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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Urban Composting

According to the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the Department of Sanitation in New York City collects 13,000 tons of garbage everyday, and almost 5,000 tons – close to forty percent – account for organic materials that could be composted. Composting not only reduces waste, it also saves greenhouse gas emissions from refuse transport and provides nutrient-rich plant food for gardens, yards and parks. Because the health of the planet plays an important role in our own health, composting is something to be taken seriously and everyone can participate. Many urbanites wouldn’t consider composting compatible with city life, but surprisingly, it is.

Get Started

Worm bin composting requires few materials, little maintenance and less than three cubic feet of space. Properly managed, worm bins are discrete and odorless, and they do not attract pests. Bins can be tucked away inside a closet or pantry, under the kitchen sink, or in any shady spot, as long as the air vents are unobstructed and the temperature remains between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. A standard size bin, sometimes called a Worm Condo, usually measures 12 by 16 by 19 inches, but any lidded plastic container of similar size, with air holes and drainage holes, will work well.

To set up a worm bin, begin with bedding materials referred to as “greens” and “browns.” Greens are organic materials rich in nitrogen. These can include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, coffee filters, tea leaves, tea bags and fresh green plant materials like wilted flower bouquets, weeds and grass clippings. Browns are rich in carbon. These include newspaper, office paper (nothing shiny), paper bags, cardboard, food-soiled napkins and paper towels, dryer lint, saw dust, wood shavings, egg shells, corn cobs, stale bread and dry plant material like fall leaves, dead pine needles and dried flowers.

Place up to three pounds of green materials in one corner of the bin. Shred some newspaper into one-inch strips (you will need about five newspapers if this is the only brown material you plan to use). Dip them in water and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Separate the strips and drop them into the bin, along with any other browns, on top of the greens. Fill the container up to the bottom of the air vents, roughly three inches from the top. All of the greens should be covered by browns. The browns should have a fluffy appearance and allow for plenty of air circulation, creating a humid, but not wet, environment.

On top of the browns, add one pound of Red Wigglers – approximately 1,000 worms – and cover the container tightly. Ensure that the air vents at the top are open and unobstructed. There should be little drainage, but a small amount is normal, so place the bin on a tray lined with an old towel or newspaper to absorb any liquid.

To maintain the worm bin, place up to three pounds of greens in the bottom of the bin each week (a volume approximately equivalent to a standard size bread bag). Imagine that the bottom of your bin is divided into six equal areas and use one area each week. Rotate your disposals around the bin, returning to the first area six weeks later. Each time you add greens, be sure to place them at the bottom and cover them with browns.

After approximately four months, the bedding will begin to resemble crumbly black dirt and the compost will be ready to harvest. Move everything to one side of the bin and stop adding greens to this compost. On the empty side, add new greens and browns and continue composting.

Two weeks later, most of the worms should have moved over to the new bedding. Remove the compost and redistribute the browns to the empty side of the bin, adding more if necessary. Use the compost you harvested to feed plants, trees or grass. If you can’t use all of the compost yourself, donate it to local farms or community gardens.

Follow Four Rules

To avoid odors and infestations, follow four simple rules. First, maintain roughly equal amounts of greens and browns inside your bin, but always add slightly more browns. Greens are typically damp materials, and if there are too many, the environment will become too wet and foster microbial growth. If this happens, add more browns, which are typically dry materials, to absorb excess moisture.

Second, refrain from adding oily foods to your worm bin. This includes salad dressings, sauces, meat and fish scraps, cheese and other dairy products. Because fats and oils turn rancid more quickly at room temperature, they can become smelly.

Third, avoid adding the skins and peels of citrus and tropical fruits to your worm bin, or treat them first. Fruit flies often lay eggs on these fruits, and eggs that hatch inside a worm bin can quickly create an infestation. To kill any fruit fly eggs before they can hatch, freeze citrus peels and tropical fruit skins overnight or heat them for one minute in the microwave (and cool to room temperature) before adding them to your worm bin.

Fourth, avoid adding anything to the bin that might threaten the health of your worms and their ecosystem. This includes pet waste, diseased plants, pesticide-treated plant materials, pressure-treated lumber, glossy paper, charcoal, weeds with seeds, invasive weeds, dead animals, and inorganic materials like plastic, metal and glass.

Learn More

The Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York City offers informative workshops like Worm Composting 101, a Children’s Wormshop, and Worm Composting for the Classroom, designed for teachers who want to start class projects. They sell materials, including Worm Condos and the Red Wigglers that love them, and accept donations of organic materials for composting (approximately 1,000 households currently donate six tons per week). The Center also offers a free composting hotline to answer questions and help troubleshoot problems (212-477-3155).

Visit their website at or stop by their stand at the Union Square Greenmarket any day it is open (8 to 5 every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) to get more information, register for a class, donate your organic waste, or buy some authentic New York City compost.

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