• Ian McClellan

Week 46: I will compost.

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Over the last few weeks, I have started weighing our bin bags.

Actual standing on the bathroom scales with the bag, and then without the bag.

A bit like you do when you’re trying to stay under the weight limit before a budget airline flight and hoping you can take that second pair of flip flops.

The reason for this has something to do with connections, and something equally to do with potato peelings, and if you’ll please bear with me, I’ll deal with connections first. Perhaps to your disappointment.

But … I promise we’ll get onto the potato peelings soon.

Project Planetwise began with the idea that we are all connected, and if we all believe we can individually make a difference, and share our ideas - we can create a direct positive impact, and a collective positive pressure.

As time has gone by, and I’ve become more reflective, I’ve wondered who I was talking to when we embarked on this journey of discovery and action. It was maybe the many, the politicians, the activists. I definitely thought it was at the time, and I wanted people to sit up and listen.

Looking back, this almost feels like a politically charged statement. The dream of a revolution, that can begin with one act. The dream of a movement of individuals, advancing decision-by-decision against a wave of consumerism, overconsumption, overproduction.

Fighting rhetoric. Pleading for action. Emotional.

Maybe I was also talking to myself.

Somewhere along the journey, there was a moment when I stopped feeling like being kind to our planet was a battle. I stopped feeling like an activist, and in many ways I have started to push back a little against what I believe is selfish activism.

I realised that sharing ideas is an obligation, but preaching is a nuisance. That changing our own perceptions to be more kind in any way is a gift, and passing this along should feel like that too. If we call it a war, you assume everyone want to be a soldier. If we call it a crisis, we create a boundary as not everyone is confident of what to do in a crisis.

It stopped feeling like it was about proving something to the world, and about grand adventures in the extremes of our lifestyle. About zero everything, and single causes. For us, became calmer and more personal and more about just the way we live our lives. A kind of lifestyle tipping-point, when I realised that it’s not just individuals-to-individuals that are connected, but action-to-action too.

It was also a moment that something profound started to happen, that is probably connected to this feeling. It seemed from this moment on, the drip, drip, drip of individual action really started to pay off.

And this is where the potato peelings come in.

I’m proud to say that seemingly from nowhere, and on a good week - we are now only sending an average of one-and-a-half medium-sized bin bags to the landfill each time the wheelie bins are collected by the waste management company.

On a bad week, this might stretch to two binbags.

If you’re interested in what medium-sized means, then the average weight we’re sending is about 9 kilograms each time, at an average of 4.5 kilograms for our household each week, given that our collection happens every two-weeks.

In terms of where that puts us in the average UK household, I’m not exactly sure as the numbers vary from what I can find online from about 10 kilograms to 20 kilograms per household per week. I’ve also not been particularly scientific about it. We are only a household of three, and one of those is a four-year old child, but these numbers make me feel really good.

It is not one specific thing that I can point to, that has reduced our landfill to this level. It is definitely from our purchasing habits away from plastic, and definitely our efforts at recycling. It has been impacted positively by meal planning and being imaginative with leftovers, meaning that we waste less. We also have a gradual lifestyle that supports simply less ‘stuff’ in general, and I guess this also means less waste.

That being said, on occasion we do something that feels like it makes a noticeable and immediate impact. Composting has been something of a noticeable impact. Both in the volume of landfill we create, but also the scale of perception change, which is why I wanted to write about it this week.

This week, I will compost. And I believe that composting is for everyone.

I believe it is for everyone, partly because I felt a big resistance to it, and so I understand the opposite worldview. I’ve never really understood composting. We don’t have a food waste collection in our area, and so generally and aside from titbits of old fruit for the chickens, we would throw our compost in the landfill bins.

I’ve not understood composting, because we don’t really use compost. And what is the point in having an ever-increasing compost heap, if you don’t use compost? It would just become a smelly heap of unsightly rotting food.

Our house even came with a very cool, hand-built compost system at the end of the garden. Three piles of delineated compost, each about four square metres – with the idea that you moved compost from one to the other each year, so that in the ‘year-three’ pile you’d have a fairly regular support of compost rather than having to dig down underneath the new stuff to get the beautiful dark soil that was good for the vegetables.

We destroyed that particular system in week 27, to make a bee-friendly area.

