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downers: composting

Six months ago, as part of its ongoing bid to secede from the United States and get annexed by Scandinavia, Portland instituted mandatory composting. The city provided every house with a cute 3-gallon composting bucket, and began picking up garbage bi-weekly, instead of every week. The second move was a brilliant piece of brinkmanship, as it forced recalcitrant families to compost into their yard bin, in order to save their now-precious garbage space for primo trash, like diapers.

Compost bucket

composting as nature intended: full of healthy juicing scraps. bin and photo, Grant Us the Luxury

As with other nature-related things (e.g. camping, the ocean, birds), I love the idea of composting more than I love the reality of composting. I mean, I support the idea of reducing waste–if you can’t get behind that, that’s weird–but the reality of composting has added a layer of stress to my already stressed-out existence. And sometimes, it’s not even just stress that’s added, but abject fear, and horror. And those are emotions I shouldn’t have to deal with in performing a household chore, unless I’m cleaning my boys’ toilet.

Why the fuss? If you don’t compost, let me lay some groundwork for you. The cute little 3-gallon pail sits on your kitchen counter, and you fill it with table scraps. Any kind of food scraps, including meat and fish bones. Once that bucket fills up, you transport it outside, and dump it into the curbside yard waste bin, which gets picked up every week. The first issue is that table scraps–especially when mixed with other table scraps–are gross. While it may not be ecologically sound, the beauty of putting table scraps down the disposal is that once they are disposed of, you don’t have to look at them again. With composting, you are confronted with what you had for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, over and over again, every time you open up that pail to put more scraps in.

So why not just empty the pail more frequently? Because emptying it more frequently would mean more frequent trips to the curbside bin. And what lies in wait inside that green bin, simply put, is some scary-ass shit.

Not even the fecund mind of Stephen King could do justice to that green bin and its contents, but I have to take a stab. The bin gets food waste dumped into it every day. For a full week, the food waste sits there and does what food waste does, which is to rot and attract wildlife–and I’m not talking about puppies and kittens. I’m talking about the kind of animals that are more properly characterized as vermin. In the winter, it’s not so bad, because the food just rots in the cold. But now that we’re getting into summer, the things happening inside that bin are downright primeval.

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Unfortunately, as it turns out, you can’t transfer scraps to the bin without opening the bin. There’s a lot to deal with once that lid is open, so it helps to have a game plan. Here’s mine. First, stop breathing. The noxious odors and gasses coming from the inside of that bin are most certainly poisonous if inhaled. Best to close your eyes too, because the one time I opened them I swear I saw movement inside, and that movement may have been maggots. As a child, I was scared of two things: nuclear war and maggots. So it’s a real thing for me. Third, close your mouth. You have to open the bin with your mouth closed, or you may accidentally ingest one of the 100 flies that will fly into your face. Fourth, and this is the important one–for God’s sake make sure it’s light out. At night I get so jittery and panicked that I might encounter a rat, that I have missed the bin entirely when dumping out the contents of the pail. It makes me sad when Tom has to pick spaghetti and meatballs off the driveway on his hands and knees, in the dark. Especially because there may be rats out there.

I suppose there’s a chance that time will take the edge off of the composting. But it’s been six months, and it’s still scary.  I get the value of composting, like I get the value of carrots, and math. And being forced to compost has made me a lot more mindful about not cooking excess food–which may, ultimately, be the real benefit of composting.  So I’ll continue to compost.

But no one, not even the City of Portland, can force me to like it.

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34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ashleigh #

    I had no idea Portland instituted this forced practice. Mandatory composting is the one and only thing that makes me hesitant to move back to Portland. The idea of composting is nice, but the reality is disgusting. And the maggot issue – can’t handle that. While I brag about living a pretty green lifestyle (I’m like a friggin eco-angel compared to most Californian’s green standards), composting is where I draw the line. Smells + rotting + growing bacteria + possible critters = I’M OUT.
    Good luck to you, Yoona!

