Give Your Used Clothing Directly To Those In Need

 

Separating clothing into equal piles for 17 families. © Liesl Clark

Separating clothing into equal piles for 17 families. © Liesl Clark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving used clothing away to the poor here in North America is often a strangely disconnected experience. I’ve donated clothes for years to local charities, but it’s always, sadly, an anonymous gift. There’s so much joy in connecting directly with the people who need your clothing! Putting a human face on poverty and need should not be shameful. What’s troubling to me is that most charities in the US act as a buffer between you, your stuff, and the people who could use your stuff. If we could connect with those in need more easily, I believe we’d all give more freely. The more we can put a face on those who are in need, the less taboo the subjects of homelessness and poverty will become. A recent trip to Nepal compounded these revelations for me.

“Divide the clothing into 17 piles.” We had brought 4 duffel bags filled with socks, jackets, pants, hats, all the clothing necessary to keep a family warm. What we didn’t anticipate was that the clothing would have to be divided into 17 equal shares. This village has 17 households. To keep it fair amongst all families in the village, the decision was made that no matter whether a family had children or not, all the clothing would be divided evenly and the families could then trade amongst themselves for clothing based on need.

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We put 17 pairs of pants, shoes, socks, shirts, jackets and hats, even stuffed animals into discreet piles. A lottery was then devised where a name was pulled out of a hat and that family could pick up a pile of clothing. I saw no bartering or trading after each family received its pile, everyone received their share happily and a little shyly.

© Liesl Clark

What amazes me is that the clothing from my family and my daughter’s best friend’s family, plus some shoes from The North Face and socks donated from a shoe store could clothe an entire village, or keep them happy for a few months with some new things to keep family members warm. A few distributed toys, too, brought joy to all ages.

The women of Samdzong enjoying a kaleidoscope. © Liesl Clark

If you have worn clothing, please don’t throw it away. Your clothes could make a mother or child happy, help keep them warm or even provide material for new clothing that they’ll make from your old ones. I’ve seen my old pants cut up and used as patch material for a child’s pants here in Nepal, or a T-shirt worn by a lama as an under-layer of clothing for months.

© Liesl Clark

 

Socks, shoes, shirts, pants: It's all needed in the village of Samdzong. © Liesl Clark

As we walk away from villages here in Nepal, we take what we can from our personal duffel bags and hand them to those who could clearly use a better pair of shoes or a warm jacket. The more contact we have with those who are in need, the more we can help address all of our basic needs and ultimately share resources, re-allocating our excess clothing and food into the hands of the needy — rather than throwing it away.

Even the pencils our children’s school was throwing away made it into the hands of school children today who will use them until the pencils are mere stubs. If this is all that we do: turn people’s thrown away items into gifts for the poor, we will have done a small bit of good for children and families that have so very little here in the high Himalaya.

Are you looking for a way to donate your clothing so you know it gets to those in need? You could give it away in your local Buy Nothing group. Chances are, if you’re observing in your group, when you post your clothes, you’ll find plenty of families that could use a boost of free clothing, rather than having to buy it all new. These are your neighbors and it’s so easy to do person-to-person giving right in your own ‘hood.

 

Random Acts of Reuse In The Kingdom of Mustang

In Upper Mustang, Nepal, there is an ethic of reuse that has changed my ways. Few things are consumed and then simply thrown away, except for candy wrappers, plastic packaging like biscuit wrappers, ramen noodle packets, and plastic bags holding washing powder. These, sadly, are found underfoot in nearly every village.

Plastic Packaging Used for Irrigation:

But most plastics in Mustang are put to use in innovative ways. Take the plastic lining for water diversion in irrigation ditches. Rather than using jute sacks filled with sand, a readily available material is plastic packaging and bags layered with mud, unwanted clothing and textiles to create an impermeable dam for irrigation ditches. The plastics, unfortunately, often break free and are carried downstream into the Kali Gandaki River where all water flows.

Potato Sack Turned Horse Feed-Bucket:

One of the most innovative Mustang-style trash hacks is the method by which local horses are fed their grain. Potato sacks made of woven plastic are sewn into a configuration that fits easily around a horse’s muzzle, with long string handles that hang over the horses’ ears. Corn is measured out and put in the potato-sack-turned-feed-bag, the chaff blown by hand from the corn to prevent the horse from inhaling it in the bag, and the bag is hung from the horse’s ears: a muzzle feeder that’s a brilliant light-weight way to feed one’s horses while traveling. No need for heavy buckets. Whether on-the-go or at home, these muzzle feed bags are the preferred feeding bucket for Mustang equines.

When one becomes worn out and a hole develops, they’re quickly patched up, as this one was mended by a talented tailor friend in the village of Samdzong, utilizing his son’s worn out sweat pants.

I grew up with horses and we went through plenty of buckets, some made of PVC and plastic which when broken became yet another hefty item in the landfill. The potato/rice sacks turned into horse feed bags are one of the best reuses I’ve ever seen in a remote part of the world that could easily be adopted world-wide!

