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Bicycles, Nite Soil, and the Future of Garbage

by Lisa DePiano

Originally Published in the Summer 2007 Permaculture Activist

Bicycles, Night Soil, and the Future of Garbage
By Lisa DePiano

Kassandra sweeps up the last of the hair scraps from the salon floor and hands them over to a Pedal Person dressed in a fluorescent yellow jacket and orange helmet. The cyclist’s external image arrow-10x10.png is only exposed to the cold winter wind through three small slits in her balaclava, one each for the eyes and mouth. The Pedal Person puts the hair into one of the eight plastic bins stacked on top of a six-foot long bicycle trailer with two used bicycle inner tubes tied to bungee chords. After the hair is loaded, she pedals to the next stop, Northampton Coffee, just a few blocks down the road, where the shop has been saving spent coffee grounds, a great year-round (and free) source of nitrogen. The barista carries the grounds outside and loads them into another bin.

These “wastes,” as well as food scraps from area households are part of a city- composting program created and maintained by a local farm and the Pedal People, a human-powered hauling and delivery service in Northampton, MA. The food scraps, coffee grounds, and hair are transported by bike to the Montview Neighborhood Farm, a local CSA (community Supported Agriculture) farm, where they are layered with leaves and transformed into compost which is used as fertilizer to grow food for the next season. Approximately a ton of organics a week is diverted from the landfill.

Pedal People and Montview Farm are practicing the permaculture principle of functional interconnection, where the wastes of one system meet the needs of another. In this case, by-products of making coffee, cutting hair, eating food and trees shedding their leaves are turned into compost that is used to grow food that creates more food scraps. And the cycle continues.

Pedal People
Pedal People was started by Ruthy Woodring and Alex Jarrett in 2002. It was inspired by Bikes at Work in Ames, Iowa, which in 1993 started to collect recyclables from households, transporting them by bicycle to the Ames are Recycling Center. That business grew, and in 1996 they started to transport recycling form the residence halls at Iowa State University, serving some 8,000 students, all by bicycle. [[#_ftn1|[1]]]

Bikes at Work has stopped their recycling service, but they continue to build heavy-duty bicycle trailers that make human powered hauling services like Pedal People possible. Although Pedal People transports other items such as couches, csa shares, refrigerators, and other things under 300 pounds, they make most of their income by picking up trash. They haul residents and businesses trash and recycling, and pedal it to the city’s transfer center, where it is then taken by truck to the landfill or recycling facility. Bicycle trailers are an ideal way to make residential trash pickups. They can make many stops and starts in a small area without pollution, noise,or damage to the roads.
“They have found a niche for themselves here, “ says Karen Bouquillion, Solid Waste Management Supervisor for the Northampton Department of Public Works. “In the beginning people wondered how long they were going to last. But they have made it through the best and the worst of the seasons. They started as two people, but they have continued to grow. People see them on the streets, and they are now accepted as a legitimate business.”

Pedal People is a worker-owned cooperative. The 12 riders all have a say in the how the business is run and share in its profits and risks. The worker-owners all value a lifestyle of lower consumption.Because of low overhead, the service can offer its customers a competitive rate and pay its workers a living wage. Pedal People offer a weekly pickup of between 30-80 gallons of trash at a price of $30-$34 dollars a month, while another local hauler charges $34 a month to collect 90 gallons of trash.Pedal People currently collect trash from 464 households and 35 businesses. [[#_ftn2|[2]]]

“I like getting to know our neighborhood on a bike: knowing the footpaths and shortcuts, noticing the trees, feeling the slightest change in the weather, “ says Alex Jarrett, co-founder of Pedal People.“I like how it’s easy to stop and talk to someone we see on the street. When we do a Pedal People run,” says Jarrett, “we’re accessible in a way we wouldn’t be in a truck.”

Communities and permaculturists interested in developing systems similar to Pedal People should know the following:

·The City of Northampton does not supply its own trash service; this opens the market up to private trash haulers

·The City has agreed to let Pedal People drop off their customers trash at the local transfer center and not at the landfill, where other trash haulers must take their trash. The transfer center is located near the center of town while the landfill is located on the outskirts.

·People in the area are aware of issues like global warming and Peak Oil, and many choose Pedal People over other gasoline-powered haulers to express their concern.

·Multi geared bicycles, bicycle trailers and studded bicycle tires for icy conditions allow the Pedal People to ride in any weather.

·None of this would be possible without the dedication of the workers, who rain, snow, or shine, are out there pedaling!

