On Cold Composting

Vermont has food waste laws. We can’t put anything edible or compostable into the trash. On the face of it, this is a good law. It’s a bit murkier in practice. 

First, like most of New England, maybe most of the country by now, there is no municipal waste collection in my city. We pay private contractors to haul the trash away. This, too, is fine. Except there aren’t any private contractors who do curbside compost pick-ups in my town. We have to haul the compostables to the ‘transfer station’ — which is also managed by a private contractor, the same one that I pay to haul my curbside waste, in fact. But they don’t have an obvious compost pile at this sorting station, and the kitchen and yard waste I’ve hauled there has just been dumped into a large bin with all sorts of other potentially biodegradable waste — where ‘potentially’ is very broadly defined, from the broken concrete and metal fence posts that are usually in the bin mixed in with the soil and roots and rubble from landscaping services. In any case, compostable things need to be hauled a couple miles out into the country to this bin, yet this bin is not obviously going to make usable compost.

This is difficult and this difficulty is, I am certain, making it so that people do not obey the regulations. I’m pretty sure other folks are just tossing food waste (even yard waste!) into their curbside pick-up trash cans. I’ve walked past more than one ripe-smelling bin in this neighborhood. Plus, though restaurants are supposed to be composting all their food waste, I know of at least three that never do. Because where are they supposed to do this composting in the middle of town? And yet how is it to be collected if they don’t have the space (or use) for on-site composting?

There are many farms around the state that are making compost with kitchen waste, and some of them will come pick up the waste from your home. But this service is expensive, and I don’t think much of my town is within any given collection region (my house is not). So those of us who can’t afford another $30-40 in waste collection a month or just don’t live where that’s an option have to haul the compost to to some compost collection site. This is very difficult for those who don’t have some sort of compost-hauling transport that will get the foul stuff out to the transfer station — which is not obviously using this kitchen waste to make compost — or the farms that do.

I suppose a cargo bike could haul kitchen waste if not yard waste, but then, cargo bikes on hilly gravel roads are rather beyond the capacity of many folks. There aren’t many cargo bikes around here that I’ve seen (even though this is a state full of bikes!). Putting compost in the car is about the only option for many people, and let’s just say that’s not really a savory option. Doable, yes, but so gross that many people are just not going to make that extra effort when it’s really easy just to toss it in the trash. Now, this is a state of many trucks, I’ll admit, but in my urban neighborhood, I might be the only person with a truck. So even hauling yard waste to the transfer station is counterproductive at best, because most folks in town have to put the stuff in bags in order to get it into their Subarus — and most of these bags are plastic…

What I’m learning from all this is that we really can’t combine privatization with laws that slow or stop the waste stream. Waste collection is not profitable enough for private companies to offer a wide variety of services to a broad geographic region, and many forms of recycling and reuse are not profitable at all. It takes specialized trucks to haul recycling and compost. It usually means hauling these things to many different locations rather than one dump point. And it often means paying a drop-off fee in the case of no-sort recycling facilities or employing extra staff to sort the the recyclables at their own facilities (which they may or may not have). This is not something that we can extract profit from! It needs to be a city service paid for by the city residents through taxes. At the least, it is ineffective to make laws mandating that citizens do things with the waste without providing the means for those things to be done.

It may be the case that the state envisioned most people making their own compost. This is a nice idea and would be great for many single-family homes with large-ish property lots. However, it’s just not an option for most rentals, even those that have some garden space. Composting takes up a bit of space, but more importantly, you need a use for the compost. A multi-unit rental is usually going to generate far more kitchen waste than can be used. And that’s ignoring the large amount of kitchen waste that really can’t go in an average low-temp compost pile.

Which brings me to the last point on all this… we live in Vermont. For much of the year, all compost piles, no matter how large and nitrogen-rich, are going to be cold. This reduces what waste can be composted, but it also slows what ordinarily can. When I bought this house, there was an adorable Gardener’s Supply plastic pyramid compost bin on the south side of the porch. In the summer, it smelled but it really did a great job of breaking down kitchen waste quickly. Carbon-rich dry stuff and woody things not so much, and fitting anything large into the bin’s 18” square opening is a rather painful chopping and dicing project that can last all afternoon… But still, it was doing so well at the moist things, I was bringing home unsold produce from the farm stand (so it didn’t go in the Dumpster). 

And then the weather turned cold…

Around October, the composter started slowing measurably. I was filling it up with winter squash rinds and apple cores and lots of wilted lettuce (lettuce never sells as well as it ‘should’). In August, all that rotted down enough for new loads each week. In late autumn, it stretched to two, then three weeks, at which point it became difficult just to get my regular flow of kitchen waste into the bin. (Being mostly vegetarian means a lot of rinds, cores and so on.) By midwinter, though, it had just stopped. Nothing was breaking down at all. 

For quite a long time, I was hauling my little composting can to the transfer station. But I confess to throwing many tea bags and the daily apple cores from oatmeal in with my trash (because it’s likely that the transfer station runs were just going to end up trash anyway, so the point of hauling it was…). But I could do nothing at all for the garden center’s continuing waste. Nearly all the end-of-season annuals went into the trash bin. (That was a painful week!) 

In January, I bought another composter. This is not the ideal time to start a pile though. There’s all this snow, you see… But desperate times, desperate measures… It’s mostly level… But what I have put in there thus far has also not rotted. At all. So I’m just making a plastic cube full of nasty kitchen waste that I hope will quickly break down when the sun starts warming things again. You can see that this is not exactly ideal.

So what should have happened here? Well, first the town needs its own composting facilities, and it needs to haul the stuff to this municipal composting facility. That needs to be an option for every household because even those who have the capacity to make their own compost will face winter slow down in their small private piles.

My only picture of the compost bin row… along with a guest… who had just finished emptying out an entire metal trash can of saved bird seed.

Next lesson, those plastic composters don’t work in cold climates. I had open composting piles in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that worked all year. The Massachusetts farm generated a large amount of waste year round, but I never had to haul it away. I had a row of the standard three 3’cube wire mesh and wood framed compost bins for most of the garden waste and all of the kitchen waste. Then I had an 8’ by 4’ open front bin that I used for canes and woody stuff. I didn’t even do a great job at cutting it down. Just threw whole sunflower stalks and orchard prunings onto the pile. I never managed to outpace the rotting.

I don’t know that this makes much physical sense. One would think that a dark plastic container would keep the pile hotter. That seems to be the received wisdom anyway. But that’s not been my experience. I think part of it is that you just can’t turn the pile in a plastic bin. But it may also be that the pressure from snow increases the temperature in the middle of the pile, while melt water helps move stuff around. It may also be that air flow is necessary at low temperatures. Anaerobic breakdown does seem to need high heat. Is it also true that a cold pile requires aerobic breakdown? I don’t know. But I do know that these bins don’t work.

So this summer I shall be building another standard row of wire mesh and wood cubes. I won’t be able to site this close to the house. There’s not room. Also, I don’t think it was ideal putting the bin next to the porch. Makes July sort of aromatic on the porch. So I’ll deal with walking a bit more to dump the can and keeping a path cleared through the snow. 

But I am also going to be having words with my neighbor the newly elected mayor… We need to be using some of this town space a bit better. And we need to be doing better at public sector services. 

And if Vermont does…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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