Planted Pots in Buckets, Paint Cans and Tins:

Anything that is a receptacle is used in Mustang until it can no longer hold anything, disintegrated by sun and wind to the point of uselessness. In the topmost photo of planters, below, you’ll see a plastic bucket that developed a crack and was then sewn back together with plastic twine. Potted flowering succulents are such a valuable addition of organic color to a household, taking the time to repair that heavy-duty plastic pot is clearly worth the effort. If we treated our own plastic pots and buckets the same way, there’d be a significant reduction in the production of these plastics in the first place, and a renewed ethic which the Lobas, the people of Upper Mustang, haven’t lost, of repairing everything again and again until its useful life is truly over. Now that’s reuse!

20 DIY Crafts Not Plastic

A Case For Exposing Your Children to Traditional Arts Using Natural Materials. Photo © Liesl Clark

When my children reached elementary school age and we enrolled them in programs that had art classes, we were amazed at how few natural materials were used for art supplies and just how much of it was plastic: glitter glue, colorful plastics for mosaics, acrylic-coated feathers, various items to be “recycled” through art like yogurt cups and plastic straws. The myriad cut-and-paste-style art projects they did were primarily made of art supply store plastics. All too often schools and art classes are cutting corners and can only afford cheaper plastic materials for art supplies.

Hand-crafted tiles or buttons, made by a young Nepali stone-carver. Photo © Liesl Clark

I would’ve preferred sticks, stones, leaves, sea glass, natural feathers and wood over the pre-fabricated plastic materials my son and daughter were exposed to. These plastics were simply mimicking what’s found readily in nature. I also believe the color palette children are exposed to in those early years, through day-glo style plastics, can affect their color choices later in life. Gone might be an appreciation for natural greens, browns, blues and purples found regularly in the environment. We started to opt out of the popular kinder art projects in preference to doing our own art, making an effort to learn from traditional artists who work with stone, wood, glass, wool, and ceramics. These experiences, for our children, were enriching as they learned quickly that they could create things of beauty from resources found in the natural world, as people have done for millennia.

A Young Nepali Artist Carving Prayers Onto a Mani Stone. Photo © Liesl Clark

A coupling of leaves, feathers, and flowers could become a miniature nest or fairy’s bed from a 7-year-old’s imagination.

A Fairy Bed, Made From Leaves, a Pod, Feathers and a Flower. Photo © Liesl Clark

Or a piece of wood might be whittled into a boat, a stone carved into a work of art. Exposing children to traditional folk art from around the world is a great way to teach them how natural materials that are readily available can be turned into works of beauty.

Azurite Is One of The Pigments Used in Traditional Himalayan Art. Photo © Liesl Clark

On a recent trip through South Korea while we were in transit, we took part in a program at the airport in Seoul that teaches traditional art forms. Every time we pass through this airport our children learn a new form of art made from a surprising material. They’ve worked with rice paper to make stone carving prints onto them, they’ve made paper lanterns, they’ve hand painted fans, and they made a tapestry necklace. This time, they learned the Na-Jeon art form, working with mother of pearl-colored shells and shellac from the lac tree.

Learning the Na-Jeon Art Form in Korea. Photo © Liesl Clark

This highly sophisticated ancient Korean craft utilizes iridescent abalone and conch shells in contrast to a lacquered black wood background, creating a sense of balance and harmony in this mariage of opposites.

A Hand Mirror Made in the Korean Na-Jeon Style © Liesl Clark

The children were given hand mirrors to decorate in the Na (which means “pearl”) Jeon (which means “decorate”) style. The focus and concentration the craft required was mesmerizing for us to watch. And the mirrors will be treasured for years to come in our family.

IMG_5929 © Liesl Clark

If you’re looking for some ideas for arts and crafts less plastic, we came up with a list of 20 traditional crafts from natural materials found in and around your home that are easy to try. Copy this list or share the link with your art teacher at school. No need for spending money on cheap plastic art supplies when there are supplies we can contribute from our own homes and backyards: scrap fabric, acorns, sticks, scrap paper, wool sweaters, leaves and sea shells are just a few. Incorporate information about the cultures that started the folk art form you’ll practice so your children appreciate the history behind their craft and how interconnected we all are through our art forms:

1) Doll-Making: Fabric Scrap Dolls have been made for the children of many cultures for centuries.

DIY Tiny Dolls Wear Fabric Scraps in Style

2) Vegetable Stamps: My favorite veggie to use for stamps is okra. But you can also carve stamps from a potato with excellent results. And the celery rose stamp is absolutely beautiful.

3) Fabric Scrap Mosaic: Reusing fabrics is an art unto itself and certainly has been passed down for generations. Try making a pretty mosaic from your leftover scraps.

4) Embroidery: Try your hand at embroidery. You can even embellish a tired old lampshade to create color in a room.

5) Twig Basket: Collect some long green twigs and make a freeform basket out of them.

6) Origami Tea Bag Folding: Learn the traditional art of origami paper folding using the paper the covers tea bags! If families saved up their tea bag covers, a school art program would have plenty of paper to work with and couldn’t complain about budget constraints.

7) Scrap Paper Flowers: Art classes should save all scrap paper to make these beautiful flowers. Or toilet paper rolls are all you need to make these flowers.

 

Toilet Paper Roll Flowers. Photo © Kelly Munson

8) Fallen Leaf Art: There are many beautiful artistic creations you can craft from leaves.

