Trash into treasure
October 27, 2007 9:45 PM   Subscribe

About 15% of the average American's household waste is compostable. Even apartment dwellers can turn their potato peelings and coffee grounds into gorgeous, nutrient-rich plant food with the help of worms. You can even buy the little dudes online! Once you have your worm farm set up, the big question is "Can I compost this?" You may be surprised at how often the answer is, "Yes!"
posted by freshwater_pr0n (46 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Legitimate question, where does the apartment dweller place his compost heap?
posted by effugas at 9:51 PM on October 27, 2007

Careful--are the worms used for this an invasive species? Non-native worms can disrupt an entire ecology if they get loose.
posted by LarryC at 9:57 PM on October 27, 2007

I have enough critters in my apartment, thanks. There is a "no vacancy" sign hanging up for the creepy-crawlies. I just planted some herbs and the soil must have had larvae in it, because now I've got fruit flies all over the place.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:16 PM on October 27, 2007

Effugas, small-scale worm-composting can take place in a modified recycling bin under the sink. A healthy worm bin fed with appropriate compost items won't attract flies or vermin.

LarryC, you have a good point. The worms used for composting are a potentially invasive specie. My native earthworms aren't suitable for composting. That's why I keep my little dudes someplace where they can't escape into my local ecosystem. It's important to contain them.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:16 PM on October 27, 2007

An iPhone? Will an iPhone compost?
posted by bicyclefish at 10:30 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

The simple secret of making compost is keeping it a bit moist and turning it over occasionally to let air in. The bacteria that make good compost are aerobic; the bacteria that stink, make slime, and attract flies are anaerobic. Don't worry about worms if it's outside--the worms will find it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:37 PM on October 27, 2007

"Can I compost...

Even natural, unbleached tampons shouldn't be thrown on the compost heap because of the length of time they would take to break down in comparison to the amount of stench they would kick up and the potential for rodent/amimal attraction.

However, the blood itself, while fresh, is a great source of nutrients for the garden: if you fancy it, wash them out in a bucket of water and pour straight onto the garden (or onto the compost heap - as long as it doesn't get overly wet) to reuse the goodness."

posted by ChestnutMonkey at 10:38 PM on October 27, 2007

There's an article in ReadyMade magazine this month about Flow, a sustainable kitchen setup that has a compost area integrated into it. It looks great. The article isn't online, unfortunately. A quicker look at the design.
posted by Locative at 10:42 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a guess, by mass, I think my compost ables are more like 30%. Of course it depends on how you count the heavy electronics I pick out of my neighbors garbage - lots of that ends up at the curb again in a week or two.

It adds up to several kilograms every week, and I kind of doubt a worm composter (of reasonable size for a ~500sq.ft place) could keep up. Of course Toronto has curb side compost pick up, so it doesn't really matter to me :)
posted by Chuckles at 10:58 PM on October 27, 2007

Can somebody who has experienced indoor composting tell me if this really smells as bad as I think it does? Letting garbage slowly fallow into worm shit beneath your sink? I mean, weren't landfills considered a great advancement for public health when they were invented? No more rotting food in the house/streets and so on?
posted by Avenger at 11:28 PM on October 27, 2007

Avenger: As long as you feed your compost heap judiciously, there's no smell, and no rot.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 11:54 PM on October 27, 2007

"Can I compost...Tampons?"

Shame. I was hoping I'd found a cheap alternative to fish, blood and bone.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:04 AM on October 28, 2007

Compost household here. Can't tell you about indoor compost though. And we don't mess with tampons.
posted by puke & cry at 12:12 AM on October 28, 2007

In Toronto we get a "green bin" and basically everyone has to waste, tissues, etc, all goes in there. They're trying to cut back on having to send all the trash to Michigan, apparently.
posted by SassHat at 12:47 AM on October 28, 2007

In Toronto we get a "green bin" and basically everyone has to waste, tissues, etc, all goes in there. They're trying to cut back on having to send all the trash to Michigan, apparently.

