Community composting – here one day, gone the next
… by Russ Grayson
What had started as an innovative idea of local people came to an end when, one warm Wednesday afternoon in late March 2011, the City of Sydney removed the community composting installation in Peace Park, Chippendale.
The removal reminded me of something I had learned some time ago at a place not very far away.
Technology transfer a three-legged construction
In those days I worked for an international development NGO operating in the South Pacific and what I learned still makes a lot of sense to me. We worked in village food security and small scale, sustainable farming systems using the LEISA (Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture) approach, however the NGO—then based only hundreds of metres away in the University of Technology, Sydney, though 14 years in the past—also did village micro-hydro electrification.
It would have been easy for the NGO to have come in to some Solomon Island village and install a micro-hydro system, turn on the lights and leave. That approach was not unknown when it came to development assistance work by government programs and even by small, community based NGOs. Instead, those in the NGO were savvy enough to know that technology transfer, to be done properly, comes as a three legged structure. That technology transfer structure is this: a new technology or new approach to doing something had a greater chance of long-term success when it comes as a package containing the technology + a clear plan for it’s maintenance + the training of those who will take over and use the it.
It’s a simple enough proposition but it’s all too often ignored. The lesson has stayed with me and it came to mind when I started working with the City of Sydney where I collaborate with the City’s waste projects co-ordinator on community composting trials.
I realize as I write that this three-component approach to technology transfer links back to ideas imbibed earlier in my life when the appropriate technology movement was in it’s formative phase. The ideas are those of English economist, Fritz Schumacher, author of the classic book, Small Is Beautiful. Reflecting on technology transfer to developing countries, Schumacher wrote that technologies must be appropriate in scale to the task at hand and appropriate in maintenance costs and skills to what is available in-country.
When technologies were electro-mechanical this made sense. But how many small towns in developing countries have technicians who can repair the computerized systems now extensively used in technologies? We can expect that number to increase, but maybe we need to accept that technical help now comes from further afield. Doing so doesn’t alter Schumacher’s wisdom, just adapts it to the world as it is now.
Community composting—an appropriate technology
So what has Fritz Schumacher and work in a development assistance NGO got to do with community composting in Sydney? A number of things, it turns out.
Let’s recognise that community composting—and any sort of composting—is the application of an appropriate technology in the spirit of the concept developed by Fritz Schumacher. The devices deployed in community composting—in the example I use here it is the Aerobin—constitute a particular iteration of an appropriate technology designed for resource recovery, for turning green waste into fertiliser for use on the nearby street verge gardens.
That’s the link with the past and it remains valid although it is a link seldom made by sustainability educators. That’s because Schumacher’s ideas are seldom taught in courses and workshops around the technologies of sustainability, a fact I repeatedly discover when I ask those who came of age after that initial surge of interest in appropriate technology in the 1970s.
Gone, but a reboot is coming
Community composting is a new idea both to communities and to local government. Neither have tried it before. Solutions are being developed and trialled as we go. There are no instruction manuals.
The City and local people installed a community composting system consisting of seven Aerobin composters (one for each day of the week) in Peace Park in inner urban Chippendale that is within easy walking distance of Sydney’s busy Railway Square.
That day in late March, the City in agreement with the local people who had been maintaining the system removed the seven Aerobins of the community composting facility.
The reason? Cockroaches. Multitudes of cockroaches. The community compost had gone from a good idea in local resource recovery to a public health issue. There had been the comment from locals about odour and flies, though these may have been not the common house fly but vinegar flies and other flying insects that appear during composting as part of the decomposition process.
Breeding habitat brings population boost
We traced the cause of this infestation to the creation of breeding habitat in which both warmth and plenty of food (kitchen wastes) were in abundance inside the Aerobins. This came about because of an imbalance of inputs. Trouble-free composting requires a balance of dry, carbon-rich materials such as straw, dried grasses, shredded newspaper or cardboard and garden wastes blended with nitrogen-rich material in the form of moist kitchen wastes.
And that is exactly what was missing in the community compost. Chippendale is a densely packed precinct consisting of Victorian-ear terrace houses and apartment blocks. Garden space is minimal and, where it does exist, consists of small courtyards. There’s not all that much growing space and, consequently, there’s not much waste from gardens, but what there is in plenty are food wastes from the kitchen. Fed by enthusiastic local people with their kitchen wastes and by similar wastes from an adjacent cafe, inputs into the seven Aerobins of the community composting system quickly became unbalanced. All of that kitchen waste created the ideal breeding environment for roaches, whose population rapidly expanded.
That was demonstrated more than adequately during an inspection when we opened the compost bin’s lower access hatch and out flooded a mass of those small, brown, multilegged creatures. It was like watching a horror movie, one of those present said. What it really was, was a good demonstration of the problem affecting the system and a demonstration of the need for a rapid solution.
Solutions were attempted. Eucalyptus oil proved a temporary deterrent. Boric acid powder was suggested but there was not the time to try this before removing the bins.
Massed cockroaches aside, the experience with the community composting trial is what you expect when developing something new. The trial has been a rapid prototyping process, and when you prototype something you expect problems. Developing solutions to those problems is an integral part of the process.
What, then. would be the solution? In a word – reboot. Rather than tweaking the system by trying different roach control additives, the decision was made to do a takedown and restart.
Now, the bins are to be thoroughly cleaned and reinstalled later in the year when there is new staff who will set up the system as a proper trial, complete with project design, monitoring and evaluation. Part of this will be that three corner approach to technology transfer I mentioned earlier—technology + maintenance + education. This latter will take the form of workshops for those who will manage the system.
A little systems thinking
A little systems thinking can never be too much. For the increasing number of local governments and communities contemplating or trying community composting, the Chippendale experience points to the need to take a systems thinking approach that fully considers the type, quantity and quality of inputs into the composting process, the processes of management and maintenance and the qualtity and quantity of outputs.
Before setting out in community composting, you need a clear idea of what you will do with the compost produced and where you will do it. Then, as a systems thinker, you design in your feedback loops so that your process and output stages connect via monitoring and evaluation to feed information back into the inputs and process stage so as you can tweak and modify them a you go. It’s the philosophy of continual improvement in action.
One suggestion, and it is a proven one, has been to locate community composting at community gardens. We know from experience that this works, there having been two community gardens in Sydney that have used green wastes from the local community to produce compost for their garden beds. The reality, though, is that not all neighborhoods have a community garden nearby.
For managers of community composting systems, a question arising from the Chippendale experience is about how you obtain a balance of inputs, a balance of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, such that the composting process fully breaks down the wastes and produces a useful fertilizer.
Debugging is a term that describes the problem solving process that is part of rapid prototyping. Chippendale’s community composting experiment gives the word an entirely new meaning.
Clarification: The Chippendale community composting, street verge gardens and other local initiatives have now been incorporated into the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Streets project which intends to develop the precinct as a demonstration.
More on community composting