9) Scrap Paper Tree: This pretty craft utilizes tiny pieces of your favorite scrap paper as well as sticks collected from outdoors.

10) Seashell Arts: We’ve made mobiles from sea shells and endless mosaics. These seashell koalas would make any child happy.

11) Tin Topiary: Use pie tins to make these beautiful tin flowers.

12) Knitting: With some saved-up chopsticks, you can teach anyone how to knit.

Knit with Old Chopsticks photo © Rebecca Rockefeller

13) Felting: Learn how to felt your wool sweaters.

14) Rubbings: Make rubbings for things natural or extraordinary.

15) Weaving: DIY weaving is easy and a great craft to do with scrap yarn and fabric strips. You can even make your own loom.

16) Phone Book Paper Painting Meditation: Teach the kids meditation by doing phone book paper art.

17) Sock Crafting: If you’re in need of a stuffed animal, try making one from a sock.

Sock + Rubber Bands + Bits & Bobs = Sock Hippo. Photo © Liesl Clark

18) Hand-Made Valentines: Valentines are an original folk art scrap hack.

Handmade Paper Valentines, An Original Folk Art. Photo © Liesl Clark

19) Stencils: You can make stencils from food boxes and use beets as your ink dye.

20) Driftwood Sculptures: If you collect enough of a variety, driftwood lends itself to creative art from their smooth appealing shapes.

What crafts from materials readily-available can you add? We love to make things from what’s abundant around us!

Secrets of the Sky Tombs

Years ago, my husband, Pete, and I made a promise to ourselves: We’d try to give our children the best real-world alternatives to video games and virtual reality we could find because reality itself is so much more fulfilling. To that end, our children have grown up on the trail. Daily lessons are often as blunt as the hard-won objective of simply reaching the next village without incident.

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Pete with 3-year-old Finn, on the trail up the Kali Ghandaki River to Jomsom. © Liesl Clark

Ancient castles, fortresses, and real-world kings are normal for kids who’ve played amongst crumbling fortress walls that intermingle with cold clouds, echoes of the past tickling us in the driving wind.

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The winter palace in Tsarang, Upper Mustang, crowned by the Annapurnas. © Liesl Clark

If our children stayed at home, those castles and forts would be grand designs crafted from code in video games they play on their devices. Yet today they can work and play amidst the real thing: Tombs of the ancient dead, haul bags filled with faunal and human bones to sort and clean, artifacts hewn from leather, silk, iron, copper, silver, and bronze, some dating as far back as 2800 years.

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10-year-old Cleo bagging two femurs, with Marion Poux overseeing her work. © Liesl Clark

Nothing in those video games can compare. As parents, we make our choices, whether we allow our children glimpses into our professional lives and our special passions. They, in turn, feel empowered to follow their own dreams, ask their own questions, and seek the truth.

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Finn, now 13, connects easily with his friends in Samdzong. He also flies all of our drone aerials. © Liesl Clark

This drive is what makes us human, what pushed the early pioneers to find shelter amongst the world’s most hostile and glorious mountains. These early settlers brought their children with them, because the alternative was unbearable.

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Leaving the kids at home, so we can do our work in the Himalayas, is unthinkable to us. © Pete Athans

On January 4th, 2017, our film, “Secrets of the Sky Tombs,” about our quest to find the first peoples of the Himalaya will air 9pm ET/8 Central on PBS’s NOVA. The film will also be broadcast in the upcoming months on France 5 in France and National Geographic Channel worldwide. It’s been a decade-long endeavor, and we’ll likely continue for another, as unknown caves, more ancient human DNA, and new questions need to be explored.

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Finn & Pete below Tsaile, headed back to Jomson, dreaming up the next filming expedition. © Liesl Clark

But if there are “secrets,” (as the film’s title suggests) to be uncovered, they’re the clues to success of a people who foraged for what they could off the land, who found meaning in the struggle, and who relied on their clan and their fellow villagers for the bare essentials to survive. Community and one’s lineage is the secret to strength in times of hardship, in the face of the extremes.

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Looking down on the village of Samar, Upper Mustang. © Liesl Clark

This lesson is not lost on us today.

In Praise of Dried Grass

Sometimes a thing you need is hiding right there in plain sight. For 8 years we’ve had chickens, 14 girls a-layin’ in a coop my resourceful husband, Pete, made of salvaged materials. For bedding, on the floor of the coop to absorb their droppings, we’ve used pine chips, sold in bales wrapped in plastic. It’s clean and dry and when the bedding becomes soiled with excessive chicken droppings, we shovel it out of the coop, into the compost pile and lay down new chips …  Until we discovered the shredded paper method.

Through our local Buy Nothing group, I now procure shredded paper for use as chicken bedding and it works beautifully in both the coop and the compost, breaking down even faster than the pine chips in the heat of the composter. It’s free, and we make sure we only get shredded paper. No plastic bits please.

