Friday, September 19, 2014

Remote Cabins: Trash, Garbage, and Waste - Reuse, Re-purposing, Disposal Issues

Living off-grid means not only that we receive no electricity, but also no municipal services at all, including those for disposal of garbage, trash, sewage, and gray water. So we have become very intentional about what we buy, make, and use, because we have to figure out how to dispose of what remains. I welcome any additional clever ideas that readers may care to share.

Below are some examples of what we have done with wood ash, packaging, vegetable and meat leftovers (including bones), animal and human waste, and construction debris.  Some ideas may be useful even to urban readers.

Wood ash:
Alder wood fire

As a fertilizer, wood ash reads 0-1-3 and softens acidic soil, which is exactly what our property needs. Hard woods are higher in the desired nutrients than soft woods, according to the U of Oregon extension office. Do not use wood ash on potatoes or the related families of blueberries/azaleas/rhododendrons, which like acidic soil.

Vegetable waste:
  • Kitchen and garden scraps can be fed to any of the animals (except citrus, potatoes, and onions) or trenched directly into gardens to enrich the soil. Some items work well in a compost tea or insect repellent. For example, sprays made from onion, red pepper, rhubarb, and tomato leaves repel many pests. Coffee and coffee grounds are best for acid loving plants. In fact, the Botanical Garden in Anchorage plants its potatoes in pots filled ONLY with coffee grounds scrounged from local coffee bars.  Banana and orange peels deter aphids, deliver potassium, phosphorous, and some nitrogen. Great around roses. Egg shells deliver calcium – particularly important to tomatoes and squash and the poultry themselves (pulverized) and they deter slugs (but are safe for red wigglers in vermiculture). In the winter, when we have fewer animals and frozen gardens, we keep red wigglers in the cabin in a worm farm and feed the excess vegetable matter to them. I have found that a compost pile doesn't work well for me here, so I just trench yard and kitchen scraps directly into gardens, particularly ones that are resting for a season. 
  • Meat leftovers: All bones are made into soup stock, then offered to the poultry. After they have picked them clean, the bones are tossed into the wood stove to burn to ash for the gardens (0-12-0 nutrients). I cut up meat fat and chicken skin and feed it occasionally to our ducks and chickens both of which make their happiest discovery noises when they get those snacks. .
  • Weeds and Yard debris: Despite the name, chickweed has never appealed to my
    Rabbits eating raspberry leaves
    ducks and chickens. It may be a winter, subsistence type food. Next year, I'll try to dry and save some. The rabbits adore fireweed and dandelions, and will eat other plants as well. I have cooked dandelion leaves (with garlic and butter) and made dandelion “capers” (with the buds), and canned fireweed jelly. Depending on the weather and plant structure, I burn dry stalks and then distribute the ash through the yard or I chop up green stalks and leaves in gardens to degrade over a season or two.  Spruce cones make great fire starters. We have lots of birch and alder on our property. Every spring we mulch copious quantities of their leaves and twigs with which we replace straw in the chicken coop and fill in low spots in the yard. My husband dries moose pellets that he uses to smoke the honey bees when he checks the hive. Rotted and damp wood feed a smoky fire in the yard that we light almost every day in June to reduce the mosquito population. Rocks and stones disperse rain under drip lines of buildings not outfitted with gutters, line gardens, outline paths, and soften the angle of steep terrain (grass and plants grow over them, to reduce or slow erosion).

  • Slim straight and curved branches: I have created a "lattice" divider to obscure the view under our porch, have used tall branches for stakes, trellises and teepees for various top heavy plants, and have curved green branches to frame gardens.  (Alas, we lack the whip like willows to make wattle fences.)       

