Greywater, the dump, and restoring my faith in humanity

Posted by Anne Fletcher on

This morning I had a strangely apocalyptic / optimistic trip to the dump with a load of the half-rotten pressure treated wood we pulled out of the garden as part of our rebuilding project. 

I’ve come home reminded of a concept from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling.  He wrote that there is no such thing as utopia or oblivion, which tend to be the standard endings to sci-fi stories.  Instead, he talks about “ublobia” where things improve a little bit, inching toward the better world we all hope for, or “otivon” where the world steadily gets worse, but like the frog in the hot water, we don’t really notice until we wake up and things are bleak.  Sterling is also famous for saying “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”  Ublobia and otivon were both very much in evidence this morning, and also unevenly distributed.

At the dump, amid the sea of masked men (I was literally the only woman there), laden pick-up trucks, and the enormous mountains of garbage being bulldozed, you come face to face with the sheer volume of waste we create.  It’s humbling and smelly.  The pressure treated wood is sequestered in its own special dumpster, separated from general construction debris because it’s so toxic.  (If you read the fine print on pressure treated wood, you learn that not only can it not be composted, you shouldn’t use it where children might play and touch it.  Yikes!) 

On the other hand, it was a harmonious multi-racial mix of men, full of friendly, professional camaraderie, carefully dividing the refuse stream into categories in order to do the least harm.  The pile of compostables was as big as the pure garbage, and toxics like pressure treated wood and electronics had their separate areas.  Signs throughout reinforced zero-waste goals and processes.  Though being there felt viscerally apocalyptic, looking more deeply made me feel optimistic about our relationship to waste and to each other.

The drive to and from the dump passed through areas affected by looting.  And again it was an uneven distribution of ublobia and otivon.  Many businesses were boarded up, but everything was peaceful, there was no visible destruction, and many of the plywood window covers were painted with positive messages and images. 

My 5-year-old and her friend have been sending each other letters during their Covid-19 isolation.  This week, they quoted the movie Frozen 2 to each other, in a way that seems very wise.  (From the mouths of babes, who all seem to be Frozen superfans . . .)  My daughter wrote to her friend “this will all make sense when we are older.”  And her friend replied “and I’ll do the next right thing.”  The events we’re living through now probably will make more sense when we are older, and the only thing any of us can do is the next right thing.

Socially and politically, I am no authority on the next right thing.  I am listening and learning. But I can talk about gardens, which have been a big help to many of us over the last few months. 

Regardless of whatever else happens, summer is coming, and plants will need water.  And our washing machine produces lots of it that the plants will love.  That’s why we’re building a greywater system. 

We’re part-way through, and I’ll post details in a later post.  But the basic elements are:  a pipe to divert water from the laundry out the window, a used wine barrel, and a pump with a hose to distribute water to the garden uphill from the house.  It’s been important for me to have something physical to do, that I know will make a positive, albeit admittedly quite small, difference. (And it's been very interesting for a 5-year-old, especially the part where the washing machine water starts gushing out the pipe.)


greywater and wine barrel

preparing wine barrel for greywaterI can also say with authority that I will never put pressure treated wood into a garden.  The task of removing the rotted boards, and trying to dispose of them has been brutal.  They’re natural enough to decay (and not really last very long in the garden), but chemically treated enough to be too toxic to safely compost.  The worst of both worlds.

After many weeks of trying to get rid of things from the old garden structures that neither compost nor recycle, we're trying hard to only bring in new things whose end of life will be more graceful.  You can see the next chapter of that story in the lower left of the picture above.  It's one of the ways in which Texas is way ahead of California: using stock tanks as pools.  (Apparently there's a shortage in Houston for that reason.)



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  • Can’t wait to read your whole process for the grey water system – have a window near my washer – so I will be taking “notes”!

    Liz Lindsey on

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