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A Zero Waste essential: Composting

By January 24, 2011 No Comments
I have to say, I procrastinated writing this article for about a year now. I might run a Zero Waste household but I do not consider myself an expert on composting (nor “the priestess of Zero Waste” by the way). So many generations adopted it well before I ever even heard about it, I would not dare write about it with authority. I did not grow up with it either: Although my dad composted his grass clippings, he would burn any other yard refuse in a large metal drum every so often.
That said, rotting is now a key component of our lifestyle. Composting processes those items that cannot be refused, reduced, reused or recycled, and I have more faith in Composting than Recycling (my reservations explained in this archive). The life cycle of what I put in my compost bin is a certainty: Rot then dirt – but that of my plastic recycling is not: Decking? bench? toothbrush? or landfill? definitely landfill in the end…So, with limited knowledge on the subject, all I can offer is my personal experience with our tried and true composting systems (in the Northern Californian weather).
We have embraced composting in three different ways. We started with an Aerobic compost, we then added a worm composting bin and lately we have adopted the city compost. We eventually chose the last two, as we felt that we could not just choose one and give up the advantages of the other.

All three composting options accepted: fruit and veggie scraps, tea and coffee grounds, nut shells, dust, lint, hair (human or animal), cardboard, newspaper, and washed crushed eggshells. But their added possibilities differed. Here is how they compared:

Homemade Aerobic Compost (in wire mesh)
CONS: Finding an aesthetically adequate spot in your yard can be tricky. Kitchen scraps like meat, fat, fish, dairy products, grains or bones should not be added to the pile, as they are likely to attract small furry critters. It will also not process large branches, for which we still had to rely on the city yard waste pick up.
PROS: It is free (if, like us, you already have a piece of fence), or very cheap to set up (check out Craigslist for fence pieces) and it processes small yard waste like twigs and leaves, and wax paper.
Worm Compost (Can O’Worms)
CONS: It too cannot process the kitchen scraps (other than fruit and veggie scraps), mentioned above . The worms also do not like citrus (bummer when you squeeze your orange juice each week) or any yard waste. And even if it is made of 100% recycled plastic, it’s still plastic.
PROS: Its big advantage is (1) the liquid fertilizer (i.e., compost tea) conveniently dispensed through a spigot, (2) the well contained, easily accessible supply of compost for your plants and (3) the supply of worms always on hand for those who like to fish for food.
City Compost
The fact that the compost is taken away from your property can be an advantage for those who do not have a use for it, but an inconvenience for those who do.
CONS: The cost of pick up (which in our town is bundled with recycling and trash) and the added footprint of transporting your food bits.
PROS: It allows for composting all food scraps, meat and fish (including bones and shellfish), food soiled paper or cardboard (but we rarely do), along with yard waste, and the compostable goods mentioned above.

The city picks up compostable plastics that are clearly labeled, but they will not accept biodegradable plastics, as “they biodegrade at different temperatures than organic materials and therefore don’t compost well together” (says my compost hauler). Also, these plastics can’t be distinguished from other plastics during processing. So it is best to just stay away from them altogether. Mostly sold in the form of disposable products, they can easily be avoided with reusables.

And although the City compost’s “digestibility” seems limitless, it cannot accept the obvious: Aluminum foil or trays, “biodegradable” plastic, ceramic dishware or glassware, flower pots or trays (they must get those often to make of point of it), foil-backed or plastic-backed paper, rocks or stone, but also the less obvious: clothing and linens, cooking oil, corks, animal waste, dirt, or wax cardboard. Wax paper was accepted at first but no longer is, probably a result of people throwing the plastic coated paper instead of the waxed kind, in their city bin. They are hard to tell apart.

Note: We looked into the Cone back when we were shopping around our options, before we even considered aiming at Zero Waste. The required location did not work for us. But you might want to consider it, since it processes meat, fish and dairy. For those who live in cold conditions and/or who do not get city compost, NatureMill makes a great under counter composter. Even though it requires electricity to run, it accepts meat and is an all-in-one machine (no receptacles needed here).

Whatever system you end up choosing, the most important part of composting is collecting compostable material. Obviously without it, your composting system is worthless 😉

I have found that the receptacle makes it a success for the whole family if:
  • It is large enough: As I mentioned in a previous posting, our compost bin used to be our trash bin. A large container will reduce the number of trips to your composter. Any container will do. You do not need to purchase a carbon top receptacle (the filter needs to be replaced and your money can be better spent elsewhere). Compost does not smell. We empty ours once a week and during that time it just does not have time to decompose to a stinky point (we freeze meat and fish scraps until pick up day).
  • It is aesthetically pleasing: Many drop the idea of composting because they can’t stand the idea (and I don’t blame them) of having a “dirty” container on their counters, as most receptacles are advertised. But who said the container had to be displayed on your counter? We would never think of putting our soiled trash cans on our counters. Ironic when you realize that the soiling icky bits stuck to the outside of trash cans are compostable. Under your sink is even better. Out of site, but not out of mind, if its large. Apply rule #1 first.
  • It is easily accessible: In a slide out tray under the sink, our receptacle is within easy reach where we process most of our veggie/fruit scraps. We wash the veggies at the sink, and then peel straight into the bin. Since we use the City compost, this location is also convenient to discarding table scrapings that Zizou will not eat, before loading the dishwasher – he loves Brussels sprouts, but not avocado !?:)
And if you are still grossed out by the ICKY factor, get over it. Compost is ODORLESS and natural, it’s dirt at its conception stage. What’s REALLY gross is the piles of plastic washing off on our beaches (more on that in a couple of weeks).

I am so glad I have this article out of me! My procrastination is over. I can now move on to better things, like fertilizing my plant wall with worm tea;)

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