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When my daughter was in 1st grade, I remember a morning when I stood on the sidelines with other parents at the morning assembly in the schoolyard when the teachers ran a little game. It was the ‘which bin?’ game, to test and reinforce the kids’ knowledge of sorting trash. Each student volunteer in turn would be handed the top item in the pre-selected pile of refuse, and then asked to choose the right bin to toss it in, selecting among recycling, composting and landfill. It was a great game: fun, engaging, and drove its point home. The kids were good at it and enjoyed reacting to the near misses and mistakes. The littler kids seemed about as good if not better than the older ones.

At our local mall, they have now installed all three types of bins in the food court and there is a video loop on a screen above them showing instructive examples of people tossing their waste items in the appropriate receptacles. You have to wonder what future or alien societies would think if they came upon such a video in a time capsule. Why was it so hard for this species to separate their trash? Would they know that we were coming away from a period when straight-to-landfill bins had been the most common denominator for its garbage and that many people wanted to stop the wasteful madness but had trouble finding communal ways to do it?

When I was working at a family resource center in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco near Candlestick Park, two of my co-workers, an older Chinese-American woman and a younger one in her twenties, smuggled the food waste out of the facility at night, unable to bear seeing the pounds of fruit peelings and leftover lunch and snack foods consigned to the regular trash bin. I felt bad that I didn’t join their rotation since I had a 40 minute drive home most evenings. The center was undergoing a renovation and other staff members sent me e-mails urging me to look into the costs of implementing composting and I had to inform them that yes, it would cost very little, I had already contacted the recycling service to learn it would be just an additional dollar or two in the service but the head of the center was worried about vermin (rightfully so, probably) and saw it as a hazard and something the center wasn’t ready to adopt. So the waste smugglers continued to bear the compostable stuff away with them at night and I admired their resolve and commitment. Composting is now mandatory in San Francisco, though, so the organization has probably worked out some kind of plan.

Some local community centers and public buildings have identified that the paper hand towels in bathroom count as compostable and so have posted a notice on the metal trash receptacles by the sink, asking people not to put other items than the paper towels in there so it can go in the compost bin. Some question whether it is a good idea to add bathroom bacteria to the compost stream, since human and pet waste is not considered okay to compost. While I agree that it might be worthwhile to pursue more research on this, in the meantime I think the effort is a positive step forward for public reduction of waste, and a fine reminder to us at home that paper products can qualify as compost. The parameters for compost includes soiled paper, and so while technically my empty cereal box wasn’t soiled when I was done with it, it will be by the time I flatten it and use it as a liner at the base of my compost bag. So I am moving more items from blue (recycling) to green (compost) too. Space in our communal blue bin at our apartment building is always hotly contested and over-full by pick up day, but with the current set of tenants the green bin is pretty much a yawning cavern.

Personally, I’ve been composting for a lot of years now. Our kitchen already had a plastic bin dedicated to composting, lined with a paper grocery bag usually, when I witnessed the Elementary school assembly game. My husband is a native of Minnesota and he grew up with trash sorting and composting and was definitely in support. He moved to California in the months before we got married and looked askance at the fact that meat, bones and cheese are allowed in Californian compost. Most of the time I sort these items out because they will smell.  Our apartment is a 3rd floor walkup, so I don’t want to take trash down every day, and I couldn’t be so profligate with the paper grocery bags either. The ‘stinky trash’ as I call it, usually lives in a plastic t-shirt bag, the kind we can’t seem to help amassing though I do carry re-useable bags, and hangs from the doorknob of the kitchen door until I next leave the house. I’ll put banana and orange peels in there along with the chicken bones, etc. too. When I lived in Los Angeles, I only composted in a limited way because I had an ant problem so ferocious that I once found a pile of them dead in my freezer, where they had heedlessly marched once they found a way in through a slight gap in the seal. Dried food and stale bread would have attracted them too.

So, I understand that it’s hard to be motivated to compost if you don’t even know if your local service would come pick it up, or if your family members would complain about it or you have a bug problem that will require you to buy fancy, hermetically sealed containers, etc. But I am guessing that children in your home would support it, and you could still start in small steps – like separating out wet paper towels and used tissues only – if  you’re not doing it already. Dirty diapers are not accepted in compost bins, by the way.  If you interested to see if there is pickup in your area, here is a link from jgpress.com that gives information on what cities currently provide curbside pickup: U.S. Residential Food Waste Collection And Composting.  It is also probably simpler still to contact your trash collection service provider or the local government page. Of course, if your living situation is not in a metropolitan area that collects compost, you might have a yard or enough outdoor space to go ahead and make compost and use it for your own gardening. There’s a whole world out there of worm bins and such, and if you’re interested in checking out a solid citizen who started some serious composting, complete with worms from his lower 5th Ave. condo in Manhattan, no less, check out the very intriguing documentary No Impact Man. Here too, is a link to a nice long list of what is permissible to compost from plantea.com

In order to make a success of it, I think one needs to be a little bit organized about it and follow some kind of system so that there is dedicated space, like a counter-top container or bin, in your kitchen. Otherwise, it’s too easy to forget about it or feel it’s inconvenient. I usually collect my peelings in a colander as I’m cooking to that they are less wet by the time I put them all in my paper compost liner. (For a long time biodegradable plastic bags weren’t available in larger sizes, now I am just too cheap to lay out for them.) Having a temporary ‘stinky trash’ category also helps if you feel you are making your kitchen too foul smelling and it brings down the experience for people living with you. I hate to throw out bread, tortillas and cereal, but when these dry items do go stale before we get to them I wait until I am starting a new compost bag because they make a good bottom layer, to absorb wetter, mushier stuff. If you’ve ever collected food scraps on the carpeted stairway halfway down to your garage because the soggy bag burst, you understand why it is important to care about this sort of strategizing. If any of you, dear readers, have super strategies of your own, I would love to hear them. Please share!

When I go into the funky minutiae of kitchen tips and systems, I do wonder if you folks are thinking, geez this is a chick who has way too much time on her hands! And I would say, it’s possible that I get carried away. Except that I do feel like breaking down the steps to composting consistently and committedly is like taking the time to practice scales and exercises on the piano to build up my chops. It seems like dull work, but it’s strength building and it feels good when you notice the growing facility in your fingers. And when you think about it, if we are making a point to take back the process that got handed over decades ago to the ill-conceived greater good of ‘processed food,’ we may need to be thoughtful about what our home processes need to be. I certainly don’t mind some scraps and pre-dirt on my fingers if it means the food is more wholesome, cheaper and waste disposal is under my control. If you find composting feasible for you, you may find that once you start you’ll come to feel – as I and my former co-workers, the waste smugglers did – that it is close to criminal to throw good, bio-degradeable scraps out with yesterday’s trash.

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