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!

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?

Bokashi + vermiculture = Zero Waste composting

How do Bokashi and vermiculture work together? Very well! Read on for how I’ve incorporated worm farming into my apartment composting regimen to create a zero waste composting system. 

I got worms.

Actually, my partner got worms. He ordered 1000 red wigglers from the council. The worms are for composting, or vermiculture, and the local council subsidizes them as well as various composting equipment to encourage home composting.

One of the reasons councils are taking this approach is to avoid the steep levy increases that are the byproduct of landfills reaching capacity in the Sydney region. Yep, trash is expensive to truck around to hours outside the city. Maybe we should make less of it?

They came in a plastic bag with a hole poked into it inside a cardboard box.

Why worms, why now?

I’ve wanted to try vermiculture for a while, but limited space and harsh elements in our last place meant sticking to un-screw-uppable Bokashi method composting. We recently moved to a place with a larger and more sheltered outdoor space and I had been thinking again about getting worms.

My partner is normally tolerant and supportive, but not necessarily enthused about compost, so this worm purchase surprised, delighted and confused me. Then I found out he wanted to set them free in the open air garden bed on our patio.

Intervention time.

My philosophy is that if you want people to board Spaceship Earth, you don’t always be telling them they’re wrong. In the end we made a compromise wherein he let 250 worms go free range, and left me to care for the 750 that remained. Is this preparation for having children, or what?*

But where will they live?

Since he ordered worms but no worm farm, I assembled a temporary structure for them with the essentials: darkness, moisture, drainage, and shelter from both wind and sun. What this means in practise is an upcycled reusable plastic mesh bag sitting in a salvaged milk crate with cardboard around the sides for protection. Just call me McGyver.

worm farm hack
Needs must.

This will have to do until I find a second hand worm farm or give in and buy a new one. I’m kicking myself for not taking the one I spied on the nature strip some months back. It’s not hoarding if it’s eventually useful, right?**

But I’m not giving up my Bokashi bin. I’m going to use both. Because while there are advantages and disadvantages to both, they actually work best together.

Bokashi v. worm farms

Let’s start with the fact that I heart Bokashi. It’s easy and did I mention, next to impossible to screw up? It takes just about anything, thrives on neglect and can be done inside your apartment. Bokashi is ideal for people who want to start composting in an apartment and need something low maintenance..

Worm farming is slightly advanced, in my opinion. You need to keep your new pets alive and comfortable, which means considering their habitat and diet. Worms are basically gluten free raw vegans who love coffee. A little more effort invested to accommodate them will reward you with gardeners gold – worm castings.

Worm treats.

Which method to choose? If you regularly kill houseplants, go with Bokashi. If you feel confident, try vermiculture. And if you have the room and the inclination – do both. Why? First, let’s get pedantic.

Bokashi is not really composting

Bokashi is not composting in the traditional sense, mostly because when you empty the bin, it still needs to process in the ground or a compost heap before you can use it on plants. So while I call Bokashi bin contents ‘compost’ for simplicity’s sake, it’s not quite the same thing as what a proper compost system produces. It’s more like pre-compost.

Burying the Bokashi bin contents. Mix in and cover with soil.
Burying the Bokashi bin contents. Mix in and cover with soil.

Worm castings, the solid waste produced from worm farms, are actual compost that can be used directly on the garden. If you don’t have or want a garden, don’t worry, they are easy to give away – just find a gardener nearby. The reason gardeners love worm castings is that when worms digest food, the process results in better nutrient bioavailability for plants. Which means healthy, productive plants and more food from the kitchen garden.

vermiculture in focus
Reg wiggler worms in a thin layer of compost, pre-feed.

Fun fact – there are many animals that help to compost, including soldier flies and salamanders (sort of). Why is worm farming better known? My guess is that worms> flies for most of us.

Benefits of a combined Bokashi + vermiculture system:

Back to why I’m going to keep my Bokashi bin along with starting vermiculture.

Learning by doing

We moved recently to a place with a larger outdoor space, so we’re not being forced to pick one system. I’m keen to know more about worm farming in general and the best way to learn is by doing, seeing and experiencing.

Better soil

Since we’re still south facing, my plants can probably use all the help they can get to grow lush and strong. Healthy plants start with healthy soil. Worm farms produce better fertilizer. This is a vote for the worms.

Landfill diversion

My primary motivation to compost has been diversion of material waste from landfill. Bokashi lets me divert the most, since worms don’t like citrus, onions, garlic, spicy food, cooked food, meat or dairy, all of which happen in my household. This means the Bokashi bin remains a key part of my Zero Waste practise.

Managing volume

I have yet to see how much volume the worms can handle, but since I make most of the food we eat at home and from scratch, we produce a decent amount of organic food scrap (even when taking pains to avoid food waste). The worms will get what they like best, the Bokashi bin will get the rest plus any surplus volume, and eventually, the worms wil get the pre-digested Bokashi contents (see my next point).

Moving toward a closed loop system

The best reason of all to use a Bokashi bin and a vermiculture system for composting is to move toward a closed loop system, which is what Zero Waste is all about. Instead of taking the Bokashi bin contents somewhere offsite (via the compost exchange) I’ll be able to feed them into the worm farm, and then use the worms’ output to feed my own plants. Worms will eat the stuff they typically don’t like, but only after a bit of fermentation happens in the Bokashi bin. This means a thriving kitchen garden without external fertilizers, and the scraps from the food I grow can go back into the compost – full circle.

Next up, aquaculture?***

Now your turn….

If you want to get started, look up your suburb via The Compost Revolution, a council sponsored initiative throughout Australia that subsidizes the cost of composting equipment for residents. Discounts of 25%-100% on retail costs are available.

Not sure about Bokashi? Have a peruse through my bokashi posts to see what I compost with this method and ways to dispose of the solid waste that results (if not setting up a dual system like I’ve just described).

Happy composting friends.

 *I’m not referring to the worms
**My infamous dry wit. Did you know I’m hilarious? Not as hilarious as my cousin Shelley though.
***Not kidding