No backyard, no problem. You can still recycle your food waste – Science News

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Celia King grew up on a farm and hates the idea of food scraps going to waste.

Key points

  • There are a number of ways people living in apartments or limited backyard space can recycle food scraps
  • Food scrap recycling is not only good for the environment, it can even help you develop community networks
  • Your local council is a good place to start your research. Many now offer a range of services from subsidising worm farms or providing community compost bins to full food scrap collection

“I just can’t bear the idea of throwing out perfectly good food scraps into the bin, into landfill, when we can use those,” said Ms King, who lives in a small apartment block in Melbourne.

Food waste makes up a big chunk of general household rubbish that finds its way to landfill.

Not only does sending food waste to landfill cost the economy an estimated $20 billion a year, it produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas — when it rots.

Up to 80 per cent of people living in apartments don’t like food waste and would like to do something about it, said Jenni Downes of the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“The numbers of people who manage to set up a system that works, and then maintain that, drops quite dramatically. It depends on what services are available to them,” Dr Downes said.

“They don’t often own spaces where they can put the composted material so they have to negotiate, whether that’s with their building manager or their local areas or gifting it to friends and family.”

But there were a number of food scrap recycling options that can work at individual resident, whole apartment block, or local council levels, she said.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach — it will depend upon the location of the apartment, what’s around and what residents want to do, said Belinda Christie, who ran composting trials in conjunction with two Melbourne-based councils.

“You need to work out first why you want to compost.”

“Trying to work out the answer to that question will lead you to the correct technology and what you want to do with it,” Dr Christie said.

Going solo: Bokashi and mini worm farms

The two main options for dealing with food scraps in small apartments with limited or no balcony space are bokashi — which uses bacteria to ferment food scraps — and worm farms.

“You can get worm farms that are designed to be in kitchens, they’re designed to look okay and to be fairly well contained so your little guests don’t come out and visit the rest of your house,” Dr Downes said.

While you can put most things in a bokashi bucket, you should avoid putting items such as garlic, citrus, meat and dairy in a worm farm.

When Ms King moved into her flat in the block of 20 apartments she started with a worm farm on her balcony — but she made a fatal mistake.

“My balcony is north-facing and they cooked,” she said.

Ms King and her flatmate now use a two-bucket bokashi system.

“But you probably want some sort of dirt nearby to dig it into,” she said.

Unlike worm castings, which can be spread on top of pot plants and gardens, the bokashi waste needs to be dug in to the ground.

“We’ve actually got a little garden bed out the front of the apartment block so we dig it into that.”

One of her neighbours has also put a worm farm in a shaded area on a disused area on the south side of the block.

“Sometimes, if we’re full and the buckets aren’t finishing the process we’ll put the scraps into her worm bin,” Ms King said.

If you don’t have a patch of ground for your bokashi waste, worm castings or food scraps, you could also look into donating these to a community garden or someone who does have a compost bin.

Communal composting in apartment blocks

Running a worm farm in a common area, as Ms King’s neighbour found out, can be tricky.

“She found at one point in time [other residents] were putting things in that didn’t break down or would hurt the worms like garlic or citrus, and they were putting meat products in and she didn’t like the maggots and smell,” Ms King said.

But Dr Christie said communal worm farm trials run in conjunction with two Melbourne councils had proven to be very successful when everybody was onboard from the very beginning.

“Often we assume we need to have really motivated group of people to take this on board and to make it work, but if you give them a compost bin they’ll use it.

“There’s always issues around making sure it’s taken care of properly and there’s a manager to take care of it, but largely if you build it, they will come.”

The trials evaluated communal composting using either a closed loop system — a machine that effectively dehydrates food scraps — or worm farms.

Apartment blocks chosen for the trials ranged from low to high rise and involved owners and well as renters, students, and short-term accommodation.

“We actually found renters were just as engaged as non-renters were.

“And they were really craving that kind of not just way to dispose of their food waste, but that sort of community engagement that came along with the project.”

In effect, the worm farms acted as water coolers.

“We’d have these worm farm workshops and they’d shake their neighbour’s hand for the first time, introduce themselves and start talking to each other.”

Although the trials finished last year, all the apartment blocks in the trial continue to use worm farms, which have been paid for by the owners’ corporations. The worm castings and ‘tea’ are used on pot plants and communal gardens or donated to local community gardens.

Some councils provide subsidies for worm farms and compost bins. Others also offer workshops or know of community organisations that can help.

“It’s also useful to get support ready to go as soon as you need it,” Dr Christie advised.

“People are always worried about vermin or flies. A well-managed compost bin or worm farm won’t have any of those problems, but if it’s not managed properly, and you do have a bit of a problem, you know who to contact, you know where to go.”

Council food scrap collections

If wrangling a worm farm or compost sounds too hard then the next option is to see if your council has a food scrap collection program.

Some councils provide free buckets to put food scraps in for you to take to community garden compost bins. Others allow you to put food scraps in your green waste bin.

A third option is providing a dedicated on-site food scrap bin that is collected as part of the council’s general waste program and taken to either community gardens or commercial composting sites.

“The council provides the building with a food waste bin and residents are given little kitchen bench caddies, which they empty down into the bin like they do all their other waste.

“That’s fairly few and far between, but there are plenty of examples of it working. If there are enough residents saying ‘We want this’ then council will consider it,” Dr Downes said.

“Councils actually pay for landfill based on weight, so anything councils can do to get food out of their red bins benefits them greatly,” she said.

Some councils have selected apartments to participate, others also allow apartment blocks to join the scheme if their body corporate has agreed to participate.

The councils supply compostable bin liners to put the scraps in — some councils will also take food scraps wrapped in newspaper — and provide the pick-up for free.

Five years ago, Penny Stolp moved into a rented apartment in a medium-sized block in Sydney’s inner west that has a dedicated food scrap collection bin service.

“I was really thrilled the council was offering this service because you just don’t have the same options when you are in an apartment,” Ms Stolp said.

“It’s very, very easy.

And everyone in the block appeared to be using it correctly, she said.

“Paper and plastics get mixed up a bit more [in the other bins] but food waste seems to be the one thing people can keep straight in their minds about what should be there.”

Connecting to composting hubs

What if you have nowhere to put your bokashi or worm farm and your council doesn’t offer a food scrap collection service?

Raylyn Gonsalvez lives in an inner-city house in Melbourne. Although she does have a tiny backyard it is not suitable for worm farming or composting.

She has looked at a number of ways of disposing her food waste such as signing up to a food waste app to people in the local area who can use the scraps in their compost, worm farm or chicken run; taking her waste to put in the worm farm at work; and taking it to a community garden compost bin within walking distance of where she lives.

The community garden option turned out to be the easiest option for her.

“I contacted them and signed up to the program. Now we collect our scraps in a plastic container and go drop it off whenever we need to.”

Some councils run programs that provide residents with free caddies to take food scraps to their local community compost bins.

“People often don’t think of going to their local council to ask what’s around,” Dr Christie said.

“They always know where all the local community gardens are, or where the kindergartens are that might want some compost.”

A final word on food waste

Whether or not you have a backyard, there are a few easy tips that anyone can use to help reduce food waste right from the get go, Dr Downes said. They include:

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