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Composting

Do you need to read this page?

Ask yourself if your internal monologue says the tl;dr for composting is:
  • throw organics in a pile to decompose
  • cover with dirt to avoid pests
  • put organics-turned-dirt somewhere that dirt belongs (a garden?)
If it is, you do not need to read this page. If it isn't, you really need to read this page, at a minimum. And probably more material elsewhere.

General

At nilenso, we compost. We have done this for a long time. It's pretty easy and it saves the vast majority of our waste material from being collected by the BBMP and dumped or burnt on the side of the road, which is Bangalore's preferred waste management strategy. In the future, it may be the case that composting becomes difficult: sometimes there will be maggots; if someone has composted incorrectly, there may be a smell; there might be more compost than we know what to do with. DO NOT GIVE UP. If something is wrong with the compost, set it all aside until it composts completely then get rid of all of it and start over. You can always reboot. It should never be an option to start giving organic waste to the BBMP; when the system is broken, endeavour not to become an accomplice. Think hard about your actions and their end results: until the BBMP rectifies its own system, giving organic waste to the BBMP should be considered no better than dumping it on the side of the road yourself. Consider this behaviour criminal, even if only inside your own head.
'''Actual Crimes:''' As of December 2015, it is ''illegal'' to give unsegregated waste to the BBMP. If you are giving a garbage bag to the BBMP at home, you are a criminal. Don't do that. While you are at nilenso, encourage other people to do better than 3-way waste segregation. Composting, collecting e-waste, and handing over recyclable dry waste to kabadiwallas are ways to go beyond the bare legal minimum.

Aerobic Composting

Hardware

Aerobic composting can be done in the kambha sold by DailyDump. It's possible to make your own ugly-ass composter out of a bucket but we don't need to be that ghetto and it really doesn't hurt anyone to support a local business that's actually trying to clean up this city. The kambhas are attractive and earthenware so they themselves are biodegradable (when the time comes). Buy them.
DailyDump also sells a "leave-it pot" which is larger and can be used to store unfinished compost for an extended period of time. Our current leave-it pot is actually disintegrating thanks to our attempts to put bokashi waste in it. We should buy a new one (or two). They come in 3 sizes; we should buy the largest.
Alternatively, DailyDump sells a large plastic apartment-scale composter ("Aaga"). This might actually be the most sensible option for an office.
We should also have some accessories:
  • Remix powder can be purchased from DailyDump. It is pre-made cocopeat with added microbes.
  • Having some extra microbes doesn't hurt. They are a white powder sold by DailyDump and speed up the decomposition process.
  • Haldi, neem, and chilli powder can all help ward off pests.
  • White vinegar (not apple vinegar) can be sprayed on the outside of the pot to keep ants away.
  • Pots can be placed inside a wider plastic tub to prevent maggots from crawling onto the terrace and into the office.

What to do

  1. 1.
    Collect organic waste in a single, sealed container indoors. Preferably, the office would have only one. It can be kept in the kitchen. If waste is large/chunky, cut it up into smaller pieces first. An aerobic composter cannot compost meat; it might spread disease. Try to limit dairy waste; anything but a small amount should be washed down the sink instead. Eggs, bones, and all vegetable matter are fine.
  2. 2.
    To start a new composter, lay newspaper down on the ropes at the bottom of the kambha so liquids do not leak out. Cover the newspaper in a layer of remix powder. Cover the bottom of the kambha underneath in a layer of leaves (to catch liquids); you can take these from the top of the leaf composter.
  3. 3.
    Someone should be assigned to move the organic waste to the composter at the end of the day:
    • spread the organic waste in the kambha or aaga (do not use the leave-it pot for initial composting, if it can be avoided)
    • sprinkle haldi and neem over top to discourage bugs; if there are already maggots, add chilli powder — be liberal. these powders are cheap and effective.
    • (if at this stage the compost seems overrun with maggots, throw in a lot of neem/haldi/chilli, mix it up, cover the top with a layer of neem/haldi/chilli and then a layer of remix powder... finally, set the pot aside to let it compost completely so it can be restarted)
    • sprinkle remix powder until the food waste is completely covered; if you come back the next day and there is ''any smell at all'', you've done it wrong... add more powder next time.
  4. 4.
    When the kambha is 66% to 75% full, stop adding new material and switch it out for an empty kambha pot. Follow the "start a new composter" instructions from Step 2.
  5. 5.
    When all 3 kambha pots in a stack are full, pour them into a leave-it pot to finish composting in there. Pour the most recent kambha in first so the most unfinished compost is at the bottom, hidden from bugs.
  6. 6.
    When compost is completely done (it turns to black/brown dirt, basically), add it to plants or give it back to DailyDump.

