Red wiggler worms are important members of Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s household.
Because the critters, which live in a box under their sink, eat their weight in food every 24 hours and multiply quickly, they can easily turn food scraps into rich soil perfect for planting vegetables.
“It’s odorless and very easy to do,” said Kellogg, 34, who lives in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood. “The worms will produce soil for you year-round.”
Vermicomposting is just one of the myriad of sustainable living skills Kellogg and Pettigrew have picked up in the past decade. They’ve learned how to raise chickens in a city backyard, collect rainwater and purify it for drinking and make biofuel for a diesel engine — all with cheap, salvaged or recycled materials. And all on very little land.
Their new book, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living (South End Press, 242 pages, $16), gives hundreds of tips for the urban dweller to gain control of their living conditions and carbon footprints.
Kellogg and Pettigrew certainly live outside the mainstream and their ideas would be considered by many to be extreme and outlandish. But they maintain that modern conditions such as sprawling suburbs and eating food shipped from thousands of miles away are anomalies of the past century that have been proven not only impractical, but dangerous for the health of humans, animals and the planet. Changing the very basics of how we live, Kellogg said, is necessary to the health and survival of the human race.
“Very soon, this is not going to be a novelty, it’s going to be what we are required to do,” he said.
The book is broken into sections: food, water, waste, energy and bioremediation. While it goes into detail about the science behind their proposed methods of sustainability, there are very simple instructions for each practice.
Kellogg and Pettigrew are founders of the Rhizome Collective, an Austin, Texas,-based organization dedicated to community activism and urban sustainability education. For the past eight years, it has operated out of an old warehouse in the industrial section of Austin. The couple had been splitting their time between the two cities, but now they have decided to put down roots in Albany, so they plan to start a similar collective here.
Well before they thought of writing a book on sustainability, they spent their days imparting the knowledge they had learned through workshops. Those workshops evolved into the Radical Urban Sustainability Training — or R.U.S.T. — program, which gave them the impetus to write the Toolbox book.
“We display ecological tools and technologies to teach people how to be in control of their lives,” said Kellogg, who also does one-on-one consulting. “It’s not so much about being green as it is about building community and taking care of our own needs and being sustainable at the same time.”
Kellogg’s co-teacher for R.U.S.T. is Lauren Ross, an environmental engineer with more than 30 years experience cleaning up brownfields and Superfund sites. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Ross and Kellogg traveled to New Orleans to assess the level of pollution in the ground and water at the behest of grass-roots environmental organization Common Ground.
They determined that the massive petroleum contamination could be remedied with a simple solution: They grew microbes that feed on petroleum and had volunteers spray them in the affected areas.
“We grew up big vats of it, all safe enough that you could drink it,” said Ross, 53. “The microbes you grow are quite hungry, and fuel is good food for them. They convert it to nontoxic carbon dioxide and water.”
Ross said similar methods are often used to remedy large industrial spills, but that unlike government and business, which could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a cleanup, Ross did it for less than $1,000.
“It’s the difference between using affordable materials and volunteer labor and paying a consultant $100 an hour to study it in a 500-page document,” Ross said. “It’s the equivalent of the $250 toilet seat. What we are doing is challenging the deeply rooted capitalist frame.”
Which, in addition to saving the planet, is exactly the point.
“Radical sustainability is all about availability and social justice,” she said. “The idea we hold in this culture is that only people who can afford it have the right to drink clean water. But this isn’t about wealth.”
Dylan Boyce is a longtime member of the Ironweed Collective, an activist community based out of a house on Albany’s Grand Street. Boyce, who has run a series of skill-share events, believes in what Kellogg and Pettigrew are doing, but also believes it’s necessary to use political activism to make sure these projects are done on a larger scale. He points to cities such as San Francisco and Boston that have created public composting projects and used the energy created from the decomposition to heat facilities.
“When you are doing things on a much larger level, you can make a bigger impact,” Boyce said. “You have to take your local government in your own hands and get your city to adopt these policies.”
In Austin, Kellogg and Pettigrew succeeded, after four years, at getting city officials to approve a composting toilet in a park the couple are building.
Here in Albany, they are talking to the City Council and Planning Department as they blueprint the educational center they plan to open on Grand Street.
“That is an important part of this work,” Kellogg said. “To get these ideas approved and accepted by regulatory agencies so they have a hope of being used on a larger scale.”