There's gold in your dustbin

Aparna Varma spoke to five passionate practitioners about how composting is the easiest way to save the planet.

A recent study mentioned that 50% of waste generated in India is organic. 6% of it is plastic and the rest is metal, paper, glass etc. Which goes to show that, 50% of what you see in a filthy, disgustingly stinky dumpster is lovely black gold - or organic waste waiting to be processed into manure for a flourishing kitchen garden or an indoor forest in your apartment.

The biggest issues that waste management faces however are from the municipality and from citizens who couldn't care less. The common complaint from individuals about composting is managing time and the cost and the ickiness of handling waste, people often give up before they begin with the impression that composting is cumbersome. To break that absolutely untrue myth, we decided to bring you inspiring stories of people who have been proudly composting for months and even years now. Their thriving vegetable gardens and easy consciences were enough to convince us that the future is garbage, but only in the best way possible.


I used a bit of compost for my roses. I kid you not, but they sprang up overnight.

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Mrinali and Vinayak Kamath (Mrinali is an Interaction Designer and Vinayak is a verification engineer. They currently live in Austin, Texas)


When it comes to the state of our planet today, what are your greatest fears?

We feel like we’ve done irreversible damage. Every decision as a couple is affected, whether or not we want to have children, whether or not we want to move back to India, whether or not we should even plan a future, cause who knows? We have wildfires and people wearing air masks like it’s the norm while Target fills its store with plastic bags cause the ban on single-user plastic bags in Austin has been lifted.


What made you start composting?

Knowing that a lot of our bio waste can be turned into useful manure instead of adding to our heap of trash.


How did you feel after your first successful batch of compost?

I used a bit of compost for my roses. I kid you not, but they sprang up overnight. I gave away most of it to my friend who sang praises about its texture. She was having trouble getting hers to have a soil like texture. I may have gloated a little.



What would you advise a fellow beginner about composting?

It’s really really easy. It’s easier than tending to a cactus.

 

 Most Indians do not like dealing with their waste. Must be a remnant of the caste system where the lower castes were left to deal with the burden of waste.

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Shobhana Madhavan - Professor of MBA at Amrita School of Business, Coimbatore.

Would you describe yourself as an environmentally conscious person?

My husband and I have not bought a car in all our 27 years of marriage despite the fact that we could easily afford one. We have found that not having a car makes us walk more. It also reduces heedless shopping trips reducing our consumption.


Have you tried encouraging people to practice composting as well?  

Sometimes but not very successfully… most Indians do not like dealing with their waste. Must be a remnant of the caste system where the lower castes were left to deal with the burden of waste.


Is it habitual in your family to be conscious about waste management and eco-conscious living or were you the forerunner when it comes to living more sustainably?

My father, a civil engineer was always trying to harvest water and make rainwater harvesting structures.  

How does your locality/community/building society react to your composting? Has anyone objected?

Last year  my Daily Dump composter got removed from the side of my ground floor apartment (I live on a university campus) when I was away on vacation. The neighbours complained to our campus authorities that their son's malaria was caused by mosquitoes around the compost pots (which as you know is not true.) But yes, neighbours in apartment buildings are not happy with composting pots and they are often hostile... they want to mix all their waste in a plastic bag, tie it tight and get their maids to throw it into a dumpster.


Tell us about your composting and where your composting is reused?

We now have the Daily Dump triple terracotta pot Khamba. We use the compost for the plants in our garden. We are planning to start a kitchen garden after retirement.

 

 Composting gives me a feeling of completion. What comes out of earth without causing any problem to the ecosystem goes right back into it the same way.

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Vidya Gogul - Chef, interior designer from Chennai


Would you describe yourself as an environmentally conscious person? What other steps do you take to lead a more sustainable life?

I’m extremely environmentally conscious. We run a zero waste home where every part of our biodegradable waste is used and the recyclables are sent to the local scrap dealers. From cloth bags to Khambas to menstrual cups you can find everything in our home.

Is it habitual in your family to be conscious about waste management and eco-conscious living or were you the forerunner when it comes to living more sustainably?

I guess it was habitual from observing my grandmother water the plants with the overflow from the tank, compost all the vegetable peels and flowers, use the rice water to starch and cook, and to always carrying a cloth bag wherever she goes. Subconsciously these have become way of life.

What made you start composting?

To be very honest, many years ago I used to live in a 6th floor barsati in Delhi without  a lift and I wanted to reduce the amount of garbage I had to bring down to throw out. It started as a very fun jugaad and became a part and parcel of our lives.


Regardless of whether you succeeded or not, what did you like about composting?   

It gives me a feeling of completion. What comes out of earth without causing any problem to the ecosystem goes right back into it the same way.

What challenges did you initially face?

My biggest challenge was maggots. I would do aerobic composting and would end up with so many creepy maggots finding way into my house! Though I'm not really repulsed by them it scared and scarred many visitors.


Do you live in an apartment? Share your experience of composting in an urban area.

