The Cult of Cardboard

How reusing Cotopaxi’s cardboard helps fuel a local farm.

Words by James Loomis, photos by Bryce Olsen

On a crisp, sunny Friday morning this past October, our Cotopaxi team gathered at Wasatch Community Gardens in Salt Lake to get our hands dirty. Green Team Farm Manager James Loomis invited us to his garden for the day to become informed, scope the work they’re doing with the local homeless population, and lend a few helping hands. Below is a two-part article from Loomis that sheds some light on his mission, his philosophy, and Cotopaxi’s contribution.

The Cult of Cardboard ­– part I

Waste is a design flaw. There is no waste in nature. Every output from one process is an input for another. Plants produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. We, and all of our other fellow mobile compadres on the planet, breathe that oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Pure elegance of process; zero waste. Even poo becomes a high-value commodity in natural systems, as insects and microbes consume and transform it, unlocking the power of the nutrients contained therein.

The fruits of Loomis’ labor.

In my Urban Farm in downtown Salt Lake City, I am in a constant state of tuning for maximum efficiency. While this of course means minimizing my own waste, I’ve learned from Momma Nature that there’s a whole new level to this equation, sourcing as many of my inputs as possible from others’ waste streams. By gobbling up the discarded treasures of the urban waste stream, I’m not only able to help minimize the overall waste around me, but I’m also able to increase my bottom line by minimizing purchased inputs. After all, if my operation isn’t financially sustainable, then I have a limited window to keep kicking ass.

Loomis educates the Cotopaxi crew on his methods.

After an Impact day at the farm from the Cotopaxi crew, a new partnership was formed and all of their waste cardboard started flowing to the farm. They’ve already made steps to Reduce their waste, and by manually hauling over their cardboard weekly, they’ve provided their own motivation to keep slimming it.

From there, our team sorts out the ideal-sized boxes to repack with our produce; Reuse is always far more efficient than recycling and eliminates another item that needs to be purchased for my farm, which helps keep costs low. These boxes then enter circulation in my greater farm network, joyriding around full of organic produce, leading far more productive and meaningful lives than their often intended “single use” fate. And if we can instill meaningful life into a cardboard box, imagine what we can do for the rest of the world around us, when we transform more of our waste into resource. …

Into to the bin, where cardboard, worms, and soil start the party.

The Cult of Cardboard – part II

Waste is an unused resource, plain and simple. One of the largest volume waste streams in our culture is paper and cardboard. One of the biggest inputs on my organic farm is organic matter. Wrap your head around this obvious factoid, my friends: Cardboard and paper are portable trees. Boom. Mind-blowingly simple, it’s like a friendly smack in the face with fact. The primary input to sustain fertility on my farm is being discarded at staggering rates all around me, but more and more it’s being delivered right to my front door.

In part one, I noted how my Urban Farm has recently formed a partnership with Cotopaxi to gobble up all of their waste cardboard. The best boxes in the sizes we like get immediately reused to pack up our outgoing produce. The rest we transform into soil.

Jordan Allred and Anders Piiparinen mix their bin’s compost ingredients.

Cardboard is especially suited to composting, as it is minimally processed and generally quite free of colorful inks (we avoid full-color glossy paper products in our composting operations, as they often contain metals we don’t prefer in our soils). Cardboard is to worms what chocolate is to us, and where paper meets soil a veritable “worm rager” occurs.

“And if we can instill meaningful life into a cardboard box, imagine what we can do for the rest of the world around us, when we transform more of our waste into resource. …”

At my farm, we practice Regenerative Agriculture, and this means specifically that we enhance the ecology of the land that we steward, constantly increasing fertility, biomass, diversity, and beauty while producing goods and services that are valuable to humans. One challenge all farms face is weed suppression, and since we grow organically this means we don’t use herbicides. Since we grow regeneratively, that means we don’t even use organic herbicides. We use cardboard.

Sheet mulching begins by overlapping cardboard over an area prior to covering with mulch.

All pathways, utility and gathering areas, and future gardens sites are sheet mulched regularly, a permaculture process of layering cardboard with compostable materials, then covering with a thick layer of mulch, to suppress weeds while building healthy soil. The cardboard acts as a weed barrier, suppressing undesirable plants from growing. It, along with the rest of the materials, break down over time into rich, loamy soil. At the same time, the microbiological makeup of the soil advances, and the weeds that once dominated no longer have an ecological niche to fill. My farm was once a solid acre and a half of every cyclist’s arch-nemesis, the goathead. Now they are all under a foot of mulch, being consumed by microbes and relegated to history.

Waste into resource. Weeding has been replaced by soil production. The Cotopaxi boxes achieve immortality as their carbon is sequestered into the soil, and I can ride my bike around the farm. That, my friends, is winning, and all around me the ecosystem is grinning.

Getting grounded.
The crew loads wheelbarrows with mulch that will be used to cover the cardboard.
Sheldon Wardwell focuses on his unloading technique.
Keeping that ecosystem grinning.