitchen waste “black water” along with the obviously black toilet effluent. The reason is that the grease and food fibers of kitchen sink drainage quickly turn black, and to keep it from clogging, a settling area is advisable. This is a pain… it involves a tank, a cleanout, a baffle to keep the solids from spilling over into the exit… practically a septic system. In the end, I decided that my simple leach system would survive for 40 years or more without adjustment simply by using the Quick4 leaching chambers. So I didn’t replumb my kitchen sink. But if you live in the suburbs, already have a standard sewage pipe exiting your house (or a full-scale septic or aeration system in place) and just want to create a small grey water system for your back yard garden, I’d advise avoiding the kitchen sink drain… let that go into the sewage system, and just divert your showers and hand sinks into the greywater system. You’ll feel good knowing that the water you’re washing in ends up in your garden.

If you want it to go into a decorative pond, be sure to let the natural cleaning power of cattails and bulrushes clean it first.

Disclaimer: for reasons that escape me, none of this is considered “code” as far as I know. Perhaps in California some greywater systems have been approved. But in my part of the country, the authorities are at least 30 years behind the times. We’re all going to hit a wall when the water shortages hit.

Whole Foods on sustainable fishing

Here’s what Whole Foods says about sustainable fishing, in contrast to Trader Joe’s:

Trader Joe’s DNA

Heather Snow contributes an excellent analysis of the Greenpeace attack on Trader Joe’s sales of red-list fish. I’m glad to see the effort to hold TJ’s accountable to a sustainable standard.

I’d like to suggest a few reasons why Trader Joe’s is pursuing this unenlightened policy, and why what seems like a hip, green-friendly brand may have trouble responding quickly to the Greenpeace attack.

For years we’ve shopped at Aldi. Actually, when I go grocery shopping I like what $50 buys me at Aldi … while my wife prefers supermarkets. Aldi is amazingly efficient. You bring your own bags or you buy theirs —  5 cents each. You bag yourself.

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

If you want a cart you put a quarter in the lock mechanism, and get your quarter back when you return it to the cart lineup: there are no carts piling up in the parking lot, and no employees running around to regather them. Instead of 20,000 products to choose from in a regular store, or 150,000 in a Walmart supercenter, in an Aldi store there are under 1000. No brand names, no fancy advertising because they license with major distributors and buy extra capacity … but all good quality stuff, whether peanut butter, chips, pickles, or ice cream. Business Week describes the selection as “East Berlin, circa 1975”. (I don’t think it’s that bad!)  There are usually only 2 people visible working the store, and all they’re doing is ringing up the lines of people waiting to check out. But I would say the average cost at an Aldi store is about 1/3 to 1/2 the price you would pay at the supermarket.

Business Week wrote them up 5 years ago here. Turns out they are a German company spreading fast, a discount store that actually gives Walmart a serious run for their money. They avoid debt, buy small stores where real estate is cheap, keep their footprint small and their profits up, and quietly feed off the (growing) bottom of the U.S. grocery market. They’re gaining market share fast, and in a way similar to the Limited’s initial focus on the most profitable niche in clothing — women’s fashion — Aldi out-Walmarts Walmart by selling high-profit, high-traffic grocery items.

Maybe 5 years ago my wife discovered Trader Joe’s. They have little physical resemblance to Aldi except that they tend to be small stores in non-prime strip malls. They cater to an entirely different market. Instead of lines of sullen people who look like they need to pinch pennies, (the reason my wife hates to go to Aldi’s), Trader Joe’s is a festive experience. We both love what feels like a healthy respect for the environment, for quality food, for healthy choices like fresh fish, whole wheat pasta, cool nuts, chocolates, wines, fresh veggies, real cheeses, and cheerful, helpful staff. It reminded us of the food co-op we used to frequent near the Ohio State campus when we were first married.

But in the back of my mind I was always perplexed by the economics of Trader Joe’s. How could they be so much cheaper than Whole Foods or Wild Oats (which have since merged in weakness)? Not until a year or two ago did it make sense to me… when I learned that Trader Joe’s is also owned by Aldi.

Here’s what Business Week said about Trader Joe’s in 2004.

It’s a phenomenally lucrative combination, analysts say. Sales last year were an estimated $2.1 billion, or $1,132 per square foot, twice that of traditional supermarkets, according to the Food Institute, a nonprofit research group in Elmwood Park, N.J. The Monrovia (Calif.) company would not talk to BusinessWeek, but its Web site notes that while the 37-year-old chain quintupled its store count from 1990 to 2001, profits grew tenfold.

“What’s unique about Trader Joe’s is that there’s no competition,” says Willard R. Bishop Jr., who heads his own consulting firm in Barrington, Ill. TJ’s develops or imports many of its own products from sources it has developed over decades and sells more than 80% of them under the Trader Joe’s brand or a variant thereof: Trader José, Trader Ming, and Baker Josef are a few. In states where it can, it sells discount wine and liquor. The latest rage is its own Charles Shaw label of California varietals, affectionately known as Two-Buck Chuck for its $1.99 price tag in California (it’s $3.39 in Ohio stores).

At least at that time, BW reported that they paid their staff well above industry norms, and the service at TJ’s around here reflect that.

So now it all makes sense. Trader Joe’s keeps its prices down in the same way it does at Aldi stores: by doing deals with its own suppliers and establishing its own store brands. (By the way, this is the same thing that Limited Brands did to gain ground in the fashion world — not by buying the work of famous designers, but by creating their own designer brands.)

The management of Aldi/Trader Joe’s is old school and, while understanding their niche well, not a marketing driven company. The whole ethos of both brands is to provide an authentic quality product at an unbeatable price. They gain share and traffic by sustaining the lowest of low prices through their purchasing arrangements and internal efficiences — which bypass marketing altogether. There simply is no Aldi or TJ branding going on in the media at all. And they keep people coming back by offering excellent quality at amazingly low price points.

Aldi/TJs is not the kind of company that got where it is by listening to customers. Like Walmart, it grows by being the lowest price provider. Period. It is accused of having run 35,000 small stores out of business in Germany in 2006. It was accused of forcing milk prices down by 15% across Germany since 2001. While Trader Joe’s was a gift to Theo Albrecht’s sons, it shares that corporate DNA. It sets it own agenda based on its own perceptions of authentic value, and delivers that brand promise efficiently. TJ’s has probably locked up long-term deals to buy the excess production of major fishery operations around the world. The TJ’s corporate DNA is, I suspect, radically different from the brand aroma.

So like Heather and the others who are commenting on this story, I’ll be interested to see how TJ’s responds. Hopefully, they will change their fish purchase policies over time to reflect the need to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The corporate culture was built by responding to blue-collar concerns, not magenta-leaning tree-huggers like me. It’ll probably take them a while to curtail their faux-green sales of red-list seafood such as orange roughy… 🙂

Footnote – The founder of Aldi, Karl Albrecht, is quite elderly but no longer involved in the management of the company. He is worth over $20 Billion, and in the top 10 richest men.  Aldi stands for Albrecht Discount.