Posts Tagged composting

Design + Composting in India: The Daily Dump

These beautiful terracotta planters are…. you guessed it! Composters!  I came across an article in City Farmer News this week about an inspiring kitchen waste management project in Bangalore, India, called The Daily Dump.  The project was started in 2006 by Poonam Bir Kasturi, an industrial designer who teaches at the Srishti School of Design in Bangalore.  The company offers a number of composting options for single families through communal set-ups.  Check out this totally charming video they produced – it makes me realize what our compost bin is lacking…. a garland of marigolds!  I totally want one of these and wonder if they are available in the U.S.?

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Worms Are Your Friends – Indoor Composting (part 1)

I need to clarify one point.  My brand new outdoor compost tumbler does not include worms.  They need an environment between 55°-80° and wouldn’t survive the winter in New York. Outdoors, the right combination of greens, browns, air and water + time will result in compost.  Adding worms just makes the whole process go a lot faster and makes vermiculture (fancy, for worm compost), ideal for the indoors because the food waste is broken down so quickly that (when it is working correctly) it has no smell.  I can attest to that because for years, our bin was in our kitchen (literally 2 feet away from our dining table) and no one could ever tell.  We once had a dinner party where the topic came up and when I showed our guests the hidden compost, one visibly blanched.  I’m still trying to convince him that worms are awesome, but I guess they just aren’t right for everyone.

We have had a couple of worm bins on and off for the last 14 years.  Back in 1998, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ran a composting workshop and I decided to check it out.  I had no idea that worms were to be involved, but the process seemed so interesting (in a home science project kind of way) that I found myself lugging a bin full of worms through Prospect Park that same afternoon.  Our early attempts weren’t without some setbacks, however, the biggest issues being mold and fruit flies.  Ugh.  Little did I know that banana and citrus peels come teeming with fruit fly larvae just looking for the right conditions to make it into the world.  Our bin was their Shangri-La and they seemed impossible to get rid of. At one point, we had to dump the whole thing and start over.  Another problem was mold when the bin got too wet – that was easy enough to remedy with shredded newspaper.  Luckily, I had the helpful reference guide, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof:

Slowly we got the hang of it and – being just two people at the time – the compost did a pretty good job of handling our food scraps.  A few years later, though, we found ourselves moving into a smaller apartment with no logical space for a worm bin to go.  We kept meaning to get one but got wrapped up in a whirlwind of babies and subsequent moves.  By the time we came around to it again just a few years later, worms had moved from being the weird kid you don’t want to hang out with to the sort-of cool kid you might be friends with.  More people had them and –  even better – there were a wider variety of bins on the market.  Once we settled in what we hoped to be a long-term apartment, we immediately went searching for something that would fit into the only space we had (which happened to be smack in the center of our living room/dining room / kitchen).  Because of this, I wanted to make sure that I had a handle on the fruit fly situation, so I attended another workshop, thus beginning my love affair with the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Unlike the first workshop I attended, this one was crammed with people all eager to get their hands on some worms and the crowd included a reporter from the New York Times who ran this story on the growing popularity of vermiculture in NYC.  I brought my daughter along and she ended up being the cover model for the article which she will either grow to love or hate a few years from now.

The workshop walked everyone through setting up a bin and was helpful in enlightening me to a few ways to improve my system: for one, I hadn’t been using enough shredded newspaper bedding which is what was keeping the bin too moist.  Most importantly, I learned that if you freeze (or microwave) your food scraps before adding them to the bin, you will kill the fruit fly larvae! It works like a charm.  Not one fruit fly darkened our bin since.

So now that you are convinced that this awesome, how do you get started?  Well, there are a multitude of resources on the web that will walk you through the process, but this is what we did:

  • Make or buy a bin:  You can buy a bin on Amazon, or visit sites that specialize in worm bins and there are a variety of options.  If you have a lot of space or a basement, you can actually build a large enough system to feed a family.  There are also lots of how-to sites and videos on the web that will show you how easy it is to construct your own bin.  We went with the Tumbleweed worm bin mostly because it fit into the small space we had, but we grew to love it because it is a nested-box system and allows you to drain the liquid that forms (called compost tea).
  • Get your worms. It seems you can get red wigglers anywhere these days, even on Amazon or Worms.com.  Depending on where you live, shipping worms in the winter time can be a challenge, so if you have an environmental organization in your area, contact them to see if they might be able to sell to you directly.  In NYC, you can buy worms at the Greenmarket.
  • Set up your bin –  To get started, find some old newspaper.  It needs to be a paper that uses soy-based inks, as my local paper happily does. Most papers do, but if you are concerned, you can call them and ask. Shred the newspaper into strips about 1″ wide and create a nice fluffy nest in the bin.

