Community Composting Projects

For any community looking at trying to move towards a lower carbon, more sustainable way of life, setting up a compost scheme can be a valuable step forward – as well as providing some useful material to put back on the gardens.

There are a number of ways to go about becoming a composting community – what’s appropriate for a rural setting, or suburban houses with large gardens, obviously isn’t going to suit high density city housing, with small back yards and so on.

However, although the detail of any project is always going to depend on the character of the local area, the added boost to any community’s green profile remains much the same.

Why Compost?

About a third of household waste is compostable – garden clippings, vegetable peelings and the like – and until quite recently most of it used to go into landfill. When this kind of material rots in the sort of anaerobic (without air) conditions it encounters buried in a waste site, it gives off methane gas – which is 20 to 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

p Although changes in the law to restrict the amount of this kind of waste which is allowed to go to landfill have helped, the problem of what to do with the remainder is still a big one.

Composting is one really good solution, since in the aerobic (air-rich) environment of the compost heap, this type of waste breaks down to produce the familiar crumbly, earthy material we all know – and gardeners love so much.

Although composting does produce carbon dioxide as the microbes responsible for breaking it down get to grips with the job, it is “modern” carbon – so there’s no net atmospheric increase – and in any case, it’s way better than releasing that much methane into the air.

Becoming a Composting Community

There are two general approaches open to a community composting project – either promoting composting by individuals at home or forming a group, to compost their waste at a central site. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, so which route to travel often depends on the people involved as well as on local circumstances.

Home composting schemes tend to work best where householders have large enough gardens to benefit from the material they are going to be producing. Many councils have occasional sales of subsidised composting bins to encourage people to divert suitable waste from other disposal methods and this can provide a real boost to any community scheme since the necessary equipment is made available at a knock-down price.

Even if your local authority isn’t planning this kind of event, if you’re trying to get a composting project started, it might be worth getting in contact with them. Local councils sometimes have special arrangements negotiated with their suppliers and so may be able to help.

Failing that, you can always try approaching a few of the manufacturers themselves – especially if you’re buying in bulk and there’s PR for their products in the offing, they may be willing to offer a bit of a discount. It costs nothing to ask – and the worst they can say is “no”.

Community composting at a central site also has its plus points; with a range of people contributing their waste, the mix going into the compost is more varied and this can often benefit the final product. However, it is obviously important that everyone involved understands what sorts of materials the group is willing to take – and that any rules on pesticides and other chemicals are followed.

Running this sort of composting scheme calls for a suitable site and often needs equipment and someone to operate it. In rural areas, local farmers or landowners can often provide the solution, while in a more urban setting, the local authority is likely to offer the best hope of support, so it’s worth approaching them fairly early on in the planning to see what help they may be able to give. They will also be able to advise on any necessary legal or health and safety regulations you’ll need to follow.

The Benefits

As well as producing a useful product, by treating the waste close to where it originated, a community compost project avoids the transport costs and the carbon emissions involved in hauling away waste and then bringing new compost back from the garden centre.

Fewer vehicle movements has an obvious appeal from an energy saving point of view, and also means that the embedded energy in your garden compost is negligible as a result. Add in the social value of feeling part of a worthwhile local project and its clear to see why many communities are starting to choose to compost.