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My Misadventures in Urban Composting

How I learned to stop worrying and love my worms.

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wawritto/Shutterstock.com

Composting—like jam-making—is one of those activities I tend just to read about. Nice idea, but too much hassle to actually carry out. Until I somehow became one of those people who processes kitchen waste on her balcony, producing nutrient-rich soil and saving the environment one banana peel at a time.

I am not an urban hippie or a even a DIY type, much less a person with any sort of practical skills. Instead, my worm-filled adventure started (as these things often do) with guilt. I read too many articles about how choking landfills with organic matter is terribly harmful for the environment. I finally caved and bought a cute composting crate (bag of worms sold separately). Composting doesn’t require worms, but vermicomposting sounded like less effort, as it does not require you to regularly aerate your pile of kitchen refuse. My modest goal was to collect just my food scraps and let them rot in a semi-responsible fashion.

The worms came in a bag filled with soil. Honestly, I was too grossed out to look at them closely. Following the handwritten instruction manual that came with my crate, I tossed them in over a bed of shredded paper and bits of old food and hoped for the best. I refused to actually dig into the pile and look at the worms at work. I just tossed out my veggie remains and piled shredded paper on top.

Much like those “easy” cookbooks that always seem to require obscure ingredients that nobody has on hand, composting sounds straightforward until you’re in the nitty-gritty. As a counterpoint to the “green material” (your veggie scraps), you’re meant to include “brown material.” This is basically paper and dried leaves. Like many people, my paper waste is mostly printed material, which is not optimal for the worms. Nonetheless, mine seem to be surviving on their diet of New Yorker magazines and reporter's notebooks.

The main problem in this experiment turned out to be marital: My partner threatened me with divorce when he finally realized that the packing crate on our balcony was filled with worms eating vegetable peels. He actually stopped speaking to me initially, and now just sighs exasperatedly when the topic comes up. He’s convinced the crate is positioned near the window of our bedroom (and near his side of the bed) as part of a horrible conspiracy against him. My friends, on the other hand, take cruel glee in bringing up worms in dinner conversation. The effect is similar to that of discussing babies’ bowel movements: not technically impolite, but certainly uncalled for.

The composting box setup.

Slowly, though, I became fond of my worms. Especially when I realized that they were really doing their job. My scraps were turning into dirt, like a really slow magic trick. The contents pack down as they decompose, so your pile keeps shrinking and the box takes forever to fill. Pretty cool. The bin, shockingly, doesn’t smell. It doesn’t smell like roses, but it smells better than my trashcan. (I am, however, plagued by a cloud of fruit flies that surround the crate.)

Still, I worry about the worms. Are they satisfied? Should I start eating more varied foods to give them better leftovers? It’s hard to tell how they’re doing. I never really see them, because that would require digging through the bin, which I still avoid. Most guides on the topic insist that you’ll be able to tell when foods are to their liking or not. Those people must be really good at other oracle-like things, like reading tea leaves—because, despite a steady diet of snobby reading material, my worms remain uncommunicative. 

Most of the million or so websites I read in preparation for my Biodome-esque experiment suggested that apartment dwellers should only throw fruit and vegetable remnants in the compost, in order to avoid bad smells and rodents. (An undoubtedly worthy goal.) Citrus is also to be avoided, as are oils. So my dressed salad remains continue to pollute the Buenos Aires landfill. There are ways to process or cure some of these things, but that requires more commitment than I am willing to make. Perhaps we all have a composting line in the sand: Freezing, microwaving, or drying out my scraps before composting is mine.

While composting is not rocket science, it’s also not at all intuitive. Mostly, it’s a hassle. Much like the jam thing, you have to decide how you’re going to prioritize your time and that critical urban good: your space. Which is why urban policy should take into account neighborhood and large-scale solutions. Because really, my worms aren’t going to cut it when it comes to reducing landfill waste. Just as recycling is now a municipal service, composting will eventually have to be made easier for urban residents. San Francisco, for example, has already implemented a wide-scale program for residential composting.

We have been temporarily living in an apartment with a very spacious balcony. But unfortunately, our next apartment is smaller, with no room for a worm crate. My partner is thrilled. (I am convinced he picked a smaller balcony on purpose.) But I’m going to miss the little guys.

(By the way, anybody interested in trying this at home should go over this pretty thorough guide.)

(Top image via wawritto/Shutterstock.com.)

About the Author

  • Jordana Timerman is a freelance writer and an urban public policy researcher living in Buenos Aires.