This month’s Zero Waste Champion is Kirsteen MacLeod, the co-founder and project manager of The Compost Depot. This start-up was awarded a Pick My Project grant to run community compost hubs that reduce food waste going into landfill and turn it into a much-needed resource. With a background in chemistry and biochemistry and a Master of Environment degree, she is a self-confessed compost nerd with a passion for soil science and gardening.
We chatted to her about the easiest entry points to composting, community and council composting programmes, the motivations for composting and troubleshooting tips.
Her interview also provided a great reminder to keep an eye out for local government programmes and grants and to get involved at your local community/neighbourhood house – there are many amazing opportunities to get involved and help your community become more sustainable and less wasteful.
When did you first become interested in and start composting?
I have been composting since I was a little kid. My parents had a big compost heap at the back of the garden. I think the compost was mostly for grass clippings, pruned branches and a tiny amount of food waste. So, it was probably not the healthiest compost. I guess it’s just something that I’ve always kind of done. And it’s been normalised because that’s what my parents did.
Obviously, you’ve become very passionate about composting. What fuelled your passion for it?
I did Darebin Council’s Community Leaders in Sustainability programme and met other people who were trying to find a solution for food waste for people living in apartments, but then, it kind of morphed into running a pilot programme at Span Community House in Thornbury.
But the workload got too intense because we had a cafe dropping off food there, and there were just too many contaminants. We hadn’t really figured out how to do the communication and education side of things. Yeah, we were figuring it out as we went.
Around about the time we finished the pilot programme, we applied for the Pick My Project Grant and got some grant funding. And then that’s when things escalated again. We were able to grow and increase the number of community compost facilities available and to start running workshops and become a community resource. Things kind of just grew!
Do you have any advice for anyone that is considering doing a similar programme or implementing something like this in their community?
Yeah, I guess, make sure that you’ve got someone that is getting paid instead of relying on volunteers to do everything. Volunteers are great, but if there’s no one that’s getting paid, there’s no one that’s kind of coordinating and holding all the strings together and sort of making sure that everything’s consistent. You don’t have someone managing quality control, and you really just need someone getting paid to kind of organise things and make things run smoothly. Just having that one person who makes sure that new volunteers know how to do things and having someone that’s the go to person and responsible for making decisions makes it run so much easier.
Now, for those wanting to start composting, what is the easiest way for someone to start composting?
Start by separating your food scraps from your landfill waste and your recyclables. That’s the first step, then it’s totally up to the individual whether they choose to take their food scraps to a community garden, find someone on ShareWaste, or start a worm farm or their own compost.
It really depends on you know how much money you have, whether you’ve got the space, how much time you’ve got, and how confident you feel in starting your own compost site.
There’s a solution for everyone. It’s just about finding something that works for you, because everyone’s got a different volume of food waste. I think it’s about finding a solution that works for your lifestyle.
A bokashi is great because anything goes – everything goes in the bucket – and you can do it in a really small space and you don’t have to worry about keeping worms alive or balancing the carbon. You can do it indoors or outdoors. It’s a fairly low cost investment. You can even make your own bokashi bucket. You just need to find somewhere for the material to go once the bokashi bucket gets full. It’s a really good starting point and a good solution for people who live in apartments and small spaces.
It’s all about having something that works for you and your lifestyle and the people that you live with. You’ve got to make it easy; you’ve got to make it not a burden, so it just becomes a habit.
And, what is the cheapest way for someone to start composting?
The cheapest way to compost is, if you’ve got a backyard or the space to, is to just pile up your food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, newspaper, cardboard and other compostable material in a corner in your backyard and just leave it. That doesn’t cost any money. It just takes up a tiny corner of your garden, and you basically leave it and let it do its thing. Don’t touch it; walk away. Come back six months later and you’ll have a pile of composted material.
Another cheap option is to dig a small trench or a small hole and just bury your food scraps. It’s called trench composting. Eventually it’ll decompose and feed the soil and your plants will benefit. Zero technology. Almost zero costs.
You can make your own worm farm or compost bin out of stuff you find in hard rubbish. Hard rubbish isgreat. I love saving things from landfill. It brings me so much joy. I feel like it’s Christmas. You can make a compost bin out of plastic tubs or just a bit of chicken wire and a star picket. Sometimes you can find perfectly good compost bins that people are throwing away. The last time Darebin did hard rubbish I saved about six or seven compost bins.