Whilst I was doing it I got chatting to our neighbour, who was also the inspiration for the compost system in our garden. As part of the discussion – we had an idea and I asked permission to be able to put our food scraps in his own compost. That neighbour was Mr Michael, if you are a first-time reader of Project Planetwise, he is our 80-year old rock star gardener of a neighbour.

Mr Michael uses compost.

Mr. Michael grows carrots as big as our 4-year olds arms, and tomatoes that would have Jamie Oliver salivating, in various pots in his hand-built greenhouse. He is also a tremendous human being, and his reaction to being asked was of course to allow it, but also move his own composting bin nearer to the fence that joins our properties to make it a shorter trip for us.

He also gave me a crash course in composting, which basically consisted of one guideline.

If it is any type of food outside of meat and fish, and you didn’t cook it, it can usually be composted. Peelings, stalks, old salad leaves, bits of old fruit, even newspaper or plain cardboard and tea bags or coffee grounds as long as they don’t contain plastic. There are probably exceptions, and to start with we invented a transition area where I would leave our own composting for inspection, and if it passed the test then Mr. Michael would accept it to his compost heap.

Without access to your very own Mr. Michael, you can find lists of compostable items via the internet on sites such as here. And to read from someone way cleverer than me who it is a benefit versus sending to landfill this is a cool article on food waste.

The other cool thing that I learned as we had been composting for a few weeks, is that the joy of composting is not about the compost at all. We still don’t use compost, and likely we never will. I’m thrilled that someone else gets the benefit, and that our old food waste is being used in a purposeful fashion.

But our thrill was that we became even more mindful of our landfill, and more mindful of what we threw away. We noticed.

And by noticing, we noticed more. It re-framed the task of composting from being constrained to those who perceives themselves as gardeners, to being for everyone. We don’t compost because we want to grow bigger vegetables in two-years time – we compost because it is another way of being mindful of our waste. Mindful of what we’re using, and how we are using it.

We notice for example, when the little stylish compost tin that sits in our utility room (because we’re not against small stylish compost tins if they help) is more full than usual, and it shows us that perhaps we’ve been buying too much. We don’t use scientific measurement, and we accept that we have naturally used more fresh vegetables as part of eating better.

But sometimes you spot if for a few weeks you’re throwing away a lot of onions, and instead of habitually chucking three in the basket at the store, you can select one or two instead next time. Or we can admit defeat that we’re never going to do anything with a butternut squash.

It also broke through the perception and the boundaries of composting. The perception that somehow humans invented composting, or that you should only do it if you have a purpose for the compost at the end.

We accept that we are lucky, in the sense that we have a neighbour who has a use for our compost scraps. We accept also that we are lucky that we have the space to compost. If you live in an urban area or if like us for many years, you don’t have a garden, then I can imagine that you are a bit sceptical about composting.

I would have to admit that you have to be imaginative, or make a little investment if you’re in this position. But there are options available to those who do not have a traditional set-up for composting. Items such as compost converters are often offered at discounted prices via the municipal councils for those who do not have access to a kerbside composting services – for example in our borough there is a link to Get Composting with some great prices for compost converters.

There are also options such as waste digesters, worm composting or bokashi bins, for further space saving ideas and solutions that can be used indoors. And to be honest, now it is a habit for us, I’m eyeing up some of the great design on Wiggly Wigglers with a degree of temptation.

If any of these solution are still not within your lifestyle, then asking around the neighbourhood like we did, or via social networks, for anyone who can use your scraps - can help to get you started and give you an easy way to practice and become accountable for composting. The internet also has some great ideas on other ways we can join together and compost, or imaginative ways we can use compost at the end. Allotments, farms, schools, may all have ways that we can contribute.

But remember also that nature invented compost, not humans. It does not need overthinking. It is just part of nature’s wonderful circles. We call it composting because as humans we love to label things with a purpose, but really it is simply returning nutrients to the soil.

It is feeding incredible and beautiful worms and beetles and other bug and creatures. It is keeping as much as we can back from the easy solution of landfill. It means there does not need to be a point to composting, or even a need to call it composting. If we create a place in our homes or gardens, and just use it to do build a good habit and never ever use the compost, we’re still going something good and kind to the planet, and that is purposeful enough.

Once it becomes a habit, you can get past the label.

It is just another way of making sure what we consume, is more of a circle than before.

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