    October 19, 2012
    • it’s mandatory but apparently a lot of people have stopped and are just paying for extra trash disposal. which just goes to show how awesome i am for continuing to compost

      June 5, 2013
  2. PDXmisty #

    I found your post while searching the internet to see if the creepy crawlies in my compost roller bin were indeed maggots. It is bad. They covered the top and inside of the lid and inside walls…then I realized they were “leaping” from the lid to the ground *right where I was standing* and slugging their way down my driveway. This is PROOF that my husband did not put the bin by the curb last week. I keep trying to tell him it isn’t about whether or not it’s FULL. Anyway, I’m happy it’s in mine and not yours–you probably would have thrown up and then promptly fainted, haha.

    After more internet searching, I found this article (http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Yucky-but-useful-Maggots-make-compost-3275776.php#page-1) that reassured me that the larvae in my compost were *most likely* black soldier fly larvae, which apparently are the best flies to have. The larvae eat like crazy, ultimately reducing the waste by 95%, but more incredibly, eliminates the odor of the compost. They start to migrate (i.e., crawl out of the bin) once they are ready to mature into Black Soldier Flies. Usually the birds get to them before the become flies. These flies are ideal, though, since they (a) only live for 7 days, (b) don’t eat anything, and (c) aren’t attracted to human homes.

    Let’s assume you DON’T have the creepy crawlies that I have (which I doubt you do since you use those spendy compostable bags). There are a few sure-fire ways to make your counter top compost AND roller bin less scary: sprinkle your meal scarps with BAKING SODA and then cover it with dry things, like bread ends, paper, paper bags, cardboard, or white paper towels (YES, these are all okay to use, according to the city website: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/402972). Layer more when you go outside–make your hubby do this, perhaps, haha–and dump more baking soda in there. I like to hack away at the ivy or the blackberry bushes in the alley way a little at a time and add those as layers, too…but both of those force me to confront my very real fear of spiders. *shudder*

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment and that it is so delayed compared to when you wrote this. I hope my comment doesn’t force you to relive your maggot fears for too long today. Take care!

    October 1, 2012
    • my response is somewhat delayed, but this comment was engrossing. i also appreciate your thorough researching. the only thing that makes the movement in my composting can bearable is that it is somewhere far down in the bottom. if it was anywhere near the lid i would seriously have a heart attack and possibly also move

      June 5, 2013
  3. the-lady #

    I hate to admit this — I’m sure it’s not allowed — but I have poured LARGE quantities of bleach into my yard debris bin. And even that doesn’t really kill the smell. Although it calms my fears that aerosolized flesh-eating bacteria are mutating down in the muck.

    July 23, 2012
  4. Thank you Simon of Sweet and Weak for telling me about you. Fellow Portlander. Love the composting. Have a cute little composter ceramic trash can looking thing from Market of Choice instead of what the city gave us b/c the lid was bugging me. I’m very concerned about fruit flies in my kitchen since it appears we will have summer this year.

    Also pisses me off that the city tells people they can only have garbage service every other week. What the hell? If I want to have garbage, I’ll have garbage. I was down to every other week anyway but people should still have the choice.

    May 17, 2012
    • maggie, yes it appears we will have summer this year, but i sense an early winter. like, july or thereabouts. because nothing comes for free. and having choices is so 90s. i love sweet and weak, and am happy it brought you here.

      May 18, 2012
  5. Michele #

    I really can’t believe you got through talking about the Portland composting program while only using one swear word. Good on you Yoona.

    May 15, 2012
  6. I can definitely relate to the composting technique of move fast, don’t breathe, don’t look… Please tell me the indoor bin came with a lid. Please.

    May 15, 2012
    • are composting bins without lids even legal?? i am stressed out even thinking about the concept.

      May 18, 2012
  7. Holy moley! I thought I was a raging liberal. But FORCE me to compost, and I might become a right-winger.

    I know it’s the right thing to do, but I’ve never done it. Heck, I just started recycling a year ago when we moved to a community that has curbside recycling.

    I really do feel your pain.

    May 12, 2012
    • i hear mandatory composting is sweeping the nation, joan. so brace yourself.

      May 18, 2012
  8. As a Scandinavian (Swedish to be more precise) I have to say that the comments coming out of the US in relation to some of your politics (and now composting) are a bit hilarious.

    Also, starting to compost as a a young child we were thought of the ways on how to make the compost smell less and how to re-use the output from it. Now a days we have many refined ways to dispose of the items for the compost, so it is pretty much like taking out the trash no additional pain or smell included. So hang in there, it will get better, and imagine all the good you are making for the nature and your children’s future 😉

    May 9, 2012
    • well we americans find ikea pictograms and swedish fish to be hilarious, so we’re even. although i suspect swedish fish are actually a japanese invention. i want to fast forward a few decades and get some of that swedish composting technology into my house!

      May 18, 2012
  9. Portlandia #

    My husband bought a composter 5yrs ago and I was gung ho. I now “steal” leaves in the fall from my neighbors to have enough dry material for the year-storage of said stolen material is another story. My cute compost bucket now lives outside as even routine cleaning w/ noxious chemicals can not get the odor out. I am tired of nearly passing out from holding my breath everytime I open the composter or yard debris can. I will continue to use the composter for bigger stuff that can go out in the moment, but am thankful I still have a garbage disposal. I’m certain they will be outlawed in the near future.

    May 9, 2012
    • this makes me laugh. stealing leaves from a neighbor to obtain dry material for composting is SO PORTLAND. keep doing what you do.

      May 18, 2012
  10. oh boy – the city has just announced that our community will be doing exactly what you are doing and to think I was excited – no more dumping scraps down the disposal – all your scraps in one bin and they take it away – I gave no thought to the maggots! I guess you can say I’m in la la land, we haven’t received our bins yet and I thought they would be some kind of magic bins that kept the smell and the maggots away – lol!

    May 9, 2012
    • perhaps the maggots were a figment of my imagination. you may not get any maggots. i must say i am heartened to hear that my fear of maggots is not unique to me.

      May 18, 2012
  11. Darcie #

    In addition to the bags, you might want to look at the Good Ideas Composting Bucket. It comes in stainless steel and bamboo. It is so cute, will look great on the countertop. They sell them at New Seasons. Trust me, cute as a composting button.

    May 9, 2012
    • i will look for them at my new seasons! thanks darcie.

      May 18, 2012
  12. I heard about the great composting experiment from one of my friends who works for the city fo portland. but ewwwwwwwww Maggots, like you I disliked them from a young age maggots and earwigs. I would say get a bungie cord to keep the vermin out, it might help, BUT it also slows down the opening up the bin process.
    My parents composted in a worm bin so it was never so bad.

    May 9, 2012
    • worms are just as bad as maggots. worms and maggots. i just got the willies in a very bad way.

      May 18, 2012
  13. portland sounds heavenly. stinky, but heavenly.

    we don’t compost in our current apartment, but one tip i picked up in the past is to layer wet with dry. could you cover the previous dumpings in the green bin with shredded paper or cardboard? e.g. the stuff that’s touched food and thus unsuitable for the blue recycling bin? it’ll at least hide the maggots…

    May 9, 2012
    • i have heard the layering tip from a few people. but i don’t think you can put any paper or cardboard in there except napkins/paper towels and pizza boxes. but still, good idea.

      May 18, 2012
  14. Claire #

    In Camden (London), we have composting too BUT you can use these great bio-degradable/compost able bags. They are probably gallon size and you keep a small one on your counter and you can tie it up and empty it into the big one outside… MUCH less scary. Here they sell them in the supermarket. Maybe somewhere there sells them too???

    May 9, 2012
    • claire, the damn bags! everyone is commenting that I should get the bags. but i already use the bags, religiously, and they sometimes make the situation worse because the scraps will dump out without the liner, and then i have to peel the liner out separately. all precious moments in which I am standing over that open bin.

      but as a friend pointed out on my FB page, I haven’t been tying the bag when I dump the pail out, and apparently that is the critical piece. i am excited about this new development.

      May 9, 2012
      • We had this program introduced where I live in 2008. If you tie the bags and layer with newspaper or grass clippings you should have less issues!

        May 10, 2012
  15. Love. I hate maggots. And flies. And when the maggots turn into flies and then they fly out of the bin at your face like ‘swoosh’. Can you imagine being the waste disposal person whose job it is to collect these? They must have a strong stomach. I’d yarf.

    May 9, 2012
    • i did not realize that maggots turn into flies. and now i’m panicked that there are maggots in my car

      May 9, 2012
      • :O

        sorry…

        May 9, 2012
      • hallerwoman #

        looks like that new car is coming sooner than expected

        May 9, 2012

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