But you know if you wanted to buy a brand new compost bin, you’re looking at around about 100 or 200 dollars. It’s not a huge investment and a lot of councils are signed up to Compost Revolution, where you get a 40% discount or something like that as the council pays for half. Find out what your councils doing, and if they’re not really doing anything about food waste, ring them up and ask them why and say, “Hey, you guys are missing out on a massive opportunity here.”
What is this massive opportunity? How can composting benefit councils and individuals?
It can save them money. About 40% of most people’s landfill is food waste, so you can really decrease the amount of waste that’s going into your kerbside collection just through composting, and then you know there’s less waste going into the waste stream, and individuals can use a smaller bin and the bin won’t be as stinky.
A non-stinky bin is a great motivator! But, what about composting? A lot of people are hesitant because they think compost bins stink and attract pests. How much of a problem can this be and can how can it be prevented?
It shouldn’t smell. If it smells, you need to do some maintenance, there’s something wrong, there’s something that’s out of whack. A well-managed compost that has a balance of dry stuff and wet stuff and is turned maybe once a week for like five minutes won’t have a smell. A bokashi bin should just smell like vinegar, it should smell sort of like sauerkraut or pickles. If it’s done properly, a worm farm will have no smell.
If you’re only adding food waste and no dry material, it will get stinky because it’ll be very wet, and it’ll turn anaerobic. It’s the anaerobic bacteria that causes the stink. That’s what happens in a landfill. Food waste that goes to landfill doesn’t actually compost, as all the oxygen is squashed out, because they’re trying to make the landfill as efficient as possible, so they compact everything together, and it just creates methane gas, which is what we don’t want to happen.
The reason why a worm farm would smell is because there’s too much food and not enough worms. Adding a handful of food to your worm farm every day or every second day is better than adding five kilos of food scraps all at once.
Again, you need to consider how much food waste you create and then find a solution that that can manage that volume of food waste. Every household is different.
How hard is it to get the balance right?
It’s not that hard. It’s really not. For every bucket of wet food waste that you’re putting into your compost, you want to have between two to three buckets of dry stuff like cardboard or shredded paper or newspaper.
A lot of it depends on the material that you’re using to balance your compost. With something that’s really dry like sawdust or wood shavings, you probably need a little bit less. But not everyone has access to this, so it’s about finding something that you have access to, and most people have got cardboard or paper, and people with gardens can rake up all their leaves in autumn and keep them in a pile and add them to their compost.
Use whatever you’ve got available; it doesn’t really matter, but think of your compost as a living, breathing creature. You want to feed your compost a little bit of this and a little bit of that to give it a balanced diet. The more diversity, the better the end result.
What would you say to someone to convince them that everyone can compost and to get them to consider starting to compost their food scraps instead of sending them to landfill?
I guarantee that you will see a big difference in the amount of odour that’s in your landfill bin if you start separating your food waste, and there’ll be a big reduction in the amount of waste that you send to landfill by separating your food waste.
I know that not everyone is going to feel super confident composting to begin with, so perhaps just take it to a community garden or find someone on ShareWaste and take it there until you build up your confidence, find the right location for a compost bin, or make your own worm farm. Or, chat with your neighbours. Maybe one of them will be happy for you to drop off some food scraps. Find someone who’s got chickens.
Get to know your neighbourhood, get to know what’s available in your community, and find something that suits your lifestyle and your needs that’s available locally.
You don’t have to know everything straight away. Like with any new skill, you’re not going to be a composite magician the first time you do it. You’ll learn from doing it. You’ll get better at it the more you do it. So, just give it a go. The worst thing that can happen is that it’s a little bit smelly, but chances are it’s going to be outside, and the smells are not going to follow you inside. And, if it does get a bit smelly you can just add a whole bunch of shredded paper or cardboard, and mix that through, and that will absorb the smell.
If you’re afraid of failing, don’t be afraid of failing. The fact that you’re doing the source separation and the fact that you’re taking your organic stuff out of landfill is already making a huge difference. If everyone did that, the impact would be absolutely ginormous.
If anyone has any questions about composting, Kirsteen will happily answer them. You can get in contact with her via The Compost Depot website, thecompostdepot.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or keep an eye out and attend one of The Compost Depot’s composting workshops once they resume.