Cardboard – a carbon sequestration and permaculture design tool

As of late I’ve been trying to decrease my carbon footprint, as well as reuse as much as I can, both in and out of the garden. This has led to two big things:

Compost everything

well, for me, anything that is not meat, dairy, oils, or processed foods (some exceptions like bread). I’ve been doing this for about a year now and have filled up a large 55 gallon trash can with food scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds etc..

Mulch with recyclables

I really try and think about how I can use everything in the garden. (Side bar: for many people this might be neurotic, but my mind is of the type that constantly looks to solve problems, and never really shuts off. This is mostly a curse, but I’ve tried and failed to go against the grain.)

When I say mulch, I’m not talking about throwing aluminum cans in the yard.

I’ve always been of the mindset that I want to have my cake and eat it too – and by that I mean, I want to have a modern, manicured landscape that can also utilize permaculture and sustainability minded systems. This fusion often drives me to all kinds of conclusions that I refine over time.

Recycling wise, this means using external inputs to both:

  1. Reduce my landfill and carbon footprint
  2. Utilize these extra inputs for my landscape “system”

And I want to be clear, I always think of my property and the landscape as a system. I think this is important. Even though I live in the city, with lots of new development, I want to change the way I’m going about things, as it pertains to all aspects. From the birds in the trees to the bugs around, to the moisture content in the soil to the nutrients and composition.

With this in mind, I want to step back and look at the one particular recyclable that is the current star of the show here: cardboard.

Cardboard is one of the easiest things for people to recycle, and this also makes it easy to use in the garden. This is because it’s a safe, carbon based cellulose. This is the kind of material that requires very little transition to become a direct input into vegetation – I’m talking literal uptake into the plant. This is because it’s considered organic material. Being made from paper, this makes sense. Additionally, the printing is made with soy based inks (in the USA). This, I should add, all applies to black and white, perhaps color, newspaper. I also use this in the same way. These are both valuable in that sense.

There are quite a few great reasons I use it, many of which I’m sure you yourself have heard of or done:

  1. Sheet mulch – a natural weed barrier
  2. Free organic material – a carbon source for adding structure and dimension to soil (eg building up)
  3. A worm food – worms love this stuff
  4. A carbon source for fungi – beneficial fungi love carbon. This is very easy to digest. Like wood chips, this mostly carbon is delicious to them.
  5. It is a slow release water store – much like the rationale behind hugelkultur, cardboard stores water and releases it slowly. This makes it particularly compelling as a method for drought tolerant landscapes and drought survival.
  6. It can be used to balance compost ratios- preventing anerobic environments.

All of these reasons make it very compelling to me. I know we should all be invested in our own carbon sequestration, but there are many other reasons – for me, all garden oriented. Essentially, it’s just another material I can use as a free input into my system.

My next task is to find more ways to use the more complicated materials in the trash – plastics, aluminum, glossy printed materials, cans… many of these likely contain toxic byproducts. I am curious about accelerated photo/ chemical degradation and conversion into simpler forms, perhaps suitable for decomposition by organic lifeforms, like bacteria, fungi, etc. I think starch based plastics are a step in the right direction, but these still require immense heat and pressure to decompose.

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