Transforming food scraps into a nutrient-rich climate-change fighter is dependent on keeping it in the neighbourhood, according to the people behind a new composting initiative.
It’s sweet to chuck this apple core under that bush over there, right? It’ll return to the earth and nourish the soil… surely?
Sorry, but that’s not how compost works – to get nutrient-rich, “living” compost, a unique set of circumstances is needed to allow microorganisms to thrive. It’s not hard to learn how to do it, but it is a skill – a skill everyone used to have.
“There’s been so much knowledge lost over the last 150 years,” says Sarah Smuts-Kennedy. “There’s a massive knowledge gap, which is why our project looks at ways for people to begin their journey relearning and having fun. It’s really easy to become an expert.”
Composting, as Georgia Merton wrote in The Spinoff earlier this year, is more than just about growing your own food – it’s a key tool in the fight against climate change. Not only does composting divert waste from landfill – where it would break down without oxygen, producing methane – it also supports photosynthesis, which removes carbon from the atmosphere. Currently about half of what Auckland sends to landfill could be composted.
But, says Smuts-Kennedy, “not all compost is the same”.
“What we say to people is that if it doesn’t have a worm in it, it’s not living compost. We’re trying to train people – the organic matter’s not the critical part, it’s the microbiology that your plant requires. It’s the pooing and weeing of microbes that enables your plants to grow so they’re pest-resistant and strong. We need to be teaching people how to make really good-quality living compost.”
For the Love of Bees and composting company New Zealand Box were recently jointly awarded $50,000 from the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund to establish a compost hub at OMG. Comprising six compost boxes, it will take food scraps – or food resources, as Smuts-Kennedy says is a more apt description – from local residents and businesses, aiming to divert 20 tonnes from landfill over the next 12 months (and at the same time producing nutrient-dense food that those very residents and businesses can buy back).
Collaboration is key: in establishing the hub, the OMG team worked with experts in the field such as the Compost Collective, and the hub will now act as a teaching centre and a place to collect data to enable other compost hubs to be set up – the next one will be in the Viaduct.
Earlier this year Smuts-Kennedy launched the Urban Farmers Alliance with Christchurch urban farm Cultivate Christchurch and Kaicycle, which runs a compost collection service and urban farm in Wellington. “I knew we needed to start connecting with other communities who were also developing learning in this space,” she says. “We need to have a political voice, but also we need to learn together because even though there’s a will to farm this way, there’s a knowledge gap between being able to do that successfully and meet all the climate change-mitigation measures.”
The UFA is now mentoring 25 budding urban farmers, with more coming on board all the time, says Smuts-Kennedy, and composting is a big part of it. “You cannot have a climate change-ready urban farm without having a local living compost hub,” she says.
In recent months, Smuts-Kennedy and her collaborators have been fighting Auckland council’s plan for processing food waste, which they say will take the focus away from local living compost hubs like OMG. The council is investing in an anaerobic digester to process residents’ food waste collected at kerbside, for which $67 will be added to each household’s rates. Tender documents suggest they will be locked into a 20-year contract. (The kerbside collection has recently been delayed until at least 2021.)
“It would take only a third of the food scraps that we produce – about 50,000 tonnes – and truck it to a single operator, where it would be put through an anaerobic biodigester that essentially burns off the carbon and produces something very similar to urea, which is the very thing the government is saying to our farmers please stop using,” says Smuts-Kennedy. “What’s frustrating about that is that the very same amount of money – $700 million over 20 years – in a very quick space of time could train an enormous amount of people in communities to start taking those very food scraps and not using trucks.
“If we as a community are paying for a kerbside collection of our food scraps, we want to insist that it’s supporting local infrastructure, that it’s not being trucked out to be turned into either landfill or urea, that it’s actually being paid for to create this type of infrastructure in our urban spaces.”
While Smuts-Kennedy and her collaborators have not been able to stop the council investing in the digester, she says the possibility of it being used solely for commercial food waste was raised at a recent meeting.
“But that then poses the problem of who pays for that biodigester, because it’s not right for ratepayers to pay $67 per household per year to have it processing commercial waste – the commercial sector should pay for it. It wouldn’t be an ideal outcome, but it would be a better outcome.”
In the meantime, she’s encouraging people to have their say on the council’s Climate Action Framework, submissions for which close on 30 September. A draft submission form is available here, with templates collated from several climate action groups.