The nest boxes require straw for soft egg-laying. Again, for years we’ve used straw sweepings we get for a few dollars at our local feed store. And then I saw what looked like straw laying on the side of our road. Two or 3 times a summer, our island road maintenance crew cuts the tall grass on the roadsides, leaving the “hay” to dry in the sun. It remains there until the next batch of grass is cut and laid on top of it. Last week, we took a basket down the road and filled it with the beautifully dried hay and brought it home for the chickens. Our guinea pig loves the hay, too!  Nothing better than freshly cut and dried nest box material right at the end of the driveway.

My dear friend, Yangin Sherpa, is my inspiration. She spends long summer days in her region of Nepal, Solu Khumbu, hiking up mountainsides in the jungle, searching for tall grasses to cut and then take home to dry in the sun. She later sells the grass to yak and dzopkyo owners for winter feed. She sells 40 kilos of hay (carried on her back) for about $60. Not a bad price for rural Nepal.

For Yangin, seeing the free cut dried grass here by the road, no one collecting it for their animals, is a waste of a great resource. It’s just a few hundred yards off our property, so we’ve collected 2 loads of hay for the coop that should last us through the winter.

We lay it out on our lawn to dry further in the sun and when it’s dry, Yangin separates the hay and knots it into easy-to-grab bundles. We hang it up in our carport in an old hammock (destined for the landfill because it had a hole in it) for easy retrieval.

Yangin knots them into easily transportable bundles. Once again, an age-old technique that has served cultures well for thousands of years, so simple and practical, brings us closer to the rhythms of the natural world around us. Yet we’ve somehow lost this connection and knowledge over the years, no longer utilizing the resources hiding in plain sight.

Low Impact Trekking

By Mr. Everest

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

In most parts of the world, the higher we journey, the more rarified the air and pristine the environment. But in Nepal, that truth is changing. Twenty thousand visitors per year travel to the Mount Everest region, and thousands climb the 20,000 foot trekking peaks to catch glimpses of the world’s highest mountains. It’s imperative that we strive to leave as little impact as possible, and take steps to reverse some of the impacts left behind by others.

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This summer, we’ll be on our 13th journey through Nepal with our children, and feel fortunate to be able to share our work in the Himalayas with them, continuing the friendships they’ve established after 12 consecutive years of coming to this rugged country every spring or summer.  Exploring the outdoors brings joy to my 10 and 13 year old daughter and son and is integral to who they are.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal. © Liesl Clark

My wife, Liesl, and I strive to pass on to them the 7 principles of leave no trace, established by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. I’ve added my personal insights and recommendations to the basic principles that you might find useful in planning for your next trip into the wilderness, whether alone or with your family and friends. The less impact we have on the environment, indeed even in our own backyards, the more readily our unique ecosystems and all the flora and fauna therein can thrive.

1) Planning your trip ahead of time and preparing is the first step. Take extra care to gain cultural knowledge of the behavior and the accepted norms of the country you’re travelling in. Learn about the environment you’re going into, whether it’s a pristine alpine wilderness or a heavily used high desert. Memorize which habitats are the most at risk and stay clear of them. Knowing this can make a difference in the choices you make for camping and recreating. Establish contingencies and have a plan in place for all contingencies.

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Here are a few steps you’ll need to take in the planning phase that will greatly reduce your impact:

a) Get rid of all excessive packing of items you’re bringing with you. Remove the packaging from batteries, for example so you don’t bring that unnecessary paper and plastic (called blister packs that are not recyclable) with you.

b) Procure the right medicines and medical supplies for your trip. Remove the unnecessary packaging.

c) Bring maps and navigation materials like a compass or GPS.

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d) Set up the necessary insurance you’ll need in the event of a medical evacuation or helicopter rescue.

e) Where will your water sources come from? Please avoid plastic bottled water and plan to bring your own reusable water bottle to be refilled. Bring a Steripen for ultraviolet water purification, a water filter, or iodine tablets to treat your water.

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. For most trekking, you don’t need big heavy boots. You can travel in lighter trail shoes which don’t impact the terrain as much, causing erosion. Avoid going over people’s stone walls or walking through gardens. If you open gates, close them behind you. The point here is that you’re leaving no trace that you passed by. This is one instance where you don’t want to leave a big impression behind.

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

3) Have a plan for dealing with your waste:

a) If you’re in a National Park, use blue bags or something similar to pack out your own human waste. If you’re trekking, use outhouses. Otherwise, carry a small trowel or shovel and dig catholes. Carry your own toilet paper and burn it.

b) Carry out all plastics from your bars and all packaging from your food. A compression sack can do the trick to keep the waste in one place in your pack and consolidated.

c) Carry out the batteries from cameras and other equipment. These should be disposed of responsibly. Either take them home with you if you’re travelling in a country that doesn’t recycle them, or research where your nearest recycling facility is at the end of your trip. We stockpile all our batteries on our expeditions and bring them home.

d) Water: This might be the single most important step you take. Bringing your own reusable bottle saves the environment from hundreds of plastic bottles potentially littering the landscape. If others see you using a Steripen, a filter, or water tablets, they’ll see how easy an option it is. You can always ask for boiled water, but this water requires fuel to boil contaminants. A Steripen or hand-filter will mean you can get water wherever you want and it’ll be cold. It will also be free! I use a Steripen that has a solar charger attached to it so I’m not reliant on power or batteries to use it. Learn where the potable water stations are so you can support these efforts to stop people from buying bottled water.