Yes it's a real culture shock for someone like me from Toronto traveling to other places where you don't have to sort garbage into four different categories (compost, yard waste, paper/plastic/metal recyclables, miscellaneous garbage). The "green bin" is nice in that you can toss just about anything organic like meat and pasta into it (which are nos from the linked site). Although sometimes I wonder if it's worth all the effort or if it's some sort of "feel good" political effort.
posted by bobo123 at 1:04 AM on October 28, 2007

I have a Can o' Worms in the basement, and it doesn't smell bad at all, Avenger. We do occasionally have a noticeable uptick in the local fruit fly population, but never terribly so, and it subsides within a day or so. "Slowly rotting" isn't how it works at all -- it's pretty amazing how quickly and thoroughly thousands of worms are able to take your veg scraps apart. You might be surprised by what they'll work their way through, Chuckles.
posted by mumkin at 1:16 AM on October 28, 2007

We have the green bin too. Someone once passed on this tip to me. Put the green bin items in the freezer (we use old bags, take out containers, coffee cups, etc to hold them. No smell, no bugs, once every couple of weeks we bring them down to the green bin.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:36 AM on October 28, 2007

I wonder, would these worms be of use in this sort of situation?
posted by Flashman at 1:19 AM on October 28, 2007

Yes it's a real culture shock for someone like me from Toronto traveling to other places where you don't have to sort garbage into four different categories (compost, yard waste, paper/plastic/metal recyclables, miscellaneous garbage).

Tell me about it. If you watch the news you picture England as some sort of environmentalist haven were all the radical environmental ideas originate. The Guardian goes on and on about sustainable vacations and carbon footprints but it is all just so much verbal methane.

They just introduced curbside recycling where I live last year and for cardboard only. The rest you have to deliver to recycling points yourself (not that big a deal really) that are often full to overflowing and there is still no plastic recycling at all.

It was like stepping back in time about 20 years.
posted by srboisvert at 1:53 AM on October 28, 2007

Funny, but it isn't just American households. Our Aussie waste is compostable too!

Who would have thought.

We've been doing this for about 15 years, we bought this thing called a can o' worms™ with a batch o' compost worms. All out scraps go into it, and it makes fantastic fertiliser. No smell, we've never topped it up with more worms, and the odd worm goes to the fish tank to feed me gudgeon.
posted by mattoxic at 3:02 AM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

A serious, although possibly dumb, question for you long haired tree huggers: Wouldn't composting release carbon oxide, thereby helping to bring about our doom? As long as waste is not broken down by pesky organisms it would sequester greenhouse gases, wouldn't it -- like the oil, it one day could become?
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 3:35 AM on October 28, 2007

previously, on composting
posted by infini at 5:42 AM on October 28, 2007

I just throw my food waste into the nearby woods. It either is eaten by the animals or composts into the ground. Composting is neat but it's a bit of hassle and only makes sense if you need the soil, or have no other place to discard, like in an urban area.

Community compost bins are interesting, I wonder what they do with it all? Burying it just creates methane which is what they are trying to avoid. Burning it takes too much energy because of the high water content, also what they are trying to avoid. Composting that much waste would create a lot of soil with who knows what kind of chemical stew. Maybe they use it for bio-energy?
posted by stbalbach at 5:45 AM on October 28, 2007

"15% of household waste is compostable"

I find that depressing. One of the things that I couldn't get my head around, and still find disgusting, is the sheer quantity and prevalence of the disposable packaging/lifestyle in the US. Everything seems to be made to be quick, disposable and easy - no thought for the consequences.

Since I lived in Atlanta for a few months, and saw just how much rubbish a couple of guys who rarely ate at home created I have become quite disgusted with the packaging industries lack of focus, and the lack of consumer pressure to change. My favourite example was a pack of 12 toilet rolls that were also individually wrapped.

Individually wrapped? What on earth for? So they don't contaminate each other with their nasty, clean paper? You're going to wipe your arse with them.

Regardless of the merits of composting in each home, I think the greater benefits to humankind and the environment will be massively increasing the percentage of biodegradable matter in general consumer items - less plastic, more recycled cardboard, NO polystyrene, larger containers to change the content/packaging ratio etc., etc.

