Ash in the Trash

Spring is here: the apple and fruit trees are sprouting leaves and blossoms; the daffodils are blooming; and we are burning less and less wood to keep the house warm.

Nice clean wood courtesy of Dave the father-in-law
Nice clean wood courtesy of Dave the father-in-law

DSCN2389Cooler nights often mean high pressure weather systems and that means warm sun streaming through the windows and warming the house enough to last through the next night.

These are the days when our goal of a home that produces enough energy to heat and cool itself seems easy.

Last week we were discussing financing the renovation with a line of credit at Vancity Credit Union. The account manager asked us what our heating costs were and we said, “None.”

That felt good. It felt like we were winning the game of life. It felt like we were sticking it to the man.

In this latest streak of warmer, wet, sunless weather the temperature in the living room dips to 19 degrees Celsius but usually no lower. The air conditioner in the kitchen blows warmish air toward the bedroom and the oil-filled electric space-heater in the kids bedroom upstairs is usually enough.

Living in British Columbia with it’s wealth of hydroelectric power, I feel good about switching from fossil fuels to electricity. Some provinces and states still produce electricity with coal.

Sometimes, when we want to feel toasty warm, we light a fire in the wood-burning insert and the living room quickly reaches 23 or 24 degrees. There is no need to burn more than six small pieces of cut-up old plywood or particle board. The heat slowly makes its way throughout the living areas of this 1923 cottage.

We are burning plywood that was once the shambly porch of the Little Yellow House next door and particle board from some cabinets I bought on craigslist for the same house. They didn’t work out. I cut both up with a circular saw into pieces small enough to fit in the insert.

I don’t like the idea of burning particle board with its gluey chemicals holding the fibres together and its white latex exterior. Plywood has glue in it, too, but I think less. How many toxic chemicals am I releasing into the atmosphere along with the particulate-heavy smoke? How many are left in the ash?

This is fibreboard from my parents old back deck--complete with rubbery coating. Sorry neighbours!
This is fibreboard from my parents old back deck–complete with rubbery coating. Sorry neighbours!

But I was running out of options and nervous about having to finally buy more fuel oil after doing without for so long.

Someone pointed out that particle board is not typically recycled so those chemicals leach into the landfill anyway. I am at least releasing some heat first. Why do we buy that stuff again?

These are a couple of problems, besides the smoke and carbon I’m emitting, but there is another one I didn’t think of at the beginning of the winter.


When you have only the occasional fire, there is not that much ash. If it is clean and chemical-free, you can bury it in the garden. Dave the father-in-law taught me to sweep a magnet through the cooled collected ash to remove nails and bits of metal. That way, you don’t have to bother removing them from the wood before you toss it on the fire.

Unfortunately, when you are refusing to turn on your oil furnace (or buy wood for that matter) you end up with a lot of ash with a lot of metal in it.

A bucket o' ash. We don't use that cat litter anymore, it's not compostable
A bucket o’ ash. We don’t use that cat litter anymore, it’s not compostable

I came to the realisation about a month ago that even after countless hours of sifting through ash with a magnet, I was going to miss a fair amount of staples and other small jagged items, some of them aluminum and so not picked up by the magnet, that I do not want buried in the garden. What a waste of time!

I concluded that I would take it to the transfer station to go to the landfill.

What a grim prospect.

That is when I really noticed how much ash we had produced. Here is all the trash that our house has produced over the last ten months (it may be longer, I don’t remember when we visited the transfer station last.)

That one bin at the back is our household trash for 10 months. The rest are ash.
That one bin at the back is our household trash for 10 months. The rest are ash and by now, 10 days later, they are all full.

That’s a lot of toxic ash, my friends.

I think a lot of people who heat with wood feel like they are gaming the system, especially if they can get free wood. I understand that feeling, but this wood-fueled winter has made me even hungrier for the ultimate solution: no fossil fuels, no smoke, and no ash.

That would really stick it to the man (whoever he is).

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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