Even as I've become more responsible, there are still times when the dishes just don't get done on schedule.
With much gratitude and appreciation for Ernie and his dad who cooked for me while I was sick and sleep-deprived through most of February, I spent this early March evening in rubber gloves and a bandanna-style dust mask, disposing of some seriously toxic, dearly-departed, former food.
In the spirit of "write what you know"...
Safe Disposal of Biohazards in Off-grid and Rural Life:
A "biohazard" in this context could be toxic rotten food waste, diapers or vomit from a violently ill child, or other nasty by-products of human domestic life. A general rule is that the closer it is to human - actual human excrement, food that contains meat or animal proteins - the more dangerous it may become to fellow humans as it rots.
For this article, I will be focusing on the food-waste biohazard category, with a few digressions to excrement or plague wastes. (Thankfully, we two adults can mostly keep our poop in the crapper in our current phase of life.)
Good kitchen practices can prevent a lot of "biohazard" food waste from ever happening, but sometimes it does happen. There's a sudden illness, and the main kitchen person can't cope with dishes for a few weeks. There is a family medical crisis or work opportunity, and you have to leave NOW for an indeterminate time without cleaning out the fridge. Or there is a funeral or elder-care crisis, and well-meaning friends bring endless casseroles... many people find it easier to drop off a quick meal, or to accept a delicious dish, than to arrange a mutually acceptable time to help with the dishes and disposal. Our dirty dishes, like our dirty laundry, can become an intimate embarrassment.
Those who repeatedly care for elders and the bereaved learn discreet, considerate tactics for fridge-cleanout and dish duties. Often, these chores are undertaken on behalf of the whole loving support community by just a few, well-trained care givers who can maintain the owners' kitchen as they like it.
For those who are able-bodied and just dealing with an "oopsie," what do you do with that absolutely disgusting mess?
A) Down the Sewer:If you live on municipal sewer, you can dump a lot of crap down a dispose-all and think it "goes away." As far as your life is concerned, it does.
Unfortunately, the processed sewage often can't be used safely in the cycle of life and soil-building, because municipal sewage contains a mix of organic nutrients, toxic chemicals, and household medical wastes.
Drain cleaners, garage and shop wastes, pesticides and pest poisons, and expired medications are among the things that I often doubt should be allowed in the hands of the public. Certainly I'd prefer that the public be informed and responsible enough to dispose of them properly, not dump them in the "away" without further thought.
It's worth investigating your local the sewage treatment facility on a school trip or business tour, to learn if the disposal is being handled to your satisfaction, and whether/how the treated residues are used for agriculture. You may learn a lot. Some areas still have problems with combined-sewer outflow to rivers, overflow systems, leaks, etc; it takes a lot to build, maintain, and expand a city sewer system and keep it working properly.
Those concerns aside, for those people who have access, disposing to sanitary sewer is the safest option for noxious human waste. This is exactly why sanitary sewage systems were designed. As long as they're working properly, sanitary sewer systems can handle any formerly-edible and sufficiently runny biohazards you care to flush their way.
B) Sanitary Septic:If you live on sanitary septic, you learn to be a little bit careful. "Away" is very close - in your own backyard - and if there's a problem, you will likely be the one dealing with the pump-out bills, plumbing emergencies, soggy lawn, or sick family members due to well contamination or leachate exposure.
On septic, you learn to check cheap toilet paper to see if it's septic-approved. You learn exactly how much water it takes to use the Dispose-All, or whether it's not really an option in your particular rural home with its particular plumbing. You may begin to think about your drain-cleaning chemicals in new terms - because if you "kill" the septic tank, it's an expensive process to remove the chemically-toxic, sterilized gunk and start over with a viable population of microbes for biological pre-processing of your sanitary waste.
Most household biological waste can safely be disposed of to sanitary septic, even sick-people poop and moldy fridge-experiments. The most common method is careful portioning of well-broken-down goop, directly into the toilet. (Exceptions might include chunks too large for your toilet or plumbing, chemically-contaminated mixtures, and knowing your system's capacity so that you stay within the tank and leach field capacity at any given time.)
C) DIY Trash Hauling, Compost, and Scavenger Bait:If you live without trash hauling or DIY trash service, you may have older "kitchen experiments" than someone whose sins are hauled away once a week.
