Old, unwanted coconut husks make perfect homes for orchids.

A load of old rubbish

Rubbish is something we all produce everyday. Before anyone says it, yes, I know that I produce rubbish too. Once a week, somewhere near the back of the Phuket Gazette. But what can we do to redress the balance a bit? Recycle? I’m not sure, to be honest.

Recycling is taught to children today as if it were a religious doctrine; unbelievers who don’t recycle will go straight to hell.
I wonder whether recycling is just a bit of a Western scam to make consumers feel less guilty about consumption. “I know consumption is bad for the planet,” they may well think, “but I can still buy heaps of stuff, because I recycle.”

Many local and national governments in the West encourage their eager citizens to separate diligently. Consequently, many homes have boxes of carefully separated rubbish – a bin for paper, one for glass and another for plastic. Huge trucks then come along regularly to collect the contents of these boxes.

Where does that truck’s oil and diesel come from? Where does the energy come from to break down that paper? Where does the water appear from that mulches that paper? What about the bleach used on the old paper to make new paper, or the fuel that heats the glass up enough to melt it?

Even if it did make sense, everything is so expensive over there that there’s no way it could be economically viable. I wonder how much of this stuff that disappears into the recycle truck’s bowels actually makes it to where we think it’s going? Will we ever know?

At least there’s one place where recycling in its truest form exists very successfully – Thailand. These old ladies with ancient sidecar motorcycles that draw up outside your Phuket home every day and rummage through the rubbish.

They all have their own specialties, it seems. The plastic bottle ladies pick out the plastic stuff, leaving the cardboard, paper and glass bottles to their respective collectors who will inevitably appear later. Even Phuket bin men are in on the act – as they empty your bin, they do the separating for you, and make sure everything ends up in exactly the right place.

There’s no scam or government-backed feel-good factor here – you know full well that this stuff really will be used again or recycled. And even better, these bin men and sidecar ladies are making a few baht from it. Now that’s recycling at its finest.

Recycling in the West probably wastes more than it saves. Instead of recycling, why not reuse and refuse – and not only plastic bags from the supermarket, but everything. Bread wrappers are sandwich bags. Tin cans are pencil holders. Refusing is not using in the first place. Don’t buy a newspaper with the idea of recycling. Read someone else’s. Then leave it where yet another person can find and read it. Bring your own plastic bags to the supermarket. And so on. Bert the environmentalist? I’ll be hugging trees next.

Conservation organizations themselves are equally guilty of producing rubbish. They try to give the impression that by sending out their junk mail, which you never asked for in the first place, on recycled paper they are helping the natural environment.

The best way for them to help the natural environment would be for them not to send out unsolicited junk mail in the first place. That really would be conservation.

You can reuse and recycle in your garden, too. Once you’ve collected all your bits of coconut husk, stray leaves, grass clippings and plant trimmings, rather than stuffing them into plastic bags and leaving them outside to be taken away, why not put them to use in your garden?

Coconut husks are like surrogate plant pots – they’re brilliant. Instead of going to Homepro and buying half a dozen of those cheap, nasty little orange plant pots, drill a hole in the bottom of a few coconut husks and you have plant pots that haven’t cost you a penny and are environmentally sound.

Even the plants that grow in them are likely to be happier, as the roots will meet something natural as they grow out, rather than an impenetrable plastic wall. Bromeliads such as orchids are very much at home on a chunk of coconut husk – all they need is something to grab hold of.

Most garden rubbish can be recycled on site as mulch or compost. “Recycling” is probably a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that you actually have to do something. Far from it.

Leaves can be used on their own as a mulch, but they’re somewhat unwilling to stay in place in windy locations and they easily wash away from beds during heavy rain showers. Leaves perform best as a mulching material when they are shredded or composted.

Grass clippings are the least ideal mulching material. They are easily blown away by the wind, decompose very rapidly, and can pack down to form a mat that could exclude air and water from the root zone. Therefore, spread grass thinly over the ground, mixed with other mulching materials or even better, composted with other yard waste so it sticks together more effectively.

In an ideal world, trimmings such as twigs and small branches should be shredded before they are used as a mulch. A mechanical chipper/shredder is needed for this process. As most of us don’t have one of these devices on standby, you’ll probably have to either dump or burn your clipped branches and twigs.

So what to do with this mulch stuff? You can use it around plants in beds or around individual trees and shrubs in a lawn. Eliminating grass from around plants greatly reduces the competition for water and nutrients from the turf and increases the growth rate and health of trees and shrubs.

In addition to being useful around plants, you can use mulch as ground cover for walks, trails, driveways, and play and natural areas. It can also be composted and used as a soil amendment for flower and vegetable gardens.

The amount of mulch to apply will depend on the texture and density of the mulch. Compost and many wood and bark mulches are composed of fine particles and shouldn’t be any deeper than about 10 centimeters after settling. Excessive amounts of these fine-textured mulches around shallow-rooted plants can suffocate their roots causing disease and poor growth. Mulches composed solely of leaves or grass clippings should never be more than about five centimeters in depth.

Recycle because it saves a few baht or because you want to. Or don’t recycle at all, and leave it to the experts – those sidecar ladies will be here before you know it. I’m only too happy to donate a few small green bottles to them; and that means it’s time for another Heineken.



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