  • Add your worms!  Take your worms and the medium they arrived in and dump the whole lot into the bin.  Cover with more paper.

  • Add your food scraps.  A bin the size of our Tumbleweed can handle about 3 lbs of food per week.  To make sure we didn’t overload the bin (and to prevent fruit flies), each time we would cook we would add the food scraps to a container in the freezer.  Once a week, we would dump the contents into the bin.  Each time you add, put the new food in a new spot – not right on top of the food from the previous week.

Suddenly, you are composting!  Feels good, right?  This description is just my experience, but for more comprehensive guide to setting up a bin, take a look at this handy reference from (you guessed it!) LESEC.

How To Set Up a Worm Bin

Next week, I will talk about when and how to harvest the compost from your bin.

Happy Composting!

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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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It’s Earth Day. Time to get your compost on.

Do you like gardening?  Do you feel like you never get enough time to dig around in the dirt here in the city?  Does it bug you when you have to throw your produce scraps in the garbage?  And then does it bug you even more when your garbage starts to smell?  All of those problems can be solved by starting your own indoor worm bin.

Gross, you say?  I get that.  Sort of.  When I was a kid, every time it rained I would pick up earthworms off the sidewalk because I think they are kind of cool.  So earthworms don’t really freak me out.  If you told me I should set up a grub bin or a maggot bin, I would excuse myself from our conversation, never to return.   But worms?  I guarantee they are totally benign.  Plus, when you toss your food scraps into a worm bin, the worms start to break them down right away, skipping the unpleasant rotting food smell you sometimes get when you open up your garbage can. Yay worms!

The thing is, 26% of the trash that goes into landfills is made up of food scraps and yard trimmings.   That, to me, is more disturbing than setting up a box full of worms and dirt in your kitchen (actually, ours is in the dining “area”).  You can easily divert your share of that to the compost in a few different ways.  If you have your own back yard, there are a variety of different bins out there that are easy to order and set up (click here for some good reviews).  If you live in an apartment building, you can band together with your neighbor to start a building-wide compost program.  Last year, I attended a workshop given by the Lower East Side Ecology Center (an amazing organization, I might add) on how to convince your co-op or condo board to approve a building-wide system and how to go about setting it up.

However, if you don’t have much in the way of outdoor space, and your building is full of cranky people who are not down with the whole Earth Day thing, you can easily  strike out on your own in the comfort of your apartment.  The fanciest way to go about doing this would be to order the NatureMill Automatic Composter from Williams-Sonoma.  It looks like a little composting robot and appears to do everything for you.  It does recommend you keep it in a garage or sheltered outdoor space, so I don’t know what that means for apartment dwellers.  If it wasn’t $400, I would buy it and report back (if you have one, I would love to know about it).

Another option is to go the Bokashi route.  Bokashi composting uses a combination of anaerobic organisms (like yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to break down food waste.  Sounds like making yogurt.  I’ve been curious about this for awhile and am planning to buy one,  especially since it claims to break down meat and fish scraps (which are a huge no-no for most compost bins).

If either of those options don’t work for you, consider an indoor worm bin.  It doesn’t take up much space and is fairly easy to maintain (as in, you don’t need a compost-sitter when you go on vacation). We have had a bin on and off for more than a decade.  I first learned about vermiculture through a workshop at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1997 and started it as a domestic experiment; one that really did freak people out.   Flash forward to 2011 and you have worm composting featured in a Martha Stewart publication.

While worm composting is extremely easy, you do have to keep a few things in mind.  One bin can only handle about 3 lbs of scraps per week.  We monitor the amount by freezing out scraps in a container and adding them once a week.  You do have to peek in the bin on a regular basis to make sure it isn’t too wet or dry and to make sure you have a nice ecosystem going on in there.  That is my kid’s favorite part – they have names for them.  About 3 or 4 times a year, you have to harvest the compost.

In the coming weeks, I will document the harvesting of my current bin the and setting up a new one on this blog.  If you are itching to get started right away, check out the LESEC‘s instructions, or this step-by-step guide.  It will be fun and I guarantee you will not be sorry when you see the amazing soil you are adding to your plants (or to the trees on the street for that matter).

Happy Earth Day!

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