The Uncommon Life

A Composter’s Dilemma

May 17, 2010

In preparation for Compostapalooza, our partnership with Quirky to create the ultimate composting product, we’re running a series of compost education posts. Read up, then put those brainstorming caps on for kick-off on May 17!


I got into composting in 2008.  I had never seriously considered doing it until I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma (by Michael Pollan) earlier that year – it helped me understand the food cycle and how throwing organic material into landfill was a lousy solution.  Sanitation departments waste a lot of energy, money and land carting away food scraps that could otherwise be enriching the soil.

However, like recycling, composting is more work than just throwing something away, especially if you’re an urban dweller like me. To start with, you have to take the food waste and put it in a separate bin (no big deal).  But you also need to cut up the food waste into small pieces to help it break down faster and then put the compostable material into some vessel outdoors. We were lucky to have a few friends and neighbors that were interested in the same thing and were able to convince our building to provide us with an outdoor space to place a compost tumbler.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our sons knew all about composting from school and were only too happy to tell daddy everything he was doing wrong, which was plenty. There was nothing they enjoyed more than catching me putting compostable material into the trash.  I then had to dig through the garbage to find the food scraps and move them to the compost bin.  I learned the messy way that tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells were all fine for composting.


We started out using a half-gallon OJ container as our compost holder.  Then we’d dump it into the outdoor tumbler when we had time.  We didn’t have time every day, as you can see, but we did it throughout the winter .



I learned that it took about 72 hours for the fruit flies to begin swarming our kitchen, which was about the same amount of time it took for the mold and “eau de compost” scent to kick in.  Sometimes we’d stick the container in the freezer or fridge, but putting food waste with our regular food was not too appetizing. Our boys critiqued my compost mix – they instructed me to add more “browns” (such as leaves) to the tumbler, which I stubbornly resisted until I realized that you can’t make dirt without it.

The OJ container was not a thing of beauty on our kitchen counter, so we decided to try a more hidden method. The bokashi or fermentation system worked fine under our sink, but it’s designed for then putting the pickled food scraps into the ground, not a great option in the city. So, we recently switched to Beth Mueller’s ceramic holder.  While it looks great and the bio bag means that we don’t have to return it to our apartment for reuse, it has a small capacity and the bag is a bit too big for the container.  I’ve yet to find a system I really love, but I now can’t imagine not composting.  When I travel, I feel guilty when I throw food scraps into the trash.   I think it’s only a matter of time before composting is viewed like recycling, which is now the case in Seattle and San Francisco, where composting is the law.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what ideas come out of our Compostalooza design competition with Quirky – if we can make composting easier, more of us will do it.

For our family, even with our struggles, we’ve produced a good amount of compost that’s been used in a community garden and a local park.  It’s also been a great way to meet our neighbors, as the compost tumbler has become something of an outdoor water cooler.  Who knew garbage could bring us together?

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