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What’s THE most important ingredient for my community’s compost bin?

 
pollinator
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For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been managing a small urban community compost system on a volunteer basis.  Basically this entails aerating and turning the materials, adding (or attempting to add) sufficient carbon, and communicating the status of the bins to the community, including which materials are acceptable or not.  I’m happy to say that it’s been open 24/7 for community deposits during this time (up until last week, that is, because I want to get the current material to its best consistency for our spring gardeners).

So, what, in my opinion and limited experience, is the SINGLE most important “ingredient” for maintaining or rebooting a small-scale community compost system open to +100 people?

Patience.
 
George Yacus
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I can’t:I can:
1.  Control what others, especially small children, put into the bin.
  • Make inexpensive signs (cardboard, wood) conveying expectations.
  • Try other methods of communication and education, like social media groups or newsletters.
  • Patiently take inappropriate materials and trash out, and place them into trash receptacles.
  • Manage gardeners' expectations.
  • 2.  Change the weather, making it drier or warmer, etc.
  • Add a cardboard (or buy a tarp) covering to deflect rain and snow during wet seasons.
  • Pause deposits to a bin if things are getting too full and breaking down slowly.
  • 3.  Command the microbes to do their happy dance to heat up the piles.
  • Be knowledgeable of soil life through observation and research.
  • Do my best to make the piles conducive to that life.
  • 4.  Make stinky, compacted anaerobic bins break down quickly like the aerobic bins do.
  • Give them time and trust that nature will still run its course.
  • Cover up smelliness with dry carbon materials.
  • Cap piles off with healthy soil and figure it out later, perhaps aerobically composting instead.
  • Transfer failed, stinky organic matter to the trash. :(
  • 5.  Force the materials in the bin to break down uniformly into beautiful Insta-picture-worthy consistency.
  • Keep saving $/€ by not having that gym membership, getting a good workout by chopping/mixing material with garden tools.
  • Use wire netting, sifting the bigger materials out to decompose later.
  • Sometimes, ya' just gotta' let it go.
  • 6.  Make people deposit materials with a proper C:N ratio.
  • Encourage others to add their egg cartons, etc. to the bins.
  • Store up surplus carbon material (like used packing paper or clean boxes) for carbon-lean times.
  • Leverage communication methods as needs seasonally shift.
  • 7.  Force urban “fauna” to GO AWAY.
  • Turn the pile regularly and “evict” unwelcome visitors, and cover up fresh scraps when able.
  • Manage interaction expectations.
  • Encourage understanding: Seriously, who doesn't want a free meal and housing?
  • Do my best to get the pile to sustained sanitizing temperatures to reduce risk of pathogens.
  • Remember that with natural systems, time doesn’t fix everything, but it sure does a wonderful job making crap go away.
  • Secretly make new animal friends.
  • 8.  Learn everything one needs to know about our compost system in just a few years.
  • Keep records of what I have observed (good and bad) for future volunteers to build upon.
  • Leverage online tools like permies.com to gain and share knowledge.
  • 9.  Sustain an urban composting system all on my own.
  • Seek out new volunteers and friends to keep a good thing going.
  • Practice the permaculture design "Policy of Responsibility (to relinquish power)" by always seeking to "design myself out of" the system.
  • Sundown the system if the collective will goes away.
  • 10.  Get down on myself over the many things beyond our control in a low cost, volunteer-run urban compost system.Have fun and be patient:
  • With others,
  • With nature, and
  • With myself!


  • Patience.png
    Sometimes doing nothing makes the best results.
    Sometimes doing nothing makes the best results.
     
    pollinator
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    YOU!

    Sounds like you are doing a fantastic job.
    Keep up the good work, follow your "can's and cant's" and pat yourself on the back occasionally.
     
    master steward
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    I agree with Keith, you are the most valuable asset to add.

    I feel an easy way to help teach them, especially the children is with some signs.  I feel Wheaton labs might have some good examples of great signs, I just don't know how to search for them so I found these that might help explain what I am trying to suggest:


    Source



    Source



    Source



    Source


    Make your sign say what you want to say.  Also make it easy for people to understand, especially the children.

    I personally, like the first sign because it looks homemade.  The paper signs printed off a computer look the easiest to make.

    I feel you are doing a great thing for your community.
     