The Pedal People and Montview Neighborhood Farm together provide the only composting done by any waste collection agency in the City of Northampton.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) contained an estimated 85.7 million tons of paper and paperboard in 1999, 25.2 million tons of food discards, 27.7 million tons of yard trimmings, and 12.3 million tons of wood—adding up to 66 percent of the total waste stream. Similarly, compostable waste in Massachusetts accounts for as much as 70 percent of the state’s total MSW by weight.[[#_ftn3|[3]]]

These materials are under-utilized resources. Instead of clogging up our landfills, they can be used to produce high-quality fertilizer. Even on its small scale, the compost program between the Montview Neighborhood Farm and the Pedal People is an example that can provide inspiration for others wishing to do similar projects.

A Neighborhood Farm

The Montview Neighborhood Farm is a human-powered, no-till, small scale CSA farm located on three acres of city-owned conservation land. Northampton recently approved organic farming as a permitted use for this protected land, and Montview is one of two Northampton Farms located on conservation land. Situated on the edge of the city but nestled in the heart of a shifting agricultural neighborhood, the farm grows organic produce, herbs, flowers, fruit and berries for the surrounding neighborhood, all by hand.Since most customers live nearby, they can walk or bike to pick up their produce.

Many of the farms materials come from the waste streams of other businesses.Bicycle parking posts, where bikes lean during the workdays were made from branches of a black locust tree, scavenged from a clearing.A storage tank for the rainwater collection system was made from a food-grade 50-gallon drum discarded from the beer and wine shop down the street.

Butternut squash, tomatoes and peppers grow in sheet-mulched beds made with the cardboard from an appliance store and a local door manufacturing company.The workers at the door plant were happy to hand the packaging over to the farm, as they would otherwise have had to pay for its disposal.

Manure used on the farm came from a local dairy farm down the street.A top layer of green manure is added to the growing beds; it’s harvested by scything the grass from the surrounding field. Leaves in a bountiful pile were either passed on by a local landscaper or collected from the yards of neighbors who were happy not to have them trucked to the landfill.Carpets were used underneath wood chips as pathways both a “waste” material.

The first season, some of the farms seedlings came from other area farms extras they didn’t need.With each of these materials came conversations, connections, and relationships that furthered the Montview farmers’ goals of food security and a food system that is much less dependent on petroleum.

History of Rubbish
Although transporting household and small business waste and reusing them as fertilizer for farms may seem a cultural oddity in the United States, this wasn’t always the case. If we look to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century we can catch a glimpse of another system. Most American settlers had little aside from furniture and clothing and were so poor that they had very little manufactured goods. So they threw almost nothing away. Any leftover fat from cooking was made into soap or candles and other food scraps were thrown out the window, left to decay or for the wild hogs, dogs and raccoons to munch on. Reusing, out of economic necessity, was a way of life.

In fact, this resourcefulness happened on a larger scale. In the nineteenth century Long Island and New York City had a relationship of functional interconnection as the island provided energy for the city in the form of food, hay and fuel wood, and the city returned nutrients for agriculture in the form of wastes.[[#_ftn4|[4]]]

This reuse of excrement was happening during a shift in agriculture. East coast farmers due to urbanization and competition from west coast farms had to figure out ways to increase the production and health of their soil. They could no longer mine the soil and move on once it was fallow. And moving to more “old world” methods such as using horse and human excrement made sense as they could sell hay to feed the horses and collect their excrements for fertilizer.

These wastes became a commodity dubbed “night soil.” It included human feces, street sweepings, leftovers from the roving pig population who ate garbage from the streets, manure from the dairies, kitchen scraps from restaurants, bones from dead horses, carcasses from butchers, and household ash and organic materials. It was such a hot commodity that some farmers left it in their will.[[#_ftn5|[5]]]

This trend in agriculture ended with the manufacturing of other soil amendments such as gypsum and superphosphates. Farmers were faced with the reality of purchasing these amendments or losing out in the marketplace, as farmers who did use them had higher yields. It shifted the emphasis from the acquisition of wastes to the acquisition of money to purchase the new manufactured soil amendments, therefore lessening the demand on urban refuse and further disconnecting the return of this refuse to the earth.

Garbage future or a future of garbage?

In the United States today, garbage is the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry, with much of our waste being shipped to the global South.Even though this continues a US pattern of shifting the burden of overconsumption to poor, often rural and often communities of color, we can use our skills as permaculturalists to create other patterns. Like snow before a heavy spring rain, we can look to our history to see that things haven’t always been as they are now. This light from the past forms a crack in the mentality of “this is how it is; this is how it’s always going to be.” Innovative solutions like the Pedal People and the Montview Neighborhood Farm, engender new hope and present new options. These other pathways reflect a new belief system and demonstrate a more responsible way of handling what is considered waste, showing us where the treasure really lies.

