Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Compost Chronicles: Urban Composter

Photograph Courtesy of iStock Photo

It's been almost a year since the Illinois legislature passed S.B. 99, intended to make commercial composting viable in Illinois. Prior to the passage of this act, Illinois required a commercial food scrap composting facility to obtain a pollution control permit, an arduous and financially prohibitive process. The bill amended the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to remove food scraps from the definition of garbage so that now Illinois treats food scrap composting in the same manner as landscape composting, allowed in the state for years. To read more about the legislation, click here.

Despite the passage of the bill, the dream of commercial composting for residential purposes (i.e. curbside composting found in cities like Portland, OR) is still just that, a dream. Given the financial climate, it would be very difficult for a businessperson to raise the funds to build a composting facility available to the general public and the City just doesn't have the resources to fund one at this time.

Given this reality, any Chicagoan wanting to reduce their organic waste that heads to the landfill will need to explore small scale, home-based composting systems. About a year and half ago, Michael Morowitz had asked me to prepare a down and dirty guide on these systems for The Local Beet. At the time, I was having my own composting struggles so I begged off. Fifteen months later, with my electric composter churning away and my worms fat and happy, I think I can provide a brief introduction to the realm of urban composting. I'll also explain how to tap into the more expert worm wranglers and compost keepers for more knowledgeable advice.

To start out, I want to make it perfectly clear, I do no outdoor composting. We live in an old rowhouse a few door down from Ravenswood, the el, and Metra. We've had rat problems in the past, including one that nuzzled its way through crumbling brick outside our back door, glided down what must have been a rodent slide, and peeked its way through the gap in our laundry room cupboards. Seeing this, we called our contractor who removed said cupboards and found no rat, but three tiny dead mice babies. Sealing up the hole, replacing the cabinets, we seem to have been rodent free (knock on wood) since then. But I will do NOTHING, not one thing, to attract any of these critters to my back yard. If you're looking for advice on compost piles, rack composting systems, solar composting devices, or the drums that require turning, look elsewhere, I've got nothing for you.

What I can tell you is how we, as a family of three who eat at home regularly, have diverted most of our food waste from the garbage to the compost bin.

The High Tech

Almost two years ago, I ordered the Nature Mill electric composter. The marketing materials suggested that this machine could do it all. Not only would it churn vegetable and fruit waste into finely ground compost, but it could take on meat and bread scraps (two no-nos for the worm and outdoor compost bins). My first disappointment transpired when I opened the box and realized the size of it. The Nature Mill people suggest their machine will fit under the sink (a replacement for the garbage disposal). In fact, it does fit in a standard under the sink cabinet as long as you don't plan to open it up, which is how you add the scraps. Okay, small impediment. I located it downstairs in our laundry room, set it up according to the directions, and began adding our waste.

The first week or so, all seemed to be a go. But then, it began to stink. Reviewing the instructions, I realized that the mixture needed balancing so I added some baking soda and sawdust pellets and it evened itself out. Feeling confident, I then decided to add the protein that I was assured it could handle. About a half a cup of shrimp shells (spent from making stock) were tossed in with veggie waste and coffee grinds. Within a day, the stench emanating from the machine could knock you back. Note to self, no more animal protein.

A few more weeks went by and it seemed to operating smoothly until it wasn't. The machine shorted out. I called the company and they replaced the control panel and everything seemed fine, that is until the couscous incident. Along with vegetable waste, baking soda, sawdust, coffee grinds, I added a whole mess of cooked couscous left over from a DIY Couscous table that Purple Asparagus organized for Lab School. I'm not sure what happened but within a week or so, I found these little tiny seeds (or so I thought) clinging to the interior sides of the bin. They didn't concern me that much at first, until they started to multiply. For those of you who know your bugs will realize that these multiplying seeds weren't seeds at all, but maggots.

Vowing not to be beaten by the machine, I cleaned out the machine with a mask covering my mouth and nose and gloves on my hands. I started it up again, but something that I did in cleaning must have damaged the apparatus, and the machine wouldn't churn. Harumph. I gave up for the time being.