    George Yacus
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    I'm definitely with you on pursuing quality signage!  I think we're almost there as a community, and we have the ability to proceed.  My only hesitations (aka tactical procrastination) on proceeding with better, permanent signage to date have been the following:

    1) Making sure I have a good, clear, and repeatable process.  I really like that brown and white sign you shared, as that would be something to assist in frequent (novice) volunteer turnover, so there would be little confusion.  Process-wise, there was an attempted rodent-resistant "upgrade" last year with a different type of bin added (plastic and enclosed instead of open wooden slats), however those systems were really designed for batch use, adding materials all at once and waiting over a longer time period, rather than a continuously hot mixed add-as-you-go fast method.  So I still have to figure out how to better incorporate their use with our wooden bins.

    2) Ensuring hyper-locally relevant and specific information is included.  For instance, In the past year I've noticed how annoyingly common the following items are:
  • Banana peel labels. Most folks don't think to take them off after they purchase their bananas, unfortunately.
  • Rubber bands.
  • Candy wrappers.  Obviously the neighborhood children's work.
  • Tea candles. (From inside Jack-O-Lanterns.) Even though "no wax" and "no metal" has been conveyed and is common knowledge, and we share reminders during Halloween, people still don't seem to reach into their moldy pumpkins to pull them out.
  • "Compostable" plastic bags.  While they say compostable on them, and in a year's time the majority of each is gone, I've noticed small strips of plastic left over, possibly where the bag's handles were.  I believe they also block oxygen from reaching the contents within.

  • 3) Thinking about graphics, and how best to convey information in a multi-lingual and multi-aged manner.  For instance, from a design perspective, should the sign be lower, right on the bin at kid's-eye level, or will it need to be on a post, at the level for adults to see?  (I did find a bunch of beer cans in the bin once, THAT was a tough day on the patience front and makes me think it should be at adult level!) Ah but would a post at eye level interfere with mixing operations?

    4) Thinking about accountability, and updateability.  While most signs' information content is fixed and permanent, I'd like to have write-able sections so volunteers can use a grease pencil or dry-erase:
    "This bin maintained by:_______ until: _______(date)"  If the date section is empty or has passed, then obviously a new volunteer is needed!
    "Other currently prohibited items:_____ /______ /______" Or maybe even a section for requested deposits.  

    5) Methods to make it clear when the bin will be closed.  This one is tough.  I'm still tactically pausing on this one.  Something like "This bin closed from:______(date) until _____(date)".  I've noticed that even if I write "BIN CLOSED" and cover a bin with a big piece of cardboard and wire or tools, people will still disregard the signage.  The other thing about closed bins, and this is useful feedback for the urban permie composting community at large: I think it is essential to have advanced notice of closures.  Nobody wants to walk all the way with their compost-ables and then find out "oh, shoot, I came out here for nothin'!"  This sounds simple, but remember that not everyone will read the newsletter, or will be on social media, etc. to get updates.

    6) Hazards.  I don't believe in perpetuating a nanny-culture, as I am a firm believer in personal responsibility, but at the same time, I want users to be mindful of unique risks.  Namely, I don't want anyone to have a heart attack or go into anaphylactic shock when local fauna suddenly appear.  The three that come in mind are rodents, gnats (only in the plastic bins), and wasps (the latter being a unique seasonal occurrence).

    All this, unfortunately, makes for a lot to think about, especially for such a small and modest thing as a sign!
     
    pollinator
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    Keith Odell wrote:YOU!

    Sounds like you are doing a fantastic job.
    Keep up the good work, follow your "can's and cant's" and pat yourself on the back occasionally.


    Agree 100%! The gardener's shadow is the magic in the mix.
     
    Anne Miller
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    George said All this, unfortunately, makes for a lot to think about, especially for such a small and modest thing as a sign!



    I can't help much with advice on how to solve those problems because it is something that has always kept me from trying to do more.

    I would start by trying to make temporary signs until you find what works.

    Maybe try paper signs printed off the computer using a large font and attached to cardboard or something like that.

     
    George Yacus
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    I decided to go ahead and make a doodle of my least favorite ingredients to find in the community bin.  Feel free to use it if you find it helpful.
    Compost.png
    [Thumbnail for Compost.png]
     
    George Yacus
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    A few new updates and upgrades to the community compost bin.

    1) Proper signage.  

    I'm still waiting a little here.  Though I know getting a fancy-shmancy sign custom-ordered remains an option, I'll be approaching my two year mark volunteering with this system pretty soon, and I'm looking to keep the system cost at zero bucks budget for now.  I want to be able to say that I gave my time, creativity, and labor, and that's all one needs to keep this good thing going.  Also, I'm still not sold on design criteria.  But some interim signage has helped:

    Via the Deposit Stick.  A common problem I've had in the past is people depositing in the wrong bin.  But until we make some proper signage, I've lately been using a "Deposit Here" stick.  It's just an old long tool handle with a red end to it, and I marker'd it up with "Deposit Here".  The Dep-stick seems to be working ok, as I haven't had anyone drop a fresh load into the wrong bin.  I just need to make it look more presentable and clear.  I think I'll burndoodle a small wood sign and then screw it onto the Dep-stick.  The Dep-stick is closer to eye level, so I think that it will be more noticeable than a sign directly on the bin.

    2) Turn over turnover plan.  At some point, I really should provide a composting workshop for my community, and thus commence a compost turning over turnover plan, so that when I leave the bin gets taken care of (material turned over regularly) and doesn't get anaerobic and garbagy and brimming with yuck.   A workshop will be especially helpful since there are plenty of new neighbors, and it could spark some opportunities for green-minded people to meet one another, and divvy up responsibilities even.  Maybe even a composting club is in order?   Did you just try to click on those underlined words?  For now, I'll save the workshop and club ideas and threads for another day!

    3) Methods of managing yuckiness and improving quality of compost in a community compost bin.  

    Via Communication.
    I've noticed that the amount of plastic and yucky things has seemed to have gone down a little since sharing my little doodle with the community via social media a while back.  I only shared the drawing once, but I think it helped.  After recently talking with some lovely older and wiser members of the community in the garden one evening, one of them suggested that I should be giving update reminders much more frequently, even every week, via the community newspaper.  So I took her advice and had the composting cartoon in the recent e-newsletter.  An unexpected yield of this is now I feel more connected and comfortable with requesting to put things into the newsletter.  My helpful ideas and opinions seem to matter, so I have the freedom to share them.  I even wrote a funny little mini-article describing some common weeds in the community garden as a "WANTED" be-on-the-lookout poster.

    Via the Yuck Bucket.
    It's just a bucket which I keep right next to the deposit bin.  But it's super helpful.  Any time I find plastic, or sticky labels, or rubber bands, etc., they get tossed into the yuck bucket.  When it gets full, I take it to the dumpster.  Having it there does several things.
  • It encourages depositors to self regulate .  They can see "oh, this item of mine isn't in the bin, it's in this nasty bucket." and thus they associate the material as a non-compostable.
  • It reduces the amount of trips I have to take to the dumpster.  With the Yuck Bucket, if I were to brand it properly, and maybe even add a little "Empty me when I get full" writing or poem on it, then perhaps I could practice the "Policy of Responsibility (to relinquish power)"  You know...design myself out of the system.
  • It reduces my temptation to lazily toss other peoples trash on the ground.  If I feel up to taking a walk and emptying it, then I empty it, if not, at least I'm not polluting.

  • Via the sifter.  
    The Yuck Bucket has been around for a while, but my sifter is a new creation.  I built it out of HT pallet lumber that the preschool I occasionally volunteer with had in their dumpster.  The screws and hooks came from a picture frame kit which I had lying around, and the netting was surplus from one of the garden plots.  The jury is still out though, as I ran out of screws for making nice handles; so I'm going to wait on providing a full opinion on the sifter until I can grab some spare hardware from a neighbor.  We built a shed for the preschool playground last month, so I know there are spare screws!  I'll make a different thread on the sifting box and share my thoughts another day.
    Compost-Bin-Upgrades.png
    The community compost bin's Yuck Bucket and Sifter.
    The community compost bin's Yuck Bucket and Sifter.
     
    gardener
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    I think having a period where suddenly scraps are not welcome would be a problem. If you don't have enough bins to start a new one right away, could you add a garbage bin that people can put their contributions in for a week until there is space?
     
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    I think the problems  you are facing are normal problems when working with people.
    You are taking it in the right way and been proactive about it.

    Role modelling brings success so keep up the good work.

    I like the idea of signs as everyone learn in a different way.

    Also organising a play could be interesting.

    And last but more important EDUCATING the children. They will teach parents, friends and other.


    You are AMAZING
     
    George Yacus
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    New upgrade to the compost bin: sifter handles!

    This was a two-fer, as a local Cub Scouting neighbor's son needed to build something useful for one of his adventure pins to earn his next badge.  The handles came from a big ol' bag of kindling, the screws leftover from a preschool shed build.  The handles are uniquely shaped (naturally) forming a good grip angle for ergonomics.  I got the screws started at an angle, and then he and his little sister took turns driving them in.  The dad was a champ for bringing safety glasses, too.

    Later, our family came to visit, and of *course* I had to show them our little garden areas!  My nephew and niece had a surprising amount of fun sifting the compost.  It warmed my heart.  There are so many things that we grown-ups think of as work that young'uns define as play.  

    Later that evening around the dinner table, my dear niece turned to me with a big (mostly toothless) smile, and said "Can we go to the COMPOST BINS!?" with the precise enthusiasm as one would normally say "playground"...So heart warming!
    Sifter-In-Action.gif
    10yo blurring the lines between work and play
    10yo blurring the lines between work and play
     
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    just wondering
    how's the worm production? might be ideal spot to incorporate a worm casing bed area ?
     
    gardener
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    I love your updates on this project, and wish this were in my community!

    George Yacus wrote:Can we go to the COMPOST BINS!?"


    My mother regularly comments in wonderment that I grew up to be such a plant nut when in her memory, I never expressed any interest in plants, farming, gardens, etc. What she doesn't remember, I suppose, is that I spent most of my early childhood excavating her compost bins and making friends with the critters who were living in them. To this day, I love the smell of a compost bin more than just about anything.
     
    George Yacus
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    bruce Fine wrote:just wondering
    how's the worm production? might be ideal spot to incorporate a worm casing bed area ?



    I haven't seen very many worms in the bin, actually.  I suspect when they come to the bin, they come across nibblers and run away, er...whatever the worm equivalent of running is (?)  That said, a new neighbor mentioned vermicomposting the other week.  Perhaps if I run into her I could float the idea of a worm-bin integrated on top.

    ***

    I have to say, the bins have been much more enjoyable lately.  

    Adding the community's fall decorative pumpkins last year to the bin has resulted in some enjoyable surprises!  Three new volunteer pumpkins for decoration (and perhaps food), plus pepper plants in fruit and a ginormous tomato vine which needs some soil covering.  One of the pumpkins is getting tremendously large.  Today a light-bulb moment happened.   Those pumpkins are growing right at the base of the plastic bins, which haven't "bin" in use as I can't monitor what goes into them.  It occurred to me that I could use the plastic bins as "weeds only" cold compost bins, and then simply plant things at their base.  That way:

      1) Gardeners will be less inclined to put viable weeds into the active wooden bins, which may not reach sufficient seed killing temperature.
      2) The nutrients and biomass of the plant material will remain on site, rather than getting tossed into a dumpster somewhere or carted off for city compost.
      3) As the material breaks down due to the soil food web activity, viable seeds will stay in place, rather than getting recirculated into gardens, but the leachable nutrients will go directly to adjacent plants.
      4) It gives me a fun excuse to ask if we can make a new garden right around the plastic bins! Or maybe I won't even ask.  A big, gorgeous pumpkin vine is already reaching out, making a new garden.  Let's follow that pumpkin's lead and give it some friends!

    The warm weather is nice, too, and I haven't had to do a bunch of manual labor in turning the bin, really.  There's enough space for deposits, and plenty of extra compost -- a gardener's dream!  And in addition to patience, I've also been learning other new things from the bin through observation.   I believe it's officially bin 2 years since reviving the bin, and it continues to bring me unexpected yields.

    I continue to experiment with signage, the latest being a white bucket lid on the deposit stick.  I used permanent marker, but now I'm thinking it could make for a kind of "white board" effect if that permanent marker wears out, as I could switch to dry erase.  Then I could make more flexible and timely posts, rather than a one-and-done all encompassing permanent signage setup.  

    But despite occasional ads in our community newspaper, and despite the sign saying not to add plastics, I still get those "industrial plastics" in the bin.  The compost sifter is really fun, however, and has been helpful in finding and getting rid of some industrial compostable plastics which were still around from last year's deposits.  You see, industrial compostable plastics may be heat-resistant to 50*C, so if the bin's edges don't reach that temperature and sustain it, then little microplastic strips are stuck for months on end.  Yuck!  Most of the time our bin is "cold composting" and thus the plastic would not break down.  So out it must go!  

    And lastly, as the bin changes, I've changed a little too, in that I am not out there striving for a hot bin all the time.  A slow bin is just fine with me now, and the microbes don't seem to mind, not to mention the volunteer pumpkins, peppers, and tomato vines!  We're all volunteers!
     
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