  • Animal waste:
  • Domestic rabbits are one of the few animal manures that can be used fresh in the garden, and its pellet form makes it easy to distribute when dry. We store three plastic sleds under our rabbits to make collection and transportation easy, and we purposely positioned the greenhouse and two exterior gardens very close to the rabbit hutches. We raise the animals for meat, and their light bones burn easily to ash for the garden (0-12-0) nutrients, plus calcium, which Alaska soils need. I have not yet learned to do anything with the hides, and am a bit leery of hanging out bloody skins to dry, given the bear population here. When my husband butchers the animals, we bag the remains and kayak across the lake, away from people, to deposit them in the bog for predators.
  • Poultry: We free range chickens and ducks, primarily for their eggs, but we derive
    Chickens in front of the outhouse
    other benefits as well. For example, they fertilize, weed, and dig up various spots throughout the yard. The coop's mucky straw can be dried and mulched and loaded over the gardens in the fall.

  • Bees: Bees produce several types of useful “waste” products: Pollen can be sold or bartered as an expensive health food product ($25/lb). Bees wax can be made into lip balm and candles. Propolis can be mixed with alcohol as a tincture. I read that it is currently being researched as a cancer treatment.
  • Dead voles, flies, mosquitoes: Every time my husband empties the mosquito magnet's net bag of dead bugs, my ducks and chickens act like I am serving them an Atkin's diet buffet. In July, when we get a lot of flies in the outhouse, I send the chickens in before me. I hear them tap-tap-tapping the floor, like an avian version of “Whack a Mole” as they snap up dead (or live) flies.
Human waste:
  • Urine: the average person produces 500 liters of protein rich urine per year. Most of the time, I save the nighttime accumulation in our indoor chamber pot, dilute it by five to ten times as much water, and pour it around the yard or gardens (not directly on leaves of plants). In winter, I can pour it directly into the snow for natural winter time dilution. (Note: anyone who is taking medicines might need to check the effect of those chemicals on plants).
  • Excrement: According to my research, it is too cold here for a composting toilet to work (outside for sure, and even with our cool interior temperatures). However, this might be an option in other parts of the country where the ambient temperature surrounding the toilet is in the 70s or above. We just use an outhouse with a big pit and pour lime down there occasionally, to help decomposition.
Construction debris:

