A reluctant composter digs in, seeking a 'lazy man's' system

Elissa Gootman / New York Times News Service /


When my oldest son returned from a first-grade field trip last year insisting that our family start composting, my heart did not exactly soar. After six years of changing diapers, I wasn’t looking to take on additional waste-management responsibilities. I switched the subject, and our melon rinds and abandoned cheese sticks continued their steady march into the trash.

Then my middle son started kindergarten. On the second day, he, too, arrived home to proclaim the need to compost, explaining that it was good for the Earth.

“The bugs eat the compost,” he noted, “then they poop it out and it makes better soil.”

This got me thinking about how much of the school curriculum is devoted to composting, and whether it was a ruse for legitimizing bathroom talk. But it also focused my attention on the obscene amount of barely touched food my family sends to landfills.

When your children repeatedly beg you to compost, your options are limited. After all, “No, because Mommy and Daddy don’t care about preserving the Earth for you, your children and your children’s children,” is not the message most parents are trying to send.

The time to compost had come.

As I called around for advice, I was comforted to discover other reluctant composters, even ones with credentials. Lynn Miller, chief executive of 4GreenPs, a green marketing firm in Bethesda, Md., confessed to being a “lapsed composter.”

“There are only so many battles you can choose to fight with your better half,” she said. “I won the battle about yes, we are going to spend more money to buy organic shampoos and soap. I decided to let the composting battle slip.”

Style and size

I was interested in what more than one composting expert described as “lazy man’s composting,” so I set out to find composters that were easy to use and low-maintenance. I also wanted them to look great. While I’m not a design fiend, I do recognize that a beautiful product can make an odious task more pleasant.

There are plenty of striking compost buckets, which are canisters you put food scraps in before you take them to the composter or compost pile. Blanco, a German company, has created a stainless-steel compost bucket designed to be embedded in a kitchen countertop. There is no need for a container taking up space by the sink, and the only thing visible is a metal lid.

The green design revolution, though, has made scant progress with actual composters. This is not a big deal for people with sprawling yards. In small spaces, it’s a different story.

In one notable attempt to mix composting form and function, Levitt Goodman Architects of Toronto created a prototype of a “vermicondo” several years ago: a worm composter resembling a sleek white apartment building with a rooftop garden.

“Urban agriculture is hot, urban chicken-keeping is hot; think about all of the incredibly cool backyard chicken coops that have come up,” said Janna Levitt, a partner in the firm. With the right design, she suggested, composting could be seen to be “as interesting, as sexy, as innovative” as keeping chickens.

When Mio, a Philadelphia sustainable-design company, included a bright green cylindrical worm composter in a collection it sold at Target during a limited run a few years ago, the eco-design crowd cheered. Consumers, not so much.

“We thought that with design we could get more people composting,” said Jaime Salm, an owner of Mio and its creative director. “From a sales point of view, it was a definite challenge.”

He added: “It’s a very strange thing that has to do more with a cultural perception of what waste is than anything else.”

Test drives

In an effort to challenge my own perceptions, and succumb to the relentless lobbying from my sons, I tested a few models:

The NatureMill Ultra composter costs $400, so the price alone will no doubt turn off many people. But it is sleek and made of stainless steel, cleverly triggering a jolt of excitement in the sort of person who loves a new kitchen appliance. It must be plugged in, using about 50 cents worth of electricity a month, the company says, to speed decomposition by heating and turning the contents. And unlike traditional composters, the NatureMill takes dairy and meat.

Composting, as I’ve learned, is all about balancing “greens” (fruit, vegetables) and “browns” (wood shavings, dry leaves). The greens provide nitrogen, the browns provide carbon, and if the mix is not right, odors result. The NatureMill came with a box of sawdust pellets, which are “browns,” and baking soda, which balances out food acidity. When you toss in food scraps you are supposed to also toss in pellets and baking soda.

My boys eagerly awaited the arrival of the 1,800 worms that I ordered on Amazon for the Worm Factory 360 ($110 for the Worm Factory, $27 for the red wigglers). They watched the accompanying DVD several times and helpfully created the “worm bedding” by mixing water with paper scraps and a part of a coir brick, made from coconut husks, that came with the composter. They dumped in the worms and immediately started referring to them as their pets. I was then asked to take a picture, to provide proof of the worms to a skeptical fifth grader on their bus.

