Composting Cuts Out Waste and Completes the Cycle

By Holland Gidney

Nashira Birch never remembers when it’s garbage day. Between recycling and composting, she just doesn’t produce that much trash. But she may be an exception; after all, part of her job is teaching people how to compost.

However, soon we might all let our memories lapse — for good reason. As early as 2012, the CRD will ban all organics from the Hartland Landfill, which should divert a third of the 165,381 tonnes of waste we send there annually and extend the landfill’s life expectancy by a decade. Once the ban is implemented, there will be no more tossing orange peels, eggshells, or coffee grounds in the garbage: instead such organic waste will be composted, decomposed through natural biochemical processes, and recycled into the nutrient-rich product gardeners covet.

Following recent successful CRD pilot programs in Oak Bay and View Royal, Victoria residents might one day wheel bins out to the curb for pickup, and organics-only dumpsters could become fixtures behind apartment buildings. In the meantime, gardeners and environmentalists have taken composting into their own hands.

“The health of your garden is contingent on the health of your soil,” says Carolyn Herriot, bestselling author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide, who relied on “huge quantities” of compost to convert 2.5 acres of “cement-like clay” into what she has described as “the healthiest garden I have ever grown.”

Herriot’s results makes sense: fertile soil requires organic matter and compost is simply the best soil conditioner around. In the free Composting Basics course at the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre (GVCEC), participants learn how compost improves water retention, neutralizes soil pH levels, increases nutrients available to plants, and suppresses diseases.  

Composting also has a beneficial environmental impact. When organic materials rot along with regular garbage, nasty byproducts like toxic chemical leachate and greenhouse gases result. Besides preventing soil contamination, filling up just one four-litre bucket with food waste and composting it instead of adding it to your trash reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 0.88 kg; a composted garbage bag of grass clippings and wet leaves saves 4.75 kgs. It may not seem like much but it adds up: the average family’s CO2 savings from a year of composting equals about an eighth of a tonne, the equivalent of 48 litres of gasoline.

While benefits of composting are obvious, many people don’t compost because they don’t know how, which makes the GVCEC a valuable resource. “Our goal is to make composting as easy and as foolproof as possible,” says executive director Nadine Brodeur, estimating that that her organization taught some 33,000 people about composting last year through its website, hotline, site visits, hands-on workshops, and special events.

As Birch explains, the key is finding the right composting system to match your needs, which is why she doesn’t just talk about the black plastic backyard bin but also discusses the pros and cons of less-mainstream choices like worm composting and the “zero-maintenance” Green Cone food waste digester, which accepts meat, dairy, and cooked foods. And these systems are not your only options. Organic gardener Phil Nauta is big on Bokashi composting.

“It’s great for small spaces,” he says, describing how the regular addition of effective microorganisms to a covered pail of food scraps controls odour and effectively pickles the waste.

Pick-up services offer another alternative for $20 to $25 a month. “Most people see the benefits of diverting waste from landfills,” says reFUSE owner Jason Adams, whose company collects and recycles kitchen and yard waste from commercial and residential customers.

Community Composting, co-owned by Matthew Mepham and Kyle Goulet, takes the waste-diversion concept one step further. Every four weeks, when they collect waste from their customers, they also drop off a 20-litre bag of ready-to-use compost. “We’re tring to connect the circle, says Mepham. “That’s our little twist.”

And that “little twist” hints at the huge potential impact of large-scale composting:  if we recycle all our “waste” into something useful, we won’t even need a garbage day.

Ensuring a healthy backyard bin

The basic prescription for keeping your compost healthy is balancing nitrogen-rich “greens” (fruit and vegetable scraps, grass, coffee grounds, eggshells, manure) and carbon-rich “browns” (straw, hay, cardboard, newspaper, dried leaves). Too much of the former and your compost will be “slimy and smelly”; too much of the latter, and it’ll be too dry to decompose properly.

Carolyn Herriot recommends roughly equal layering of greens and browns, no more than six inches thick. Proper aeration and having the right moisture content are also important.

Phil Nauta says good compost should “feel moist like a wrung-out sponge.” For composting factsheets, check out: