Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Joy of Home Composting

Across the country in large and small municipalities alike, the problem of municipal solid waste management has become a daunting task and open dumps characterise landscape on the outskirts of all cities and towns. Open dumps which grow like malignant tumours pose major threat to the public health as they are the breeding grounds of a wide range of disease vectors. Because of this feature alone, the society at large is paying a heavy price in terms of poor health, medical expenses and the reduced productivity. While the municipalities are working hard to collect and transport increasingly larger quantities of solid waste every day, they are confronted with the biggest challenge of safe disposal of solid waste as they have not been able to develop appropriate sanitary landfill sites. Moreover, wherever the treatment plants have been constructed they have been found to be unsustainable for a plethora of technical, institutional, financial, environmental and social factors and number of them have closed down. Treatment plants also do not solve the problem entirely as a large quantity of ‘inferior quality’ waste and the rejects still remains to be disposed of safely.

In this backdrop, it is increasingly becoming relevant to exercise ‘Individual Environmental Responsibility’ by adopting, among others, the ‘Earth Friendly Green Hobby’ of ‘Home Composting’. Composting is a rather simple process which almost every environmentally concerned citizen knows. However, very often composting at household level is not adopted because of perceived hassles and anaesthetic operations. It is perceived to require large space, a pit in the backyard and possible concerns of odour and insects from ill maintained pits. On the other hand, more motivated people who adopt vermicomposting soon realise that the earthworms are very sensitive to seasonal temperature variations and soon die off, predators feed on them, and the exotic species which do the job are rather expensive.

In order to address these concerns, and make the process of ‘Home Composting’ a lifestyle statement and joyful experience, the Foundation for Greentech Environmental Systems has been promoting usage of an improvised composting bin which is called the Green Earth Machine (GEM !). A GEM is a user friendly, robust and attractive bin of 100 – 150 litre capacity which works completely on natural forces. It is light, unbreakable, weather proof and does not involve any moving parts for mixing or aeration, etc. Plenty of perforations provided on the bin enable aerobic composting and the process does not require any chemical or biological additives. Its capacity is adequate for round the year operation for a typical small family of 5-6 members. When the ‘compost recipe’ is followed with little discipline, the process is odour free and transforms the so called waste into good quality ‘Home Made Compost’. A GEM can be easily installed in backyards, courtyards or roof-tops. As a matter of fact, a GEM can make ‘Home Composting’ a fine component of gardening hobby which is generally adopted by many in urban and peri-urban areas.

In order to derive joy from home composting initiative, it is necessary to follow a simple regime and a compost recipe. First rule is to put only the vegetable kitchen waste into the bin (all that a cow can eat, simple !) which we call ‘green waste’. Second rule is to maintain a good balance of carbon and nitrogen by adding dry leaves, waste paper, envelopes, egg trays, etc. (whatever is available) which we call ‘brown waste’. This balancing act is the key to avoid odour and thus maintain pleasant conditions. Third rule is to maintain layers of green and the brown waste, always keeping the browns on the top, which will avoid flies, maggots, etc. To that effect one can also sprinkle soil, ash or neem khali (de-oiled cake of neem seeds) once in a while. Fourth rule is to sprinkle small quantity of water every day on the fresh feed so as to enable the friendly bacteria to grow and start decomposing the waste. It is advisable to limit water dosage and keep the pile moist, not wet. Water content should be just like a moist sponge which when squeezed does not let a drop out. Fifth rule is to mix the contents of the bin once in a fortnight with a garden rake or a special mixing rod. To kick start the biological process, one can always add fresh compost, cow dung or a bit of butter milk as a seed. We at the Foundation for Greentech Environmental Systems consider this process akin to performing a ‘Yagnya’ or a ‘Havan’ on a daily basis for maintaining environmental peace on the Mother Earth.

Compost can be withdrawn from the opening specially provided at the bottom of the bin for this purpose. The first compost comes out in three-four months. It looks dark black and gives a soft sweet smell like soil after fresh monsoon showers. It can be buried under garden soil for 2-3 weeks for maturation. Subsequently one can withdraw small quantities of compost every month or so. Depending on the kind of feed in the GEMÔ, the compost will have certain proportion of organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. One sample analysed at our end showed 60-70% organic carbon, 3% nitrogen, 2% Phosphorus and 8% Potassium. Since no heavy metal bearing waste items or pathogenic material is put in to the GEMÔ, one can be sure of a high quality compost free from any such contaminants and contraries.

The cumulative benefits of adopting ‘Home Composting’ are numerous. At the individual level it helps in discharging our ‘Individual Environmental Responsibility’ and production of high quality compost. For the municipality, it helps in reducing the loads on the collection, transport and disposal system. The waste quantity reaching the open dumps is reduced which helps in minimising generation of landfill gas which is a powerful green house gases. It also helps in gainfully utilising dry leaves and other biomass which is otherwise flagrantly burnt in residential areas. And above all, when more number of concerned and motivated citizens adopt this practice, it will lead to improvement of sanitary and hygienic conditions in habitations thereby reduced threat to public health.

To get more information on the ‘compost recipe’, please visit our website where illustrations and answers to frequently asked questions have been provided. Since 2006 the Foundation for Greentech Environmental Systems is also hosting a compost helpline in Delhi (011 2697 4941) to facilitate the existing and willing GEM users and it is a pleasure to inform that by now over 400 households have become committed ‘Home Composters’ in Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon area. The Foundation is working on a mission called ‘War on Waste’ and it would be happy to assist interested NGOs and other agencies who would like to join the ‘India Home Compost Network’ in getting them started on this new paradigm in their respective cities and towns by providing training and other resource material.

Asit Nema


Foundation for Greentech Environmental Systems


manisha said...

Your concerns for environment and the degree of enthu. and efforts u r putting in is remarkable.I have been following this work of urs from quite some time say 2-3 yrs. and it has always kinda awakened me .I had been thinking of joining this campaign of urs but was not sure as i had time and other family constraints.But now when i have left my job and at home for the time being ,wish to do something for the society .
One of my other concerns is rain water that gets drained out of every house in such a pathetic manner.How nice it would be if some system could be evolved for rain water storage (aka harvesting)also.
and for electricity,just imagine if that modified green waste disposal box of urs could get channelised to some energy formation ending up being used for example say street lighting (i think i read abt it few yrs. bk in some news paper:-BIOGAS conversion into electricity .)My knowledge in all these fields may not be upto the mark but my intentions to save and conserve our nature ,sure are .

manisha said...

There's one more problem towards which I want to direct your attention--the polythene use---its ubiquitous presence alarms ......but the big ques. is can we live without pervades in every household,every industry ,we can't just live without it .Can't we find an alternative for that .Paper bags are good for light and dry items but wat abt the wet ones ,the milk,the curd etc.
well I have an idea the kind of foil pouches used for ready to cook foods and ghee etc.
See if this could be done i.e. if polythene could be eliminated totally,much of the degree of disorder ,the entropy could be reduced.

How's the idea!!!!!!!!

If anybody comes with a good plan to bring an alternative for polythene (that is such a big menace as it decomposes so slowly),I'm ready to work alongwith .I feel like helping in marketing it ,at least in my city .

Manisha Shah(Jaipur)