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

e) When you’re on your way out, pay it forward by removing any waste you see in the environment. Especially if you come across potentially toxic waste like batteries or CFL light bulbs. These shouldn’t be anywhere outside, helping to remove these things and disposing of them safely, helps zero-offset your impact.

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

4) If you’re cooking on your own, be sure that you know where you should and shouldn’t have fires. Use local fuel that you can find easily and use those in substitution of wood fires.

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a) If you’re trekking where there are villages nearby, eating locally is a great way to reduce waste. The more local produce and indigenous food products you can eat from nearby fields and kitchens the less imported foods are needed to support your journey. We eat in homes and tea shops wherever we can in Nepal, where you’ll always find dhal bhat a Nepali dish of rice and lentils along with side dishes of locally grown vegetables.

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

b) Save your organic waste rather than throwing it outdoors to decompose. In some environments like the desert, even eggshells take an inordinate amount of time to break down. If you’re passing through villages, local farmers will be happy to take your stockpiled organics to feed to their stock animals (chickens, cows, yaks) or put in their compost piles.

5) Leave the natural environment as it is. Refrain from picking flowers or taking mementos from the natural world. Take only photos, leave only footprints.

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6) Be respectful of wildlife and don’t disturb any birdlife, mammals or any animals you come across.

7) Be respectful of other travellers using the same environment. The same goes for locals. Try to learn some of their language so you can greet them and ask a question. For starters, learning how to say hello, goodbye (often the same word), thank you, good morning, and counting to three will get you far. And, as in step #1, be aware of cultural norms.

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

Most of all, be in the moment and enjoy the journey, and where it takes your mind and heart.

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How to Fix a Cracked Wheelbarrow

I bought a plastic wheelbarrow and regretted it 4 years later. So much for the “plastic lasts forever” theory. Yes, it lasts forever, but it cracks in the interim, into smaller and smaller pieces. That was the fate of our deep Ace Hardware wheelbarrow that was this homestead’s workhorse for some 4 years.

We’ve had to replace the wheel once already. You can do that at Ace, amazingly, as they have parts ready to purchase for their wheelbarrows, but I doubt they’d have a new tub for us to replace. I thought we’d have to trash the whole molded black plastic thing, and then our friend, Ang Temba Sherpa from Nepal came to the rescue. He stitched it!

Yep, the fix was a mend via wire stitching, using a thin drill bit to make small holes for threading the wire along the crack. It’s a beautiful work of art to behold, somewhat like the stitch-up of the plastic plant pot I spotted in Tsarang, Upper Mustang, Nepal on our last trip there.

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Why don’t we mend our plastics in this country like the people of Nepal do?

It’s now been another 4 years since Ang Temba repaired our wheelbarrow, and I’m proud to tell you that we’re still using it! The long cracks in the base are actually quite welcome, as they let rainwater drip out. We have an improved wheelbarrow as a result of this everlasting hand stitchery.

Thanks, Temba!

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It’s still in action!

Reducing Waste on Earth Day One School at a Time

Schools love Earth Day because it’s a kid-friendly time of year to educate and celebrate Mother Earth while taking stock on how we’re measuring up with our waste footprint. A couple years ago, we took the opportunity to audit 2 schools’ waste on Earth Day week, and the impact of the exercise has huge potential. But it’s up to the schools themselves to learn from the experience and find easy ways to change their collective behavior.

This article walks you through an informal audit that can take as little as 1 hour to conduct, if you have a few hands to help. We’ve also cut a short video to inspire you to do your own waste audit in the classroom with the kids. It’s hilarious, because it involves our trash, and enlightening at the same time.

1) Weigh the trash that the school is planning to throw away. In this case, we had 2 weeks’ worth of one school’s trash. There are approximately 45 students and 6 staff in the school.

A Carload of Trash = 2 Weeks' Worth of One School's Waste.

Total Trash Headed to the Landfill = 23.31 lbs.

2) Start sorting! Can anything be diverted? Start with recyclables. This school recycles, but there’s always room for improvement. We found a lot of recyclable paper and plastic in the trash.

We sorted 2 bags'-worth of recyclables out of the landfill-bound trash.

Total Recyclables Diverted from the Landfill: 9.24 lbs.

3) Are there any organics, meaning compostable materials in the trash? Remove them from the trash, pile them up, and weigh them. This school has a Bokashi composter, but there’s always room for improvement.

Compostables Found in the Trash.

Compostable matter is a resource! Put it back in the earth by composting it or sending it to the worm farm.

Throwing away a dried-up plant and soil? We put the soil and plant in the compost and the 4" pot can be reused.

Total Compostables Diverted from the Landfill: 6.27 lbs.

4) Are there any reusable items in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. A lot of pencils, some clothing, and bookmarks were recovered from the trash for donation to an organization that needs these items.

These pencils can be reused. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total reusable items: 5.76 lbs.

5) Are there any polyethylene plastic bags in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. We found 45 totally clean trash bags in the waste.

Mount Polyethylene. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total plastic bags: 1.16 lbs.

6) Are there other specialty recycling items in the trash, like scrap metal, batteries, printer cartridges, and styrofoam peanuts? They don’t need to go in the trash.

