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Waste and what we do with it

Our essential compost enclosure

We've settled into the routine of our life here, finally. Things like stocking the wood pile for our stove or deciding to do laundry because it happens to be a windy day (perfect for drying on the line!) are second nature. The adjustment happened so fast. I came in from the outhouse the other day and said to Isaac, "It's amazing how quickly you can get used to doing things a new way." We laughed, fully aware that the outhouse is perhaps the most striking difference between our old life and our new one.

Waste in general is on our minds a lot here. That’s partly because chores often revolve around dealing with our various household wastes, but also because living out here makes me realise how separated I was back in the US from the waste cycles of my daily existence. In San Francisco our grey water, human waste, food waste, and recycling was removed immediately and fairly invisibly from our lives. I rarely thought about where it went or how it got there. That’s not the case out here.

Everything we produce – from dirty diapers to food scraps – has to be managed by us. Our goal is always that as little as possible to make it into the small trash bin that gets picked up weekly. Since trash collection is limited on the island, there is a huge culture around creative composting, re-use, and freecycling. The first thing we did when we landed here was pick up some unwanted wood pallets from the local sports club and nail them together to form a nice big enclosed compost area. I couldn’t wait to start composting. There are many ways of living, and this is just one (and definitely not one for everybody). But since I find it so fascinating, I thought I’d share how we deal with all of the things that are so effortlessly whisked out of sight for most modern households. First up is probably the most wondered about.


We don’t have a flushing toilet. This is the most unusual and fascinating difference between modern city life and off-the-grid life. Though I know some homes on the island have septic systems (expensive and hard to maintain IMO), we use an outhouse with the “bucket composting” method. Everything collects in a 5-gallon bucket below you, and you scoop a layer of organic material (like ash from our wood stove, sawdust, coffee grounds) on top after each use. When it needs to be emptied, we either layer the contents into the centre of our enclosed compost outside or bury it deeply in a part of the garden that is resting and needs rejuvenation.

If you think this is a backward way of living, think about this: we live in a world with a massive clean water crisis, yet most of us fill a bowl with fresh drinking water, do our business in it, and then throw the whole thing away multiple times a day. In that context I am proud to compost my crap and lessen my footprint.

Diapers and wipes

We composted diapers back in San Francisco through a cool company called Earth Baby who picked the dirties up from us weekly. I wanted to do the same here, and was thrilled to find 100% bamboo diapers and wipes in NZ. So, our diaper pail gets emptied into our outside compost bin. We layer organic matter like grass clippings or leaves on top. I think it will take about a year for these to break down completely into soil, we’ll see!

Food scraps

Composting food scraps is so second nature to Kiwis that even most urban families in New Zealand take their food bits to a garden bin to rot down in the yard. We collect ours in the kitchen and take them out to our big compost heap or bury them in the garden.

Paper of all sorts

Tags from new clothing, junk mail, receipts, paper food wrappers, you name it. If it burns easily we put it in the kindling box below our wood stove. It gets the fire going quickly and reduces what ends up in our trash bin.


Glass bottles and jars are incredibly reusable since they can easily be sterilised with boiling water. I have a stash of screw-top wine bottles and olive oil containers that I use to bottle my homemade kombucha when it’s ready (I got the ideas, and the kombucha SCOBY, from my mother-in-law!). We recycle the rest.

Aluminium, cardboard, plastics of all kinds (even soft plastic)

The island recycles all of this, even soft plastics like bread bags and things. We wash and sort everything – an effort I’m happy to make given how many items they accept. (Quite often little canisters and things find their way into our bath toys bin for the kids, or into the sandbox. They actually play with plastic recycling more often than our store-bought bath or sand toys.)

Grey water

Whether it flows out of our kitchen sink, the washing machine, or the shower, all of our used water drains out into the environment around us. Obviously we read labels and buy biodegradable wherever possible. The hillside around our house drains to a creek that serves as a backup water supply for us all. So quite literally, our waste ends up in our water. I’m aware that the rags we use for cleaning eventually get washed and anything on them is flushed out into the landscape. So, I clean a lot of our windows and surfaces with diluted vinegar since cleaning products are usually filled with chemicals. I’d love to be able to re-use our waste water more effectively, maybe someday!


Last but not least is the ash from our wood stove. We use the wood stove to heat our water in the winter when the sun isn’t strong enough to do so. Every three days we have about a gallon of ash to dispose of. We use it in our outhouse to layer on top of human waste, or as a layer on top of deposits to our compost pile. I can’t imagine throwing ash away, it’s simply so useful.

There you have it, the tidy little cycle of waste. I couldn’t talk about all this without calling out my inspiring in-laws, who have built most of these systems and have taught us all about it. They’ve been living in this environmentally-friendly way for 40 years. I’ve always been impressed with how simple it is. <3

Meanwhile, we continue to wait for New Zealand's lockdown to end so we can move forward on our tiny house. Since there's not much to build right now, I have mastered two delicious bread recipes, cleared a trail to the top of the ridge on the property, and learned how to make tadpole food for the kids' new homemade pond. The days flow by and all the while our roots here deepen. This place has a way of grabbing hold of you, outhouse and all.

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