Thanks to Google, I get some crazy emails from strangers. A tourist from Tennessee wanted to know where she could compost her kitchen waste during her vacation in Key West. I offered her our community garden compost. We bonded over yesterday's leftovers, went for drinks and have become friends. Then there was one, a few weeks ago, with the subject line, "Need worms but cannot afford them."
I find these inquiries and encounters cute and informative. They inform me that some people go to great lengths to do the right thing. Then I ask myself, why not everyone?
It is my sincere hope that someday in the relatively near future our local governments will see fit to wean us off our unlimited twice-a-week garbage service in favor of a system that includes separate yard and food waste collection for composting.
In the meantime, most of us could be taking matters into our own hands and composting at home much of what was formerly known as "trash."
A year ago the city generously gave away 100 compost bins at the GLEE Expo. Recipients were asked to fill out a follow-up survey that was sent to them about six months later. In typical Key West fashion, not everyone followed through on their commitment ... but many of them did.
Comments from the survey were overwhelmingly positive, such as: "I wanted to compost but couldn't afford a bin of my own -- the free composter has made the difference between being a believer and a practitioner. Please try to give them out to everyone who wants one. They really make a difference."
So, why isn't everyone doing it? Judging from the survey results, not having a compost bin is one excuse. Others basically boil down to fear and ignorance. Allow me to troubleshoot some of the real or perceived challenges with composting.
"Don't have a bin:" Compost happens with or without a bin, although having some kind of container is tidier. You can make a bin easily with cheap or free materials. A Google search provides endless ideas; wire mesh secured into a circle; construction pallets fastened into a square and wrapped with chicken wire; standard garbage can with holes drilled on sides and bottom. Five gallon buckets with holes for air flow will also work. For those who think they don't have enough space, several buckets stacked on top of each other are a space-efficient way to get the job done.
"Material doesn't break down:" One pile is not enough. If you're continually adding new material to the pile, the breakdown will be incomplete and harvesting the finished compost will be difficult and inefficient. With two bins (or more), you can fill one up, then fill the next one(s) and by the time they're all full, the first one should be well composted. If eggshells are still present, sift the compost and throw the bigger items back on the pile (although eggshells are fine to put directly in the garden). For a low-tech sifter, use a milk crate with smallish openings. Another problem could be lack of green waste and/or moisture. Without enough nitrogen from kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, manure or fresh grass clippings, composting will be slower. Add water if your compost gets too dry; it should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
"Smells bad:" This is an indication that there is too much green and not enough brown. Compost should be layered 50/50 with green waste and brown waste. Always put brown waste on top.
"Can't turn the compost pile:" Turning the pile manually or using a compost tumbler brings air into the center of the pile and speeds the breakdown. As explained above, however, compost happens no matter what and using more than one bin will help.
"Not enough space:" Already mentioned is the stackable-bucket option. Then there are worms. I confronted a lifelong phobia of worms last year with the arrival of my Can-O-Worms. While I have yet to embrace them as "cuddly," I've learned to appreciate their voracious appetites and wonderful poop. Homemade worm bins are easy to make and require very little space or attention -- except to not let the little guys starve. Mine made it successfully through the hot summer on a shaded porch.
Albeit not a statistically significant study, the composter survey revealed some interesting information. Participating households composted an average of 430 pounds in six months. If all 14,000 households in Key West would do the same, it would amount to a disposal savings to the city of more than $400,000 at current tipping fees.
That would more than cover the expense of expanding the bin-giveaway program, surely -- and would probably provide significant dollars toward a community-wide composting program as well.