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Feature - Issue #1

The Compost Connection

Words by Anna Kary
Photography by Ashten Macdonald

Realising that their way of life was affecting both the planet and their own physical and mental health led Amandine, Benoit and their friends to change their lifestyle.

Could worms be considered pets? This wasn’t something Amandine Paniagua and Benoit Chabord every imagined themselves having to ponder when they began composting in their rental home in a city fringe suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, which has a strict policy prohibiting pets. Both originally from France, Benoit works in IT, while Amandine is an architect. But, alongside their day jobs, they also run Lagom, a website dedicated to inspiring others to live more sustainably, with their friends and housemates Tracey Creed and Eduardo Bruzzi.

Their “love story with compost” started two and a half years ago, when they moved to a townhouse apartment and started applying zero waste principles to their lives.

About half of what households in Auckland – New Zealand’s most populous city with more than 1.6 million residents – send to landfill is compostable material. The city’s food scraps alone are estimated to weigh in at about 90,000 tonnes each year.

A separate city-wide collection service for organic waste is planned for the future, but for now the local authority, Auckland Council, is investing in education about composting.

It funds an initiative called The Compost Collective, which is run jointly by two local environment trusts, EcoMatters Environment Trust and Kaipatiki Project.

Through a resource-rich website and workshops on everything from getting started to advanced composting knowledge, The Compost Collective is teaching Aucklanders how to return organic waste back to the soil naturally.

There are financial incentives for those who complete online learning or workshops, with discounts on purchases of compost systems.

Amandine and Benoit use a worm farm (left) and compost bins (right) to add organic matter to their garden soil.

More recently, The Compost Collective introduced ShareWaste, an online platform that connects people with kitchen scraps to those with compost systems or backyard chickens.

Judy Keats, a tutor with The Compost Collective for three years, says awareness is growing about why it’s better to use food scraps rather than dump them. “Of course the firstissue is that by mixing food scraps with other rubbish in the landfill, we lose all those valuable nutrients forever,” she says.

Food scraps sent to landfill continue to cause issues - compost needs air and with no air in landfill, it rots anaerobically instead. Liquid from his rotting waste slowly filters through the landfill, draining into the surrounding land, so this by-product must be collected and treated onsite.

Anaerobic rotting also produces methane gas, a significant greenhouse gas, 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Modern landfills can capture some, but not all, that methane.

Food waste goes into two small containers in the kitchen, providing scraps for the worms and the bokashi.

‘We got a worm farm and paired it with our bokashi,” says Amandine. “They are complementary in what they can process - everything the worms cannot eat goes in the bokashi,plus they are easy to move around and relocate if necessary.’

Another dimension to the composting story in New Zealand is that of Te Ao Māori, the world view of the country’s indigenous people.

In Māori culture, kaitiakitanga (guardianship) is hugely important. Traditionally a closed-loop waste system returned all toenga (remains/leftovers) to Papatūānuku (the earth), without detriment to the whenua (land), awa (waterways), or moana (ocean).

So it seems the old ways are indeed the best ways, and more people are realising that scraps from the kitchen and cuttings from the garden can be better put to use working for the future of the planet, not against it.

This was Amandine and Benoit’s thinking when they first bought a bokashi - a composting system originating in Japan that ferments food scraps in a sealed bucket.

"We got a worm farm and paired it with our bokashi,” says Amandine. “They are complementary in what they can process - everything the worms cannot eat goes in the bokashi, plus they are easy to move around and relocate if necessary.”

“For an apartment situation with little to no garden or outdoor area, we believe this is the most effective way to divert organic matter from landfill. Doing compost indoors is no issue if managed properly, there’s no smell and no flies.”

They’ve moved house twice since then and their compost system has come with them, increasing in capacity as the household grew larger.

“Sharing a house with six to seven people meant the compost system took on a whole new dimension,” she says.Now they have two bokashi bins on rotation, alongside a worm farm and an outdoor compost.

This is enough to process all of their food waste, but if their scraps ever overtake their compost capacity,they have a back-up plan - they would take the full bokashi to a nearby compost hub, Auckland’s Organic Market Garden (OMG).

Set up just under a year ago, the OMG is a collaboration between several local organisations dedicated to improving the environment, creating a resilient local food scene and community connectedness.

It’s part of a wider project called For the Love of Bees, which aims to bring about “real transformation of the city’s ecosystem through community-led actions”.

Tim Bowater, who manages the compost at the OMG, says they focused first on building a network of local cafés and restaurants that now provide a steady supply of food scraps.

Occasionally, a nearby resident will drop off their food scraps or bokashi for the compost but the next step is to formalise how they acceptresidential food scraps.

