The volunteers teaching Britain how to make the perfect compost

Promoting the universal benefits of home composting to the community is all in a day’s work for Master Composter Vic Rolfe. Leonie Butler meets him and his fellow composters for a chat about the black stuff 

This article originally featured in Resource 83, Winter 2016.

Masters of the universe
L-R: Alex Heelis, Vic Rolfe and Kate Cole

Composting isn’t new, of course. Nor, really, are Master Composters – it’s an idea that was initiated in America more than 15 years ago and that charity Garden Organic has been promoting to its 20,000 members as well as the public here in the UK for more than 15.

I’m meeting Master Composter Vic Rolfe at Bisley Community Composting, along with Bisley’s Fundraising and External Liaison Manager Lesley Greene, Gloucestershire Joint Waste Team’s Master Composter Co-ordinator Kate Cole and Garden Organic’s Alex Heelis to find out what exactly Master Composters get up to. Although it’s a dreary day when I first get to Bisley, the gang’s enthusiasm soon chases the clouds away. Rolfe has been promoting the composting cause in Gloucestershire for the last eight years, alongside Cole. A keen gardener, and retired from industry, he was recruited by the council through a newspaper advert looking for composting volunteers. He signed up and underwent ‘how to compost’ training at Garden Organic’s headquarters at Ryton Organic Gardens: “Training was excellent. Although I’ve always composted, I didn’t know the technicalities – we went to Ryton and got the microscope out and looked at all the creatures in the compost and were taken through the processes of how each organism does its bit and how to create a decent compost pile – what you should put in and what you shouldn’t. And basically got enthused.”

Garden Organic supports over 500 Master Composters in counties across the UK. Heelis, Home Composting Project Coordinator at Garden Organic, explains: “There are Master Composters of every age group and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. This contributes to the effectiveness of the scheme – Master Composters talk to their friends, family and neighbours, and it has even been known for a Master Composter to hold a compost-themed children’s birthday party!”

Lesley Greene discusses creatures that live in the soil, using Kate Cole's model tower

It’s in this community-led way that the Master Composters reach an audience that council employees do not always have the resources, time or ability to target. Activities carried out by the volunteers can include talks at local community groups and in schools, demonstrations outside supermarkets and garden centres and generally promoting the message either verbally or through articles in newspapers and magazines. As members of the community in which they are volunteering, their message is well respected. According to Garden Organic, the benefits are many: use of a home compost bin diverts approximately 150 kilogrammes of waste from landfill per household each year, while community volunteer work builds social capital and sustainable communities.

Once trained up, the Master Composters are asked to spend about 30 hours over a year encouraging people to save their compostable kitchen waste and garden debris to create a valuable product. Rolfe, of course, passed his 30 hours many moons ago, and as Cole points out, volunteers often spend many more hours than they realise: “Vic might say he only spends a couple of hours a month as a Master Composter, but he’s always talking to his neighbours, to people at the gym, while he’s out shopping. These are all worthwhile conversations, but of course he doesn’t record these minutes or hours as actually working!” Heelis adds that most Master Composters do seem to carry on once their 30 hours have been reached: “Some do weekly sessions in the community and do 100 hours a month! In our annual review last year, we found that it was an average of three hours per month, per volunteer. But of course it is very seasonal, with lots of things going on during the summer.”

At home, Rolfe has three compost heaps, contained within old wooden pallets: one he’s currently adding to, one that’s ‘resting’ and one for leaves. The only other equipment he uses is the humble garden fork. He is quick to explain, however, that one can start with one bin: “We want to enthuse people. We talk to people, but it’s difficult to activate people and there’s lots of excuses – but you tell them whatever they do it has a value – even a dalek.”

Rolfe explains that ‘layering’ of compost bins with ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ is a good idea, if you’re looking to achieve a hot heap, but the waste produced by householders is often not as neat, and that’s fine: “If you look in your compost bin and think that it looks a bit wet, you just need to add some cardboard or straw to balance it out.” Heelis explains that, in fact, because the bacteria in the compost need both greens and browns to prosper, the closer together these two types of material are, the better. “One other thing to bear in mind is that a layer of twigs or branches at the bottom of a compost bin or heap can be a great way of helping to achieve a vertical flow of air through the material.”

I ask Rolfe what the public’s most common reason for not wanting to try composting is, and he explains it’s mostly around space and time, but that a lady once told him she had been bitten by a slow worm so wasn’t prepared to compost! (I actually see my first slow worm at Bisley, and am assured they don’t bite!) “As well as getting people to compost, Master Composters are about getting people who have tried composting but have abandoned it for some reason to give it another go”, explains Heelis. Asked why this so often happens, the composters tell me it’s because the compost has either gone too wet or too dry. Rolfe says it’s important to keep a regular eye on it: “You want to chop things up a bit and mulch it because then there’s more surface area for microbes to work on. And I encourage people to get cardboard, or a weight of some sort, to bring everything into contact with each other so all the organisms can easily get to the materials to break them down more and more. And then you can sit back and let these microbes work their magic.”

This article was taken from Issue 83

It seems, though, that the old concern that compost heaps breed pests is still prevalent: “I think because compost relies on microscopic creatures, ably illustrated by Kate’s tower [see picture], people think you’re going to get rats and the like. All the ‘pests’ in the compost are a valuable part of the composting process. Rats may visit a compost heap if they are already present in the area, but composting does not generally attract the rats in the first place”, says Rolfe.

Moving from sceptics to enthusiasts, Rolfe tells me that his work in schools has been particularly rewarding. “Children generally seem very enthused about composting. One school we visited couldn’t understand why they weren’t producing a composting material, but it was just a soggy mess. We looked in and realised that they were only ‘composting’ fruit! Once we’d explained the need to add a dry mix, blue composting towels, et cetera, things got a lot better.” While I’m at Bisley, a group of teenage students turn up to find out more about how to compost. Though they seem to be a bit nervous and unsure at first, Greene soon has them laughing and getting straight into helping around the site. By the time I leave, they’re having fun, working and learning about why we need to reuse compostable waste to produce something that’s so fundamental to the earth.

Certainly, having spoken to these enthusiasts, I’m armed and ready to improve my own composting!