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5 Ways to Get Closer to Your Garbage

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When you throw something in the trash, it's easy to think that it stops being your problem -- your friendly neighborhood sanitation workers take it away, and that's that. Well, until the Garbage Apocalypse of 2062, when GarbageNet becomes self-aware and decides to eliminate all humans. Wait, that's a whole other blog post....

GarbageNet jokes aside, we thought you'd appreciate some tips to get closer to your garbage so you can embrace it, learn about it, and reduce it!

1. Carry Your Garbage With You

Some staff members at frog design have taken up a trash challenge: participants must keep all the trash they produce within five feet of them at all times. Exceptions: participants may recycle, compost, donate, incinerate, and flush. The experiment mercifully lasts only two weeks, and staffers taking the challenge write about it on the Trash Talk blog, explaining their personal struggles with non-recyclable, non-compostable trash. It's interesting to read how limited life becomes when these folks have to think about every little piece of trash -- because it's literally weighing them down! Eating out, shopping, and other daily activities become serious challenges with real consequences. Read this introduction to learn more.

2. Install a Composting Toilet

Composting ToiletYou can avoid flushing human waste into the sewer (or your septic system) by installing a composting toilet. These toilets take the, uh, "waste products" and break them down over time into compost and soil. Modern units can be odor-free, and many store the waste in a remote tank that rarely needs attention or maintenance -- think of it like an ultramodern outhouse. But beware, Wikipedia lists an entire section on "Possible health risks and aesthetic issues!"

Possible "aesthetic issues" aside, composting toilets are one way you can dramatically reduce sewage waste and cut down on water use, while producing useful compost and soil. You can learn more by watching this interminable infomercial or reading the Wikipedia entry. See also: humanure.

3. Freecycle Your Stuff

FreecycleInstead of throwing out perfectly decent stuff, why not give it away via the internet? Freecycle communities exist around the world for just this purpose -- using Yahoo! Groups, members post offers of free stuff. If you want the stuff, contact the member privately and make arrangements to and pick it up. Stuff ranges from household items to clothes, toys, computers, even literal garbage that might be recyclable by the right person. The Freecycle approach differs from the Craigslist "free stuff by the curb" section because there's a real community involved, and because of the direct member interaction you're never going to drive across town (wasting gas) only to discover that someone else beat you to the free stuff. Here's a sample posting from my hometown group:

Offer: Santa

I have a santa doll that stands about 12" high. Wearing golds, creams and tapestry cream, red, and green jacket. Still have the $20 price tag on it. I don't know how I ended up with it, but I'm not much into Santa.

Six hours after the post went up, Santa found a new home.

4. Take a Superfun Visit to a Superfund Site

Superfund SiteThe Superfund pays for cleanup of some of the most polluted sites in the United States -- these are places where no other party could be found to pay for the work. Superfund sites are pretty much everywhere, and some are surprisingly scenic (though beware: many are extremely toxic). There's a particularly lovely Superfund site in North Portland, Oregon, by the Willamette River. Blogger Mary Wheeler walks her dog there and shares her experiences in My Dog Walk on the Wild Side. See also: Lyza Danger Gardner's photography of the same site.

5. Visit the Garbage Museum

This one's for the kids. Specifically, the kids who live near Stratford, Connecticut -- home of The Garbage Museum. Here's what the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority has to say about the educational (and kinda fun-sounding) exhibits at The Garbage Museum:

TrashosaurusThe Garbage Museum ... offers visitors an opportunity to meet Trash-o-saurus, a dinosaur made from a ton of trash, which is how much trash an average person throws away in a year! Guests may walk through a giant compost pile, meet resident compost worms and discover how much energy savings is derived from recycling. Watch what happens to recyclables in a "sky-box" view of the tipping and sorting process. From the mezzanine walkway, visitors can follow glass and plastic containers, cans and newspapers through the sorting process and on to the end of the line where items are crushed and baled for shipping to processors, who turn them into products.

Read all about one class's visit to the Garbage Museum, including lots of photos. See also: the CRRA Trash Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze
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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

 
Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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