On our wintry mountain, the trash trailer itself attracts carrion-eating wildlife, like bears, ravens, and coyotes. During the "hungry months" of late winter, the latter two critters have nothing better to do than track interesting smells for miles. Whether you regard them as fellow-beings, or as vermin, the fact remains that setting up an inadvertent people-food-feeder is not healthy for you or them.
In our neighborhood, there are definitely people who poison or shoot scavengers. (I wonder if some livestock-harassment reports may be in consequence of these canny scavengers changing habits after some of their mates sickened on poisoned bait? Smart scavengers, who are forced by fear of poison to leave their normal "job" of carrion-disposal, might quite reasonably turn to living prey in spring's lamb-and-faun season. Ernie's default answer to "evil wildlife attacked my lambs" is, "Where is your lambing barn?")
Regardless of mechanism or blame, is no kindness to either wildlife or neighbors to let mountain scavengers get a taste for people-food.
Therefore, most of the year, we bury our stinky waste (stuff too far gone to feed the dogs). I dig far enough down that the dogs don't dig it up, but the trees can still tap the juices. We keep this to a minimum - once or twice a year perhaps - by regular refrigerator rotations when we are home, and by giving the dogs as many 'treats' as we can during routine meals and cleanup. For example as I'm putting away tonight's leftovers, I may give the dogs some 2-day-old leftovers to make room in the fridge.
The dogs get their 'taste' only after the two-legged people are done eating, and are expected to politely lie down without begging during our meals.
(For key differences between healthy people food and healthy dog food, ask your vet.)
Foods that the dogs are not interested in, like fruit and vegetable scraps, firewood debris and dog-chewed stick mulch, goes in the compost. Our main compost is in a metal rotating bin. There is a compromise between close enough to the house for winter access, and far enough to keep us and the dogs safe from a visiting bear. Currently, the winter compost bin is inside the carport, so I avoid carrion-like compost. A coyote might be hungrier than my dog and more likely to eat fruit, but the fruit in my compost is still not as smelly or slow to break down as the meatier materials.
I've only once seen a bear visit that metal-bin compost (in 6 years on this same site, practicing roughly these same methods). That one night, I dropped in a bagful of frost-applesauced apples, and Ernie dropped in a stale pork chop, and we both managed to leave the lid off afterwards. You can hardly blame the bear for thinking it was invited to the feast. With more politeness than some of our human neighbors, the shaggy bear shook its head and reluctantly wandered off as soon as I made my objections known.
(If you can remember your first time encountering a bear within 20 feet of your front door, or camping tent, while unarmed yourself, you can probably guess how I made my objections known. I seem to have managed to fit in 4 of the 5 most common methods used by upright primates, learned and instinctive, although I'm still no good at girl-style screaming.
Interestingly enough, after all my excited ape-like hooting and tool-user hysterics, what finally sent the bear on its way was a stern verbal message:
"This is not a good habit for bears. This is your mountain, but we can't have you eating off people-food. You go live your own life, go well, go on now.")
The point is, bear encounters are largely avoidable. It's hardly fair to blame the bear, or coyote, or raven, or squirrel, for thinking that a yard piled with her choice foods means she's welcome there.
Some communities may create edible-trash dump sites, away from family homes, where scavengers are tolerated. If your community as a whole doesn't share such a tolerance policy, please don't bait the animals. Especially, please don't bait animals in a scoff-law manner that goes against accepted local practice. Both bleeding-heart sentimentalists and vengeful poisoners create problems for their mainstream neighbors, as wild animals are diverted from healthy habits into high-risk or harmful ones.
D) Greywater Kitchen:If you use a greywater kitchen sink (as we do), or a camp kitchen where the "sink" is a section of meadow or woods, you learn to be even more careful than with sanitary septic. Formal greywater systems often have sophisticated ways to keep people from direct contact with greywater in the landscape, and these systems can be overwhelmed by chunks or improper use.
I generally have cute warning signs on my kitchen sink discussing what is acceptable. These notes are only a tiny fraction of the internal monologue with myself, about the level of responsibility involved in direct-to-woods disposal from my kitchen.
I think of greywater as an honor system where I agree to use this drain ONLY for things that will be a gift, not a curse, to all those who dwell outside my walls. That includes me and my human friends, my dogs and horse who have to deal with visiting predators, the wildlife that has to deal with human intolerance, and the plants and fungi that may appreciate nutrients but can be killed by excess of salt or other human-favored ingredients.