Packing Peanuts Can Be Recycled at UPS or Freecycled.

Total speciality recycling items: 0.52 lbs.

7) Are any of the compostable items good for chickens to eat? Separate them from the trash and weigh them.

Chicken Vittles, Courtesy of School Lunch.

Total chicken bucket items: 0.36 lbs.

8) Now re-weigh your trash headed to the landfill.

Final Landfill Tally? 3.76 lbs.

Total Trash Headed to Landfill Post-Sort: 3.76 lbs.

That’s a diversion of 19.55 lbs. or 2 and 3/4 trash bins-full. We pay $4.00 per trash can of waste at our transfer station. This waste audit saved the school (or the school’s volunteer who takes the trash to the landfill) $11.00. In one year, that’s a savings of $286.00. For a small school, that’s a significant savings!

How can we keep our school waste down in the future? Here are some simple recommendations that any school can follow to reduce their landfill waste:

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1) If your school doesn’t have a composting program in place, consider starting one or a worm bin. Failing that, a parent volunteer who has a farm or garden will happily take your organic waste away for their own compost. See your organics as a resource!

2) Place a small recycle and compost bin next to every landfill trash bin in your school. This way you give everyone a CHOICE.

3) Clean and wet paper towels can be recycled. Place a recycle bin in the bathrooms for this along with a sign reminding people that the bin is for their clean and wet paper towels. Or better yet, lose the paper towels and switch to cloth ones. This school did.

4) Set up specialty recycling containers where appropriate. For example, a plastic bag recycling spot should go in every classroom and in the lunchroom and kitchen. A school volunteer can come and pick up the plastic bags once a week and take them to the grocery store for recycling. I’ve happily done it for our children’s schools for years.

Do the same for other items such as batteries and printer cartridges. These items should never be put into the landfill. Your community will have a recycling location for them, or look “batteries” or “printer cartridges” up in our Trash Backwards app. Staples takes printer cartridges worldwide and most municipal recycling programs have a safe disposal location for batteries.

5) If your school has a pencil sharpening area, place a can near the sharpener for collecting shredded pencil bits for the compost. Also place a donation can for the small pencils that your teacher might want you to throw away. Children at our libraries in Nepal would love those pencils, or let the students take them home for their homework. The image below, shows a yellow pencil stub my son found in a schoolyard outside one of our Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries in Nepal, lined up with the pencils we sorted out of a school’s waste yesterday:

Yellow pencil found in a schoolyard in Nepal vs. the pencils (and shapeners) discarded in a 2-week period by one US school.

The pencils can go to good use in the hands of kids who have no pencils in Nepal.

These discarded colored pencils will bring joy to children living at 14,000 feet in the rainshadow of the Himalaya. Trash. Backwards.

6) Each classroom could have a reuse bin for students to throw items (like the discarded pencils) that others could take for reuse or donation. Some students might be able to use a plastic container that might otherwise be thrown away, for example.

7) Set up a chicken bucket in the food-eating areas. You’ll likely have a family or 2 that have chickens. Getting the students involved in seeing their food waste as a resource for another animal is a good thing. The families can switch off chicken bucket pickup each week. We use a galvanized bucket decorated by our children for our chickens.

6) Be aware of what’s headed to the landfill monthly and set community goals to reduce even further. If your cleaning service doesn’t empty the trash bags but simply removes a bag no matter how much waste is in it and replaces it with another, you might recommend they pour the trash from all your waste bins into a single bag, to conserve plastic trash bags.

This trash bag only had a single dry paper towel in it.

If they use single-use swiffer dusters, perhaps invest in a reusable micro-fiber swiffer duster.

If your school laminates a lot. Consider going lamination-free. Laminate is a non-recyclable plastic, is costly, and isn’t the most healthy material for children to be handling on a daily basis. Using reusable plastic sleeves might be a more sustainable option.

8) Educate parents and students about food packaging used in school lunches. Plastic snack packaging was the single-most thrown-out item in this school’s landfill waste. Encouraging students and staff to find plastic-free options will make a large dent in your overall waste bill. Students, when made aware that plastic is forever, often prefer plastic-free lunches. A popular option to suggest is a “pack it in, pack it out” policy for school lunches, putting the waste onus on parents and students, not the school. Parents can then see what their kids are truly eating, or not, and modify their portions and lunch choices accordingly, saving money and waste.

Single Most Common Item in Landfill Trash = Snack Wrappers.

Have you found this information useful? Share it with others, especially your school!

Dust to Dust: Closing The Loop With Ceramics

Antique Ceramic Collected at the Beginning of My Ceramics Phase. Photo © Liesl Clark

I have a thing about earthen hand-made ceramics. They’re beguiling. Especially the ones made before the (pottery) wheel, with their human thumb-prints inside a perfect sphere. I’ve been collecting them, along with wheel-thrown pots from exotic locales, for years.

This one's from Kitale, Kenya, on the border with Uganda. I acquired it when I made a film about the mountain elephants there. Photo © Liesl Clark

But more recently, we’ve had some losses with this highly impermanent material. I fully understand why ancient people found ceramics of such use. They were sustainable, made from a renewable resource — the clays of our Earth. So, when one broke or became worn, it wasn’t a big deal. You could always get another.

