Why doesn’t everyone compost?

By Alida Robey

Composting was an inherent part of how we lived when I was growing up – nothing was wasted.  Food scraps went to the chickens, kitchen and garden waste to one of several  compost heaps and leaves were piled into a pit for future leaf-mould.
Today,  I live in a flat with a small decked courtyard. I have access to five compost bins in an area of communal gardens in Clifton (Bristol, UK); this means with almost no effort at all the only rubbish I produce is recycling and an occasional black bag of non-recycleable inorganic waste. I don’t even have to keep a compost bin at home. And still each week along my road I see quantities of black bags destined for landfill spilling out onto the pavement with fruit and veg and greenery.  Given the years I have spent trying to coax friends and neighbours in different locations to compost, this scene is a heart-rending weekly reminder of my lack of success in this personal campaign!
So when I was camping a few weeks ago, and had ready access to a group of highly educated and motivated young people, I decided to get some clues as to just why, I have had such disappointing results!  Just what is it that gets in the way of perfectly sensible people doing a perfectly sensible thing, which is so crucial for soil regeneration?
The group I talked to all had higher education degrees of various disciplines; they ranged in age from 22 to 43 and three of them were parents of young children; one is a science teacher and one has a mother who is a professional gardener; one has parents who spend their weekends on the allotment.  I was hopeful of finding motivation and some enthusiasm and knowledge.  I set forth with a few simple questions to find out just what their position was on the matter of composting.
Whilst this group may not be representative of anything remotely statistically significant, it did illuminate some interesting gaps in knowledge and understanding.
Composting is critical for regenerating soil.
Photo courtesy of Joi Ito, Flickr Creative Commons

What is composting?

I thought I had better start by finding out whether we were talking the same language. It was something of a shock to find that indeed we were not! To one individual it meant putting food waste in the council bin, while others provided me with a highly scientific portrayal of the biological process with little appreciation of the practicalities and its application in the garden;  one respondent assumed compost  was useful only for growing vegetables and another that it created a ‘sludge’ to go on the garden.  They had parts of the composting story but were unable to say accurately what should/should not be included in making compost and expressed no appreciation of the need to compensate for soil depletion on a localised or a more global level.

Where did you learn about composting?

I had spent some years in New Zealand where our local Council bombarded us with information leaflets, subsidised the purchase of composting bins and where volunteer projects seemed to be run in many junior schools. The Council itself distributed free ‘worm wee’  to employees which it had generated from wormeries fed from kitchen canteen waste.  I assumed that most children these days (whether in New Zealand or Britain), were growing up well primed by the education system to look after the planet.

Yet, it seems as if the school system had failed to equip my group of young interviewees with the basics. While some people’s composting knowledge had been passed down from relatives or acquired on the internet, many couldn’t recall exactly where they had learned about composting. ‘I learnt about it at school, not actively, just picked it up along the way,’ said Dom.  It would seem as though composting skills are acquired rather passively.

Do you compost?

It was time to get to the heart of the matter.  Not one of them had made and used compost.  One was in the process of filling a compost bin and had not yet generated usable compost. Even use of Council –provided and collected food bins was hit and miss.

Why don’t you compost and what would it take for you to do so?

It was clear from the responses that they all felt they had to have a vegetable garden or allotment for it to be worth their while to compost.  As Helen, who does have a fair sized garden said,  ‘I’m not big into gardening.’  What took me by surprise was the response of Adam, a 43 year-old father who votes for the Green Party and is interested in global environmental issues. He saw green waste going into the landfill as ‘harmless’ – ie non-toxic, without appreciating that it should be being actively used to replenish depleted soils. He had no real sense that global issues were in any way within his scope to influence, starting  in his own back garden.

Food scraps ready for the compost. Photo courtesy of
szczel, Flickr Creative Commons.
I had expected some antipathy to ‘smelly’ processes seen by many as attracting vermin or a strange but common wariness of having to handle worms. Not so this group. They didn’t feel there was anything stopping them composting,  but had no idea why they should do so and what they might be able to use it for, let alone how they might confidently go about it.
So where did this leave me?  I have to admit I was fairly despondent thinking of this as the next generation of gardeners and in charge of our fragile planet.
It struck me that these young people, though versed in some of the technical aspects of c
omposting, lacked any real sense of the practical processes and applications for compost. Nor did they have a sense of urgency about soil depletion and regeneration. While some of my fellow campers were able to explain the nitrogen cycle and complexities of bacterial decomposition, they couldn’t, for example, tell me what to put in the compost.
We are failing to equip school leavers and tertiary graduates with the basic core skills at their easy disposal for generating our rapidly depleting soil and minimising waste, let alone motivating them to do anything about it. In a world that exudes a sense of helplessness in the face of global trends we have not succeeded in showing them even the basics of what we can all realistically and fruitfully be doing towards the health of our planet, our communities and our own households, parks and gardens. In my next post, I’ll write about how and why we should be composting in our urban communities.
Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis. 

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