God. I am seriously considering throwing this all in and living on a lake in Canada and seeing just how realistic it is to live with zero impact. I'll be hugging trees, next.
posted by Brockles at 6:01 AM on October 28, 2007

On one occasion for a month my vermicomposter was smelling pretty bad. I'd gotten lazy with the chopping up of food and had saved up too much, didn't chop it up small enough, and threw it all into one bin (I used to keep two 56L worm bins; and I intend to restart one shortly).

As soon as I realized that it was stinky (swampy death), I shredded some fresh newspaper, soaked it in water and tossed it on top of the compost. For the next month, I dreaded every time I needed to disturb that top layer of newspaper to help stir it up, and check on the stank level), but while the wet shredded newspaper was on top the smell didn't escape, and the worms could still breath. As we kept the bins in the kitchen, odor was an important issue.

Another good thing about indoor worm bins in the winter would be a cheap source of heat; the worm bin is always above room temperature, which makes it an interesting sensation to dig in to it. Ok, it's likely not enough heat to save money, but on a cold winter day, a handfull of worms and... "earth" will strongly remind one of some of the good things of summer.

Definitely ensure that you have red wigglers. When we first started, we went to a bait shop that swore they were selling us red wigglers. Turned out that they were selling us giant night crawlers. Which didn't eat as much. Luckily as it was fresh, it was mostly bedding so if there was additional smell we didn't know. We later bought actual red wigglers from a local green group. The just went to their collection of 20 vermi composters and we opened one and started picking worms out.

I tried to do an exhaustive removal of the night crawlers, but after adding the red wigglers I was still picking out night crawlers for a few weeks. But the crawlers definitely didn't stick around long term, so consider that for areas which don't locally have red wigglers.

Also, there may be some small critters (in addition to the bacteria) that will grow in the worm bin. Small little red bugs (about the size of a head of a pin), which were a feature of us getting it from the green group. They'd been infested with fungus gnats a few weeks back (which is why we tried getting worms from a bait shop), and instead of trying poisons they got a fungus gnat predator. Plus, I think it took care of fruit flies, as we never had them in the worm bin.

When I was done with vermicomposting (getting ready to sell/move), I just spread them on the back "lawn" of the townhouse. Robins and blue jays shortly covered that 5x20 strip of grass, but most likely made it into the ground.

... ok, I think that I might need to restart a worm bin today.
posted by nobeagle at 6:21 AM on October 28, 2007

Well, crap - now I have to go dig up the remains of my tomato plants that I threw in there yesterday.

Good post. Thanks.
posted by bibliowench at 6:21 AM on October 28, 2007

...are the worms used for this an invasive species?

From my understanding, all important agricultural worms and most in urban environments are not native to those areas, so inadvertant release shouldn't be more than a drop in the bucket. That said, there is some [pdf] [html] research to implicate non-native worms in contributing to the decline of some northern forests.

...tell me if this really smells as bad as I think it does?

If it does, then you're doing it wrong and should take another class. I've known people who have a coffee table that is a worm bin under the surface. You wouldn't know it at all until you open it up, and then it just smells like a forest when you stir the duff up.

bibliowench, compost them. Keep your soil healthy and it won't be a problem unless your tomatoes were completely leperous.
posted by a_green_man at 7:32 AM on October 28, 2007

Dumb question—what do you do with the compost once it's all broken down? I mean, I don't have a yard, and throwing it in the trash seems counterproductive.
posted by felix grundy at 7:47 AM on October 28, 2007

Couldn't you get some pots and plant stuff in it?
posted by sveskemus at 8:15 AM on October 28, 2007

You can repot house plants in it. Or perhaps, drive it into the country and arrange for it to go to a good home. The worms don't go very deep and cold weather would kill them off in the fall, to prevent any invasive species problems. The temperature range for them is 50° to 85°, apparently. (Mine's outdoors, so I'm guessing about that part.) Maybe the city would like it for those big civic flower pots if you asked?
posted by unrepentanthippie at 8:56 AM on October 28, 2007

You can repot house plants in it.

Basement apartment.

Or perhaps, drive it into the country and arrange for it to go to a good home.


Like I said, I don't have this problem.. Just sayin'..

