Posts Tagged compost

By the way, what’s up with your building compost?

Our building compost has been going for one month!  Those of us participating in the program have gotten used to carrying our little buckets of food scraps down to the “garbage courtyard” – as it is so pleasantly called –  dumping them in the tumbler, adding a handful of leaves and giving it a spin.  So far so good.   But that is not to say there haven’t been a few bumps along the way.

Starting a bin in January (albeit an eerily mild one), we knew that the breakdown process would be a bit slow.  However, I was a somewhat distressed to find that after only a couple of weeks, it looked like our bin was almost full of what amounted to semi-frozen vegetables – nothing seemed to be decomposing.  It would be a huge disappointment to have to stop our composting to let the bin cure right as we were getting going, so I decided to give it some help in the form of a compost accelerator:

Gardener’s Supply Super Hot Compost Starter is a mixture of bacteria, fungus and nitrogen (in the form of blood meal, bone char, alfalfa meal, kelp meal, pasteurized poultry litter, natural nitrate of soda, feather meal, and peanut meal) designed to speed up the chemical reaction that is compost.  It looks like this:

Unsure of exactly how much to add, I marched down to the bin and threw in approximately three cups, gave it a spin and hoped for the best.  A day or two later, I went down to check and was pleasantly surprised to find that our bin had essentially “cooked down” from a pile of discernible food scraps to a steamy compost:

Success!  That night, however, it rained.  The next day I was dismayed to find a rather large puddle of compost slime collecting underneath the bin.  Of course, had the tumbler been sitting on a grassy surface, the excess liquid – a normal part of composting (I think) – would soak into the ground,  but on the concrete it made an icky mess.   Our facilities manager (not a big fan of this project to begin with) was justifiably unhappy about it.  I cleaned it up and took a peak in the bin. Still steaming, it seemed like the microbes were on a roll.  Maybe too much of a roll.  By the next day, the weather had warmed up and the bin had begun to smell – a lot.  Every time I went out there, the odor had taken on a different fragrance note as though it were the inverse of a fine perfume. By the hour, one could almost imagine what those over-achieving microbes were working on: eggs? citrus? no, onions!  The building maintenance staff was not happy.  If this is the way compost smells, I don’t think it will be doable here.  Crap.  While I understood their concerns, I have to say that even when the compost was at its most pungent, it was not as gross as the garbage room smells every single day.  It wasn’t even as gross as any NYC street corner in August. But I kept that to myself.

The only thing I could think of was to add more browns, so I put a bunch of dried leaves in the bin to try to balance out the wet steamy mess.  The weather cooled down for a few days and suddenly the microbes seemed to wear themselves out and the compost stopped smelling.  All was right with the world again.  Lesson learned? Composting is about balance.  Too dry and cold? Nothing happens.  Too wet and slimy? Tempers flare and smells abound.  A metaphor for life, perhaps?

In the meantime, I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly yesterday about a bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae commonly found in compost.    Turns out, it has mind-altering effects, acting as a serotonin booster.  In other words, compost can get you high. Now, if I tell that to the building maintenance guys, they’ll probably set up a table and start eating their lunch out there.

While our building compost is only a small measure in keeping food waste out of landfills, it’s a start.  Check out this documentary trailer that shows the dramatic amount of food that ends up there anyway:

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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:

ON OUTDOOR COMPOSTING

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.

GREENS:

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.

BROWNS

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.

WATER

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.

OXYGEN

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.

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