IMG_2431 Photo © Liesl Clark

But the really old pots, today, are either well-loved or have value. Here’s our story:

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind moaned through the windows, but then a bang happend inside the house that caused us to shudder in our beds. It wasn’t from the tree-branch-driven tumult outside, but from some lurking creature on the inside.

Within seconds the gig was up when we heard a “meow” and I knew our furball had done some terrible deed.

True to her mischievous ways, Willa had knocked a very old pot from one of our ceiling beams. It was a pot that I had brought back from Thailand when I was in my twenties. It was made in Burma and the patterns on it were stunning. Its twin still sits up on a beam, surely tempting our vixen.

Ancient Pots on Wooden Beams. Only Safe Place in the House. Until Willa. Photo © Liesl Clark

Why do I have old clay pots on our beams? Their earthy colors and feminine curves feel like a good combination with the hand-hewn beams from first-growth douglas fir recycled from Seattle’s oldest piers. With children and pets in this house, the 35-foot-high beams were the only place I could think to store the fragile pots out of the way of balls, feet, tails, claws, spills. Who knew that the cat could get up so high and push a pot from its perch?

The Burmese Pot Turned Potshards. Photo © Liesl Clark

Then, a week later, Willa the cat jumped onto a terra cotta elephant we had brought back from Nepal. This lovely strawberry planter was outside on our deck and somehow she managed to smash it to pieces.

Broken Terra Cotta Elephant. Photo © Liesl Clark

Here is it's twin. Photo © Liesl Clark

I’m losing patience with our whiskered she-devil.

She's Not Very Buddha-like. See The Beams Way Up High? Photo @ Liesl Clark

And now I have a new waste stream to deal with: Broken terra cotta pots.

What to do? A couple days of research yielded some decent options:

Drainage: Break up your pots and use as drainage under eaves of your house to encourage draining the rainwater away from the house. You can also break up the pieces to use as drainage in the bottom of large pots. The terra cotta actually absorbs a good amount of water, aiding in the drainage process wicking water away from the source but also absorbing some for plants above if they’re deep inside a pot.

Garden Bed Edging: Partially buried pieces of terra cotta pots can make a nice garden border or edging, or a feature unto itself in your flower bed.

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This dragon, on the edge of a broken pot likes to eat dirt.

Plug Up Holes in Your Chicken Yard: Our chicken yard needs some repair, especially in the places where the chickens have dug holes along the fence. We use broken terra cotta pieces to repair these holes to ensure digging raccoons, mink, and rats don’t get in. Yes, I said rats. They crawl through holes they make and then snuggle up in the shredded paper bedding underneath their nest boxes.

Broken terra cotta pots plug up holes in our chicken yard to keep the vermin away. Photo © Liesl Clark

Buried Pot Whimsy: Half bury a broken pot and add a plant inside to give off the effect of an overturned pot buried over time with your pretty perennial taking over. It’s a cool effect, especially with succulents. I think I’ll half-bury our elephant so it looks like it’s clawing its way out from the depths of the Earth.

Make a Fairy Garden: Broken pots can be reassembled into a little world for miniatures.

Make Ceramic Mosaic Pieces: Potshards and any broken ceramics, like dishes and mugs, can be the ingredients for lovely mosaics used in garden stepping stones, large pots, or even furniture.

Our local mosaic artist, Gillian Allard, collects her ceramics from yard sales, and large rummage sales like our Rotary Auction. She teaches classes on mosaics, so she’s always looking. In addition to ceramics and tiles, Gillian incorporates broken glass, buttons, jewelry and beads into her mosaics. I plan on giving her a broken mirror (cat did that one, too) that she’ll surely use. So, if you have broken ceramics, do find a local mosaic artist to pass them on to. Or, offer them up on your local Buy Nothing group.

Blue Daisy Stepping Stone:  From a broken serving platter and gems purchased at the Rotary Auction. Photo © Gillian Allard

The Zero Waste Institute has in interesting take on ceramics I tend to agree with: They came from the Earth so why not simply return them to earth? They suggest grinding them down to a powder and then reusing that powder to make more ceramics. Makes good sense. We should have community ceramics-grinding mills so we could fully close the loop and make new ceramics from old ones.

IMG_2275 Photo © Liesl Clark

These little ceramic deities sit under one of our apple trees.

I think I’ll do that with my old Burmese pot, unless anyone can give me a better reuse. Dust to dust, right? Send it back to the Earth. And perhaps the kids and I can have a little ceremony when we do it, celebrate the passing of a beautiful hand-made pot made from the earth half way around the Earth as we distribute its dust throughout the forest whose rich green could certainly absorb the minerals and clays used in the old pot.

Chickens and ceramics go well together on our property. Photo © Liesl Clark

A landscaper friend of ours says we should save some of the ground-up clay for our compost bin and gardens. It’s fine, he says, to add it to our soil, especially the sandy and loamy areas.

If you add a little chicken poop to your clay soil, all's well. That's why I like ceramics around my chicken compound. Photo © Liesl Clark

But more importantly, we’ll save a few select pieces of our Burmese pot for our sacred tree, as mementos. Sacred tree? Yes, everyone should have a sacred tree on their land.

