Posts Tagged community

Feelin’ the composting love!

Wow.  Now I know what it means to have been freshly pressed – and it’s awesome.  I have to say that until yesterday, the majority of my blog readers were related to me, so it’s incredible to see how much compost love there is out there!  Thanks for all the great comments and interesting questions that have me thinking I should clarify a few things:


I am new to outdoor composting, so what I know about it comes from what I’ve read and learned from other people, mostly LESEC, and not (yet) from experience.  A few people have asked me about the potential for rodents finding their way in to the bin.  This was certainly a concern that we all had in my building and is part of the reason why we went with such a fancy bin – all galvanized steel and raised off the ground, etc.  It strikes me that the bin sits in the same courtyard where our garbage bags sit waiting for a Thursday to roll around and, if I were a rat, I would bypass the compost and head for the easy-to-chew-through bags. But that’s just me (in rodent form).

A bigger problem with a communal bin is the potential for someone to carelessly toss last night’s lasagna bolognese  in with their compost waste, ruining the whole batch.  We are fortunate in that we live in a small, academic building where all of the residents work and study at the same institution and I am hoping that will translate into a greater sense of communal responsibility.  That said, we are starting small with  just a few apartments and requiring everyone who wants to participate to go through an orientation.  That doesn’t mean that some renegade academic won’t just start tossing stuff in on their own though, so I’ve put up a lot of instructional signage and the success of this endeavor remains to be seen. I think a communal system works best in smaller buildings where neighbors know one another.  In large rental buildings with a high turnover, it would need to be something integrated into the building’s waste management system, and there are already companies out there who are starting to do this (Triangle High-Rise Building Composting Plan).  Another amazing model is San Francisco’s municipal composting program, showing it can be done on any scale, really.

It seems pretty simple, but for the whole thing to work in any compost (not matter what the size) you need the right balance of four essential components: Greens (nitrogen-rich materials), Browns (carbon-rich materials), Water and Oxygen.


The Greens are your food scraps, the proliferation of which started you on this whole crazy project to begin with.  But not all food waste can go in the bin. According to LESEC, this is what you can compost:

  • fruit and vegetable peelings
  • non greasy food scraps or leftovers rice, pasta, bread, cereal, etc.
  • coffee grounds with filter, tea bags
  • hair and nails (animal or human)
  • egg and nut shells
  • cut or dried flowers, houseplants, potting soil

And this is what you should avoid:

  • meat
  • dairy
  • oily foods
  • dog or cat feces, kitty litter
  • coal or charcoal
  • coconuts (really?)
  • diseased and/or insect infested houseplants or soil

Interestingly enough, the information page for the Jora JK270, says that you can actually compost meat and pet waste! While I find this fascinating, I’m not willing to give it try just yet.


As I mentioned in my last post, I had to practically steal my browns to get the bin started, as they are the essential yang to the Greens yin.  The optimal ratio of Brown to Green in any bin is 2:1, so I might have to do some more foraging this winter.  On the other hand, in a pinch you can use things like shredded newspaper (soy-based ink only) and cardboard. Come to think of it, this may be the perfect job for all of the paper towel and toilet paper rolls that are piling up hoping I’ll do some kind of art project with them soon.  Now they will have a higher calling.  Some food waste counts as brown, too: egg shells, bread, and grains – you get the idea.  Yard waste is generally brown, but lawn clippings count as green.


The contents of your bin should be wet.  But not too wet.  I’m concerned my bin isn’t wet enough and, frankly, I still need to get the hang of this part.  In a worm bin, you could control this with the amount of newspaper you add, but I’m hoping the weather will help take care of it outside.


Adding air to the bin is done by turning the compost, which should be done frequently.  The Tumbler model of bin makes this super easy (until it gets heavy and then it will throw your back out, I’ve heard).  Our policy is that you spin the bin every time you add, but this may need to be modified down the road.

Seems simple, but it appears that plenty can go awry, too.  That, my friends, remains to be seen.  Who knows what kind of gross photos of renegade compost could show up on this blog.   This weekend, I’ll write about something I know a little more about: Indoor Composting with Worms.

For a much more thorough outline of setting up an outdoor bin, take a look at the LESEC’s helpful guide: LESEC Outdoor Compost Guide.

I would love to hear more about your experiences! This almost feels like a movement.



Urban Composting: how to convince your building that it’s cool.

It’s January 10th and I am pleased to announce that I have already fulfilled a resolution!  Never mind that it was a resolution made back in 2010.  This weekend we inaugurated a volunteer-run, community-wide composting program in my apartment building.  It took about two seconds to dump the first batch of kitchen scraps into it and about two  years to get to that point.

Until yesterday, my family had been composting with worms in our apartment for several years and I can’t say enough good things about worm bins! In my perfect world, every apartment kitchen would come with a built-in worm cabinet, just like they used to come with drop-down ironing boards.  However, as a family of four that cranks out three meals a day, the number of food scraps we produced was overwhelming our bin.  We would need three or four worm bins to manage our food scraps and – unless we built our coffee table out of worm bins (which isn’t such a bad idea, actually) – there would be nowhere to put them in our “cozy” abode.  Since a number of my neighbors had also expressed interest in composting (one was already going to the trouble of freezing her scraps and hauling them down to the Union Square Greenmarket, one of the cities compost collection sites), it seemed worth exploring a communal composting solution for our building.

