Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Climate Action Newcastle member Olwyn Hocking seeks to share the joy of composting!
Getting to love composting has been a slow burn development for me – but I’ve gradually realised how special is its contribution to tackling climate change, and also that there are so many more options for converting waste to “gardening gold” than I’d realised.
When I took on an allotment, I thought the magic lay in planting, growing and – best of all – healthy low-cost eating! (see my recipe suggestions here) - plus having some nice free blooms for decoration. But now the penny has dropped that composting is where the magic really lies. We can all share the magic and help tackle climate change, whether we have a garden or not.
THE BASICS – and why it’s a double whammy in tackling climate change
INPUT – food scraps, leaves, egg shells, old cardboard and paper
OUTPUT – highly fertile FREE reinvigorating fertiliser to make soil more productive
BIODIVERSITY BENEFIT – can help support the worm population that is vital to life (healthy soil traps and stores higher levels of carbon)
EVEN MORE – it avoids the negative consequences of food waste going to landfill. Rotting food in landfill produces methane, adding to rising temperatures.
ZERO FOOD WASTE TARGET – why it matters
Once I realised how crucial composting is to the “circular economy” in which nothing is wasted, I began to understand why composting is special, even if we don’t have a garden.
Food waste stats:
20% of the contents of an average household wheelie bin comprises food waste that could be composted
Around 30-50% of all food produce remains uneaten and, therefore, wasted
6.7 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK per year, which totals costs of £10.2 billion
Our food waste can become compost, which can then be used for house plants or community schemes such as pavement planters, or given away as gifts to gardeners.
WAYS TO COMPOST – people with no garden
Rotating/tumbler bin: these can be very small, and produce compost within a few months. They are fully sealed, so suitable for a garage, a car park or even a cupboard. They are usually much more expensive than a standard compost bin – the extra cost is due to the need to be fully sealed to speed composting and avoid food smells. This tumbler holds 70 litres and costs £85.
Wiggly worm “pets”: wormeries can go in a shed, garage or a sheltered spot outdoors. They are also pretty rapid converters of waste into compost, and have the advantage that a broader range of food waste can be used (such as some cooked foods). However, the hundreds of wiggly “pets” doing the work for us can’t cope with freezing temperatures, so the wormery can need protection in winter (such as fleecing). Examples to buy can be found here. A small “worm farm” is £70, and a 2-tier wormery is £115. Here’s a great introductory guide from local expert Mark Ridsdill Smith (AKA Vertical Veg man). View the guide here.
Bokashi: is a Japanese approach, using fermentation. It has the advantage that it uses the widest possible range of scraps, including cooked food and even fish and meat bones. CAN member Mark’s blog describes using the Bokashi system.
A standard composting bin (see below) can be used if a neighbour can offer space, you have a local community scheme or there’s somewhere nearby that’s accessible (but also out of sight to avoid being mistaken as a litter bin). Cost tends to start at about £25.
Anyone using a lot of fresh food usually ends up with an inbetween food caddy to store kitchen scraps until they go into the composting bin. When we moved into a flat, we discovered the handy bins with a filter in the lid, so that the scraps could be stored temporarily indoors even in summer without any food smells. Lots of places now sell them – Lakeland is an example. Cost between £7 and £20.
WAYS TO COMPOST – people with garden, allotment etc
Compost bins: can be found free on schemes such as Freegle or Freecycle, or Newcastle Council offers a discount scheme to buy bins and wormeries - council info here. It links to this website where the offer can be used, by entering your postcode. Some bins have little doors at the base to open up to scrape out compost (as the oldest material is at the bottom); others need you to tip the whole thing over, which is a bigger job and means you have to put back the newer material that had been at the top. Tip: if on an allotment, dig a trough a few inches deep to stand it in, then restore the soil, perhaps with some stones – helps to avoid rats digging into the base. Your throwaways are their Michelin star temptations! Cost tends to start at about £25.
Green allotment piles: the more experienced allotment gardeners see no need for bins – they create sections of the plot for all green waste – trimmings from produce, leaves, non-pernicious weeds, sometimes food scraps as well – and leave it several years to rot down. Layers of accelerator, such as horse manure or ashes from allotment bonfires, can be added in layers every so often. They may have two or three on the go, each with a “vintage” one year newer than the next, so that the compost gradually becomes available each year and returned to the soil. Can be made at no cost if you have a few leftover planks.
COMPOSTING WHEN ON HOLIDAY
Once I’d caught the composting contagion, I began to feel guilty if going on holiday meant food waste going into landfill. The dangers of climate change don’t “have a holiday”! So now we try to plan for the food waste when we travel.
Bringing food waste back: where feasible, we take our food caddies with us and simply bring back food scraps for our compost bins.
Making local donations: we also now check if there is a local allotment that might welcome a donation for its own compost bins
Research outlets for organic waste: some local areas have organic waste schemes and collections.
It’s good to plan how to deliver food waste donations without using a standard black plastic bag! Compostable bags may be possible, but another option can be to use newspaper sheets, folded over and twisted to seal. These can be stacked in a cardboard box and the whole lot can go in a compost bin. When we started to do this, it brought back a very old memory of grandparents using a similar approach to carry their scraps out to a compost heap in the back yard.
Organic waste collection
A small village we visited in Italy has organic waste collections twice a week. Each household has a specially coloured compostable bag and they simply leave it out by the gate where it is collected before 10am. There are also two collections a week for recycled materials and two for landfill. It means no big waste bins, and little need for storage inside the house.
In Florence, we saw another amazing approach. Bins in the street were permanently fixed above chutes that went into underground storage and transit. Categories included Organic Waste and Mixed Recycled Materials. We don’t know the details yet of how it’s handled, but marvelled when we saw it!
Freestanding compost gardening
In Italy, we met a family who’ve developed their love of the land to create a sustainable restaurant with vegetables, fruit and herbs grown using simple compost beds – no framework structure, no pots. This approach isn’t possible for all of us, but still helps to show how sustainable and simple gardening can be.
Their composting area is in a nearby area scratched by the hens that produce their eggs
They create long rectangular beds that are simply a low heap of compost with straw on top. In summer the moisture is retained for longer under the straw; in autumn seeds fall through the straw and are protected throughout germination.
Through gradually watching and learning, they’ve seen easy ways for types of plants to regenerate each year. The globe artichokes have scattered themselves right around the garden and restaurant, looking a bit like sunflowers, and the family always leaves a few unpicked so that they’ll run to seed and produce next year’s crop.
If you’ve got composting tips or queries to share - get in touch! Spread the joy!