Composting, like gardening, cuts across political and social boundaries. There are people who voted for Reagan who compost and have been doing it long before Reagan was in office! Why is it then that a good chunk of my fellow community gardeners (lots of liberal-minded New Yorkers) seem so resistant to the practice of composting? I write this out of my usual end-of-summer frustration. Every spring I have high hopes that composting will really take on in a big way partly because that’s the time of year most people ask me about it. But at summer’s end I can’t help feeling deflated by the quantity of garden debris in the trash bin situated next to the intake section of our large four-bin composter. Despite the inviting proximity of the composter, a lot of gardeners are choosing to put perfectly compostable garden prunings in the bin clearly labeled “trash.” Maybe the better question is not “Why compost?” but “Why trash it?”
I will not pretend that I’m immune to some of the reasons gardeners are using the trash can over the composter. Some are genuinely afraid of doing the wrong thing and I sympathize with that concern. We have some composting rules: garden material goes in the open-air four-bin system; food waste is collected once a week and goes in a separate series of enclosed composting bins (my area of expertise). Invasive weeds aren’t okay, and that means gardeners have to be able to recognize them. Seed heads and roots have to be trimmed off (to prevent weedy compost) and large plant pieces have to be cut up. This separating and cutting and occasional guesswork can get tedious, I know, but gardeners need to see it not as an extra but as the essential gardening task it is. I’m going to say that again: Composting is part of gardening. A vital part. If we’re gardeners, we have no excuse for being aware of composting and not doing it.
Sometimes getting people to compost (and to do it effectively) boils down to getting them to change the way they think and talk about compostable materials. More often than I thought possible, otherwise environmentally aware folks have asked me if I wanted some “garbage” for my compost pile. “Um, no, I don’t want garbage,” I say, “but I will recycle your fruit and veggie scraps for you and when it’s finished you can dig it in around your tomato plants.” There are well-meaning gardeners who nonetheless view my food-scrap composting operation as some kind of bizarre hobby. They see only the beginning of the process—putting rinds and egg shells into a box and closing the lid. Out of sight, out of mind. Just like a landfill.
Composting, of course, is the complete opposite of a landfill. It’s a dynamic process through which living things transform once-living things into a substance that can nourish other living things. A landfill simply fills up with stuff that could take hundreds of years to break down. Once degraded, the garbage in a landfill is not only of very little use to anyone or anything, it is likely to be toxic.
When I think about how to get people to take composting seriously and incorporate it into their daily lives, it’s very easy to get sidetracked with thoughts of policy making. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see composting made official throughout the city, but there has to be a coherent plan for doing that, a plan that is based on education and accessibility. So, any sort of plan really has to start quite literally from the ground up with listening to the people who are or would be doing the composting—in their homes, on their fire escapes, and in community gardens.
Those of us running composting projects at community gardens see and hear what most policy makers probably don’t: We find out what inspires people to compost and what discourages them. Community gardens have a history of being the laboratories for urban environmentalism. We can incubate projects that demonstrate to the wider community how to take better care of our earth.
Okay, back to that first question: Why compost? There are so many answers. Here are some.
Plants like compost.
Composting recycles organic waste instead of adding it to landfills.
You can save money by making your own excellent fertilizer with ingredients you would otherwise be putting in a landfill.
Composting reduces your garden’s carbon footprint because you don’t have to rely on trucked-in supplies.
Gardening with compost enriches the soil, so plants can grow, providing nourishment, oxygen, and a holding place for carbon.
Taking care of the natural environment happens on many, many levels, from recycling kitchen scraps in a community garden to taking to the streets. This Sunday, September 21, I’ll be marching with thousands of others in the People’s Climate March to wake up our leaders to the crisis of climate change. Hey, Hell’s Kitcheners, the march goes right through our neighborhood! Looking forward to walking together with lots of other gardeners (and nongardeners too). For more information, including timing of events and route details, visit http://peoplesclimate.org/march.
Don’t trash it. Compost your fruit and veggie food scraps at the Clinton Community Garden: Tomorrow, Saturday, September 20, from 11 am to noon. I’ll be there to collect your compost and answer composting questions. Saturday compost collection of food scraps continues at the garden through October 11, 2014. I’ll be posting more information about where else to compost in Hell’s Kitchen soon.