“This is about showing that an initiative like this can support a farmer with a living wage, and about using food scraps to create fertile soil, which in turn helps produce locally available food,” says Tim.

On the edge of Auckland’s central city business district, the OMG is on land earmarked for development as a train station.When the site was first purchased and cleared in 2013, it attracted unsociable behaviour. In response, the local authority, nearby businesses, community groups and volunteers came together to transform the area into a much-loved community garden.

‘I took it as a challenge, a way to show others that it is possible to compost in a crowded household. I knew the best way for things to work was to make it easy.’

Liquid from the worm farm and bokashi can be diluted and used to fertilise plants, so there is no need to buy fertiliser.

But, as volunteers moved on the maintenance of the garden dropped off and the park became forgotten. Tim hopes that the siting of the OMG will revitalise local interest and connection with the garden, but also that it will serve as a pilot for how urban farms and local compost hubs can create what he calls “climate-ready infrastructure”.

“If you think about roads and parks being part of a city’s infrastructure, a network of places like the OMG are essential to a living urban environment,” he says. “It’s about food resilience, carbon sequestration and a place that’s good for residents’ mental and physical wellbeing.”

Realising that their way of life was affecting both the planet and their own physical and mental health led Amandine, Benoit and their friends to change their lifestyle.

“The first step we took was to shift to a plantbased diet, then reduce our daily waste, buy less but buy quality items, and ditch packaged items as much as possible,” says Amandine.

Getting their housemates on board with composting was relatively easy, as they were already friends and co-workers with similar interests. But, she says, everyone in the house is at different stages in their journey to sustainability.

“I took it as a challenge, a way to show others that it is possible to compost in a crowded household. I knew the best way for things to work was to make it easy.”

They have two small containers in the kitchen, one to collect scraps for the worms and the other for the bokashi. Benoit is “compost manager”, making sure everyone uses the right bin and emptying the kitchen bins daily.

“It took time but we saw results, by being patient and understanding, but firm,” says Amandine. “I believe everything is possible, at least when it comes to composting.”

They’ve significantly reduced how much waste the household puts out for landfill collection, especially when she compares it to bins from her neighbours’ houses.

As well as reducing waste and greenhouse emissions, there are other tangible benefits to composting. “We really love having a dry, clean rubbish bin. It makes our day-to-day life so much easier - no smell, no bugs, no rubbish bin bags,” she says. “Taking care of our organic waste is also generating useful organic material for us to grow plants.”

Liquid from the worm farm and bokashi is diluted and used to fertilise plants, so there’s no need to buy fertiliser. When full, the bokashi “solids” go into the garden compost bin and the resulting compost is used to add organic matter to the garden soil. Worm castings – the faeces produced after the worms have eaten the food scraps – are used to start seedlings and to improve soil in pots.

Even in their previous townhouse, with no traditional garden space to speak of, Amandine and Benoit used worm castings in planters on the balcony to grow herbs such as basil, mint, coriander and chillies.

Now they plan to sow their garden with bee-friendly flowers such as calendula, marigold and nasturtiums.

“I heard that bees need 1bn flowers per hive to survive so there’s a need to plant a lot of flowers in the city,” says Amandine.

‘You learn, you become aware of how soil works, how agriculture should be practiced and that gardening is accessible to anyone with the motivation and curiosity.’

Benoit always had an interest in growing plants, but making compost and studying permaculture took this to another level.

“You learn, you become aware of how soil works, how agriculture should be practiced and that gardening is accessible to anyone with the motivation and curiosity,” he says. Benoit says composting taught them the importance of soil microbiology. Compost is full of microbes, insects and worms that work together with the soil to process carbon and sugar, so plants can thrive.

“Thanks to this process, gardeners can grow veggies without the need for synthetic fertilisers. With compost it all becomes natural and free.” Along with another housemate, Loic, Benoit takes care of the garden, looking for new ways to nourish and improve the soil with compost.

“How we have implemented and used the systems, reducing waste and what to do with the compost are subjects that interest others,” says Amandine. “We’ve had great conversations with people about what we do.”

“We’re interacting through our platform, Lagom, where we explain and show everything we know, and connecting with others who have in depth knowledge about composting.”

And there’s also the connection to nature it has given them in an urban environment, a ready supply of herbs outside the kitchen window, and, in defiance of their rental policy, hundreds of worms, which they consider their pets.

You can find out more about cold and hot composting, bokashi, and worm farming on the Compost Collective's website at: www.compostcollective.org.nz/learn-online

You can find out more about Lagom, and download their free ebook (featuring a plant based meal plan and tips for reducing waste and saving money) at: www.thisislagom.com

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