You know you can’t recycle used pizza boxes, right? Greasy, cheese-infused cardboard is full of oils that contaminate the pulping process, which drives cardboard recyclers mad and which leaves environmentally-thoughtful-yet pizza-loving members of our community with a big pile of guilt and cardboard headed for the landfill.
Dear North Coast Friends, 46 North Farm would like to help you with that!
It turns out that your used pizza box is the absolute perfect size for a weed mat that will help give our native pollinator habitat plants a better chance at survival this year. In our tests so far the boxes aren’t attracting any curious critters looking for a carboard-topped-with-oil-and-cheese treat, and the cardboard is holding up way better than our first attempt at biodegradable weed mats, burlap squares.
Plus: Free! It’s a great price tag.
Sometimes, it’s the simple solutions that work best.
What is Native Pollinator Habitat, I hear you ask? Pretty much what it sounds like–healthy habitat where pollinating insects can find food and shelter. This time of year it looks a lot like this:
Last year we set aside two areas on the farm to install hedgerows of native plants as part of a National Resource Conservation Service program to improve native pollinators habitat on our farm. Twinberry, Nootka rose, red-flowering currant, snowberry, salmonberry, red elderberry, evergreen huckleberry, redosier dogwood, ninebark, vine maple and willow of every kind available planted together provide near year-round food for pollinators like bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees and more. These hard-working insects do a critical job, ensuring that many of the plants we grow will transform into food by their simple, fertilizing act of taking the pollen from one flower to another. The added plus is that the plants will also provide great food and shelter for birds and, once they grow in and establish, healthy browse material for our local populations of deer and elk.
As this was part of an official NRCS project, they had certain requirements about how we had to plant things and which plants we could and could not use. The main challenge we’ve found on our farm is getting the plants established before the deer and elk mow them down to nubs and most likely kill them. The plants all need to be caged until they can grow up above the nose height of a hungry elk, which will take a few years. The issue the NRCS was most concerned about was the weed competition, which–fair enough–is something that can really affect a plant’s chances of survival. The plants do benefit from having some kind of weed suppression, or else the small plants can get overwhelmed by the pasture grasses and weeds that will grow up around them each summer. It doesn’t usually kill the plant, but it can really slow down its growth. However, we found the Official NRCS Site Preparation Requirements options to be expensive,somewhat impractical, and rather ecologically unsound. For a group working to conserve natural resources, these folks sure are quick to recommend spreading a lot of petroleum all over the place.
Option #1: We could spray something like Round Up over the entire area to completely kill all potentially competitive vegetation. We’re talking about an area close to half an acre, mind you. Sprayed with Round Up! I don’t care if we aren’t Certified Organic, that’s an immediate NO for me. This kind of scorched earth site preparation gives one some insight into the current USDA thinking about ecology.
Option #2: Spread clear plastic over the entire area to solarize the soil. Solarizing is a way of killing plants by essentially cooking them, which doesn’t really work well on the coast because we just don’t get enough super hot days to generate that kind of heat. Plus- that’s half an acre of clear plastic, which is not exactly cheap to purchase, and which will then have to be thrown away at the end of the solarizing process. Assuming that solarizing would even work here, which it won’t. Why recommend a practice that won’t actually work? We’ve found that most NRCS projects have a real ‘One Size Fits All’ flavor to them, meaning that there isn’t a lot of regional or local variations allowed. If it works in Iowa, it’ll work on the Oregon Coast, right?
Option #3: Cover the entire area (remember, half an acre!) with black plastic weed cloth, and then cut holes in the plastic to install the plants. And then pretty much just leave the weed cloth there, until the plastic eventually breaks down into smaller and smaller little plastic particles that never, ever completely break down because plastic lasts forever. Leaving aside the crazy expense of half an acre of black plastic weed cloth, we could never get a heaalthy ecosystem going that way, where low growing plants and shrubs seed themselves, sometimes from wind-blown seed, sometimes from runners, sometimes from bird droppings.
Well, none of these weed-killing options was going to work for us, so we negotiated to use burlap squares as weed mats around the plants. Our NRCS agent was skeptical, not believing that the burlap would really work to suppress the weeds, but I wanted something that could keep the weeds off just long enough to let the plants get established, but would be also be biodegradable and not need to be picked back up again and taken to the dump.
We were both right. The burlap is definitely biodegradable, and it also doesn’t work very well to keep the weeds down. (See ‘before’ picture above. That has a burlap weed mat on it. Effective, yes?)
Enter the Used Pizza Box.
I’ve been using cardboard a lot on the farm this year to mulch over areas where I either want to remove grass or weeds and establish more growing space, or as mulch on paths between the rows that just take too damn long to weed. It works great, and although I know that cardboard is not without its own environmental issues, those issues are a bit more benign than huge sheets of plastic hauled off to the dump. Our plastic recycling options here at the coast–much like our toxic waste disposal options–are pathetically limited, if not non-existant.
So, if you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering how the heck to get your used pizza boxes to us! This is my way of weeding out the weak among you. You’ve got to be dedicated–and really want to find your used pizza boxes a good home– to read this far.
The answer is: send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll figure out how to give your used pizza boxes a new sense of purpose out on the farm.
OK. Go order a pizza to go now. Extra toppings, minus the guilt.