1/11/2017: Compost Adventures

Continuing my saga of stupid-house-stuff-I’m-proud-of-doing…

My town charges for throwing away garbage.  I’ve lived in cities that add it to your taxes, cities that charge for trash by making you buy your bags from them, cities that make you pay a license fee to access their transfer station, and cities that probably charge you for trash disposal and quietly insert it into the town taxes and fees without telling you.  I’ve never had a town require purchase of a transfer station sticker, a specific type of trash bag that isn’t readily available in major markets, AND pay for a bag tag for each bag of household trash you throw away.  You have to pay additional fees on top of that for disposing of anything not considered “household trash”.  Only recyclables are free to dispose at my local transfer station.

Listen, I get it.  Trash is big business nowadays.  You’ll never be lacking a job, and it’ll only get more expensive as the years go on and we run out of room on this poor polluted planet of ours.  Charging a lot to throw away products that could be easily recycled is one way to tighten our Yankee purse strings around our throats.  And it works, too!  I neither want to pay to throw away my household trash, nor do I want to do what my neighbors do and pay a guy on the side to take their trash (none of which is recycled) and haul it away for them.  I generate at most 2 bags of household trash a month, typically styrofoam packing containers (generally from meat I’ve cooked, and I wish they’d start packing it in plastic!), food that isn’t easily or safely compostable like bones, and bits of cloth and yarn that for some reason my transfer station does not consider recyclable.  And of course the contents of my frequently run vacuum, which is 99% dog hair and sand and which I’m uncertain would help any compost pile.

Now, I’m a virgin household-waste composter.  My dad always kept two large compost piles in our backyard while I was growing up, but we didn’t put household food and scraps in it.  Presumably this was to prevent encouraging wild animals from rooting through the pile and feasting, though I question how anything except squirrels and raccoons would access our suburban-Connecticut compost.  Perhaps my parents simply didn’t feel the need to add household scraps to the pile; garbage pickup was free in those good old days.  Dad used to throw grass clippings and weeds in the pile in the summer and dump leaves  in there in the fall.  One pile was “active” and new stuff was dumped on the top; the other was “inactive” and beautiful rich, black soil was shoveled from the bottom every year and applied to the garden and the landscaping.

I certainly have to read more about the process, but I’ve become a compost devotee since moving into my new home.  A garden has already been plotted, filled with purchased compost, and bedded down before the first snow came, and I have organic seeds anxiously awaiting March and April when I can start them in kits.  I started with a small 4’x4′ garden this year, with plans to expand if I can keep up with it.  As I’ve said before, I also want to learn how to can all my extra food products!  To have a pantry full of jars that were grown in my own compost, processed by me, cooked and canned by me…that would be pretty awesome.

Back to my little slice of pride and the topic of today’s post.  When I moved in, I knew that I wanted to recycle every bit of trash that I possibly could, compost everything else, and only throw into household trash what I could not dispose of any other way.  I needed a trash area in the kitchen that was easily accessible and could sort the trash into these three sections without too much irritation.

The trash drawer in my kitchen is a tall, deep pull out cabinet on sliders.  I bought a typical white kitchen trash bucket to go inside of it that only took up half the available space and could be used for the recycling, which would be the majority of my trash.  The question was, how to deal with the compost scraps, and where to put the non-recyclable trash?

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What happens when your foster dog is able to open your trash cabinet whenever he gets bored.  Sigh.

For the first two months I was in the house, the compost and non-recyclables just went into their own bin together and I threw them out in various [allowable!] places (I don’t want to get anyone in trouble by disclosing where, but I would NEVER litter.  Littering is the ultimate demonstration of a person’s inconsiderate laziness.  Keep the damn trash with you until you go somewhere you can throw it away!).

