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Composting at home is easy, this is everything you need to know

Photography by Tracey Creed
Assisted by Benoit Chabord
Research by Benoit Chabord and Amandine Paniagua
Words by Amandine Paniagua

Published November 25 2019

Organic, composting waste accounts for 30% of the general rubbish bin. If you live in Auckland, this figure increases to roughly 50%, the equivalent of 90 000 tonnes each year. Why are these figures a major issue? According to this UN study released in 2018, 68% of the worldwide population, weather two-thirds of humanity will be living in urban areas by 2050 (it is about 55% nowadays). And population growth on a defined territory goes hand in hand with waste management — and the need for landfills. The expansion of landfills takes valuable space, either land for growing food or building housing — two primary criteria making cities liveable. Landfill development comes at a very high cost, involving millions of dollars. They are also a source of air and water pollution. Organic waste never composts in a landfill, because of the lack of oxygen, everything tightly piled up to save space.

As a consequence, organic materials end up rotting, not composting. This waste breaks down into methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide, another prevalent greenhouse gas — waste gases account for 5% of New Zealand overall greenhouse emissions. That and leachate, a highly polluting liquid, carrying all toxic chemicals produced by the general waste decomposition. Once filled, it is unlikely for these sites to be used for other purposes over following decades. The only and simple solution to limit these problems is to remove organic waste from the general collection, through distinguished collections, or even cheaper by composting on-site, meaning your home.

Composting at home requires some time, some organisation but it is possible, achievable. With my partner Benoit, we have been composting for three years now, and implemented our system in different types of households, from a couple within an apartment to a houseshare of seven adults. How to compost at home? In the following, I share all the key information you need to know to implement an easy and successful composting at-home system.

A beginner's guide to home compost

Our interest in compost developed from our focus on waste reduction. It is part of a comprehensive strategy we now share here, on this platform, yet we implemented in our lives started in 2016. This focus came at a time where we had begun to understand more completely the impact this Western way of living had on both our health and the health of our planet. As such, prior to composting we shifted to lean more heavily on a plant-based diet and reduced our daily waste simply by buying less but of quality. Where possible, we opted for packaged free items, bulk and organic food. Looking for answers to recurring questions, we studied permaculture, our priorities shifting, we quit toxic jobs, and so on. Looking back, home composting was a painless move!

I know that composting for many people can feel daunting. It isn't mainstream, not required like recycling. Regardless, it is a concrete and quick solution to decrease organic matter ending up in your rubbish bin. Taking care of organic waste is also generating useful organic material, to grow plants in pots, or in the garden. And we don't spend money on unnecessary items like rubbish bags. All it takes is a bit of education, adjusting habits and some organisation in your kitchen.

We started composting out of curiosity, buying a small bokashi bin. However, we stopped using the bokashi after a while; we didn't understand how it worked. A couple of months later, reading Bea Johnson's best-seller zero waste guide, trying to apply such principles into our lives, we came across Compost Collective. This Auckland based organisation supported by Auckland Council runs a series of workshops throughout the city, teaching how to compost correctly. These sessions include a $40.00 discount toward the purchase of a composting system. If you are outside of Auckland, or New Zealand for that matter, check if there is anything similar in your area supported by the local council or community groups.

As a result, the first key information we learned was that there are two types of waste fuelling composting systems — green and brown.

Green Are nitrogen-based materials, food scraps, fresh lawn, flowers.

Brown Are carbon-based, paper, paper napkins, cardboard, to hair and tree pulp packaging, among others.

An appropriate balance between nitrogen-based and carbon-based matter produces quality compost while avoiding chronic issues such as bug disturbance, odour, pest attraction, et cetera. When your composting systems go sour, good chances are there is a lack of fuel balance.

There are many more, composting is an extraordinary science in itself, but those three systems require a certain balance between accessibility, space and affordability.

The second vital piece of information was understanding our composting options. There are three systems working well for us, for composting at home — stacked worm farm, bokashi and our cold garden composting bin. There are many more, composting is an extraordinary science in itself, but those three systems require a certain balance between accessibility, space and affordability. The following describes these systems, the amount of green and brown each requires for optimum processing and the type of organic waste they can take.

What is a worm farm?

A stacked worm farm is primarily a pile of large trays with separators, filled with soil and worms processing organic matter, travelling up and down through the trays. Worms require 70% green for 30% brown to work properly. They are easy, but their food must be vegan and raw. They don't like animal products, and acidic foods like citrus, pineapple, papaya, kiwi fruits, onions, garlic or pepper. Basically, any food that will irritate your eyes will irritate the worms skin. They also prefer to avoid rotten or cooked food. Worms are seasonal, highly productive in summer and slower in winter, and they don't like the cold or rain, so keep them sheltered, also protected from the sun. Worms travel between trays and their population is regulated by the food volumes provided to them, their number can double every month if there is enough food.

After adding food scraps to the worm farm, cover the entire surface with a layer of brown matter (paper bags, napkins or thin cardboard). This will suffice for the 30% of brown needed and keep the moisture in. Once the top tray is full, add another on top, or if already more than three trays switch the lower tray with the top one. Finally, keep in mind that worms won't be the only living beings in the worm farm; it's called Nature's way. A lot of people struggle with the idea of having a box of worms either in their home or backyard, but they are silent and don't smell. It is like having thousands of chilled out pets requiring very little maintenance. Cute really.

Worms produce a pure dark compost called worm casting, and worm tea at the bottom of the worm farm. Worm tea is a liquid you can dilute with water (1:10), an excellent fertiliser for leafy plants. Worm casting is useful in the garden or pots mixed with soil. If you have no garden, social media groups or share waste apps will be helpful in locating someone in need of compost.

What is a bokashi?

