The squat gray box sat next to the fridge, about 2 feet tall and unassuming.
Rebecca Rosen popped the lid open and dropped in some shredded lettuce.
That lettuce, along with carrots, celery and banana peels was about to become dirt.
Composting — turning organic waste such as kitchen scraps and grass clippings into soil — is as old as the hills, which are likely made of someone’s ancient kitchen scraps and grass clippings. But until recently, it remained the purview of suburbanites and rural dwellers who had the space to construct big bins or erect tumblers. For the urban citizen, finding the space for nature to work its magic has been tough.
Until recently. A batch of new products and services aim to make the process of turning leftovers into dirt easy enough for the average urbanite.
That’s what Rosen, 26, and her husband, Zach Teutsch, 27, wanted for their Columbia Heights home. “We knew we wanted a composter,” Rosen says, but after researching all the options available, the couple found themselves a bit overwhelmed. They decided to add one to their wedding registry. A generous friend surprised them with a NatureMill, a $300 device that fits in a kitchen, doesn’t smell (with the lid on, anyway) and turns 120 pounds of food per month into 36 pounds or less of nitrogen-rich soil, which they use in their garden.
“I love it” says Teutsch, who is a program director at a private college. “There’s something amazing about putting food waste, that looks like food into a box – and then you open it up and it’s soil. It just seems absolutely magical”
The NatureMill isn’t without its limitations: for one, it costs $300 for the basic model. Two, it uses a little electricity to heat the food, which helps it break down. (NatureMill says the composter uses 5 kilowatt-hours per month, or less than a garbage truck would burn to haul the stuff away.) For those looking for a different solution, Jeremy Brosowsky thinks he has the answer.
Brosowsky is an entrepreneur whose latest idea involves people paying him to take away their garbage – food scraps, actually. Compost Cab, which launched recently in the District, costs $8 per week, per home. The service provides users with a bin and weekly pickup, and all food scraps go to Engaged Community Offshoots, a nonprofit farm in Prince George’s County, for composting. After nine months, if customers want some dirt back, it’s theirs. Otherwise, the soil is used at ECO to support sustainable urban agriculture projects.
A third option for those without backyards is to just give away table scraps. “You’d be surprised”at how many neighbors would be willing to accept compostables, says Cindy Olson, of environmental sustainability advisory firm Eco-Coach, Inc. She teaches a monthly composting class at eco-minded shop Greater Goods, and does her own composting in the backyard of her Van Ness home. “I have a lot of neighbors giving things to me because they know I have a composting system” Olson says.
Common Good City Farm also accepts most kitchen scraps during farm hours. Just bring a baggie or bucket full of leftovers and the staff will help you with the rest, according to the Farm’s website. Or check the Sharing Backyards Network for a backyard garden near you. If the neighbors have a big garden, chances are they can’t get enough free fertilizer.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have a porch or balcony, or brave enough to compost indoors, you can do the waste-to-soil transformation the old-fashioned way.
Advocates say it’s not really as hard as it sounds. One of the more popular methods is vermicomposting, or using a “worm bin”
“If you had a pound of worms, they could probably eat half a pound of food scraps a day” says Kaitlin Rienzo-Stack, who is a certified master composter in the District (which means she’s taken hours of classes and spent time passing the knowledge on to others).
And don’t worry about the worms “escaping” “The thing is, worms want to be in a warm, dark environment. They don’t want to leave” Rienzo-Stack says. Setting up a worm bin takes a bit of know-how if you don’t want to kill the little wrigglers, but experts agree it’s one of the best ways to compost inside. Your only outlay is a place to keep them – which can be anything as low-tech as a plastic bin or as high-tech as a multi-layered “worm condo” with separate tiers to help keep fresh compost separate from brand-new banana peels. The worms come via mail-order, a thousand at a time, wriggling to your door.
As long as you refrain from throwing meat, dairy or grease into your bin (something most systems prohibit), bugs and pests won’t give your trash a second glance.
And no matter what you’re doing, the stuff in your bin should be odor-free: “There shouldn’t be a sour smell or a rotting smell” Olson says. “That means you have too much water, not enough air”
Advocates say that once most people try composting, they’re hooked. Olson grew up composting as a kid, using a pitchfork to aerate the pile in her folks’ backyard.
Teutsch grew up composting, too, in Philadelphia, and he and Rosen both continued to do so in college.
“I don’t harbor any illusion that our composting is going to stop climate change” Teutsch says. “It’s just one very small, minor impact for me, but it’s an awesome experience to be part of this process which has probably been going on since the dawn of time”
Written by Express contributor Rachel Kaufman
Photos by Kevin Dietsch for Express