How much output do you get from a given input? Also, along with some heat, I bet it humidifies in the winter? That has to be a good thing :P
posted by Chuckles at 9:05 AM on October 28, 2007

I once threw a old potato that was shriveled onto a compost heap. It sprouted, went through its life cycle and not only did I get several nice potatoes out of the deal but I can also claim truthfully to have eaten stuff out of the compost heap.
posted by Iron Rat at 9:06 AM on October 28, 2007

Due to the layout of my apartment, I only have one window to myself, and there are no windows at all in the common space. The cat likes to sit in the window I do have, and has been known to be rather cavalier in knocking things out of her way. Thus I'm not too keen on putting a plant in my window, and I would feel weird trying to get my roommates to have plants in their rooms, especially since I'd probably have to keep tabs on the plants to make sure they're getting watered enough.

No car.

I don't want to turn this into compost AskMe, but seriously, what's an apartment dweller to do? I'd gladly take up composting, but I just don't know that it'd be much more than a little self-congratulatory pat on the back if I don't have anything to do with it when it's done. The city gives compost away, so surely I'm not going to get too far offering it up on the street.
posted by felix grundy at 9:36 AM on October 28, 2007

Well - for those who wonder if it smells? So far, not. My daughter chose "composting" for her fall science project and we have had a big plastic tub in the basement bathtub for 3-weeks now.

(Yes we have a yard - but unfortunately the climate here would halt the process if we did it outdoors now and seeing as they did not start the project until the first week of October...)

We were going to order the worms online, but instead found a local supplier ("pst, meet us in the Canadian Tire parking lot... 'stan, in the van, with the plan'...") under "Bait" in the yellow pages.

My wife and I were very concerned about smell - so, actually we have three tubs. An outter shell just to catch any compost that gets spilled when stirring (kids ;-). Then the "active" portion. Two tubs, exactly the same size - stackable with about an inch of empty air in the bottom one - I drilled a ton of drainage holes in the one that goes on top, so that it can drain into the bottom one. Added a layer of drainage gravel then some "starter" dirt + compost. Then the worms. Drilled a couple air-holes in the top lid and boom.

We've been photographing every couple days when we stir it up/add vegetable content - hmmm, maybe instead of a poster we should put up a site - they are teaching her html as well ;-)
posted by jkaczor at 9:58 AM on October 28, 2007

There is a rolling island of plastic twice the size of Texas somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and as you read these words some unsuspecting fish just got caught in it and will die strangled by a stadium sized monstrosity within that island that is made up of nothing but one milk carton and thirty thousand six-pack soda rings.

You wanna compost coffee grounds? Gimme an effin' break.

Here's a pea shooter. Try taking down the Eiffel tower with it. While you have fun doing that, I'm gonna go put my plastic garbage in a plastic bag and carry it to the cement curb in a large plastic bin. That's the way GOD INTENDED it!
posted by ZachsMind at 11:11 AM on October 28, 2007

No worms, but having a black plastic composter in the the back yard is a wonderful thing. If something rots in the refrigerator...well, at least I can put it into the bin and grow something out of it next year. I probably get at least a hundred pounds of compost a year out of the thing (of course, you have to throw in leaves and a little dirt now and then, stir it up, keep it moist.)
posted by kozad at 11:17 AM on October 28, 2007

Y'know a garbage disposal doesn't need leaves and dirt. If you want to moisten it up just run the tap!
posted by ZachsMind at 11:45 AM on October 28, 2007

stbalbach: I just throw my food waste into the nearby woods. It either is eaten by the animals or composts into the ground.

As a biologist, I'd like to say that is the absolute king of godawful ideas. You are totally screwing up the behavior of everything that lives in it, attracting pests into contact with humans, and possibly endangering lives if bears live in your area.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:42 PM on October 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

"About 15% of the average American's household waste is compostable."

About 35% of the average American's household waste is combustible. It'd be about 75% if you don't count the stuff you can't set on fire!

About 100% of all statistics are made up.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:46 PM on October 28, 2007

You wanna compost coffee grounds? Gimme an effin' break.

