My first compost exchange

Compost exchange Sydney

I recently started a compost exchange.

Very few councils in the Sydney area offer curbside food scrap collection, making it tricky for people who live in apartments to compost at home, for lack of a convenient drop off spot. They will, eventually. In the meantime, I’ve set about solving a problem I have and suspect others might too.

I thought it would be difficult to recruit people to take organic scraps from strangers based on the yuck factor, the potential for gardeners to want to avoid contaminants, or feel burdened. I was surprised at how easy it all was to get a number of initial responses from community gardens and some individuals.

My first exchange meetup

I posted my suburb and need (dropping off) to get things going. C responded quickly and lives close by. We arrange the drop by private message.

When I meet C, she is the perfect host. I ask her if she’s heard of the Bokashi method of composting, and she laughs and tells me she knows all about it and it’s fine, and to come on to the backyard where her composter sits.

C’s garden is pure magic.

My eyes must have gone wide, because she starts to explain what the different plants are and what they are for. She points out a tree here, a bloom there, and exotic sounding herbs. I am introduced to pomegranates, sandpaper figs, elderflower, pineapple sage, butterfly bush, kumeras, lemon myrtle and tree tomatoes.

Tom-AHHH-toes she says with a laugh at the way I pronounce tomatoes. Neither of us is originally from Australia.

I could have lingered for much longer. I wanted to soak it in, take pictures, write it all down.

But back to the reason I was there. I add my bin contents to her regular black compost bin where it will transition from anaerobic to aerobic. C adds some leaves and branches on top for a balance of browns. Soon the worms will move in to feast on the pre-digested matter.

She tells me to come back whenever I need to. I leave with a large handful of branches and herbs.

I gave her my organics scraps, and she gave me her time, her space, her knowledge (and a giant handful of garden bounty). It worked better than I expected. That was a few months ago now, and I’ve since been back.

Just as healthy soil is a rich, diverse community, so too is our human one. Will you join?

That time I started a compost exchange

I bang on a lot about compost because I want to make it the norm.

Composting isn’t just for people with gardens or yards, but for everyone – even those of us living in small apartments in big cities. 

Yet barriers remain.

Most people probably know that if you have a yard, to compost is pretty simple. Local councils often even offer training and discounts on equipment. Your scraps simply go from house to yard for recycling. Easy.

Ostensibly, these council offerings are meant to help apartment dwellers join the compost party too. And the collecting of scraps is pretty straightforward, even in an apartment. So far so good.

But ummmm, soooo, what are those of us who live in units to do with the compost after we’ve collected it?

We might not have or want a garden. We may simply want to compost food scraps because it’s the right thing to do; Organics recycling is this unicorn-like activity that manages to both reduce methane in landfill and also sequester carbon. 

For the solution-minded amongst us, the question becomes, how could we make it easier for people living in apartments to participate?

We have some choices here – we could ask our government to do it for us (and likely wait a while) or we could be resourceful and ask ourselves how we can do something about it today.

I’ve decided on the latter. My solution has been to start a compost exchange here in Sydney.

I might be glorifying it a bit, since for now it’s simply an open Facebook group, but it’s the first step in addressing what I think is a big problem / opportunity – unit dwellers shut out of organics recycling.

The goals of the compost exchange are to:

  • connect people who live in apartments, like me, with others who would accept their food scraps.
  • encourage acceptance of organics recycling as an essential part of modern urban living.
  • help make composting more accessible and less mysterious to all.
  • promote knowledge of alternative composting methods, like the Bokashi method.
  • spark conversation around the waste we make and the systems designed to manage them.
  • be a local, free, people-powered solution to the issue of soil degradation.
  • enable community interactions between a diverse group of people.
  • empower action on reducing our carbon footprints, today, without waiting for government to act for us.
  • act as a gateway drug to urban food growing.

If you’re in Sydney, will you join the group?

Another time, I will tell you the story of my first compost ‘transaction’.

What I compost using the Bokashi method

Apartment composting using the Bokashi method is flexible and convenient because it can handle a wider variety of food scraps than some other forms of compost.

Here are the basics materials that go into my Bokashi compost bin:  
  • fruit and vegetable scraps (seeds, skins, etc.), including citrus
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds
  • cooked food (such as the scraps from making broth)
  • meat and fish scraps (including smaller bones)
  • paper products (napkins, paper towels, newsprint, masking tape)
  • tea bags (except synthetic bags, which I avoid)
  • bread
  • dairy
  • flowers
  • Small pieces of wood, such as wooden skewers, and handles from bamboo toothbrushes.
What don’t I compost?
  • bio plastics. I avoid these wherever I can.
  • large bones

Bokashi vs worms

I choose the Bokashi method over a worm farm for a few reasons, but chiefly because it is simple to manage and explain to others, because it has fewer no-nos. Example: Worms apparently don’t like citrus or onions, of which I am a frequent eater. Interestingly though, when I bury my Bokashi at my sister-in-law’s place – citrus, onions and all – the worms get fully amongst it. Maybe no one told them? Have a peek at some before and after shots of the Bokashi compost method to see.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about why I choose the Bokashi method for composting in a small apartment, and what you’ll need to get started.

Before and after Bokashi

The results of Bokashi composting are a thing of beauty. Dirty, microbial beauty. 

Learning about Bokashi composting was one of the turning points in my life. Overstatement? I don’t think so.

Bokashi composting has enabled me, apartment renter that I am, to easily reduce my waste by 80%, without having a garden or yard of my own.

Nothing else will have as large an impact on my efforts to live low waste as this. It’s also freed me from the idea that I urgently need my own yard to be able to compost.

Like most young people living in pricey cities (oh heeyy there Vancouver and Sydney), owning a detached home within, say, a two hour commute of my work in the city remains a dream unrealized. It’s not that I need a detached home per se. It’s that they usually come with the space to be able to compost and grow food.

When I lived in rentals with yards I would buy those big black composters – the kind subsidized by the city – and use them. I’d always associated composting with yards and big black containers.

Years later and back to apartment living, but still in my pre-Bokashi days, I had a small container and would frequently and furtively drop the scraps into my neighbours’ green bins. Vancouver had started food scraps pickup, but only for detached homes. A great initiative but it still left a gap for people like me. I could sneak around, but it was high maintenance to have to empty it all the time. If I didn’t take it out often enough, it would lead to smells, bugs and rightly so, accusatory glances from roommates.

Enter the Bokashi method.

Bokashi: the ideal compost for an apartment?

Bokashi gave me a level of control over my compost that nothing else can match. I could collect and hang on to scraps indefinitely if necessary, indoors, and in a way that didn’t smell or attract flies, and drop it off when convenient for me. I haven’t looked back.

Bokashi compost before and after:

Bokash compost before
Before: the scraps still look recognizable.
Bokash compost after
After: 2-3 weeks later, the worms are diggin’ it.

 

Bokashi helps me reduce my waste, obviously, but it also empowers me to be okay with where I am in life right now, which is in a small apartment with a small balcony. I can decide when to empty it, and that makes it a whole lot more doable.

Read my post all about Bokashi composting in an apartment to get started. See a roundup of my compost posts here.