A bokashi is a fermentation system, meaning food scraps won't decay but pickle, due to an inoculant — a handful of natural beneficial microorganisms mixed with sawdust and molasses. Bokashi requires 100% green matter to work efficiently. The main advantage is the bokashi can process all sorts of food — cooked, rotten, fresh scraps, et cetera. However, nothing considered brown such as paper or cardboard can go in there.

The bokashi powerfully smells of pickle because a bokashi is essentially fermenting food scraps. It also requires an anaerobic environment to work smoothly, so keep the bokashi closed at all times, opening a maximum once per day. Each time you are filling the bokashi, use a potato masher to push material towards the bottom. This will help in making space, filling the container slower while better extracting the juice.

Bokashi juice is an excellent fertiliser for fruit plants when diluted (1:100 — 2 to 3 tablespoons to 5 litres of water); also efficient pure for cleaning your house drains, hence the dilution when using for plants. Once the bokashi is full, you need to keep it closed, untouched for a couple of weeks. After that, you have two options. Either, bury the bokashi compost in your garden, wait for another few weeks and finally plant crops within the area— your plants will thrive. Otherwise, place bokashi compost into your garden compost bin to further decay. Otherwise if no garden, use social media groups to locate gardeners in your area who will be more than happy to take it.

What is a compost bin?

A cold compost bin is a perforated container with no bottom, installed on a sunny area on earth ground. To work correctly, cold compost requires 30% green for 70% brown, alternatively layered, starting with a brown-based layer, then a green layer and so on, always topping with a brown layer. Commonly found in gardens, compost bins require more dry material than the worm farm. These bins are ideal for disposing of dried cut grass or bokashi compost (considered green), and of course food scraps.

If you cannot add green material often, add water to your compost bin to keep the contents spongy. In addition, give a gentle stir on the top part from time to time with a garden fork. However, avoid mixing fresh layers with processed compost.

After three to six months, the bottom should start to transform into a dark, moist, crumbly lookalike soil. To retrieve the compost, remove the bin slipping it up, and relocate it somewhere else in the garden. With the pile free, using a large fork, scrape the unprocessed layers, placing back in the bin. Now you have a nice pile of compost leftover, ready to use in the garden.

A compost set up for every situation

Composting systems are complementary in what they can process, especially the worm farm and bokashi — everything worms cannot eat can go into the bokashi. That is why it is interesting to pair composting systems to avoid the hassle of dealing with your composting waste.

For an apartment situation, with little to no garden or outdoor area, Benoit and I believe the worm farm and bokashi are the best pairing for composting at home. Both are easy to move around and remove if necessary. If you are in a small apartment dwelling, composting indoors is no issue; there is no odour and no flies if properly managed.

If you have a garden, the cold composting bin is an appropriate addition, convenient when you tend to fill the other systems quickly, alternatively you could double up on those. When we moved to another townhouse with two extra flatmates, we had to scale up our composting systems. We got a second, bigger bokashi for facile bokashi rotation. Once the first bokashi was full, this was set aside for the last part of the fermentation process to occur without disturbance and we used the other. As with our previous living situation we kept the worm farm in the garage.

Finally, when moving into our friend's house, we were seven, and as such the compost system took on another dimension. We have now two worm farms and three bokashi on rotation which sit on the deck, and two garden compost bins — those came with the house.

What do you need in your kitchen?

With life rhythm, long work hours, children to take care of, being time-poor calls for convenience. I have found achieving this convenience in everyday life requires a shift in habits which can be challenging. There is no secret, the best way to adopt new routines to work is to make them easy. Composting at home is no different.

For composting to be as effortless as possible, a well organised set up is required in the kitchen where food scraps are produced initially. It doesn't matter if you are two or seven in your household, opening your composting system more than once a day will disturb the composting process. Additionally, if you feel you are less likely to adopt the use of your compost system if placed at the other end of your property, consider minimising the effort and placing your composting systems as close to the kitchen as possible. Being in your entry, deck, garage or garden, it is always an extra effort to reach your composting system while preparing food or cleaning in the kitchen.

From there, I recommend you have small containers sitting on the kitchen bench; this makes composting so simple and easy. We have two containers on our benchtop, one intended for the worm farm, the other for the bokashi. These containers can be anything, depending on the volume of food scraps you are producing per day, ours are between 4 to 6 liters.

In the case of other people using the kitchen, I strongly advise labelling each container with tags specifying which type of food scraps and other matter can go in which bin. In our household, Benoit is primarily responsible for managing our compost systems. Having one person taking care of the worms ensures the system remains in equilibrium, so no flies, foreign bugs, pests, et cetera — and the worms won't be harmed. Maybe find your inhouse compost manager, for peace of mind. And that's it, with your composting management system implemented, it should run smoothly in no time.

When living the two of us, we loved having a dry and clean rubbish bin. We had no fruit flies, no rubbish bin bags, no odour and no liquid in the bin (that's why plastic rubbish bags are required in the first place). We were putting the rubbish out for collection once every two months! To sum up, composting removed much of the hassle associated with rubbish from our day to day. Now we are living with more people, it's a bit different, yet the results are so significant. Being seven, we don't need to take care of the general rubbish collection as much as we used to. It is crazy compared to other families in our street how little rubbish we put out. And composting is how we managed to significantly reduce the rubbish that otherwise would be going to landfill.

Separating organic matter from general waste, you also remove what is accountable for the disgusting odour and the other not so pleasant aspects of waste. That shift of paradigm is the opportunity to seize, to take back the responsibility for your impact, actively decreasing your waste footprint while creating a truly resourceful and essential material. And some consequences are bigger than you, from the conservation of economic and physical assets, the ability to maintain topsoil, to restoring possible depleted soil with vital nutrients, ensuring food safety. This is your opportunity to live a little more circular.

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