Composting in New York City seems to be where recycling was in the early 1980’s: something that is slowly gaining momentum, but is still viewed as outside the mainstream.  I imagine there were the same arguments against recycling then, as there are against composting now:  that it takes too much time to separate your garbage, that somehow the building’s facilities staff will be unduly burdened, and is it really worth it anyway? And, of course, there is an extra barrier for some people: “Ew! Worms!” or “won’t it smell gross?”.   While I’m an advocate of recycling and feel that everyone should take responsibility for the waste they produce, recycling by necessity relies on an infrastructure to actually transform your plastic bottle or newspaper into something new and useful.  Composting, by contrast, is a closed system.  You get a bin, add your scraps, stir it around, and a few months later you have a beautiful, rich compost that can be added to your plants or tree beds (you could probably even sell it on Etsy).  There is literally no downside and a huge upside in the palpable reduction of your own garbage (26% of the material that ends up in landfills is food scraps and yard waste that could be composted instead).  With the vast number of different types of compost bins on the market these days, there is a fit for just about any lifestyle.  For people outside urban areas with easy access to outdoor space, a compost bin should be a no-brainer.  And if you live in a city and don’t produce more than 3 lbs of food scraps per week, a worm bin would suit you just fine.  But for those of us in the middle: living in a city with a family and producing more waste than one worm bin can handle, the best thing to do is to band together with your neighbors.

We are lucky in New York City to have organizations like the Lower East Side Ecology Center that work to promote sustainability through community-based recycling and composting programs.  They offer workshops on all types of recycling, including a class I attended back in 2010 on how to go about initiating a building-wide composting initiative.  The presenter spoke about the ups and downs of convincing her co-op board to let a few residents install communal worm bins in the basement of her large building.  As you can imagine, not everyone was on board with this idea (see: “Ew! Worms! above).  She outlined a strategy to go about convincing her board and neighbors that, indeed, communal composting is a fabulous idea:

  1. Start by garnering the support of your neighbors. This is a volunteer endeavor and doesn’t require the buy-in of the entire building.   You just need between 2-4 families to form a pilot project.  In fact, it is better to start small and add people as the project becomes a success.
  2. Try to get the building management on your side.  After all, even if the program is completely resident run, it will have an impact on the building’s waste management workflow and it is helpful to have a good relationship with those who maintain the public spaces.  If you live in a rental building with high turnover, this will be a harder sell as it will really fall to building maintenance staff to keep it going. But who knows? They may just be waiting for this opportunity!
  3. Present it to the powers-that-be in the form of a well written proposal.  Outline it as a pilot-project involving a core group of residents that will be reviewed by the board in three to six months. Knowing that they have a mechanism for terminating the project if it doesn’t work seems to go a long way toward assuaging the angst many building managers and their boards have about this kind of change.  Make sure the proposal highlights the benefits of composting while also addressing common concerns all in one page.  Here is a basic template to use: Composting Proposal Template
  4. Prepare to be rebuffed initially.  Perhaps outright or perhaps by evasion.  There will never be time to address it in the meeting.  Or it will be “too much for the building to take on right now”.  Don’t be discouraged – it took over a year and a half for my building to come around.  Gentle prodding and reminders about how many buildings in the city are already composting successfully will help.  Without being totally annoying, talk incessantly about how many fewer garbage bags will sit on the curb once we are composting.  Appeal to the “green” side of the folks in control.  No one wants to look like the Once-ler
  5. If you live in NYC, call in the experts. For only $25, a member of the LESEC  will visit your building, give a composting demonstration and talk to building managers and residents about the specifics of composting in the city, which is what we did one Sunday in early December. There is nothing like hearing it from an outside authority and I can’t say enough about how important this was for us.  We spent two hours on a Sunday afternoon talking about “greens” and “browns” with Natalie from LESEC and at the end of it, even the initial critics were enthusiastic about the project. They even helped us select the most appropriate bin for our building.

Once you get the green light, you are almost there.  The next step is selecting and ordering the bin.  After much reflection, we decided to go with the Jora JK270 Compost Tumbler, which we ordered from EarthEasy.  It is on the more expensive end of the spectrum and you can certainly get a good bin for much less, but we chose it because it had enough capacity for our entire building, and it’s dual chamber set allows one to keep adding to the other side of the bin once the first side is full and needs to cure.  The fact that it sits high off the ground making it extra pest proof and easy to spin sealed the deal.

Once it arrived, the next step was to put it together.  Coming from Sweden, the directions were written in high IKEA and totally unfathomable.  Luckily, EarthEasy includes helpful assembly videos on their site.   We watched as a strapping young lad took about 11 minutes to assemble the bin all by himself.

If I showed you a video of my husband and me assembling the JoraJK270, it would have to be a feature length-film, as it took us nearly three hours to put the damn thing together and almost ended our marriage. The film would be considered a  “dramedy”, and I do admit that I questioned my commitment to the environment that evening.  But that is behind us now and we have a rockin’ bin to show for it.

The next challenge was collecting enough “browns” – the carbon based plant material that forms one part of the composting quadrivium: Browns, Greens, Air and Water. In a healthy outdoor bin, you should have two parts brown material to one part green material.  Greens are what you have in your kitchen.  Browns are what you have in your yard.  Except when it’s December in NYC and you don’t exactly have a yard.  Thus, began a rather comical search for lawn waste that ended in my surreptitious foraging for mulch in Central Park.  It was exciting. I mean, I could have been arrested.

Once the bin, the browns and the appropriate signage had all been assembled, the bin was open for business:

First the “browns” were added.

Then the kitchen scraps.

I covered them with some more browns, gave the bin a spin, and walked away.  It should be that easy in every building.  So far, we have five committed participants and another 5 or 6 residents who want to join in the fun.  As half of our building consists of graduate students, we will orient them to the bin next fall.  Who knows what lies ahead: fruit flies? Strange smells? Reduced garbage?  Hopefully gorgeous compost that is so badly needed in our garden and for our poor street trees.  Wish us luck and we will keep you posted.



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