To live on this honor system, you really have to pay attention to where you are, and what are the needs and excesses of the land.
For maritime/high rainfall areas, your plants may be salt-tolerant and better able to tolerate high concentrations of table salt. However, phosphorus, nitrogen, detergents, and other special nutrients may cause unhealthy algae blooms or toxic contamination of sea life and estuaries.
For arid/inland areas, sea salts and other solubles like boron may be land poison, where phosphorous or biodegradable detergents might have a lower impact or even be a positive nutrient.
There is a lot more to it than that. To calibrate your sense of what's needed by your own land, most extension agencies offer free or low-cost soil analysis. They may also have pamphlets or research papers about common local soil types and soil deficiencies. In non-agricultural settings, after doing what homework I can, I often find that the woo-woo method of "ask the trees what they need" gives surprisingly reasonable suggestions. My method for working with complex systems involves a combination of peer-reviewed research; lifelong, iterative learning; and well-calibrated intuition.
After all that theory, what does it look like in practice?
Today's Fridge De-tox: Here's what I did.1) Warned the husband, stuffed him and the puppies with healthy food until they couldn't eat another bite, so I'd have room to work.
2) Find my dishwashing gloves, apron, and face-mask for the moldy stuff. (What grows on rotting meat, dairy, or fish residues is a meat-eating microbe, and may include pathogens that can live on your own internal tissues and cause infections. In any case I have a mold sensitivity.)
- Protect any open wounds (or consider waiting until they heal).
3) Get out a bunch of recycled zip-loc and bread bags. This winter emergency disposal situation will be handled, regrettably, by a special trip to the landfill transfer station. At other times, when the ground is not covered in 2' of snow, I might give the dearly departed food wastes a decent burial.
4) Prep the kitchen with clean hands:
- Ensure there is room in my trash, compost, and liquid-waste transfer bucket.
- Find disposable scrubbies - today it was some well-used mesh onion bags, and a charred cotton rag. Other times I've used paper towels.
5) Begin assembling and sorting the rotten stuff.
- Vegetable-based stuff (like tomato sauce) goes in the compost, with brown matter (floor sweepings from the woodstove area) to cover.
- Meat-type stuff (stews, fish in cream sauce): Use the first bag to scoop it up, then double-bag. Use any contaminated plastic containers as bin-liners to further protect from breakage and scent-release.
6) Liquid Waste Triage/Pre-Wash:
- Use disposable scrubbies/rags/paper towels to remove any remaining solid residues.
- Rinse containers in the sink. If on sanitary septic, just rinse away.
I did not allow water to go down greywater drain (my greywater empties near the house where I do not want to attract coyotes for possible conflict with my dogs).
- Pre-wash triage: Get sterilizable containers to the point where the bad smells are mostly gone, and dispose of plastic bins and bakery-bins in trash as protectors for bagged-nasties.
- Clean gloves, scrubbies, other cleaning supplies, and sink basin to the point of tolerable contamination. Then dispose of black water if needed.
7) Black Water/Liquid Waste Disposal:
- If using a camp kitchen or greywater, the nutrient-rich black water may need separate disposal (similar to the cat-holes or composting you may use for humanure/poop disposal)
- For today, I collected my smelliest water into disposal bucket, for mixing with compost in metal container. In hindsight, I might have dumped this down the toilet if I was doing this again - compost smells may still attract predators, even if they can't break into the metal bins, so I've put my dogs at risk for dealing with an avoidable threat.
- Other noxious rinse waters, like blood or urine, can be diluted and disposed to forest scratch-holes or appropriate agriculture (e.g. orchard fertilizer or mulch basins not in contact with edible produce) if dumped promptly.
DO NOT STORE "black water," food-contaminated greywater, or other high-nutrient liquids when you can possibly help it. Even urine which is supposedly "sterile" in the bladder becomes host to a LOT of fascinating and nasty microbiota within a few hours of excretion.
Black water tends to grow disease quickly if left to its own devices. This is why in this sequence, I emptied the compost and black water bucket as soon as I was done adding to them, before proceeding with the final steps of return-to-clean kitchen status.
8) Final Wash & Sterilize:
Apron and mask now in the laundry, I proceed with clean hands to do the final re-set to normal kitchen status.
Any plastic container (or grease-coated container like a frying pan) that has contained rotting, greasy foods is a semi-permanent biohazard.
