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24 Mar, Friday
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Montreal Families

The real dirt on composting

Ever wondered about the nitty-gritty of composting, like can you do it year-round and does it smell bad? One Montreal mom shares her experience turning kitchen scraps and fall leaves into dirt.

Back in the mid-1980s, I vividly remember my enthusiasm for our municipality’s new curbside recycling program. The rest of my family watched, bemused, while I fished their soup cans and milk cartons out of the garbage, rinsed them out, removed labels and put them in our new blue bin. I remember telling my skeptical dad that recycling was more than some doomed fad destined to waste our tax dollars.

The world is a different place in 2008, and now few of us can imagine thoughtlessly throwing our newspapers and cardboard boxes into the garbage when recycling facilities exist. But it is probably appropriate that taking the next step in reducing my family’s ecological footprint should come from my own children.

Last winter, my childrens’ school had a daylong program that focused on the environment, which prompted us to organize a trip to the Biosphere, Montreal’s wonderful (and often overlooked) environmental museum. My then 8-year-old twins spent the whole day seething over “the mess the planet was in.” That night, as I tucked them into bed, they asked if we could put a compost bin in our backyard.

Although this was something I had contemplated numerous times, my first thought was “Ugh.” I’d heard rumours of smelly, unsightly and fly-ridden compost heaps, and didn’t relish one in our backyard. I thought about making trips out in the rain and snow to dump our carrot peelings, leftover noodles and onion skins, or trying to convince my three kids to do that chore. But I promised to consider it.

Fast-forward to the spring. On a trip to our local garden centre, the twins, Alex and Sophie, pointed out the compost boxes. Most were giant black plastic tubs that were less than aesthetically pleasing, not to mention expensive. But when I asked the staff for 10 bags of compost, my girls looked at me askance, their 9-year-old eyebrows raised. It did seem kind of silly to be paying for something we could easily generate ourselves.

So we went straight to our public works department in the city of Cote St. Luc, where the exact same compost bins were available at a subsidized cost. I loaded one into the car, and my girls and I pledged to begin exploring the joys of decomposing organic matter. My husband watched us unload it from the car, shaking his head in cynical amusement. As far as he was concerned, composting was a waste of time, unlikely to accomplish anything significant.

Several months later, I can put to rest some common concerns about composting. First of all, don’t get bogged down in the literature that details differences in things like green versus brown matter and extolls the importance of periodically aerating your compost bin (that means mixing up the heap with a shovel). Composting, I can reassure you, is dead easy and requires zero intellectual ability.

While I’m sure some folks carefully balance the material they add to the heap, we’ve mostly tossed in the tons of vegetable and fruit matter that comes out of our kitchen, along with eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags. Weeds and clippings from the garden go in to the compost, as do the leaves that have been falling from the trees. I do stir the heap with an old garden hoe every once in a while, when it occurs to me, but this certainly does not happen twice a week.

I can also vouch for the fact that there is absolutely no smell whatsoever coming from our compost pile, possibly because we’ve been very careful to exclude the meats, fats and dairy products we were warned to avoid. I do, however, throw in all the dog and cat fur that comes off when we brush our pets; I’ve been told this keeps any neighbourhood animals away.

The only hitch is that my girls are reluctant to carry the kitchen waste to the bin. Turns out that a very successful fruit fly breeding program is taking place on our compost pile. You don’t notice anything until you open the lid, when clouds of the tiny brown insects float out. They don’t bite but that many of any kind of bug is admittedly off-putting. I’ve been told that putting a layer of leaves or newspaper down on top of each addition of kitchen waste will help, but we aren’t organized enough to have that at the ready.

The kids do, however, find it cool to watch our garbage turning into the rich black compost we will put on next year’s vegetable garden. And 5-year-old Maya is fascinated by the numerous slugs that seem to have made the plastic container into their own activity centre.
In late September, Cote St. Luc became one of the first boroughs on the island to debut its citywide curbside compost pickup. This means that we can now also throw out the items our backyard compost bin can’t accommodate: animal waste, meats, dairy products and fats, as well as those soiled pizza boxes that couldn’t be recycled.

There is a surprising satisfaction in this transformation of our organic waste. I take a bizarre pleasure in watching our kitchen collection bin fill up with items that would otherwise have been tossed into the garbage or the sink disposal, making us feel like environmental advocates every time we make a vegetable soup and save the peels.

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