We burned a lot of the little bits and pieces but repurposed the following:
  • Log ends: These have worked well as side tables, benches, foot rests, and steps to shallow porches.  We use eight to elevate the freight sled skis so the sled would be easier to dig out in winter.  A neighbor took a bunch to prop up his summer guest cabins, which were shifting and leaning from ice heaves and snow weight on the roofs.  Thin ones (less than 3 inches) worked well for several years as stepping stones.
  • 2” thick polystyrene insulation: a winter toilet seat for us (the air holes make it temperature neutral) and insulation for our batteries and bee hives
  • Wooden Pallets: We strapped the bee hive to one (and surrounded it with bear mats), Used another as a wide step in front of the food shed
  • 2 x 4s: Exterior bear bars on shed doors
    Shower house construction
  • Planks: We used leftover planks of various widths for shelves everywhere we could conceive of one being useful. For example, a plank above the outhouse door (inside) stores lightweight paper goods. We turned the dead space below windows into low book cases. We use several short ones to kick under the ski plane skis so they don't freeze to the snow or ice below, and drop two down into an augured hole in the frozen lake with nylon ropes to use as tie downs to protect the plane from high winds. Others work as temporary, late winter shelves in my south facing windows for seedlings.
  • Plywood: bear shutters for all first floor windows 
  • Sawdust:  Blueberries are the only plants I know that actually like sawdust.  Otherwise, mixed with "green" debris in the compost pile (which didn't do too well for me). 
Packaging waste:
  • Plastic and glass containers: We re-purpose a number of containers. Plastic vinegar bottles are bungie corded around birch trees to catch sap in May. Gallon and half gallon jugs water and feed animals. Small glass containers save seeds and store dried herbs and spices. Tall, wide mouthed glass jars hold long nails.  Rubber and plastic gaskets don't last long in Alaska, but drippy drink containers with one large opening can be re-purposed for storing grains or other dry goods.
  • Cardboard toilet paper rolls become chew toys for the rabbits, protect seedlings that suffer from cut worms, or function as fire starters.  My mom always used them for rolled up electrical cords.  
  • Cardboard boxes: We flatten large cardboard to line rabbit and poultry nesting boxes (under straw, for extra insulation), and garden underlayment to reduce weeds.  Intact, we use large ones as storage bins and yard debris carriers.  Small ones function as drawer dividers for items like electric cords and knives,.
  • Metal cans: We don't have much use for opened, metal cans, so we just fly them back to town dumpsters since Alaska is pretty bad about recycling. However, see for clever uses for various size cans. For example, I made a small rocket stove with a coffee can and five soup sized cans. 
  • Fuel drums: We perforate them for burn barrels and grey water barrels (under the cabin and shower house). I have put several under the guy wires of our power tower in which I planted climbing vines, like scarlet runner beans, after the gasoline had evaporated, but let's face it: they are not very attractive. 
  • Food grade drums: We installed gutters and water barrels along most buildings. For example, we bought empty 55 gallon drums (of malt) from a beer supply store for $10. Other food grade drums can be cut down for large water bowls and little pools for animals. In warm climates, you might be able to use them to house fish or use them for aquaponic agriculture. We use about a dozen, plastic 35 gallon drums to float our wooden dock, and that has lasted well for five years, even without removal for winter.
  • Paper can be composted or used in lasagna gardening techniques or given to the rabbits, which like to tear it up, particularly for their nesting boxes. Shiny, colored paper we burn with the trash.
  • Burned trash: It is logical for us to buy bulk items, like 50 lb bags of flour and sugar, which reduce some volume of trash. But there is quite a bit that we need to burn, such as all that plastic packaging surrounding just about everything one buys in the U.S (what a wasteful contrast, compared to many other countries).  Paper products that burn cleanly, go into a fire pit and that ash can be spread in the garden. Benzene derived plastic trash is burned in a burn barrel, and that ash is stored in a beat up metal row boat at the back of our property. 
  • Like many people, I bring my own shopping bags to stores. I bought (and now crochet) cotton bags.  At home, I store my produce in them, hanging them on cup hooks in the kitchen.  When I deplete the contents of a bag, I move it to the plane for our next trip to town.  
  • Old gasoline is stored in small quantities in wide-mouthed bottles, which we use for cleaning oil-based paint brushes.
Mail, newspapers, wine/beer bottles:
  • Even when we lived in a city, we did our banking on line and had been vigilant about cutting down on junk mail.  The worst sources were my bank  (They sold our name to nine different lists!), any retail store I shopped on line, my husband's and my universities and AAA (which was nearly impossible to stop their affiliate mails). Ask your customer service (or alumni) contact about getting off all lists!  
  • We read news on-line, so the bulk of my city recycling (newspapers) is gone.  
  • We make our own wine and beer, stored in kegs, so we no longer have glass bottles. 

  • Living as we do, I have become acutely aware of "my inputs and my outputs."  I think that recycling is a fine thing, but in some cities, it is a "feel good" exercise that does little to cover the carbon cost of transporting stuff to the recycling center.  Reduced consumption may be a more effective step, and, with bulk stores and Internet news, that is not very hard to accomplish.   

I welcome any other suggestions for re-using, re-purposing, and disposing of garbage, trash, and debris.

If you enjoyed these helpful hints, please feel free to link this article to your favorite social media site.  Thanks,  Laura 


  1. I enjoyed reading your list of recycle and reuse. I don't have any animals, so the waste I can't recycle, I have to take to town for disposal. We do use a compost toilet. It is in the house, so no more going out on winter nights. Love that. The decomposing stops in the cold months, but it still handles human waste with no odour. I was interested in reading about how you put urine in the garden. We take ours out to the forest, but haven't used it in the garden. - Margy

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