Wow, back to basics.
Please point out the individual who has caused all these pollution problems. Because I'm pretty sure that, as individual contributions have filled (and overfilled) our landfills, so do our individual efforts assist, if not in clearing up the existing mess, in not making it worse.
posted by dreamsign at 12:50 PM on October 28, 2007

I was being Politically Correct in suggesting you offer it to the city. Actually, if I lived in the city and did not have a car, I'd smuggle a few pounds at a time into one of those "tree in a pot" things. The dirt settles in those so there would be plenty of room, and it's not like it's toxic. It would make the tree happy (or petunias). If you don't have a pot handy, you could sneak a few pounds into any vacant lot.

The ratio is pretty favorable, depending on what you start with. If I toss a whole yard's worth of lawn clippings in there (outside compost pile, small yard, it fills a bin 4' by 8'), it will settle down to a layer about an inch thick by the end of the month, and a lot less once it's actually composted and turns into good black dirt.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 3:28 PM on October 28, 2007

Zach has a point. People value their time, so they assume if they spend some of their free time helping the environment, it matters to the degree that their own time is valuable.

It's just not true. Nature doesn't care what your free time is worth. Your footprint is what you do over the course of an entire day. If your footprint is enormous, it is not made up for the fact that you worry about it a lot, and poke at the problem a few minutes each day.
posted by effugas at 3:48 PM on October 28, 2007

Yeah, why bother doing anything? We're all gonna die anyway! Still it is interesting how addicted you can get to recycling and doing other green things once you have the option of doing so. Logically, you would think people would hate the bother, but then, oddly, many people do seem to want to have some chance to do something good for the environment, instead of throwing up their hands and waiting for polluted death.

Things like recycling, composting, buying organic, etc. have their main benefit in changing how we think, as much as in how we act, initially. Once enough people decide they don't want hormone-riddled milk from tortured cows, the possibilty of an organic milk market exists. And if demand grows, then a change in the system becomes more possible. Once people become used to connecting their consumption with their waste, the possibility of moving to a sustainable system is higher.

Pollution is a problem with a myriad interacting causes; the only possible way to confront it is on a multitude of fronts, with action on the individual and a macro level.

It may already be too late, we may already be doomed, but that's not 100% certain; in the meantime, given that this planet is the only chance at existence we have, trying to save it is the only logical course of action. Rather than carping bitterly at the pointlessness of it all, which has zero chance of changing anything.
posted by emjaybee at 5:50 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

emjaybee: It may already be too late, we may already be doomed, but that's not 100% certain; in the meantime, given that this planet is the only chance at existence we have, trying to save it is the only logical course of action.

Yeah, but that's the thing - doing things like home composting isn't really trying to save it. It's like trying to pick away a mountain with a pair of tweezers. In theory it's better than not doing anything, but in reality, your time would be better spent trying to find better earthmoving equipment, or trying to invent it if it doesn't exist yet. And if you can't do anything more effective, well, you might as well go do something fun instead - you are not going to ever move that mountain that way.

I tend to suspect that home composting is one of the least labor-effective methods of green living available - your organic trash is already the least problematic form you generate, and I'm really not sure how home composting is an improvement over depositing it in a landfill (particularly one that has methane collection for energy.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:14 PM on October 28, 2007

For the fussy "But what do I doooooo with the tons of compost I'll inevitably end up with?!?" people: you really end up with very little finished compost, and if you put an ad on Craigslist that read SMALL QUANTITY OF FREE VERMICOMPOST AVAILABLE, someone would eagerly take it off your hands. Heck, you could probably sell it.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 12:09 AM on October 29, 2007

I have a worm box. I had it inside for a while, but had some problem with flies, so moved it outside the back door, where they do fine here in Oakland. If you live in Alameda county, you can buy an excellent Australian worm box system as well as outdoor compost containers at cost from the County.

Consider the problem of topsoil depletion. This is one way any one of us can directly replenish topsoil through composting. Even if you live in an apartment, you probably know someone who gardens who would be happy to have your worm castings.

Kids love worm boxes. They are simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the wriggly critters.

"They call me Dr. Worm. Good morning, how are you? I'm Dr. Worm. I'm interested in things. I'm not a real doctor, but I am a real worm, I am an actual worm." -TMBG
posted by bephillips at 12:35 AM on October 29, 2007

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