Lisa DePiano is a certified Permaculture designer/teacher and co-founder of the Montview Neighborhood farm, a human-powered farm and
edible forest garden in the Connecticut River Valley. She has a Master's degree in Regional Planning from the University of
Massachusetts and loves working with people to create the world they would like to live in. She also enjoys local history, community radio,
playing contra dance mandolin and riding with the worker-owned,bicycle-powered hauling service, pedal people.

[[#_ftnref|[1]]] Bikes at Work, Delivery Service, http://www.bikesatwork.com
[[#_ftnref|[2]]] Pedal People, http://www.pedalpeople.com
[[#_ftnref|[3]]] The Center for Ecological Technology, Building a market-based system of farm composting of commercial food waste in Western Mass, http://www.cetonline.org/FarmBusiness/EPA-success-stories.pdf

[[#_ftnref|[4]]] Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow The Hidden Life of Garbage (New York: The New Press, 2005), 35.

[[#_ftnref|[5]]] Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow The Hidden Life of Garbage (New York: The New Press, 2005), 34.

Ecological Culture Design: A Holistic View
Dave Jacke
Revised Edition 1999


Few sane, aware and knowledgeable people would argue that our current culture is
ecologically sustainable. Clearly there is an urgent need to re-design the way we live, work and play
to meet our needs without destroying the ability of other living beings and of future living beings to
meet theirs. Permaculture offers a holistic approach to that task, which involves not just the
sustainable use of resources and the use of appropriate technologies, but also the creation of socio-
economic structures and of belief systems that support ecological technologies and resource use—
as well as the engagement and enlightenment of all human beings. In fact, it is our belief systems,
our “inner landscapes”, that are the most critical factor limiting the development of ecological

The word “permaculture” is a contraction of both “permanent culture” and “permanent
agriculture”, for it is impossible to sustain a culture without a sustainable agriculture. At its essence,
permaculture is the conscious design and co-creative evolution of agriculturally productive
ecosystems and cooperative and just social and economic systems that have the diversity, stability
and resilience of “nature”. Given this mission of conscious design of sustainable and ecological
cultures, it is critical that we understand what it is we are designing, or we will fail to reach our
goals. What is culture?

One way of looking at culture in this context is expressed simply in Figure 1. In this model,
culture can be thought of as consisting of four interrelated parts: Resources, Technology, Social and
Economic Structures, and Cosmology. These elements, and the relationships between them, are
what create the “whole” we can think of as “culture”, which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Culture is a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary adaptation of the species Homo sapiens which
has enabled us to adapt to a far broader range of ecological circumstances far faster than regular
physiological adaptation would allow. Culture is the primary adaptive mechanism of humankind,
though physiological adaptation has not ended with its invention. It is our greatest tool, and the
greatest threat to our survival.

Figure 1: A model of human culture. We must design the four parts as a
whole system or we will fail to create a ecological culture. Cosmology is
like the DNA of a cell: its patterning determines the structure and behavior
of culture’s more visible parts.


The first piece of the culture pie is the base of Resources. Resources are a perceptual
phenomenon, in that the ability of someone to use something as a resource is dependent, first of all,
on their ability to recognize it as such, and then to adapt their thought, behavior and technology to
its use. Take garbage as an example. For the past 30+ years, we have treated garbage like waste. It
is only recently that we have, of necessity, again begun to see garbage as the resource it can truly be
for us, and we are now as a culture trying to adapt our thoughts, behaviors and technology to its
use. In this sense, then, our ability to shift our perceptions of things may be our greatest resource,
if we would but use it.

A thing as a resource is somehow different than a thing as an entity in itself. This is because
a resource is a cultural phenomenon, while an entity in itself is a natural or noncultural phenomenon.
Respecting this boundary is what the asking and thanking rituals of native peoples are about, for in
using some-body for our purposes, we lay claim to it and remove it from its natural state. I
remember working with a friend who was a forester who could only see the forests for trees, and
trees for lumber. I would look in awe at some of the trees we were evaluating, and so would he—
but he would almost always comment about how many logs were in it. I think my responses must
have struck a chord in him, for he is now an arborist, and works to keep trees alive rather than cut
them for timber.