A few months later, I put aside the maggots from my imagination and called the company. Unfortunately, at this point the warranty had expired. After some sweet talking and firm talking, they finally offered to sell me another at cost (allowing me to upgrade). Hoping that I wasn't throwing good money after bad, I agreed.

It arrived, I unpacked it, I set up the culture, waited two weeks (a step not explained in the first manual) and it seemed to be working. Until it wasn't. Another call to the company, another package returned, and another composter sent. This was last year.

Fast forward to today, after all that headache, it's working. Situated in our kitchen, it churns a few times a day. We fill it with fruit and veggie scraps, an occasional bread crust, balancing this all with a judicious amount of baking soda and coffee grinds. With a pretty deep well, we divert a large percentage of our daily food scraps to our Nature Mill so despite the effort and cost involved, I do think that it was worth it. I also do know that the company, a new one, did work to improve their product and their manual, so that us first-generation owners probably worked out a lot of the kinks for them. If you've got the resources and want a simple composting with less ick factor this may be the way to go.

The Low Tech

In between all of the hassles we endured with the Nature Mill, friend and author Tim Magner, gave Thor his book Earl the Earthworm Digs for his Life, which inspired the little locavore to ask for a pet worm (along with his sports jerseys and Wii games) for his 5th birthday. Ordering a worm ranch from Montana with a 1000 red wigglers, we started our experiment with vermicomposting.

A far easier process (with just a bit more ick), we have a large green perforated rectangle that sits another rectangular box slightly bigger than the first. We lined it with newspaper scraps, dumped the worms with the accompanying castings, and covered them with a bunch of food scraps and another layer of shredded newspaper. I closed up the hard cover of the box and we waited. A few weeks later, most of the foodstuffs had been processed into soft brown bits and the newspaper soaked through. Our little red friends wriggled in and out of the shreds. I added more food and more newspaper and covered it back up. Things were going very smoothly. The bin emitted no odor and it was a pretty easy to maintain. As it got warmer, things got a little dicey as we saw some little flies around the box, both in and out. I pulled out my used copy of Worms Eat My Garbage, which recommended covering the bedding with a thick sheet of plastic. Once I did that our bug problem ceased.

The worms are pretty easy to maintain. I feed them every other week, allowing my food scraps to rot a little in a compost pail that I keep under the sink (apparently it's easier for the worms to work through partially decomposed foodstuffs). Quarterly, I need to drain out the worm poop that accumulates in the bottom tray. Cutting it with lots of water, I pour that as a fertilizer in our garden. While there's a bit of ick factor involved in the worms, once you get over it they are actually rather easy to handle.

Over the course of these two years in these adventures, I’ve learned a few things about worm wrangling and compost keeping. Here are my top 5 tips.

1. Always maintain a balance between browns (paper, coffee grinds, sawdust, wood pellets) and greens (most everything else). Otherwise it will stink.
2. Keep out the protein, fats, and bread. After my shrimp shell incident, I keep the animal protein out of my compost. Otherwise it will stink.
3. With your worm bin, make sure the food waste is always covered, at least by shredded newspaper and preferably with a thick piece of plastic. Otherwise, you’ll get flies.
4. Be patient especially at first. With either the worm bin or the electric composter, don’t put in too much waste to start. Otherwise it will stink or you’ll get flies.
5. Make sure to chop or tear your organic matter into small pieces, it’s easier for both the electric composter and the worm bin to process the waste. The longer it takes, the more likely it will stink.

Since this is more a story about composting than a guide, I have a few resources for those of you wanting to find more detailed information on composting.

In Chicago, there’s no one who makes composting more fun than Stephanie Davies of Urban Worm Girl. With her school programs and Worms and Wine events, Stephanie makes composting fun and easy. She sells what has to be the most attractive worm bin, deep green and shaped sort of like a pagoda.

In the suburbs, you can find the grand dame of the garbage heap, Kay McKeen and her organization SCARCE.

The bible on vermicomposting is Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. Anyone starting out with worms need to have a copy of this book.

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