a hazard to myself

I had a toxic relationship with my garage. It was ugly in there. Cans of half-used paint that were there when we moved in. Pesticide – which I never use. Old building supplies, like hardened bags of plaster and grout that had never been opened but had gotten damp. A bottle of chalk for marking lines at the soccer field (we don’t play soccer). And a rusting can of some kind of tar stuff for patching the roof – stick on the outside and too scary to actually open.
Everyone knows (I hope) not to throw these things in the garbage – they will surely leak into the ecosystem – groundwater supplies, the watershed, wetlands, the Bay. The paint cans and containers are probably recyclable (steel?) but what’s inside isbad news. Please – don’t even think about pouring it into the gutter or down your storm drain. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200for that one (or you should).
But still – it seemed onerous to deal with the toxics. So there they sat – for six years. Six years of that corner of the garage out of bounds for storage or use. Six years while the cans and contents got a little funkier and leakier. All in all, not a good scene, and not very green nor healthful, either.
But I got a flyer in the mail from www.household-hazardouswaste.org one day. It said “Free drop-off” of hazardous materials for county residents. The flyer listed the hours and days the facility was open. So first we put down a sheet of cardboard to catch any drips, then loaded up the back of the car. There is a limit to how much you can take to drop off, but a typical household is not likely to have more than 15 gallons of paint at one time.
The car ride took longer than the drop-off. And it was more painful, too, because the toxics were some nasty, bad-smelling stuff. I felt like we were losing brain cells just driving it across town and over the bridge – windows rolled down.
The drop-off? Completely painless, free, and so fast that I wondered why I had waited six years. It went like this:
Drive into driveway. Wait for car ahead of us – maybe a one minute wait.
Nice man gives us a short form to fill out with name, address and what we were dropping off in general.

We roll forward and a couple of workers open the trunk and take everything away, sorting it themselves. This takes about two minutes.
They close the trunk and say goodbye. We drive away, not five minutes in total, and not a penny spent. We can still smell the fumes for a few minutes, but open windows clear the air.
We go spend the rest of our day frivolously.

So what’s holding you back from getting rid of toxic waste in your basement, backyard, garage or back porch?
Here are the addressed of Contra Costa and Alameda sites. No appointment necessary. Check the web site for more information.
West County Facility
101 Pittsburg Ave., Richmond
(888) 412-9277
Central County Facility 
4797 Imhoff Place, Martinez
(800) 646-1431
East County Facility
2550 Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, Antioch
(925) 756-1990 
2100 East 7th Street
41149 Boyce Road
2091 W. Winton Ave.
5584 La Ribera Street

uninvited guests

Bees in almond tree. (Photo courtesy of Allison Bean)

We had a case of hives here. Or hive. I came home Friday evening with my arms full of groceries to discover that my kitchen was full of bees. (Full is a relative term.) One bee is slightly alarming in the kitchen. There were about 50 bees. And when I went into the living room, there were about 50 more in there. The kitchen window was open and I know it’s swarming season (when a hive has grown too big,  splits and half leaves with a new queen to find a new hive). I could see bees outside the window, too, so I assumed there was a swarm outside the window and that some had come in by accident.

Silly me.

First order of business was to wave the bees outside.  Although I’m the last person to want to get stung, the chances are actually slim when they’re swarming. Bees sting to protect their hive, and without a hive, they’re not on the defensive. So we gently ushered them out with manila folders and a soft whisk broom (it’s not unlike the bee brush I’ve used when brushing bees off the honey frames). But as soon as we got the last bees out, more appeared. We finally discovered that they were coming from under the sink — from out of the wall. That was bad news, for us and the bees. We were in a bit of a panic — not only did I have a kitchen that was still full of bees (and full means 20 or more at a time), I had a houseful of family coming for dinner in an hour. And it was a Friday at 5 p.m. Not good if you want to call for professional help.

There’s a horizontal pipe under the window
where the bees were happily moving in.
That’s my kitchen window up there.

We managed to use duct tape to cover the hole under the countertop, and kept all drawers and cabinets closed. I called the landlady, the property management and my husband in short order. After more sleuthing, we found that the bees were buzzing cheerfully in and out of a hole outside the building, in the shingles where a pipe goes in. More bad news for the bees. It’s easy for a bee-wrangler to rehouse a swarm in a tree, but not so easy to get bees out of a building. Since it was a new swarm, only a few hours old, we had time to get them out before they built comb and started foraging.

A series of phone calls, however, made it clear that, since we’re renters, we didn’t have a lot of power or choice about what happened. We’ve just recently moved. We have basically no tools, and no yard at this apartment where we could set up a hive. We had no ladder. I called and contacted some of the bee people I know, but at that time of day had no luck, and they also told me that bees in a building were probably doomed. We had to relinquish it to the property management.

Everyone knows that the bees are in trouble, right? That we desperately need honeybees to keep pollinating all the plants so we can continue to eat yummy food, and all that? I was very anxious not to harm these bees,  and see them installed safely elsewhere. But circumstances were galloping out of my control. As a certified (certifiable?) eco-freak, I honestly felt sick at the thought of harming the bees. Like I had a baby unicorn in my arms and the power to have it live or die. And I was up against an avalanche.

Under the sink, all exits blocked, the buzzing grew louder and louder.

The landlady said no to having the bees extracted from the house. She didn’t want the siding damaged. The property management called a pest control company. The husband, trying to protect his family from a swarm of bees literally moving in under the sink, opened the door and sprayed Raid into the hole. My family ate pizza in the dining room and we kept the kitchen doors shut.

