It should be easier to compost in Sydney

I buried a year’s worth of a stranger’s food scraps last weekend.

She’d watched the ABC’s War on Waste series last year and was spurred into action. She started collecting her food scraps for compost, persisting in spite of the challenges of living in a small apartment with no council collection.

Fanny reached out to me online, where I list myself as a drop spot on ShareWaste and another Facebook compost sharing group. I have a small garden bed and our building participates in the local council’s food scraps recycling trial. The latter of which provides us with weekly kerbside collection (supplementing the green lidded garden waste bin). I consider myself lucky to have access to resources that make it easy to compost, and share the wealth whenever I can.

She alighted from a ride sharing vehicle with her 19L bokashi bin neatly contained in one of those large IKEA carry bags. A bokashi bin is like Mary Poppins’ handbag – it can hold more than you ever thought possible. As the beneficial bacteria pre-digest the scraps, everything compresses. Occasionally draining the juice helps reduce the volume too.

It was her first time using bokashi, but the thick white layer of mould on top of the scraps told me she’d done a perfect job of fermenting the batch.

I showed her the trench in my garden bed where I’d bury the bokashi as well as the nice black compost from the last batch I myself had recently buried. The process of decomposition once the bokashi is in the ground is phenomenally quick – it took maybe two to three weeks for the last batch to disappear.

We chatted about the challenges of composting in an apartment with no outdoor space. Most cities have not prioritised the recycling of nutrients, even as farmers’ fields lose topsoil and soil carbon at an alarming rate. It’s so much more difficult than it should be to compost here.

Which is why Fanny and I are both participating in this experiment of peer-to-peer exchange. I’m not mad at it, and I’ve met the best people this way, but I don’t see this DIY model catching on with the masses. Ditto for fee-based scrap collection services. These solutions don’t reach beyond the highly motivated. I reckon the majority of people fully understand the value and purpose of composting, but they’ll still object to rate increases to fund it. Blame mental accounting and defaults. One day I hope we agree that it’s the most crazy to fund profligate use of landfill as we do now. The opportunity cost of landfill is high and, as I see it, displacing potential investment in organics recycling.

There are other barriers too. Roommates, and even family members, are part of the social infrastructure of our lives and can either help or hinder our behaviour change efforts. Fanny’s new roommate objects to the idea of composting on the grounds that the bokashi bin grosses her out. Not everyone gets as excited about white mould and landfill diversion as me. The smell of the draining juices made her think the bucket would have a pervasive daily smell (it doesn’t). The juice is smelly when draining, but this happens so infrequently it would be like complaining about walking past a dumpster, or a child whose nappy needs a change.

Given my propensity for behaviour change literature, I offered her some suggestions to bring the roommate into the fold. I recommended she not force the issue on moral grounds, but instead try a structural intervention that would create ease and provide an emotional buffer between the roommate and the bokashi bin: a benchtop receptacle for daily veg scraps. The roommate could use this instead of touching the bokashi bin directly. The benchtop collection bucket – maybe on old ice cream container – could be deposited (by Fanny) in the bokashi bin once a day. This also keeps the main bin’s contents anaerobic. Fanny brightened, “And everyone likes ice cream”.

Fanny’s roommate doesn’t need to think differently before she acts differently. Humans are not rational, we’re post-rational. We can make up stories to explain just about any behaviour. When we change our actions, our story about why we’re doing it will change too. Once she starts using the less identity-threatening benchtop bin, the roommate will become the sort of person who composts, and I predict more positive feelings about composting and bokashi will follow.

We don’t need everyone to become a card carrying environmentalist, but we do need everyone to participate in food scraps recycling. Sometimes tribal motivation is a good strategy to get us there, but it’s certainly not the only strategy.

I’ve asked Fanny to let me know how it goes.

UPDATE: She let me know that it worked!

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