We have an apartment where we also compost . Urban composting is far simpler since its usually in a container and you don’t have to deal with a lot of issues that open composting has . Its cleaner and very neat. I feel everyone must practice this and maybe give away their compost to their apartment gardens thereby reducing the use of chemical aids and fertilisers .  


Money pinches everyone and I see this as the only way to make citizens fall in line to segregate their waste.

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Payoshni Saraf - works at Pratham books, Bangalore.

What do you think is the worst habit that degrades the environment or what you wish you could do to stop yourself from doing?

I think our incessant fondness for plastic is the WORST habit ever. Why must corn be wrapped into plastic and sold when nature gives it to us in a lovely wrapper of green and gold? Why must we buy 5 vegetables and insist on them being packed in 5 different bags. Thankfully, both Ajay, my husband and I are not doing this anymore.

 

What made you start composting?

We lived in Whitefield when we first moved to Bangalore we were absolutely disgusted to see the waste management (or rather the waste mismanagement) in the Silicon valley of India. There was no segregation of waste at source or even if the apartment tried, the vendor would put everything together in the trash minivans. The same would then make to makeshift and illegal landfills and waste spaces that would eventually come to the road. It was a distressing sight and we wanted no part of it. So we decided that we would NEVER throw out wet waste. We haven't, in the last 5 years.

What challenges did you initially face?

We use the aerobic composting method which takes a bit of getting used to in terms of understanding the process, the factors involved, composition of our trash and how it reacts to the present climatic conditions. So when the compost was too wet, we had maggots crawling all over the balcony. When it's too dry, it wouldn't compost fast enough. But once we got a handle on it, it has been an easy ride.


What keeps you motivated to continue composting?

We once had two little watermelons growing in our pots. Also, the pride of not adding to the mounting waste problem of Bangalore keeps us going.

What does your waste usually consist of? How many members are in your family and does everyone contribute to the process and encourage it?

We cook twice a day so all our wet trash is mostly vegetable peels, egg shells and small meat leftovers etc. Since we have two dogs, we don't really have much food wastage. Both Ajay and I compost regularly and Elma and Pippa (pet dogs) contribute by not knocking off the Khamba and playing with the maggots.



How did you feel after your first successful batch of compost?

Ecstatic. We were also wowed at the power of nature to take care of its waste and how a little effort and intelligent design could turn the trash we throw into the compost our plants loved.

What are your opinions on the lack of execution of segregation of waste?

There is definitely a lot of ignorance in the community, compounded with laziness and 'I don't care about my city' attitude. Money pinches everyone and I see this as the only way to make citizens fall in line. We are both from Pune and in our locality in Pune (Bhandarkar Road), if your dry waste makes its way into reject or wet pile, the whole society is fined. Trust me, the waste segregation is going wonderfully there.

What approximate cost does composting come to in a month?

Investing in the Khamba unit is a one time cost and one bag of remix powder is 170 which lasts us a good two month. So I would say, less than 80 rupees a month.  

I prefer buying things that are local or locally produced and have started buying clothes that are second hand.

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Athulya Pillai lives in Phyang village in Ladakh, and works at Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) as their Design Executive.

Apart from composting what other habits do you practice for a sustainable life?

I live in village which is  19 kms away from Leh town and if I need something I have to go all the way to town to buy it. This really helped me understand my ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Since everything is so convenient and easily available in the city you don’t realise how much you end up buying, how much you end up wasting. Also I shifted to a menstrual cup, this has helped me reduce my sanitary waste.

In Ladakh, do people use the dry toilet compost as a way of sustaining themselves? Tell us a bit about a typical Ladakhi family you know and their composting habits.

Compost from a Ladakhi toilet is cheaper, rather free alternative to chemicals (manure). Also, in a Ladakhi house there are two dustbins. An organic and an inorganic bin. At home, we had that system too, but I remember being particularly careless while putting things into the organic dustbin, it would eventually have bits and pieces of plastic and paper.

But here, the organic is used to feed the cows and we have to be very careful as to what we put into the bin. Anything that is inorganic can make the cow sick.

 

How did you start composting?

I started this process (dry composting toilet) as it was the way of life here and also because I had no choice. The house I live in doesn’t have a wet toilet.

How has your lifestyle changed since you moved to Ladakh?

My lifestyle hasn’t changed drastically but in the little things.

I started being more minimal in how much I consume/ buy. I prefer buying things that are local or locally produced. Started buying clothes that are second hand (although my mother doesn’t approve of it). Discovered that Leh has great second hand shops (called Chhanto).

I use public transport or hitchhike when I need to go somewhere.

I used to waste a lot of water before when it comes to taking a shower and now, I can take a good satisfying bath with one bucket of water.

I started eating healthy. Fresh farm produce is so delicious. In the city I used to eat a lot of fast food/ready to eat things/ vegetables and fruits coated with pesticides. It’s different  here.

What keeps you motivated to continue composting?

It’s simplicity. Also a feeling that I’m doing my bit to preserve traditions and the environment.


Illustrated by Harshita Borah.

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