When my birthday rolled around in late September, one of the high-priority things on my wishlist was a rolling composter.  To me it seemed to be a relatively inexpensive way to quickly generate compost, or at the very least a way start compost that could then be dumped into a larger area outside.  I also figured it would be an easy way to dispose of household scraps instead of allowing them to hang around on my countertop (ew) or rotting in a trash bag for a couple of weeks (phew).  My excellent brother emailed me one weekend with the mysterious message “your birthday present is taking up too much room, so I have to drop it off” and showed up with the rolling composter from my wishlist!  He was pretty disappointed when I guessed what it was within 30 seconds of touching it while keeping my eyes closed.  I was extremely excited, though, and insisted we get it going immediately.

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The Good Ideas CW-2X Compost Wizard Dueling Tumbler (I couldn’t help but snigger at the Amazon reviewer who correctly complained that no matter what they did, the composter refused to duel with them) is an excellent starting composter to a small-household composting newbie such as myself.  It has relatively small dimensions and is surprisingly light to carry when it’s unfilled.  The separate dual (note to Good Ideas: knowing your homonyms is important!) compost bins allows you to fill up one side, and then leave that side alone to compost while filling up the other side.  Hopefully, by the time the second side is filled, the first side will be done ‘cooking’ and ready to empty.  The base is sand-filled and heavy, yet it’s easy to roll the composter to encourage breakdown of the contents.  The lids are secure – you can’t open them with one hand, but can easily open them with two – and it’s easy to dump stuff in there.  There are only two drawbacks as far as I can tell, one that’s not actually a drawback and one that’s rather well-duh-you-should-expect-that-for-what-you-bought sort of drawback.

The first not-great thing are the holes deliberately drilled into the composter that allow the ‘compost tea’ (the liquid that comes out of the compost as it breaks down) to come out and soak into the sand-filled base.  The thought is that when you want, you can drain the tea from the base and use the nutrient-rich water on your garden.  It’s a great idea, with a caveat.  I’d like to gather compost all year round, and I live in a climate that is not compost-making-friendly for about 6 months out of the year.  My little dueling composter is currently in my garage, which stays at a not-quite-freezing temperature or above during the winter months.  It’s my compromise between wanting my compost easily accessible and continuing to break down, albeit more slowly than if it were in the nice warm house, and not wanting the compost stinking up the nice warm house.  As a result my garage currently smells rather vegetative; its a green smell that isn’t unpleasant, but you know something is happening in there.  I think part of the reason you can smell it as much as you can is because the compost tea is leaking out of the bins and into the base as the developers of the product intended.  At the very least I’d like the option of being able to harvest the tea or not.  They couldn’t have made an enclosed drip tray with a spout or something?  I’m looking forward to moving the dueler into the backyard come spring and restoring my garage smell to its former musty splendor.

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My Dueling Tumbler, complete with draining compost tea.

 

The other drawback is not something I’ve experienced yet but doubtlessly will.  Nearly all the reviewers of this product complain that the openings in the bins are not wide enough to fit a typical garden shovel, and I completely agree.  You either have to trowel the compost out or perhaps open up the bin and roll it around your yard until enough soil comes out that you can pick it up and shake it empty.  A tough prospect if the other side is filled with compost…that stuff can get heavy!  However I will say that if you buy this dual bin system, you know that you aren’t going to have a lot of compost and that you wanted something small, or you would’ve bought the big shovel-able bin.  Complaining about a small composter not fitting a shovel head is like complaining about water being wet.  It is what it is.