Technology is the primary interface between ourselves and our environment, and is the part
of culture we tend to be most fascinated with. Through the use of tools, instead of only specialized
body physiology, we have increased our ability to adapt to, exploit and change our environment,
increasing our chances of genetic success, comfort, wealth and a myriad of other goals— up ‘til now.
The kind of technology that a culture uses is determined by the kinds of resources that are used in
order to survive. For example, in order to use uranium as a resource, we need certain kinds of
technologies; in order to use the sun as a resource, we need certain other kinds of technologies.
Hence the form of technology is determined by the resource base available for our culture’s use— as
well as by the existing mind set and social organization within the culture.

Most movements for ecological sanity have tended, until recently, to focus on resource and
technology issues, for these are somehow the realm of “environmentalists”, the interface of “nature”
and “culture”. However, there is a growing recognition that the “tweak the system” approach leaves
much to be desired, and that it is the whole system that must be changed— from the inside out.
Ignoring the other parts of the culture pie leaves any effort for change hamstrung and/or just helps
strengthen the system which maintains the destructive dynamic by helping make the system look


Social and economic structures are somewhat harder to understand because they are not
things in and of themselves, but sets of relationships between people. These structures have
allowed us more security and strength, not to mention companionship, support and love. The
socio-economic system is the supporting mechanism of technology, for, without people with
specialized skills to create, manufacture and use technology, culture, in large part, wouldn’t exist.
Different technologies demand certain social organizations in order for that technology to be
created and used. For example, the social and economic structures required to create and support
nuclear technologies are centralized, hierarchical, and capital intensive, while a solar greenhouse
technology is more likely to be supported by and create social and economic systems which are
decentralized, egalitarian, and labor intensive. Technology also affects social organization in more
subtle ways. For example, television has contributed to many of society’s problems, including the
break up of the family, the most basic social unit. A culture’s social and economic organization is
determined, in part, by the technology that society chooses to use, and the technology that it uses is
dependent on the social organization and cosmology of those involved.


Cosmology plays a key role in determining the kinds of social and economic structures that
we set up, as well. Indeed, cosmology is like the DNA of a cell, in that it guides the design and
evolution of all the other parts of culture, even as cosmology is itself changed by the other parts of
the culture “pie”. Cosmology, in this model of culture, includes our ethics and values, our cultural
Story and/or Myths, and our belief systems: our beliefs about who we are, what we are, what our
place in the universe is, whether and what kind of God or god(s) exist, and so on. It also includes
what we consider to be valid ways of knowing, whether these be scientism, mysticism, rationality,
intuition, etc. All of these are the filters of our perception, the conscious and unconscious basis of
our choices, the foundation of our reality, the sum total of our experience and thought. Our
cosmology defines how things are, and how they should be, who we are , and who we should be.
Our cosmology can be blinding and limiting, or it can be liberating. And only we can change it.
Communist and Capitalist ideology were the two main driving forces of social and economic
organization in the Twentieth century. Both of these systems are or were hierarchical, centralized,
capital intensive, dominator-based systems in their manifestation. Yet, though it has always seemed
that these two systems are driven by ideology, neither could have been born or existed without a
certain set of resources and technologies that made the beliefs behind them, and social structures
created by them, possible. Both systems rely on concentrated, high energy sources to maintain
hierarchy, monoculture and their own special forms of control.

All of these parts of culture, then, are interrelated. For example, technology is a piece of a
whole called culture, and the kinds of technologies we humans fashion are interrelated with the
resources we use, the social and economic structures we create, and the way we think about
ourselves and the universe. This is the only reason anthropologists can study the artifacts of
ancient cultures and piece together a relatively complete picture of the ancient civilization. In other
words, culture is a hologram, and you can see the whole by looking at one of the pieces.


The key thing here is to see that it is the relationships between these parts that makes a
culture work, grow, change and die. And that we must consciously deal with all of these aspects of
ourselves and our way of being in the world if we are successfully to transform our current culture
into one that can sustain us, our children, and the life of the planet. But where do we start?
Dr. Stuart Hill is an entomologist, formerly at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec,
whose career tells an interesting story about the importance of cosmology in re-designing “the
American Dream”, and perhaps the Western Dream overall. Dr. Hill developed an interest in
Integrated Pest Management and began working with farmers to help them move to what he calls a
“deep organic” approach to agriculture. This approach involves system redesign rather than simple
efficiency or substitution approaches which are inherently limited in scope and results. Stuart
found that, for many, their internal “unfinished business” prevented them from being able to let go
of attempts at controlling the system to “eliminate” “pests”, or even to be able to consider
alternative systems that could meet the ecological and economic goals they ostensibly shared. As a
result of these experiences, Dr. Hill has added studies in and the use of psychotherapeutic tools to
his wide-ranging career. He draws fascinating links between the inner and the outer landscapes, and
points out that our species is psycho-socially undeveloped — and that paradoxically this is our
greatest reason for hope.

