Green Behind the Ears: Adventures in Composting

compost - green behind the ears - adventures in composting

This is the third in our new series of climate action challenges for ordinary folks. Each month, writer Rebecca Sharp will do a climate challenge herself. Then she’ll share her experiences and tell us about the difference she tried to make, how we can try the challenge ourselves, what it costs in terms of time, money and labour and how rewarding she found it on a scale of 1-5 sprouts. Read the intro to find out more and the second post to learn more about climate change.

This month I challenged myself to up my home-composting game. I started a vermiculture system for inside, and reanimated my old black bin in the back yard—but I also went further down the worm hole… (warning: this article contains composting puns.)

Why is Composting Important and How Does It Help Counter Climate Change?

In a nutshell, food and organic waste going into landfill is bad because it produces methane when it decomposes in an anaerobic environment. It also takes decades and decades to break down without oxygen. But when composted properly, it produces nutrient-rich fertilizer for growing vegetables and even nourishing your houseplants (because as the millennials are telling us, plants are the new pets).

Plus, fertilizer from home composters means gardeners can reduce their use of commercial chemical fertilizers that produce nitrogen oxide, (a greenhouse gas) that creates algae blooms that destroy ecosystems. Composting also helps the soil retain moisture, helps draw down carbon, and helps reduce the erosion of topsoil—a serious problem our globe is facing.

We need topsoil to grow food, but according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “one-third of the world’s topsoil is already degraded, and topsoil in the United States is eroding at more than nine times its natural rate of replacement.” So composting is imperative.

I’m lucky enough to live in a city that has a decent organic waste management plan. Every week, city trucks collect our diligently sorted organic waste from our city-supplied green waste bin and drive it to the waste management centre where (I had to look this up) it is processed and sold to garden centres, landscaping companies, and greenhouses.

So this municipal system is good because all that matter is not going into landfill. But it’s much better still to a) reduce energy and fuel spent on that process, b) reduce transportation costs and emissions for fertilizing your own plants without transporting it, and c) have a more engaged relationship with dirt and microbes.

The Composting Challenge

countertop compost bin and veggie scraps - green behind the ears - adventures in composting

I’m super pumped about my new vermiculture system. Here’s what I did: I bought two plastic stackable tubs (there’s a 2-inch gap between their bottoms), drilled holes for drainage (very important) in the bottom of the top bin, holes for air in the lid, shredded some brown paper bags, added some leaves, and put them in the top bin along with a starter colony of red wigglers.

They’re cute little guys, and I’m giving them chopped banana peels and inedible vegetable stalks a couple of times a week. Soon they’ll be producing a rich “tea” that’ll drain into the second tub that I’ll use, diluted, for my houseplants and veggie garden this summer. Super cool, right?

Because our household goes through so much more vegetable waste than the red wigglers in a smallish tub can handle, I’ve diverted the rest of my municipality-destined organic waste to my backyard compost bin.

Basically, this just means carrying the bucket of slop to the black bin behind the garage instead of to the green bin out front, and stirring it with a shovel every 2 weeks. The backyard bin is three times as far from my kitchen as the city bin out front, and using it requires shoes, but it’s a habit I can get used to.

I know in the summer, I’ll be happy my veggies have nutrient-rich soil that I didn’t have to drive anywhere to get, and that doesn’t result in nitrogen oxide.

Widening the Circle

Ok, so these are small adjustments I’ve made for my household. But what about larger-scale composting initiatives? To learn more about this—and to buy the red wigglers—I reached out to my friend and neighbour, Compost Queen of the Ward (our neighbourhood in Guelph, ON), urban farmer and philosophy professor Karen Houle, who is super passionate about compost.

Our conversation blew my mind—Karen is leading several local initiatives to bring community composting to homes and neighbourhoods across Guelph, and engage schools and businesses in diverting organic matter to community composting structures.

Her beautiful project, The Art of Soil, is all about soil-healing, public education, and environmental justice—and she’s getting it done. I was inspired to my core by her initiative, so I signed right up to volunteer to help. It’s really exciting work, and I can’t wait to see our community sink its roots into these projects.

What Did This Cost Me?

Time and labour: Under 2 hours. Once I had my two stackable plastic bins (that’s a trip to the store), drilling the air holes in the lid and drainage holes in the bottom of the top bin took me a few minutes. Shredding brown paper bags with an electric shredder took under 5 min. Add some leaves, some soil from a dead house plant, and boom! Ready for worms!

Money: About $40: $10 for the worms, and 2x~$15 for the bins. Although, thinking of it now, if I had taken the time to source some used options, that would have been better still for the environment.

Sprouts: 5 sprouts! I love these little creatures! And it turns out I actually love chopping up food waste and feeding it to them. They’re getting nourished, my plants will be nourished, and the planet is being cared for. So satisfying!

Choose Your Challenge

Now I invite you, dear reader, to choose your own compost adventure at one of the following levels:

Germination: Start composting at home. This could look like sorting your organic waste for collection by your municipality, starting a backyard composter (so many options here!), starting a vermiculure colony or getting a lomi for your countertop. Or this could look like being 10% more nurturing to the system you already have going. You do you.

Seedling: Once you have your own composting system set up (or improved), help a friend, family member or neighbour do the same. If you’re into vermiculture, your colony will likely grow quickly and you can make someone else their own worm bin as a gift—Happy birthday, Aunt Thelma! Seriously, someone in your circle will love it.

Budding: Join up with some like-minded folks to build a composting structure in your community. Karen has designed some fantastic options in this amazing how-to-guide. Get local businesses on board with contributions, and get your local community garden reaping the benefits of this beautiful soil-healing product.

That’s it for now, friend. Looking forward to talking to you next month about ocean farming!

Feature image: Julietta Watson; Image 1: Lenka Dzurendova

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