Back to my composter.  I know there are several things I’m doing wrong with it at the moment.  One, I am definitely not following the 2-parts-brown to 1-part-green composting rule.  A vast majority of my household scraps are ‘green’ compost; alive (in a sense) veggie scraps and non-decomposed food that’s past its prime but that I don’t want to give to the canine  [note to self: next time get a dog without allergies to major meat groups!].  I had planned to compensate for the ‘brown’ compost deficiency by adding dead leaves and grass from raking into both bins this fall.  Well, surprise!  Apparently because of the way my house is placed and the way the wind blows over it, I had ZERO leaves to rake this fall.  Most of my surrounding trees in the yard are evergreens, and the deciduous trees are all in the woods behind my backyard.  I am absolutely, positively thrilled about this development, but it put the kibosh on my compost plan.  I ended up transporting some leaves from the woods to the compost, but I recognize that it’s not nearly enough to satisfy the 2:1 requirement.  I have plans to put in more leaves (this time they’ll be snow-packed, that’ll be interesting) as well as to bring used paper from work that I can shred and add to the pile.  I also have a bucket of used potting soil in the house (don’t ask…failed growing experiment) that I plan to add to at least one side of the composter.  That should even things out, although by that time the composter will probably be full, and you’re supposed to leave a generous space open at the top to allow the contents to mix fully.

The other thing that I know I’m doing wrong is occasionally filling a bin with new compost that should already be closed up and cooking.  The composter had started its life under the back deck, and I filled one side of the thing before it became too cold to keep outside.  When I brought it inside, I started filling the other empty bin…right up until I lost track of which bin was ongoing and which was cooking.  I need labels!  However I’m relatively certain that the left bin is the ongoing one and the right bin is supposed to be the cooking one, and I think the photos support me in this supposition.  The right side looks much more ‘cooked’ than the left.  And as you can see from the overabundance of green in the photos, I do desperately need some brown compost in there.

Now, if you’re wondering what the heck those green bags are in the left bin photo at 11 o’clock and 5 o’clock, that brings me to my original topic of today’s post.  Those are Biobag Food Waste Bags, a garbage bag made specifically to decompose in household compost piles.  They are made out of some sort of plant/resin derivative and work excellently to hold kitchen scraps for a short amount of time in a relatively small space (you don’t want to keep the scraps around for weeks, after all) while still being able to carry them down to the composter without making a mess.  Once I found out about these beauties, my plan was set, and I went forward with my Master Trash Cabinet Plan.

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A fully organized Master Trash Cabinet.  Kyra just wants to know where her cookie is.

Now, I agree that this doesn’t look like a big deal, but for me it is.  Trying to get my family to throw things out in the correct bins during the holiday was like herding cats, even though I had made a little diagram and stuck it to the counter to help instruct them.  This setup is much more intuitive; recycling in the big white bin on the left, compost in the green bag in the top bin on the right, and household trash in the bottom green bin on the right.

I drilled holes into the $3 (Home Depot) small bin that holds the compost bags and screwed drywall screws into the back of the trash cabinet, so the bin hangs from those screws but is still easily removable for cleaning if necessary.  The bin is just large enough to fit the 3 gallon compost bags.  The green bin is a legacy bathroom bin I recently unpacked, and is deliberately slightly less easy to access.  I wanted to have to make an effort to throw things away in there, as that’s the bin that I have to pay for in order to dispose.  The large white bin has a regular trash bag in it to make the recyclables easy to remove and transport, and typically I empty the bag contents into the recycling bin at the transfer station and reuse the bags until they rip.  Then they go into recycling along with everything else.  If you’re wondering why the white bins have holes drilled into their sides, that’s to make the bags easier to put in and take out.  It’s one of those life hacks you read about on Facebook that actually works.  It took 30 seconds and a cheap drill bit, and saves irritation every time you put in an empty bag or take out a full one by preventing suction.  The only thing I have left to consider is whether or not to screw the two bottom bins (white and green) to the floor of the sliding cabinet.  It would make them more scavenging-dog resistant, and keep them in place while the cabinet gets pulled in and out and bags get inserted and exhumed.

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No trash for canines.

I was surprised, once I was armed with all of the pieces that I needed, at how easily it all came together.  And the system truly works well.  I’ve been using it this way for several weeks now without issue.  Every time I throw something out, there’s a little ball of pride in the center of my chest for a system I invented that was (mildly) ambitious, and not rubbish.

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