Having been involved in permaculture work over 25 years now, I can corroborate Dr. Hill’s
experience. Many times when I have gotten a ecological system designed or built, the thing that has
prevented the system from working over the long haul has been the inner landscape of the people
involved: either the interpersonal dynamics didn’t work out, or personal issues of control and
dominance threw the system out of balance or prevented it from being designed, installed or
maintained properly. These behaviors are generally an unconscious acting out of unhealed
woundedness, which act as an “automatic pilot” driving our perceptions and actions in a certain
direction. We can make a conscious effort to override the automatic pilot and go a different
direction, but this is a constant expenditure of energy on our part. And, if we don’t reprogram the
automatic pilot, when we stop making the effort the automatic pilot takes over again, and we go
back to our old behaviors and perceptions. What is the program?

Our current culture’s cosmology I would characterize as anthropocentric and/or egocentric,
addictive, consumerist, monocultural and dominator-oriented. It is this cosmology which has
institutionalized the wounding of ourselves, our children, and our planet. This woundedness, more
specifically, our response to this woundedness, is also what gives the addictive culture its grasp
over us, causing us consciously and unconsciously to wound ourselves, our children and our planet.
We need to shift to a cosmology that is biocentric, recovering, has a strong gift economy, and
is polycultural and partnership-oriented. The value shift entails switching from endless, linear,
more-is-better values of Profit, Power, Progress and Products to self-limiting, circular, enough-is-
enough values of Nourishment, Fulfillment, Sustainability and Relationships, respectively.
As Dr. Hill says, the cycle of wounding and the psycho-socially undeveloped state of
humanity have been maintained in Western culture for many centuries by slavery, feudalism,
dictatorships, industrial capitalism and socialism along with sexism, racism, classism, adultism, etc.
Each of these systems has had a set of punishments and rewards and controlled access to resources
and information that limited psycho-social development. We now have the means to develop
psycho-socially in ways that previously were not possible. This human development is a
necessary pre-requisite to achievement of genuine sustainability, since any attempts to make
progress in that direction are flawed to the extent that the “actors” are carriers of old distresses.
Recovery from these old distresses, personally and culturally, will lead to empowerment and
improved awareness, visions, values, goals lifestyles and actions. I call this work the “Inside Edge”.

There are also many, many technical issues to be resolved in the evolution of a ecological
culture, ranging from how to make an extremely diversified small farm work on a technical and a
biological level to the development of new high-yielding varieties of tasty acorns and blight-free
chestnuts to how to create plastics from renewable resources, what kinds of economic structures can
help us to revitalize cities ecologically and make a living in the meantime, and more. These issues
are diverse, broad, deep, technical, social, economic, and resource related. The mind boggles at the
range of what needs to be done. But all of it can be done. I call this the “Outside Edge”.
So, basically there are two edges at which each person must be working if we are to succeed
at creating ecological and sustainable ways of being— the Inside and the Outside. On the Outside
Edge, we must apply ourselves consciously to re-designing our technologies, our resource use, and
our socio-economic organization. And we must work toward recovering our whole selves from
woundedness on the Inside Edge, opening ourselves up to the full power of our inner resources so
we can disengage from the destructive inter- and intra-personal dynamics of our addictive culture,
fulfill our responsibilities to ourselves, our children and our planet, and each live out our specific
dreams and visions. For, it is my belief that once we release ourselves from the wounded, limited
thinking that got us into this mess, we can turn the full force of our creative energies to resolving the
myriad technical, organizational and resource issues that confront us. And history has shown that
we have the intelligence and resourcefulness to meet any challenge once we set our minds and hearts
to it.

Dave Jacke is a permaculture designer living in southwestern New Hampshire. He would like to thank Stuart Hill for
his ideas and support, Peter Bane for his editorial and philosophical comments, and a certain young upstart who first
formulated these ideas years ago. This article originally appeared in Synapse, a quarterly journal published by
Neahtawanta Research and Education Center, Traverse City, MI.

Site Planning • Landscape Design • Construction • Education • Permaculture
David K. Jacke • 308 Main St. Suite 2C • Greenfield, MA • 01301 • (603) 831-1298 • dave@edibleforestgardens.com
Revised Edition, © Copyright 1999, by Dave Jacke.