After dark, I crept in with a flashlight, on the advice of my beekeeper friend. I opened the door and looked inside. There were dozens, maybe 100 bees under the sink, but they were motionless. Hard to tell what was alive or sleeping. In the morning, when the sun hit the wall of the house, the buzzing began again under the sink. But we had a full day of activities planned, so we left. I didn’t want to be around for the bee annihilation to come.

But as it turns out, the pest company never came. The property manager’s weekend assistant misunderstood our problem and sent a plumber. The plumber sealed the entrance under the sink and outside as well, and the bees were trapped outside of the house. They couldn’t get in anymore, and they flew off. I think some must have died in the process, but they at least didn’t get destroyed, aside from the ones under the sink.

It’s an awkward ending, because I don’t know all that happened. It really illustrates how hard some of our choices are. Our best intentions toward Nature and the environment can come up against expedience, safety, and economics. People who can’t be bothered. People who don’t understand what is dangerous or not. I felt emotionally drained but relieved to find the holes sealed. As much as I love the bees, they can’t live in the kitchen. It just doesn’t work that way.

But to make it right with the universe, if such a thing is possible, I purchased a beehive for a needy family through Heifer International, and so did another friend of mine in my honor. So at least somewhere, there are two more beehives flourishing, and I hope this swarm found a better home.

Trash and the Single Female

I’m not a single female. Happily married, see? (waggles ring finger.) But I’m the only female in this house. So why am I head-down in the trash can? How did taking out the garbage become a gendered job? Should I feel like I’m doing the gentlemen (Mr Husband and The Boy) a big fat favor when I’m taking out the trash? Should I get annoyed when it’s still sitting here in the kitchen? Who died and made me the Boss of Everything?

Uh. No one. Of course, I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that taking out the trash is the man’s job. Check out these marriage experts, and this one, and even these knuckleheads who have strong opinions about the Taking Out of the Trash. Looks like everyone has some thoughts on the matter.

Sorting trash. Yeah, that’s me.

 Amusing, but that’s not really our point today. I take out the trash as much as anyone else. It all depends who’s home when it’s full. But more important — it’s not just trash. We have a system of what goes where. Actual real garbage (which includes nasty bathroom stuff, old Bandaids and soiled plastics) is not much in existence at this house (apartment). We have a 1-gallon can in the kitchen that is lined with a small plastic grocery bag and is rarely even filled. One of us takes it down every week or so to the gray can. The gray can is usually pretty empty. We could get away with once-a-month service. Not so for the green and blue cans.

Everything else gets sorted and either composted or recycled. Broken glass? Recycled.
Electronics? Recycled.
Old clothes? Used for rags, then recycled.
Empty paint can? Recycled.
Paint can with some paint left over? Taken to Alameda County Industries for household hazardous waste disposal. (Free!)
Plastic bags? Collected and returned to grocery stores.

Look! Bottle caps!
Which one of you wise guys…?

Sometimes people (I won’t name names) put the wrong thing in the trash. Bottle caps, for example, are recyclable. Don’t throw them in the garbage. How long do you think it takes a metal can or bottle cap to decompose in “garbage,” aka landfill? About 50 years. More or less.

Probably more.

It’s easy to compost/green waste your leftovers and pizza boxes. Seems like everyone gets a green can at the curb these days, from whatever trash management company your city or area uses. We had two magnificent compost bins working at our last house, our Little City Farm, plus chickens, but I don’t find it too odious (odorous?) to take a load down to the green bin every day, now that we are apartment-dwellers. I have to leave the house anyway, right?

While taking out the trash may or may not be your purview at your house, I have always found it a simple starter-chore for kids. It’s a good idea to teach them young about recycling and what can go back into the earth (the circle of life, right?), and help carry it out to the curb. It’s not as if the need to recycle and reduce waste will go away soon. Good habits start early.
Better yet, though, is reducing, or pre-cycling, what comes into the house. Potato chip bags, with few exceptions, are not recyclable. Sun Chips (original flavor) has a biodegradable bag, and so does Boulder Canyon. If you can find these brands, it’s no problem to green-waste the bag afterward. If you’re buying Mylar bags or loud, crinkly plastic bag chips (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Doritos, et al), you’re in trouble. Not likely that your local center will recycle those, and they end up in landfill. And how many bags a year are we talking? The Potato Growers Association says we eat three billion bags of chips (of all flavors) per year. Three billion? That’s a lot of landfill. I’m just saying. Can’t control what everyone else does, but we can control what we buy and how we affect the landscape around us. Think about that next time you reach for a plastic bag of chips. And even though The Boy loves them, I avoid buying them, knowing I’ll still see a few bags in the garbage anyway (= what I can’t control).
I’m working on this with other products. I go to the meat counter and ask for paper-only wrapping instead of getting plastic-wrapped bacon, lunch meats or fish. Better quality and fewer preservatives means it eat sooner, too. It won’t last a month in the fridge the way nationally branded products encased in plastic might. Which leads to less food waste, which leads to less methane in the atmosphere. Slower warming of the globe and all that.
You get the picture. Think about what’s coming in through the front door, and you’ll be able to manage how it goes out the trash can even more. Worry less about who’s taking out the trash and more about what you’re putting into it. A full recycling bin bespeaks a generous heart. Or something like that.
All smiles!