Composting: not just for gardeners

ImageI never like much being told what I can and can’t do, and so when I started picking up leaflets about composting, which told me what I could put on the compost and those things I couldn’t, I thought why not! You know the sort of thing, it always says, ‘no cooked food.’ Well of course it is pretty bad wasting cooked food in the first place, but then to send it to landfill is another crime in my book. The reason not to add cooked food is not because it won’t compost, but because it attracts Imagerats and so you need a composting system that rats cannot access.

I started visiting schools to look at their compost and, almost invariably, they had one or two ‘dalek’ bins, so called because they look a bit like daleks. Nearly all the ones I saw were filled up with rotting fruit waste, usually accompanied by a cloud of fruit flies; not pleasant! There had to be a better way than this and so I started trialling different composting systems in schools and, fast forwarding several years, we have come up with some really good solutions.

Firstly, we need to know how much food waste, both raw and cooked, the school produces and then we can recommend the system to suit it. This ranges from a single large compost bin, which is only suitable for very small primary schools without much waste. Then we have slightly larger tumbling bins and a range of bins where materials are added at one end, the handle turned, and materials harvested from the other end. Finally, for the largest schools, a powered machine such as the Big Hanna or Rocket are needed. All of these systems use the Scotty’s HotBox, which I designed, to mature and complete the process with worms. But none of these systems work by just adding food waste and expecting it to turn magically into compost.

Compost making is really very simple as long as you make sure that you balance air with water. In other words materials full of water such as fresh fruit and vegetable peelings must be mixed with tougher dry materials to allow air to percolate through the mass of material, whether it is tumbled or turned or just static. Unfortunately schools are usually in short supply of such material and so they have to get it in from outside. You can buy pelletised sawdust, which is good, or woodchips, shreddings etc. these are often available free and a parent or governor at the school might well be able to supply this material for free, ask around!

The hardest part about getting composting to work in schools is the attitude of the staff, particularly the head teacher and often the caretaker. If they are keen and positive, then it will take off and work well, if not then it can waste a lot of time. The children always get it and love to be involved in the process, with lots of opportunities for learning and experimenting.

We are working to help schools grow, cook, eat and compost their own food and also involve all this into the curriculum and now have produced ‘The Compost Curriculum’ too. Not only does this provide essential contact with the outdoor world, it also helps to build community spirit and contributes to a generation of children who are invested a sustainable vision for the future.

For more information download the PDF on our website www.dccn.org.uk

Nicky Scott is the coordinator of the Devon Community Composting Network; he helps set up community composting groups and advises schools and businesses on composting kitchen waste. He was involved in the development of the ‘Scotty’s Hot Box’ and the ‘Ridan’ composter, both now widely used for composting food waste. Nicky is the author of How to Make and Use Compost, Composting for All and Composting: an easy household guide.

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