There are two simple ways to sterilize effectively in every kitchen: Boiling, and heating to the point of charring (trace residues turn black). Most materials that survive in my kitchen can tolerate one or the other.
- Cast Iron Sterilization:
Our brilliant friend, Paul Wheaton, has posted some beautiful instructions on Richsoil.com for excellent cast-iron care. This is one situation where I completely ignore his every-day advice.
The frying pan that had the sad remains of a lovel fish dinner:
I scrubbed with soap and water, allowed to dry, then placed under the broiler until it was dull and charred all over. (I vented the space during this process.) Then I let it cool slightly, re-coated with a mix of olive and coconut oil, and it is safe to return to service.
The less often you have to do this, of course, the better it is for your cast iron cookware, and the better chance you will have of achieving non-stick cooking performance.
- Glass Sterilization:
For non-porous glass, washing with very hot soap and water is probably enough, but boiling is extra security. I had only one glass container this time, a bacon grease mason jar. As it wasn't moldy, just stale, I will likely just wash it thoroughly (it would be sterilized prior to canning in future). I routinely use glass and milk-glass bowls for thawing meat and other chores, where I want to be able to de-contaminate afterwards.
For porous ceramics, boiling is probably safest, or re-firing. I try to avoid using porous materials to store perishable foods in the first place.
- Plastic lids and containers:
Since plastic is made from oil, it is very easy for oil-type germs to embed themselves in the plastic and refuse to be washed away regardless of how much soap you use.
I have my soapy-water pre-washed plastic in the sink, waiting to be boiled for 10 minutes at a rolling boil. (as I'm now at altitude, on reflection I might need 15 minutes or salt-water to bring the temp up properly).
Whatever doesn't survive the boiling process, would have been permanently contaminated and need to be retired anyway.
I generally avoid re-using biohazard plastics even for non-food purposes. I use them only for garbage bin liners, and dispose promptly. Even if you could count on the family reading "no food use" or "MR-YUCK" labels on hoarded containers, there is a chance with any re-use that someone could still get a septic scratch out of the deal down the road.
The possible sacrifice of plastic lids on Pyrex dishes due to moldy food contamination is a really good reason not to let things get this far if you can help it. But these silicone lids can generally be boiled sterile again.
- Scrubber/Cloth Sterilization:
- Disposable: Compost or trash: After rinsing my charred dish-washing rag, I will compost it. I am also cycling out the onion-mesh scrubbers to the trash, and replacing with fresh ones. Compostable diapers and pads, from healthy people, can be composted in a well-designed humanure system.
- Disposable: Burn: For true, contagious pathogens like scarlet fever, one old accepted process was to burn all clothing and linens associated with the sick person. The process of burning plague wastes cleanly, and not letting spores escape with unburned smoke, and not letting people or flies come into contact while the biohazard is drying to the point where it can be burned, involves a lot of non-trivial problems. When these problems are solved responsibly, fire is a strong tool for biohazard waste disposal, and for preventing/ending public health emergencies. I often burn greasy paper from bacon, for example. For a more extreme example, military friends recount use of fire for sanitary human waste disposal, involving a steel poop-barrel and a lot of diesel. Not pretty, perhaps, but they see worse out there. A previous generation of GIs lost friends to naive poop-disposal, when "natural" pit latrines in Vietnam were used by the local enemy as sources of fetid matter to poison the stakes in tiger-pit-style man traps. We learn from experience in so many ways...
- Sterilize for re-use:
For the less-noxious, "stinky rag" situation, I boil my kitchen rags and scrubbers for 3 minutes on the stovetop or microwave, then rinse thoroughly with cool water. This will remove most pathogens and smells (to the point where hydrogen peroxide will no longer bubble on the boiled sponge or rag). It also loosens up the grime for easier physical cleaning; sometimes I change out the rinse water and re-boil if needed. I prefer cellulose and cotton kitchen sponges and rags, so I can boil repeatedly, and compost the remainders when they are exhausted.
- Grease Disposal:
Grease is hard for compost microbes to digest, and hard on plumbing, and attracts scavengers if it does make it through to the end of the greywater dispersal system. Greasy rags are also a known hazard for laundry, especially dryers, fire safety, spontaneous combustion.
