How we created a vertical composting system for our small outdoor space

At the beginning of 2016, the feeling the responsibility of being role models to our wild things (kids) seemed to weigh heavier than usual. So we decided to challenge ourselves and see if we could live our values. We started by focusing on our sustainability values. My husband and I used to claim we cared deeply for the environment, but I don’t believe sustainability was a deciding factor in our purchasing decisions. Could we really live as a middle class family in medium density suburbia in Melbourne sustainably without the luxury of plenty of disposable income or land…or time? Well, we were going to find out.

We started by swapping to reusable nappies. In fact, upon discovering the zero waste concept, I realised I could eliminate the need for wet wipes by making reusable ones that could be washed along with the nappies. This reduced the content of our landfill bin by about 70%. The remaining trash composed of organic food waste so we embarked on a quest to get to zero by changing what, where and how we bought our food (which is a topic for a different post) and taking responsibility for processing our food waste.

This was quite a challenge for us because we live in a townhouse with a 20 square meter deck and 2.5 square meter sandpit in the suburbs of Melbourne. We don’t have any earth to work with, we don’t have a lot of space to spare and I wanted to make sure we only used natural materials, so no plastic. I wasn’t sure how far I could live without plastic, but I wanted to find out.

Vertical composting system for small outdoor spaces.

I watched a video about food security and urban gardening in which the speaker said we shouldn’t wait for the experts to figure it out. Instead she encouraged her audience to start with open source technology, experiment and share our learnings with others so that they may build upon the body of work. I thought that was a great way to articulate what we were trying to achieve with our zero waste compost system. We lovingly called it The Wise Old Elf, after a character in one of our son’s favourite shows, and it was based on open source technology from India. The company is called Daily Dump. They created a compost system called the Khamba, using three stacked terracotta pots so the footprint is small enough to fit on the balcony of an apartment. Perfect for the small amount of space we had beside the sandpit. You can download the How To sheet here. You can put all your food waste into this system including meat. We added worms because they produce better compost for the garden. This system does not need any further investment or special bacteria that you have to keep buying.

How to make a vertical composting system

We took the kids with us when we bought the pots. Our son often helps my husband “feed” The Wise Old Elf. But it didn’t work perfectly from the start. It took months to get the ratio of dried materials to wet compost right. Eventually my husband discovered a place nearby where he could collect free mulch and that really helped soak up the moisture and allow the compost to breathe which, importantly, avoids anaerobic digestion. So no stinky smell and no release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times worse than CO2.

My son getting up close to the wriggly worms.

Over time we found that we were generating quite a lot of compost. Production was bolstered by our shift away from packaged food to whole foods. We acquired a large terracotta pot that functioned as the fourth stage to our compost process where the compost could mature and be kept until we needed it for the garden. Since then the setup has been working really well for us.

Looking back at this process we realised we couldn’t kid ourselves that there are shortcuts to being a sustainable household. We are having to learn all about the inputs and the outputs of our household. What inputs are made from informs durability and how we manage waste, where inputs come from informs carbon miles and manufacturing/farming processes inform environmental impact and ethics.

Taking the lifecycle approach has meant commiting time and effort to sift through all the things we buy and consume. Conscious consumption is the antithesis of instant gratification! All of a sudden, the convenient food that we eat and the trendy clothes that we wear do not define us as busy, important and successful. Now we define what we want to put our time into, what we want to nourish our bodies and the type of impact we want to have on our world. Now when our son asks to buy a plastic or single-use item, we ask him how we should deal with it when it has reached the end of its life and he can use his experience with The Wise Old Elf to make a decision.

Unfolding before us is an ever expanding list of household sustainability projects to tackle as we learn about what it means to really live up to our sustainability values. Our garden could do with a bit more love. Our water consumption is troubling given the washing of reusable nappies and the constant ever increasing pile of dirty kids clothes and dishes. We are working on it.

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