Meet our sacred tree, where ceramic offerings are made.  Photo © Liesl Clark

It’s a tree of your choosing that’s important or sacred to you for any reason. Maybe it’s in a central part of your property, at the heart of your land. Or maybe it’s just a cool-looking tree, with all sorts of nooks and crannies for you and your children to place lovely offerings. Our tree is both central (2 trees, a madrona and a douglas fir, growing from one spot) and cool-looking. Sometimes we light butter lamps at its base at night, but mostly we place ancient salegrams and special broken and found ceramics at the base.

The kids love searching for the ceramics throughout the seasons to see how the tree is enveloping into its mass the special deities we’ve planted there.

Ganesh, now enveloped in a douglas fir. Photo © Liesl Clark

IMG_2288 Photo © Liesl Clark

Not too long ago, ceramics were one of the only forms of waste left behind by a community or indeed an entire civilization. My husband, 2 children and I spend a month each year in Nepal filming, exploring remote cliff caves, and searching for the ceramics of an ancient people that were among the first to settle permanently in the Himalaya. Their broken ceramics, tiny shards we find in open fields that would’ve once been their settlements, are the first clue we search for: their trash, among the only remaining evidence of a people long gone. These are undiscovered cultures that thrived in the Himalaya 3,000 years ago, and all that remains are their ceramics, their metal implements, gold and silver funerary masks, their glass and stone beads, wooden coffins, silk, and their bones. That’s it! And their funerary pots, made of a dark clay, are stunning.

3000 year old funerary pots recovered from caves in Mustang, Nepal. Photo © Pete Athans

3000 year old ceramic pots found in the caves of Mustang. Photo © Liesl Clark

 

When you gain an appreciation for mini masks made of earth, you put them everywhere. They connect you with the past and maybe even the future when your clay object will be a part of the earth again.

In Kathmandu, you can still buy yogurt in clay pots. It’s beautiful and delicious yogurt, made and sold in disposable ceramic pots. The idea is that the clays are from the valley, so you can simply dispose of the pots outside your door (which many people do) or with your organics in the compost. I think at one time the pots were reused. These beautiful ceramic pots sure beat plastic. We save them and bring many home along with the little terra cotta wax tea lights that cost pennies each. The little pots replace plastic pots in our children’s playhouses.

Now, after dreaming with me in ceramics, imagine our material culture today and what people will find left behind by us earthlings some 3,000 years from now? I’d like to believe that we’ll clean up all the plastics and return one day to a world where we’d simply find sustainably packaged goods, just like we used to do long before plastics ever existed.

Do you have a ceramics reuse? Please share it with us.

Worm Ball Composting

Did you know that earthworms communicate through touch? According to a study in Belgium, worms are communal, they don’t act singularly. So, when they are presented with a problem, like cold temperatures, predators nearby, or a dramatic change in their environment, they gravitate towards each other finding solace in a unique herd mentality. Once a decision is made, they will move en mass to their agreed upon destination.

Worm ball composting is a technique I learned from my friend, Dawa Sherpa, who, for years, farmed worms in his compost in Nepal. I used to have a worm compost bin that was separate from my regular compost, until Dawa showed me how to simply combine the two, creating a fast-and-furious compost system aided by the thousands of worms we added to our three compost bins.

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The key is to have a closed system, so the worms don’t get out. Our red worms are now stuck inside our black bins, because the “floor” of the bins is gravel and they have plenty of organic matter to digest in the bins. We used to have “native” worms in our bins, but interestingly enough, I don’t see many of the native worms in there anymore. The red worms process much more matter in a day, so we’re happy to see their population growing.

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So, what’s a worm ball? It’s what worms do when they’re scared and want to run away from predators. Worm balls are the key to separating out the beautiful composted/worm tailings from the worms themselves. Here are the steps to harvesting your beautiful compost and saving the worms therein:

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A little hill of compost is the trick to getting worms to head for the center.

  1. First, grab a tarp and put it out in the sun.
  2. Dump a bucket of your worm-laden compost in on the tarp and make a dome shaped pile.
  3. Place another empty bucket next to you with a handful of compost in it. This will be your worm bucket.
  4. Take the compost from the sides of your hill and pile it on top, continuing to make it a hill shape. The worms will flee away from the sun to the inner part of your hill. They naturally feel the vibration of your hands moving the dirt on the outside of the hill and they crawl hellbent for the center.
  5. As you collect compost from the outside of the hill and sift through it, place all worms that you find into your worm bucket. Place all compost into your other empty bucket. This is the gold you can save to fertilize your gardens.
  6. As you work through all of the compost on the sides of the hill, you’ll end up with a big worm ball in the center. Take the ball and place it in your worm bucket which you can then return to your worm composter so they continue to eat through your organics. Be sure to have some of their favorite fodder left there for them and enough moisture in your compost bin to help them work their way back inside your compost pile.

    Here’s a video of a handful of worms found in the center of my compost hill:

    If you run across any eggs, be sure to put them back into your compost bin. Here’s what the eggs look like:

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    And this is what they look like in the compost:

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Do you have any worm stories to share?