Build a Zero-Waste Homestead

Learn how to use permaculture to prevent waste by composting and recycling greywater, and improve your landscape in the process.

  • A branched drain system for greywater can help to irrigate a productive landscape, minimizing the use of clean tap water for that purpose.
    Illustration by Paul Kearsley
  • This boxed bed growing food at the Picardo P-Patch community garden in Seattle, Washington, was made out of salvaged building materials, which now won’t end up in a landfill.
    Photo courtesy Timber Press
  • This small reed bed is used to clean greywater in Portland, Oregon. Just like an engineered wetland, these plants and their media help to filter and clean the water before it is used to irrigate the landscape.
    Photo courtesy Timber Press
  • These “flow-forms” at the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, California, aerate the water and draw attention to its beauty as it moves through a children’s play area.
    Photo courtesy Timber Press
  • On the north side of Jessi’s greenhouse, compost piles contain coils of pipe that bring the heat from the composting process into the greenhouse, where it helps thrive in the winter.
    Photo courtesy Timber Press
  • “Practical Permaculture,” by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein covers the basic principles of permaculture, showing the entire design process from land assessment to the completed master plan.
    Cover courtesy Timber Press

Permaculture’s principles are simple: take care of the earth, and the earth will take care of you. Practical Permaculture (Timber Press, 2015) by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein covers the basic principles of permaculture design and offers detailed information on wastewater recycling, composting, renewable energy systems, and much more.

The following excerpt from “Waste: Plugging Leaks in the System,” discusses how to design permaculture systems to recycle human waste, food and yard scraps, wastewater, and how to capture usable heat released from biodigestion.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Practical Permaculture.

In your permaculture design, you want to shoot for a near-zero-waste system. That doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it is definitely a primary goal. If the systems you design are wasteful, they will forever be reliant on large quantities of external inputs to keep them running. Most lawns are like this. Without chemical fertilizers, city water, and gasoline to run the mower, they would very quickly cease to look the way they do.

Many of the external resources we rely on every day are nonrenewable (at least in a human timescale). Once we use them, they’re gone. Relying heavily on these resources for day-to-day operations means we are more susceptible to market fluctuations and supply chains, and thus less resilient. In an emergency the lawn can just grow and become weedy, but what happens when we rely heavily on external inputs for our food, water, and heat?

This chapter focuses on where leaks often appear in systems and how we can minimize them, thus eliminating waste. The idea is to integrate those surpluses (another name for waste considered from a different perspective) back into our systems in some way. For instance, if we produce compost, apples that go bad can’t really go to waste. If we apply the principle of efficient energy planning and the concept of next highest use, we don’t really waste energy. Overall, the goal is to manage the inflows and outflows of our systems. We aren’t going to create completely closed-loop systems (where nothing enters or leaves), but we want to get a lot closer to that than where we are right now. Ultimately, we want to be very conscious of how the outflows of our systems can be used as inflows. Any outflows we do end up with should not harm the environment nor our neighbors.

12/2/2015 11:47:01 AM

I have been working for the past 5 years on a system to process human waste using a urine diverting toilet that I designed and build and a gardening system that incorporates thermophilic composting, earthworms and black soldier flies. It is a permaculture system called the BoonJon Gardening system that uses lawn clippings, garden waste, tree leaves and kitchen waste including offal, in combination with human waste. I think that it does everything required to safely manage all waste and with minimal cost and labor. Google BoonJon Garden and we hope to see you all at the Ashville fair in June.

10/21/2015 8:06:01 AM

Umm, the Colorado River has NEVER reached the Gulf of Mexico, at least not the Colorado River that supplies water to Las Vegas and Phoenix.



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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