Special process for grease in my kitchen:
The dogs get first dibs on grease. They love helping with this, whether it's evening dish time or fridge cleanout; it's how I bribe our "dog in law" to go home ever evening. For things the dogs can't or shouldn't eat, like paper towels with grease, or wiping out the last residue of bacon-grease jars that their tongues don't reach, I often burn these in a good hot fire during wood-heat season. Limited amounts at a time; too much grease is no good for stovepipes either.
And yes, I wash anything the dogs licked to a high standard of cleanness, hot soap-and-water, or sterilization by heat, as appropriate for the type of dish.
9) Waste Prevention:
Of course, it's easier to operate a greywater sink or off-grid water recycling if you don't put nasty crap in the water in the first place.
- Kitchen Cycling:
My goal is to store mostly non-perishable foods, and cycle perishables and leftovers efficiently.
After dinner, there is about a 2-hour put-away mark (half the commercial food-service stay time) where I need to identify and salvage the remaining foods. Unused ingredients get returned to storage, the fridge, or (in the case of herbs) hung out to dry. Thawed meat can be processed into sausage or canned stews. Thawed fruits in excess of today's needs can be dehydrated, and tossed in with trail mix or Mueslix. Leftovers can be packaged as freezer meals, or canned up if we have the energy/want the canning heat in the kitchen. All of this is best done the same day, of course. 3-day-old leftovers are more likely to become dog food or compost.
My assets include labels and wax pencils or Sharpies, Mason jars, Pyrex storage containers that can go directly from fridge into the microwave or oven, a large dehydrator, friends who are avid for specific Ernie's generous cooking specialties, and a high tolerance for leftovers. (I also like cafeteria and institutional food. While I share Ernie's appreciation for gourmet fare when available, he is often amused by my unabashed enthusiasm for plain, humble, no-work, everyday eats.)
My weak points in the kitchen include a tendency to lose track of time, and the fact that both my husband and I learned to cook for crews/families of about 6 people. It's really hard for us to make "just enough" for two people when it comes to one-pot meals like chili, stews, or soups.
We have more insights to share from years of camping and no-fridge kitchens in a future article about "Off-Grid Meal Planning: Happy Campers, No Leftovers, and Zero Waste."
- Pre-Screening Oils/Chemicals:
Despite our esoteric knowledge of all the many uses of modern chemicals, I try not to allow too many paints or greases into my life that are not safe for fire or dog disposal. There are some, such as epoxy paints for the boats, and fluids for the equipment. But I watch and restrict them coming in, so I don't have to pay to dispose of any excess going out.
- I have a safety-locked bathroom cupboard and an outdoor metal storage cabinet for those non-edible oils, greases, and other chemicals that I do choose to keep in stock.
- Biodegradables: I prefer multi-purpose, food-grade, or biodegradable personal products when possible. I don't stock detergents that can't be used in greywater sinks, or shampoos that aren't septic-safe.
- What did our ancestors use, before industrial chemicals came on the market for public consumption?
Many of our friends have learned to care for their hair without shampoo, sometimes called "Going Poo-Less." The Tudor-era method I prefer involves self-care time with a fine-toothed comb, and plain or scented water as needed. That's often enough for everyday purposes.
However, my life is not an idyllic Tudor farm. We are often exposed to chemicals, paints, tars, sap, smoke from burning paper, natural debris, and structure fires (I'm a volunteer fire fighter), and the occasional, memorable burst of flying pesto (see The Pesto Incident, previous post). I stock good-quality, near-natural shampoos in our bathroom, for chemical stripping of our hair to remove contaminants from our work and play. One bottle generally lasts over 2 years, if we keep it out of reach of curious puppies.
Kitchen Hygiene Level: Overkill?This article describes my process in a kitchen where I host suburban family, people who may be sick or subject to infection, "mainstreamers"/finnicky folks, and myself (currently representing all 3 categories).
That being said, Ernie grew up on fishing boats, and has the immune system of a junkyard dog. All of this probably strikes him like a very elaborate waste of good crab bait.
More Off-Grid Kitchens and DIY Household Tips?
If you liked this topic, or have a suggestion, please comment below.
We're thinking of doing a whole series on off-grid kitchens, with pictures.
(If you are willing to grant us unlimited copyright permission to use photos of your own off-grid or nature-cycling kitchen, including works-in-progress and nasty de-tox projects, please send them in! Anonymity or publicity available.)
For rockets, natural building, and other upcoming events and projects, see: