That Compost Bin in the Living Room
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Credit…Illustration by The New York Times
The city cited budget cuts related to the pandemic, but many environmentalists said the decision was shortsighted and urged the city to maintain the composting program. Their bottom line: The city shouldn’t reverse progress on the larger, longer-term crisis of climate change.
I’ve been composting at home for seven years now. It helps the climate because it prevents food scraps from going to landfills where they release greenhouse gases. Organic material that ends up in landfills is broken down in an oxygen-starved process known as anaerobic decomposition, which releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Some of the largest methane emitters in the country are landfills, and, adding insult to injury, the anaerobic decomposition that happens in landfills also smells really bad.
Composting beds instead rely on naturally-occurring aerobic microorganisms that live in the moisture surrounding the organic matter and break down food scraps into heat, water and carbon dioxide. The heat kills harmful bacteria and pathogens, and the carbon dioxide emitted is no more than what’s released in the natural cycle of plant life. Much of that carbon, moreover, is sequestered in the soil, which is rich in nutrients that can be used for community gardening or agriculture.
So, what can you do? I use a method that’s become popular in my home county, Japan, over the past decade — but, surprisingly, it’s almost completely unknown in the United States.
The method is simple. Some of the materials we use in Japan might be hard to find here, but they’re easy to substitute.
You just need a large cardboard box, coco peat, which is made from coconut husks, and kuntan, or rice husk ash, which is used widely in Japan to improve soil health. Together, the coco peat and kuntan create the ideal conditions for oxygen-hungry aerobic bacteria to thrive, which then help decompose food scraps.
You can order coco peat online from garden shops. I’ve never seen kuntan for sale in the United States, but you can use horticultural ash like hardwood ash.
Because the cardboard box method involves aerobic decomposition, the compost doesn’t smell. And, the highly-absorbent ash captures moisture, so there isn’t any icky liquid or sludge to deal with. In fact, our compost box sits in the corner of our living room. We do keep a cover on it to prevent flies, and, in seven years, we’ve never had a problem with insects.
“You just have to create an environment that has a lot of oxygen and where natural microorganisms can thrive,” said Kayoko Kondo, a researcher in the Department of Environmental Design at Kyushu University who helped popularize the cardboard box method in Japan. “It really allows you to start seeing food scraps not as something you toss in the trash, but something you can return to nature with your own hands.”
Some quick tips: Use any large cardboard box — not plastic or metal, which won’t let the compost breathe — and reinforce the bottom of the box with an extra layer of cardboard. Raise the cardboard box on some blocks to further improve air flow. Use roughly three parts coco peat, two parts ash. We use a tea towel to cover our box. These instructions are in Japanese, but you might find the illustrations helpful.
We’ve found that a good-sized box can process upwards of 1.5 pounds of fruit and veggie scraps a day, as well as things like eggshells and fish bones. Stir the compost frequently — you’ll find this isn’t a chore, because it smells of earthy goodness.
My living room compost box still uses kuntan, but I’m planning to start a second one using hardwood ash, so watch this space! And, I’m happy to answer composting questions. You can reach me on Twitter: @HirokoTabuchi
Protesters sense a chill
Here’s something you might not have noticed while we’ve all been hiding from the virus: Three more states have enacted “critical infrastructure” laws that some environmental activists say are aimed at shutting down protests.
Those laws — in South Dakota, Kentucky and West Virginia — are the latest in a series that proliferated after protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline three years ago. According to Elly Page, a legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, they bring the number of states that have adopted such protest legislation to 11.
Like a Texas law we covered in this newsletter last year, the new measures do not outlaw peaceful protest, which is protected under the First Amendment. But critics worry they’ll impose de facto limits by sharply increasing penalties for things like trespassing and vandalism. The laws turn those offenses, which are usually misdemeanors, into felonies when they involve things like pipelines, refineries and petrochemical plants.
In some cases, the measures can mean prison sentences as long as 10 years for individuals and fines up to $1 million for groups considered to be conspiring with offenders.
“These laws are aimed at scaring people” and silencing anti-fossil fuel voices, said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Supporters of the measures say they’re needed to safeguard key facilities — not just oil and gas operations but also railroads, cellphone towers and more.
Bill Meierling, a spokesman for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group whose corporate funders include the fossil fuel billionaire Charles G. Koch, said the bills were about “highlighting and putting a finer point” on the importance of facilities central to the economy’s function.
At least until those cases work their way through the courts, environmental protests will be a riskier business. Activists, Ms. Page said, “are going to have to learn how to adapt.”
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