Understanding

Rather than a checklist, it's much more valuable to understand what you are doing. This process is natural. You learned about it in 4th Standard, and none of it should come as a big surprise. That said, many people do seem surprised by the process of composting, so it's worth reviewing what we're doing and why. Talk about it with other people so both sides of the conversation have a deeper, more meaningful understanding of these concepts. If everyone in the city of Bangalore understood what they learned when they were 8 years old, the city wouldn't stink of wet garbage in half the neighbourhoods.
Understand materials: On a long enough timescale, all materials biodegrade. But this is a logarithmic graph. You are interested in the things which biodegrade ''quickly''. Ask yourself: What are the relative degradation rates of glass, nuclear waste, aluminum, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, a bone, a leaf, a banana, a coconut, and paper? If you can't create a total ordering out of these items, go look it up. This wiki page doesn't exist to teach you 4th Grade Science.
Understanding the process: We all know how organic matter biodegrades but translating this process from the "circle of life" cartoon in our 4th Standard Science text to the microcosm of a composter is understandably a small mental leap. When organic matter sits on top of the ground, cows and rats will eat it. If we lived on a farm, we might solve this problem by digging a hole and covering up our vegetable peels with enough dirt to discourage pests. This is roughly equivalent to digging a hole and burying our organic waste completely so it can digest happily underground and only the worms are given an opportunity to feast on it. We'd just be "burying" incrementally. This is what we do with an aerobic composter. We lay down a layer of dirt, and keep layering waste+dirt, waste+dirt, waste+dirt on top in the artificial "hole" we purchased from DailyDump. The process is known as "aerobic" because we don't use a sealed container; oxygen gets in and does most of the work of breaking down our organic waste. This is why the composter has breathing holes on the side... which are unfortunately where the black maggots of the solider fly escape from. It should be noted that the black maggots we sometimes see are actually ''good'' for composting, like worms. The flies they become in adulthood are also harmless and carry no disease. We use the plastic tubs to catch them not because they are dangerous but because they're a nuisance. House flies do carry disease. Both can be avoided if the compost is covered with sufficient powders: haldi, neem, and remix powder. The remix powder is our artificial "dirt" we use to "bury" the vegetable waste; if the vegetables are underground, no species of fly can get at them. It's a little more complicated than this, of course... remix powder isn't dirt or we'd just use dirt. It's mostly made of coconut husk, so it's more like wood chips than dirt. This is because your composting vegetation is nitrogen-heavy and you need something carbon-heavy to balance that out. The compost you get at the end is both nitrogen and carbon rich, like the soft, healthy soil of a mature forest. But mostly you don't need to worry about that unless you particularly care about the chemistry that makes compost more valuable than dirt.

Leaf Composting

This is the easiest kind of composting. Throw leaves in a giant bin with lots of breathing holes, hope it rains, wait for dirt to come out the bottom. If you walk by the leaf composter and some asshole has thrown paper or plastic into the basket, pick it out and put it in the correct bin. Thanks to our "LEAVES ONLY" sign in Bangalore's most common 4 languages, this mostly doesn't happen. Composting leaves is a nice public way to encourage other people on our street to do the same thing. It's also a nice way to avoid the leaf fires which cause our lungs so much grief.
You can sprinkle the leaf composters with water in the dry season to encourage their decomposition; this process is slow. If you decide to leaf compost at home, consider breaking up the leaves as much as possible first. Leaves are designed to cover a forest floor and suffocate other plants; they are not designed to break down quickly. Avoid too many woody items like sticks in the leaf composter... they break down even more slowly than leaves. Do not compost coconuts or thick wood, they simply take too long; give them to the BBMP since dry coconuts and large wood are valuable fuel and will hopefully be used for cooking.

Bokashi

Don't bother.
Bokashi is a relatively simple pickling (pre-composting) process which can absorb bones, dairy, and even meat. It's anaerobic, using a sealed plastic tub. The pickling happens with active microbes, sprinkled liberally into the bucket as a powder. Bokashi, unfortunately for a shared office environment, has some '''very strict rules'''. You must:
  • keep the bokashi ''indoors''. somewhere dark, cool, and dry.
  • drain the liquid/leachate every day. ''every. day.''
  • add a lot of microbes every day.
  • add chilli powder if bugs do appear
  • add honey if the bokashi doesn't have enough sugar and needs a "boost"
Bokashi is quite unlike aerobic composting. The output is a ''pickle'', not a compost. You either need to finish this pickle in a composter or underground and it is very acidic so it must be buried away from the roots of trees and plants. Unlike aerobic composting (which is odolourless), there is a smell; it's pleasant, though. A bokashi should smell like a brewery: slightly yeasty, slightly fermented, slightly sweet. Because you aren't adding any "fake dirt" to a bokashi, you can cram a lot more waste into a smaller amount of space; it's good for tiny apartments.
Bokashi is very easy to screw up. We actively screwed it up by breaking all of the above rules but it's even easy to screw up if you're being careful. That's why we don't do it anymore, despite the fact that it is a superior method of initiating the composting routine. If you want to try it at home, read about it and understand the process in detail. Know that it will be a learning process and that you will need to experiment quite a bit. Email Steven and he can point you to some resources.