Overcoming the fear of composting

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, March 2011

With the Hartland Landfill so overburdened, food waste is the next frontier.

This past month, each person in the Greater Victoria area has, on average, walked just under 10 kilograms of food waste to the curb. That’s the equivalent of every person having put two 10-pound bags of potatoes in the garbage. Or to put it yet another way, every day another 140 tonnes of residential food waste is trucked to the Hartland Landfill. According to my middle school math, that translates into almost 31,000 bags of potatoes.

Now picture all those heavy garbage trucks delivering all those spuds to the landfill. Every day. And imagine also that for every truckload of potatoes through the Hartland gates, two trucks of other residential garbage also come by to dump a load. No wonder our landfill is forecast to be full in 24 years.

That’s a big headache for the CRD, which intends to ban kitchen organics from Hartland by the end of 2013. Right now it looks as if the most likely fix is a curbside pickup exclusively for kitchen waste. It won’t be cheap, given that a fleet of trucks will have to be bought or retooled for that purpose, and the organics will have to go to some yet-to-be-built facility for composting. There’ll be resistance for other reasons as well: The perceived inconvenience, the dogged concerns about odours and rodents (even though food waste in a tightly covered compost bin is at least as protected as food waste in the garbage can), and the fact that—let’s be honest—we’re a little grossed out by food gone bad and would rather not see it again after we throw it out.

But food waste is not garbage and our particular circumstances here on the island require that we begin seeing it as a valuable resource for our own gardens. With spring in the air, now would be a good time to think about diverting at least some of the kitchen scraps to the backyard (or balcony) garden, which is perpetually thirsting for more nutrition. You don’t need any fancy gear or compost bins, you can easily avoid attracting vermin, and on a day-to-day basis it won’t take longer than it would to put your food waste in the garbage pail.

The first thing you need is an easy-to-clean collecting bucket with a good lid for under the kitchen sink. Start small, with food waste that won’t quickly go to stink—orange peels, apple cores and veggie scraps. Don’t forget coffee grinds and tea bags—tea bags will actually absorb some of the odour.

When your bucket is full there are a number of ways you can proceed. For years we just dug deep holes in the vegetable garden, threw in the scraps and covered them over. The beauty of this little system is that the food waste and odours are instantly gone, and the rotting compost leaches into the soil and perks up the plants whenever we water the garden. The scraps rot amazingly quickly and because the holes are almost a foot deep, we’ve not had issues with rats. 

Perennial beds love food scraps too, but it’s hard to dig holes without damaging well-established root systems. To feed them I moved a few plants out of the way, dug a hole, and half submerged an empty five-gallon pot made of pliable plastic, the kind that hold nursery shrubs and most people recycle, so watch for them at the curb in the spring. I repacked the soil around the pot, which will hold the compost. The “lid” is a shallow planter that fits inside and hangs from the rim—old hanging baskets work well. It’s filled with soil and planted with lettuce or easy-care annuals. The end result is raccoon and rodent proof, emits no odour and looks unobtrusive in the garden. We have about half a dozen now and just keep feeding them scraps. The system works well: We water the shallow planter, which waters the compost beneath, which accelerates decomposition and sends the nourishing leacheate out to the surrounding perennials. Last year I started adding fish bones and was amazed at how quickly they decomposed without a whiff.

The Victoria Compost Centre can help you get started and offers practical information on their website www.compost.bc.ca. Apartment dwellers can explore countertop systems. If you like the idea but can’t do the composting, there are innovative local companies ready to help. Check out their websites at www.refuse.ca and www.communitycomposting.ca.

Every pound of food diverted from the landfill is a small victory for our island. We’re part of the solution, and that’s no small potatoes.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic has spent the last three months hunkered down over a rewrite of one of her earlier books, Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada. It will be released by Nimbus Publishing later this year.