Taming the compost beast: Of stinky green adventures in Amman
From the new blog TrashCanDiaries which promises to share the story of one Ammani family's war on its own household trash. http://trashcandiaries.wordpress.com/ by Mudanddough
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In an all out war on trash, what does one do about the inevitable food “waste” that is intrinsic to the daily act of eating, waste that comprises a big bulk of domestic trash especially for a cooking household like ours? The obvious and well known solution of course is composting, turning organic waste into soil by controlled decomposition. Absent any municipal composting initiative in Amman , winning our war on trash, implied that we had to compost our waste by ourselves within our own backyard.
Even while urban green initiatives are slowly gaining ground in Jordan, composting is still an underrated environmental act, especially by comparison to the now much touted “recycling”of glass , plastic and other non-biodegradables. This may be due to the false perception that organic waste is intrinsically harmless even in a landfill. But this is almost always not the case; the air deprived conditions of a typical landfill, can turn even good bio degradable waste into a microbe- leaching -methane -spewing environmental curse.
While its merits were clear, the idea of composting was intimidating to say the least, which explains why did not start composting until two months into our war on trash, taking the time to grasp the challenge. What to compost, where and how? Will the compost bin stink and attract funny creatures? Will the process be difficult and unpleasant to handle? Will we arrive in good time at that promised sweet smelling crumbly soil ?
Fortunately, beginning composters are not alone-online! The web abounds with “how to compost” resources and practical tips and testimonies . (Here are one of my favorite sites http://www.composting101.com/ and Videos ). Still when it comes to putting this to practice in Jordan, you are part of a small and largely invisible community. Meeting an urban composter is certainly not a common occurrence in Amman.
And at the home front, this was one battle which suffered low combatant morale! All the other family members (males of course!!) preferred to keep their clear distance from this suspect operation, and never failed to complain whenever it turned “sour”. Thank god for supportive and loyal household help, without whom the “we” in this post would have been vacuous.
At first, we piled our compostable waste into 100 Liter plastic containers donated by a friend who imports shampoo in bulk (go figure!). We placed the bins conveniently in our kitchen backyard. These were perforated (apparently not enough) from the bottom and the sides and placed over garden soil to avoid damage to garden tile and with some luck invite worms! Although using plastic bins for composting is not uncommon, it turned out that this was not exactly a wise choice and accounted for much of the frustration we faced in the early phase of composting.
Following common guidelines, we composted most of our food waste, including fruit and vegetable peels and scraps , tea and coffee grounds, egg shells, and cooked food leftovers except for meat, grease or dairy products to avoid attracting unwelcome pests. To these , we added a hefty mix of shredded newspapers, cardboard, the occasional egg crate and dry garden leaves, all in the attempt to implement the well known mantra of balancing greens to browns or more technically the nitrogen-carbon ratio. We stirred the pile and added water occasionally and waited for good things to happen.
But good things did not happen. At least not initially. At first the waste mix seemed to decompose quietly and manageably. But as it compacted , under its own weight and perhaps due to too much moisture, it was increasingly more difficult to stir, attracted lots of flies (yuck) and then the composter’s worst nightmare happened. The bins started to exude an awful stench, in no way subtle , replacing the more timid pleasant hues of our bewildered jasmines and magnolias. We may have been fast becoming the neighbors from hell?!!
And whatever transformation was happening, it was not happening fast enough. We were well into our fourth bin, and running out of limited space, while the contents of our first bin still looked and smelled more like garbage than soil.
Fortunately, a few weeks ago, things took a very sharp turn to the better. Acting quickly upon friendly expert advice , we moved our compost from the narrow and now proven to be air deprived plastic bins to a well aerated make shift spacious and mesh wired wooden bin-located however in a more distant corner of of the garden where space was available. (Incidentally the wood crates for the open bin came from the same industrial friends who offered the bins). We poured the stinking contents of the plastic bins into the open bin between thick layers of dry autumn leaves , sealed with a final hefty topping of crunchy leaves . Within a few days, the now well balanced, solarized and aerated pile started behaving in good nature again (Pun intended) ! And yes, we are beginning to sniff that wonderful and sweet forest smell that is the sign of good things happening. Not surprisingly, complaints about “your” bins gave way to self congratulations on “our” achievement !
To manage the situation practically, we now gather our daily kitchen waste in a small well aerated wire lined laundry basket placed in the kitchen backyard (idea courtesy of one of my genius elves), pouring its contents periodically into the larger slow cooking compost crate, aka lasagna central as we like to call it. No stirring. No mixing. Just the right mix of greens and browns with an occasional drizzle of water. No stench so far. Touch wood.
There is still a long way to go in our composting venture with many mistakes to learn from to be sure. But the hard part is over. Only a few weeks ago, giving up was very tempting, and now it seems that composting will be a permanent feature of our household routine. (Meantime, the bumpy explains the delay in this blog post. Who wants to read or write a blog on a low note after all!).
And to the question “Is this worth the hassle?”, the answer is without hesitation yes. Of all the other aspects of our war on trash, composting is the one that truly deserves the title “recycling”. Come to think about it, the recycling of plastic and other non biodegradable materials is a misnomer. There is no real regenerative cycle involved, just the addition of a loop in an ultimately linear process. Nature recycles by taking its own offerings back and regenerating them through its creative and endless cycle of life.
And when you compost, you experience profoundly that amazing mantra that should be at the heart of earth friendly consciousness. Nature knows no waste. Winning the war on trash may be about many things, but it has to be ultimately about aligning our lives more with the infinite wisdom of nature.