I tested one outdoor composter, the Envirocycle Mini ($130), which might work for people with little outdoor space. I liked its small size and the barrel design. It seemed to hit a sweet spot — unobtrusive enough that neighbors would not mind seeing it in a shared outdoor space, but not so nice that someone would likely steal it.

The fourth option I tested was actually a compost pickup business, one among many that have cropped up across the country in recent years. They are designed for people who like the idea of composting more than the actual project. For a monthly fee, a company picks up your bucket of scraps and composts it; most services will return with soil if you want it. In the Washington area alone, there is the Compost Crew, Compost Cab and Fat Worm.

In Brooklyn, Vandra Thorburn has started Vokashi. For an initial fee of $15 plus $40 a month, Thornton drops off a plastic airtight bucket, then picks it up when it’s full.

Thorburn uses a method called bokashi, which is not actually composting but, rather, fermentation. (Bokashi is a Japanese term; the “V” in Vokashi is for Vandra.) The food scraps are “pickled,” Thorburn explained, a process helped along with bran that has been fortified with microorganisms and that you are supposed to sprinkle atop each installment of food.

The advantage of bokashi is that you can put in meat, chicken bones, dairy and more. The downside of bokashi is that the fermented waste still needs to decompose, so it must be buried in the ground or tossed into another composter. Because I was using a pickup service, of course, this was Thorburn’s problem, not mine.

At this point in my composting adventure, I have emerged with some hard-earned insights, which might be useful to others who may be under pressure from small schoolchildren to take the plunge:

I am not a worm person. I was, in fact, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep peacefully with hundreds of worms in the house. When the worms did not arrive the day I expected them to, I feigned disappointment. In fact, I felt relief that bordered on joy.

As soon as we unpacked the Worm Factory 360, though, I felt like one of those home-schooling moms who is always doing amazing projects with her five or six children. The boys put the composter together, checked on the worms when we came back after a weekend away, and took responsibility for feeding the worms after dinner. It dawned on me that “vermicomposting,” as it’s called, could be a gateway to helping out around the house.

On the nights that I composted by myself, though, I gravitated to the other composters. After a long day, I never wanted to look at those worms.

After I decided to compost, I realized it could be an excellent opportunity for the kids to recognize how much food they waste, and to stop doing so. This has yet to occur. When I’ve commented on how wasteful it is to declare oneself “starving,” then decide after two bites of a second helping that one is actually “stuffed,” they have said, “That’s OK, we can feed it to the worms!”

Shift in mindset

One thing that I truly did not expect was the satisfaction I felt tossing chopped-up apple cores, cucumber peels and broccoli and tofu that are left on dinner plates into the composters. There is something Sisyphean about filling lunchboxes on a Monday night and then having to throw the remnants into the trash on Tuesday. Composting them somehow felt less futile.

For better or worse, I will never again be able to throw away peels and rinds, let alone actual food, without feeling guilty. But which composter to stick with?

The Envirocycle got points simply because it was outside. When I opened the door to pop in new food scraps, it did not stink up my kitchen.

I loved that we were able to put meat, dairy and pretty much everything else into the Vokashi; leftover cereal in particular is a constant scourge. I found myself using this container often when it was late at night and I was fuzzy on the details of which composter takes what. Sometimes I went too far: I knew that leftover tuna salad should just go in the trash, but I was feeling virtuous and pushed my luck, tossing it into the Vokashi.

The NatureMill blends right in, wedged between a stainless-steel bread maker and a recycling bin. While an unpleasant fragrance was sometimes emitted when I opened it, I realized that I had been composting broccoli, kale and brussels sprouts, despite the warning that “strong odors will result.” And when I asked my husband if he had been throwing sawdust pellets in after the food scraps, he asked, “What sawdust pellets?”

Visitors of all ages are impressed that we harbor worms. With the holiday season, though, and many late nights out for the boys, the composting has been increasingly taking place after bedtime, meaning the worms have been increasingly neglected. Come to think of it, they may be starving. Excuse me while I remind the kids to feed their pets.