Quick and Not So Dirty: No-Sweat Composters

WAll Street Journal, October 13, 2009
Link to original article


Last weekend, I fed my plants and vegetables some compost made from my kitchen scraps and yard waste. But I didn't spend months outside mixing piles of the organic brew with a pitchfork. Instead, I whipped up a batch in 14 days, with the push of a button—in my laundry room.

Call it speed composting. Manufacturers and retailers are rolling out gadgets that help consumers make compost faster, more discreetly and, in some cases, with less of the "yuck" factor. The move comes as more cities are encouraging and even mandating that residents who don't compost at home take time to divide their food and yard waste from other trash so it can be recycled elsewhere. Next week, San Francisco will implement a new rule requiring that its citizens separate such items into green "composting" carts or potentially face fines.

Compost is earthy material produced from the natural decomposition of organic matter such as grass clippings, leaves, vegetable remains, and coffee grounds. It's nutritious for plants and lawns and reduces the amount of trash sent to landfills. Yard trimmings and food residuals constitute about 24% of the U.S. municipal solid-waste stream, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Gwendolyn Bounds/The Wall Street Journal
Interest in composting is growing, thanks to
new products like the NatureMill Automatic

But many homeowners who readily recycle don't bother composting. (Guilty.) That's partly because it's more of a hassle than just tossing plastic bottles and newspaper into colored bins.

To make compost, homeowners typically mix piles of waste with a pitchfork in the yard, bury it, or use bins and tumblers to contain and blend materials. There's chemistry involved, such as balancing the ratio of carbon ("brown" stuff like fall leaves) and nitrogen ("green" stuff like veggies). And patience: It usually takes between eight weeks and a year to get finished compost, depending on the method.

"Composting isn't Green 101," says Jennifer Schwab, director of sustainability for the Sierra Club's Green Home Web site, which instructs visitors on composting. She admits, too: "When bugs and stuff get on it, as much as I'm a green person, I get disgusted by that."

However, innovations in the compost-bin marketplace, along with the new laws, are fueling interest in composting. For instance, the NatureMill Automatic Composter—one of four units I've been testing—is a small plug-in device that heats waste to speed decomposition (hence my 14-day turnaround) and automatically mixes everything so you don't have to. Since it's designed to be housed indoors, it can save users the step of collecting scraps in pails that then must be carried out to a compost bin. The newest model launching this month borrows a page from Apple's iPod and comes in eight colors; it also boasts a "heavy-duty" mode to handle large loads after, say, a dinner party.

Getty Images
San Francisco's rule requires residents to
separate compostable materials into green
carts in order to speed up decomposition.

NatureMill Inc. in San Francisco says it sold 10,000 of its automatic units last year and is on track to double or triple that in 2009. Founder Russ Cohn, who has an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created his first prototype five years ago after growing weary of "moving and reshuffling" compost piles in his San Francisco yard. His aim: to make the humble composter "sound, smell and feel like any household appliance."

Also new this year: the Ecomposter—a futuristic, Sputnik-like globe that holds 71 gallons of material and can rotate on a wheeled stand; 20,000 have been sold since May at spots such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco and independent garden-supply companies, according to New York-based maker Systems Trading Corp. And this summer, Cascade Manufacturing Sales Inc. in Bellingham, Wash., introduced a compact bin called the Worm Factory 360, with stackable layers that form a sort of high-rise to house the 1,000 or more hungry invertebrates who do the heavy lifting.

Gwendolyn Bounds/The Wall Street Journal
To mix the materials inside, you can either roll the Ecomposter on the ground or rotate it on a stand.

Meanwhile, Web site compostbins.com says it has seen a 50% increase in sales over the past year, particularly among composting units that can be housed indoors. "Many folks don't want the pitchfork approach, and we're seeing more technology coming into the tumblers," says Jason Goldberger, chief merchandising officer of Omaha, Neb.-based Hayneedle Inc., which runs 200 Web sites, including compostbins.com. His company this week will begin selling a $250 combination compost and rain-barrel unit called the EZ Composter Hybrid.

Such innovations are wooing a new generation of composting enthusiasts, including Jenny Hall of Sebastopol, Calif. She tried old-fashioned methods but says they're "a pain, and I don't have time to do all the churning that is necessary." In April, she bought a NatureMill unit, which she tucked in her kitchen utility pantry. "Oh, my gosh—what a difference," she says.

A growing number of cities now subsidize compost bins for residents, including Woodland Calif., which offers a $100 rebate, and Seattle, which helps residents get discounts on certain models of bins. Starbucks Corp. even offers customers free five-pound bags of used coffee grounds—a rich source of nitrogen—through its "Grounds for Your Garden" program.

Other tweaks on conventional compost methods are gaining traction. For instance, Sustainable Community Development LLC in Kansas City, Mo., sells the Happy Farmer Kitchen Composter, which consists of an airtight bucket and a bag of cereal-like material called "bokashi" that's infused with beneficial microbes. Adding the bokashi helps the food ferment and break down faster. Once the bucket is full, you let it sit for two weeks and then bury the contents, which the company says will turn to compost in another few weeks.

"What we've found is the process is so much faster and efficient that it reduces the total time of composting by a couple of months," says Kat Wood, business manager for the company. The company has sold more than $1 million of units in the past 12 months, Ms. Wood says, and is changing the product's name to the All Seasons Indoor Composter to reach a broader audience.

Certainly, plenty of people still compost just fine (and cheaply) without elaborate equipment. Louis Hansell of Drexel Hill, Pa., uses a simple bin, turns the contents with a pitchfork only "when inspired," and figures he saves a month's worth of refuse from trash pickup each year. And Kate Heim tossed redworms into a 12-gallon plastic bin in her former Manhattan apartment and let them go to town. "You can get fancier kits, but I had no problem with mine," says Ms. Heim, who fed the "vermicompost," as it's called, to her houseplants and windowsill garden.

For those of us needing a technological nudge, I've been testing the NatureMill, the Ecomposter, the Happy Farmer Kitchen Composter, and the Worm Factory 360—units selected with guidance from Ms. Schwab at the Sierra Club.

The NatureMill Pro XE ($399 at naturemill.com) gets the highest marks for speed and looks. It comes with sawdust pellets to help goose your carbon ratio and is roughly the size of a small cooler. Because NatureMill heats to temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you can add meat, fish and dairy items, which typically would cause odor and pest problems.

A few kinks: Fibrous materials like corn husks and dog hair can get wound around the turning mechanism, and the motor is audible when turning contents. It uses about 5 kwh, or roughly 50 cents, of power a month.

For larger loads, the Ecomposter ($209 at walmart.com) puts a spin on the traditional tumbler design. The 360-degree rotation makes mixing easier, though it requires more muscle as you add more stuff. Inside, 32 air tubes help aerate, break up waste and add moisture. It looks cool perched in the yard, though set aside a few hours for assembly. Supposedly I'll have compost four to six weeks after I stop adding material.

Collecting food and bokashi in the Happy Farmer Composter ($59.99 at compostbins.com) was painless—after I got over the sweet and sour smell that emanates each time I opened the lid. There's also a spigot to drain any liquid compost that settles at the bottom. I was skeptical that the batch I buried outside would really decompose faster. But when I dug it up after a week and a half, aside from a few artichoke leaves and corn cobs, it all looked like dirt and compost.

Finally, the Worm Factory 360 ($109.95 at amazon.com) was far less creepy than I'd imagined and even mildly entertaining. It consists of stackable trays you fill with food, newspaper and other waste; worms are upwardly mobile, so they crawl to higher levels where new food awaits—leaving compost behind. You can buy the composter with worms at some retailers or order them elsewhere; findworms.com lists suppliers by state. After prepping the lair with coconut fibers (included), shredded newspaper and dirt, I plopped in 1,000 thin red wigglers ordered by mail from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm in Spring Grove, Pa. Other than preferring food chopped small, worms are low maintenance—they eat and work.

One concern: I just brought the worms inside this week because the temperature dipped to 40F. The manufacturer says they shouldn't escape if I keep them well-fed. Shouldn't ? Stay tuned.

Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at wendy.bounds@wsj.com


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Updated: December 10, 2009