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!

How to keep worms happy in hot weather

Tips for keeping your worms comfortable in the heat. 

People usually think of Sydney as a sunny, happy place. It is, mostly. There is also a level of extremity that takes some getting used to. A day that begins at 35 degrees might plummet to 22 within minutes of the antarctic southerly wind belting through (laundry pegs are essential). The city itself is a concrete heat sink. New housing developments lack trees, which are sorely needed to help to pull water from ocean onto land to regulate temperature and provide shade for people and roads. No surprise then, that we’re smashing heat records, a rain storm destroyed the roof of our last apartment, and the occasional tornado rolls through town. Applying local indigenous knowledge of the seasons makes so much more sense than the imposed European framework of spring, summer, fall, and winter. We are in the ‘hot and dry’ currently. Labels aside, temps over 30 degrees are normal at least half of the year. At times it’s hotter still, with heat waves in the low 40s lasting for days. Like humans, worms don’t thrive in extreme heat. Weather above 30 degrees celsius can stress worms and even kill them.

Here are a couple of tips to manage worms in the heat:

Shade: House your little guys are in a shady spot. If you lack space, a hessian sack or an an umbrella can be repurposed to create shade – in fact it’s the perfect way to get more use out of a broken umbrella.

Balanced bedding: Add newspaper and bits of cardboard to keep their home balanced between carbon and nitrogen and nicely aerated. Toilet paper rolls, newsprint and egg cartons all work well. Make sure the bedding is overall a bit moist.

Reduced feeding: Worms don’t eat as much in the heat, so reduce the volume or pace of feedings leading up to and during a heat wave.

Make popsicles: Freezing and/or blending scraps helps your worms eat them faster and doubles as a way to cool the tray temperature. Worm popsicles!

Block ice: On scorcher days, when I don’t want to add any more food scraps, I put a bucket of ice, frozen as a block, into the feeding tray. I keep this block on hand through the summer so I’m always prepared for a heat wave. You could use any sort of container that will accommodate the expansion of water as it freezes.

A hot day here or there isn’t the end of the world, and worms are still fairly resilient creatures. My worms survived a heat wave above 40 last year when I was out of town and couldn’t give them some ice. Probably because they were already shaded, had decent bedding, and weren’t overfed in the lead up.

Compost and the city: what I’ve learned about composting in a small apartment

worm farm stacking trays
My mission is life is to get everyone composting. Recycling food scraps and organics is the habit of champions thanks to its methane reducing, carbon sequestering, topsoil enriching benefits. So why don’t more of us do it? 

Grow up, leave home, stop composting

Many of us grew up composting and fell out of the habit when we left home, thinking we needed yard space to so it. That’s more or less what I thought. In any situation where I had enough yard space I would dutifully go get a large black bin and give it a whirl, only to be knocked back by a landlord who just didn’t get it. Sound familiar?

In moving to Sydney, a yard was not in the cards. My two biggest barriers to composting were:

  1. finding a solution for composting or food scrap collection in an apartment with extremely limited outdoor space, and
  2. finding a place to drop off my scraps after collecting them.
worm farm
A guerilla worm farm spotted around Sydney.

The good news is that composting can be done in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, traditional outdoor heap stye, worm farms, Khamba and Bokashi. I had done Bokashi for a few years back in Vancouver, so that was a natural choice. It’s ultra convenient, can be stored indoors, takes a wide variety of food and organic scraps and doesn’t smell. If I can do it, anyone can do it. More recently I got a worm farm.

The next issue was where to take the bin contents, which I’ve also been able to solve. Over the past few years, I’ve shared quite a bit on this blog about how I’ve been able to compost in an apartment without yard space or my own bin style compost. If you’re keen to start composting, but don’t know where to start or what will work, have a read through some of my previous posts that I’ve linked to below. Bokashi is an excellent system for beginners. If you choose a worm farm instead of, or as well as, Bokashi, they aren’t difficult to manage either.

Here’s a collection of my Bokashi & worm farming, and composting posts:

Worm composting update: Inching closer to closed loop

Worm composting

An update on my foray into worm farming, 3 months in. Plus, a progress report on my attempt at a closed loop composting system in my small apartment.

The worms get a real home

Back in November, I got worms. While they were doing okay in my makeshift setup, I’ve since updated their digs to a commercially produced worm farm, a secondhand find acquired via the good folks at the Sydney Sustainability Centre.

