The beauty of home composting

While it may have fallen down the political agenda, home composting is still – sustainably speaking – the best way to treat garden waste. Nicky Scott explains how to get the most out of your compostable waste

The waste hierarchy of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is a great mantra to follow but unfortunately gets undermined by government directives. Take, for example, home composting: the only viable recycling process many, if not most of us, can do ourselves. Yet what with weight-based recycling targets, local authorities have all scrambled to raise their recycling rates, and are now collecting all manner of compostables. 

So what’s wrong with that? Where I live in West Devon, we were not allowed to put any garden waste into our dustbins. Now that garden waste can be included in the recycling figures, some Devon areas have very high recycling rates, boosted by high volumes of the stuff that didn’t use to be in the waste stream. It also means that fleets of lorries are now driving around Devon laden largely with material that could have easily been home or community composted. One of our local lorries has to drive across the moor to Tavistock – about a 40-mile round trip – and often has to return because it won’t all fit into one load.  

When Teignbridge District Council was gathering evidence about changing its collection system about 10 years ago, I, along with other composters, was called in to give my thoughts. In a nutshell, I said: ‘Don’t use wheelie bins (people just fill them up whatever size they are); don’t collect garden waste, unless you make a charge for it; and do collect food waste every week.’ 

So what did the council do!? You guessed it – fortnightly wheelie bin collections of mixed garden and food waste. This means that the feedstock for the expensive in-vessel composting facility built to comply with Animal By Products Regulations (ABPR) is about 80 per cent garden waste, which could have been windrow composted outside. Now, the Devon councils are realising that while collecting garden waste might boost recycling figures, it’s not a long-term, sustainable way to go – but it’s politically difficult to remove services. 

So, we are in a bit of an ‘Eric’. Alongside of all this, local authorities have still been promoting home composting as the best thing to do, and certainly a few years ago it was flavour of the month. I spent many a day at roadshows talking about composting and being paid to give my booklets away, but recently bin sales have dwindled and councils don’t like to be seen giving away masses of freebies in these straightened economic times. Besides, a booklet – however informative – does not replace proper training and instruction.

This article was taken from Issue 76

Personally, I have directed more energy towards schools – getting the next generation switched onto the joys of composting. By embedding food waste composting systems in schools, we involve the whole school community (staff, children, parents, and governors), and show how composting fits into the whole healthy food cycle. The benefits are manifold: getting children outside developing their gardens; introducing them to new foods; and saving the school money. We also have a growing interest in Transition Towns and other grassroots community initiatives. 

Rather than banging on about ‘waste’ like a ‘waste anorak’ (which, unless you are like some readers of Resource, few are), we should be looking to connect to these grassroots movements and train people to make good compost. 

So, my advice to councils and government would be to stop looking at the problem of rising waste to landfill, and start looking at the other end of the pipe. Put energy and resources into schools, businesses, and community groups to empower them to source separate their reusable, recyclable, and compostable stuff. Thousands of children and adults getting really good hands-on training in how composting works is so much better than tens of thousands of subsidised Dalek composters with no training – even if supplied with a free booklet (however brilliantly written!). 

For more information, visit DCCN or Growing Devon Schools.

Nicky Scott is author of 'Composting for All' and other books available at Green Books.