The composting kings

With International Compost Awareness Week kicking off this month, gardening editor Alice Whitehead meets the green waste warriors sharing essential composting skills with their communities.

The composting kings

When keen gardener Clare Garratt tidied her small garden in Bisley, Gloucestershire, she was always frustrated that the clippings and prunings would end up in the rubbish bin.
Although she diligently recycled her kitchen scraps, there was only so much her small compost bin could contain. That was until the villagers took matters (and mulch) into their own hands.
Since 2005, the village's allotments have been home to the Bisley Community Composting Scheme (BCCS) where, for £25 a year, residents can bring their unwanted green waste such as leaves, lawn mowings and small branches, and have it turned into a beautiful soil conditioner for their plots and gardens. The materials are sorted and shredded, and then layered into six bins where the aerobic composting process starts. Every four months the volunteers sieve out large items such as twigs and stones, and once it's ready it's bagged up into 30-litre bags.
Now more than 150 families in the village use the scheme, returning valuable nutrients to the soil, reducing landfill waste and helping to sequester carbon. 'My garden clippings used to go off with the weekly refuse collection and I hated the waste: I don't like to waste anything,' says Clare. 'I feel so lucky to have this amazing scheme on my doorstep.'

From scrap to soil

With landfill sites creating harmful methane emissions, not to mention the pollution caused by transporting the waste, community composting schemes are becoming increasingly important. They close the loop for organic waste, encourage the community to take responsibility for the environment at a local level, and the resulting compost helps to reduce peat use and thus preserves valuable habitats. The BCCS estimate their scheme saves approximately 1.8 tonnes of CO2 every year. 'It's a model of a circular economy,' says BCCS volunteer Lesley Greene. 'We convert a "waste problem" into a resource. We don't see it as waste and residents know it's their community resource that returns to them.'
And it's not just rural villages that can benefit from such a scheme. At Pop Up Compost in Tower Hamlets, East London, David Barraclough and a team of volunteers have been composting kitchen waste for more than five years from residents living in a densely occupied high-rise estate. In the corner of an urban orchard on the St George's estate just off Cable Street, residents drop off their waste and volunteers scoop it into various 'digesters' including a wormery, a hot box and a tumbler. Unlike standard composting, the latter employs a semi-anaerobic digestive system, which means the material is starved of oxygen and generates its own heat to start the transformative process.
In the best years, this urban scheme has recycled close to a half a tonne of raw waste, amounting to about 250kg finished compost which has gone into locally run vegetable and flower gardens. 'The objective is to awaken the public to the huge amount of potentially nutritious soil that is wasted every year in landfill and the long-term damage of incineration,' says David. 'Composting is immensely important.'

Masters of mulch

A big part of the community composting ethos is education. Lesley is one of 500 people across the country who has trained as a 'master composter', in association with Garden Organic, and runs free workshops for groups, schools and individuals, who want to learn more about the skills of composting.
'We run 11 master composter programmes across the country delivering training and support for volunteers who take their skills into people's homes,' adds David Garrett, sustainable communities manager at Garden Organic in Warwickshire. 'In many areas, it's not practical for the council to collect waste, so we can go in and show people how to do it for themselves.'
The ultimate aim is simply to encourage more people to give composting a go. 'Gardening books often have so many rules associated with composting that it puts people off,' says David. 'Our advice is to make it as easy as possible for yourself. So have the compost bin near the house, keep a good mix of browns (paper and cardboard, twiggy prunings, and eggshells) and greens (grass clippings and vegetable scraps) and be led by your nose. If it smells awful, it generally means you have too much of one and not enough of the other, or there's not enough air circulating.'
Bisley villager Clare has got so hooked on composting that she now volunteers at the BCCS on Saturday mornings. And while she might not get paid for her labour, she never leaves empty handed. 'As a volunteer I get to take home a bag of lovely sieved compost!' she says.

How to compost in your community
• Go to www.communitycompost.org to see if there is a composting scheme in your local area, get support from other experienced composters and download information.
• Find out more on composting via your local master composter, or train to become one via www.gardenorganic.org.uk.
• Contact your local council to see if they run a composting scheme or encourage them to start one! Many councils provide reduced price composting bins, tumblers, digesters, Bokashi bins and Green Johannas via www.getcomposting.com.

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