This proper worm farm is larger than my quick fix of a reusable bag inside a milk crate, so eventually I should end up with more worms and more composting capacity.

The worm farm comes with several stacking trays that all have drainage holes on the bottom. They sit overtop a non-draining bottom tray with a tap.

The worms are actually in the middle tray, munching away.

I started with just one draining tray over the bottom tray. You only need to add another into the stack when the tray where the worms are fills up.

A month on and they’ve already filled one tray to capacity, so I’ve added another on top. I lined the new tray with a cutting of a hessian sack that was part of last year’s halloween costume. Worms can move through this loosely woven material just as easily as I can party in it. I’ll let them finish their meal in the bottom tray before I add anything up top though.

worm farm stacking trays
The trays are the same dimensions, an optical illusion makes them appear different.

When they do migrate up to the new tray, it’s time to harvest the castings as rich compost to use in the garden.

Maintaining a worm farm over summer

The worm farm is pretty low maintenance, except on those scorcher days.

It was 38 degrees last week and 35+ earlier this week. This might be normal for the outback, but it’s hotter than usual for Sydney. And as we’ve come into summer I’ve noticed my south facing patio actually receives a lot of sun. I keep the worm farm in what has become the only sheltered area of the patio.

On those hotter days, I’ve been adding a palm-sized block of ice right into their bedding to keep them comfortable. I check them to see that the bedding (a mix of dirt and coir) is neither too wet nor too dry. So far, maintenance has been simple.

Happiness is a black sludge

In doing a general check of the worm farm, I had a peek at the catch tray and noticed sludge, liquid and a few worms.

There is no way to make this look better than what it is. But trust me, it’s exciting!

The liquid could simply be a result of the ice I’ve been adding that has melted and pooled rather that true worm ‘pee’, but the castings are the real deal: worm poo. I added the half trowel-full to the base of my two raspberry bushes.

Would you be surprised to know that the worm composting set up doesn’t smell at all?

I drained the liquid and left it to aerate for a good while. I diluted it with water and gave it to some daggy ornamental plants as an experiment. I’d like to research the use of this liquid a bit more before using on food plants.

Closed loop composting in an apartment?

My goal is to set up a closed loop system where my kitchen feeds my Bokashi, my Bokashi feeds my worms, my worms produce fertilizer for the garden, and the garden feeds me. And then back go the scraps through the compost system.

Closed loop apartment composting

Why bother? Curiosity partly. I do have places to drop off solid waste from the Bokashi, so it’s not like I’m stuck. However, in my strange visions of the future, we all have some growing space (like oh say, the swaths of dead lawn surrounding my apartment building), and we don’t need to rely on vehicles to get the nutrients from one place to another. So I want to get the hang of the nutrient flows and reduce my overall external inputs and outputs. Build resilience. I already don’t have to buy any herbs – except cilantro, to my ongoing dismay.

But these are early days and I haven’t yet fed them any fermented waste. The worms are, however, already producing useful fertilizer for the garden. It’s going kitchen -> worms -> garden.

I’m okay with this. It actually makes most sense to feed the worms as many scraps as possible directly. It’ll give me more, better fertiliser, faster, and I can use Bokashi as an overflow for the stuff worms don’t like to eat fresh from the chopping board, like garlic and onion, or the cooked leftovers from making broth.

Besides, I can always bury the Bokashi into a trench in my back bed, donate to a buddy or dispose the solid waste into the food scraps bin I discovered in our building. Turns out my building is part of the Randwick Council pilot program. Go figure. I could put my scraps directly into this bin, but what fun would we have then?

Randwick's Food scrap recycling program

Right now I have a full bin of Bokashi that I’m leaving as long as possible to ensure it gets broken down enough for my wriggly friends to feast on.

Free range v. farmed worms 

Some of you may be wondering about my partner’s ‘free range’ worms released into our back garden bed. I’m not saying his worms are weird, but one evening I found one that’d climbed up an eggplant seedling. I regret not taking a picture.

buried bokashi

There were also heaps where I’d buried a full bucket of Bokashi into a trench in the back garden bed. This nicely proves that worms do like Bokashi, which I sort of already knew. Since my own numbers are low, I stole some and added them to my farm. It was a crime of compassion. They will be guaranteed a good feed every couple of days at the farm.

That’s my worm composting update, nearly 3 months in. I’m not ready to add ‘Worm Farmer’ to my CV, but I’m mastering the basics. Do you compost with worms? How is it working for you?