Why Are People So Squeamish About Composting?
By Jill Richardson /La Vida Locavore / April 19, 2013
I wrote this week’s column on composting [ed: see below], and I’ve been really pleased to see how various newspapers have picked it up. Honestly, I’ve been really surprised in the past several years about how squeamish people are about composting.
There was the incident where my next door neighbor’s landlord blamed my compost and my chickens on her rat problem. She “dealt with” this problem by tossing rat poison into my compost. I called the cops, and they said she did nothing wrong. The fact is that we lived across the street from a sizable rat population living off a grocery store’s dumpsters – and I have a rat-killing cat who keeps us well apprised of what sort of rodents are or are not residing in our yard. If we did have rats (we didn’t), I would have received gifts of dead rats from her several times a week.
Another place I lived – an “Eco-Village” as they called themselves – refused to compost on account of rats too. They had a beautiful garden full of tomatoes, figs, and a whole lot more. A rat paradise. And that was OK – but they thought that as soon as they made a compost pile, an army of rats would descend on them.
Where I live now, my neighbor is in a hurry to blame my tiny little worm bin for every single six-legged creature he sees around here. Then he wants to spray them with something toxic and he’ll say things to me like “I know you don’t like this, so look the other way.” Somehow I can’t seem to convince him that organic pesticides can be equally deadly – although he’s at least promised to let me try to kill the bugs first, before he gets his turn using the toxic stuff. And thankfully I’ve got no shortage of organic bug-killing tricks up my sleeves.
When we made our worm bin with the Girl Scout troop, some of the Girl Scout moms were entirely grossed out about the worms. They didn’t want to see them, touch them, or go near them. I’ll never understand why.
At any rate, now you know what inspired my op ed this week. It’s below.
What I didn’t put in my op ed – because it’s an op ed and not an advice column – are a few tips on composting if you live somewhere that makes it challenging.
First of all, if you don’t or can’t garden, you can still compost and then give away your waste on Craigslist or Freecycle. When I moved from Wisconsin to California, I had a compost bin full of not-very-broken-down food scraps. I stuck it up on Freecycle and gardeners were practically sending in applications, each describing to me why they were the worthiest person to receive my old, rotting food.
Another good trick I saw in New York City: putting your compost in the freezer. I stayed with some friends who have a community garden nearby, so they can drop off their compost there. And they do. But as they save it up at their house, if they can’t get to the community garden in a timely fashion, they stick the compost in the freezer to keep it from rotting and stinking.
Last, you can get this awesome little compost bucket to keep indoors. It’s got a charcoal filter and air holes, so the air goes in and out, but the smells stay in and the bugs stay out. I’ve got one myself and I love it. I toss everything in there, and then I take it outside a few times a week to dump it in my worm bin.
How to Send Less Trash to the Landfill – Make a down payment on your own soil’s fertility by composting.
My new neighbor knocked on my door and introduced herself as the vice president of the local homeowner’s association. “How friendly!” I thought. “She’s welcoming me to the neighborhood.”
Then she wrinkled her nose and motioned toward an enclosed bin on my porch, saying, “Your – what is it? Came-post? That’s not allowed here. You’ll need to get rid of it.”
My compost bin, designed to allow air and water in while keeping rodents out, was no nuisance whatsoever, but the HOA had decided it was unsightly. In my opinion, they had pretty odd standards about what constituted “unsightly” since they banned basketball hoops too.
That incident happened years ago when I first started composting. I never gave up, but I’ve encountered plenty of pushback despite the spread of this increasingly routine waste management practice. Once, a neighbor actually dumped rat poison into my compost bin after blaming it for her home’s rat problems. I have three cats and they hunt. We were not harboring rats, I guarantee it.
Another person I met while trying to be “green” and efficient paid over $100 for an electric compost machine that accomplishes the same thing that nature does for free.
Why are we so squeamish about our waste, especially when our food and yard waste turns into such a valuable gardening resource? Often, it’s the fear of foul odors.
When it’s done wrong, compost can certainly stink. But when done right, compost doesn’t stink. It has a mild, earthy aroma that I actually like. The solution is simple. Just add more cardboard, paper, twigs, wood chips, dead leaves, and other carbon-rich materials that will freshen the pile as they decompose. Plus, you can build or buy a bin that keeps rodents out if you worry about that.
Out of the 250 million tons of waste Americans produced in 2010, compostable materials like yard waste and food scraps made up 27 percent. Another 29 percent was paper and cardboard and six percent was wood. Together, compostable materials make up more than half of our waste – 155 million tons. And, while we recycle and compost some of it, a lot of it goes into landfills.
Then, after throwing away these valuable resources, Americans go out and buy garden and landscape products like compost, topsoil, and fertilizer. Why don’t we simply compost the food scraps, yard waste, and cardboard that we routinely throw away instead?
Besides, composting feels magical. You toss your unwanted waste into a pile or a bin, wait several months, and – voila! -you’ve got something that will make your soil amazing. Your old banana peels and coffee grounds can help grow food and flowers in your garden.
I admit I’m a little weird, but I love digging through my pile to smell the earthy aroma, feel the heat of my food breaking down, see how my waste is turning into rich, valuable compost, and check out what kinds of worms and other beneficial critters are making their homes there.
If you want to have even more fun, make a worm bin with a group of kids. I’ve never seen second graders pay such rapt attention to anything like they did to the red wriggler worms and the apple cores, grass trimmings, and newspaper scraps we fed them. The kids got so excited that they even began naming the individual worms and proposing to take them home as pets.
This spring, make a down payment on your own soil’s fertility by starting a compost pile. You’ll send less trash to the landfill, keep the stuff that rots and stinks out of your garbage can, and if you garden, your finished compost is sure to help you grow juicy heirloom tomatoes and delicious herbs.