Out of the bin and Back in the ground

As a child, I grew up in a world where our household rubbish was magically taken away in a garbage truck. I remember my brothers’ excitement at the weekly event featuring a truck, its driver and the two men who stood on the back of the truck. The two men would jump on and off the stand on the back of the truck. They would throw the rubbish placed carefully in a bin on the kerbside from each house into the truck. Growing up, household kerbside collections evolved. Bins got bigger, and waste collection was mechanised.

A consequence of our waste collection system is that many of us just don’t think about waste. We buy, consume what we want, and dispose of what we don’t use in our household bins or at other facilities. How often do we stop and think, where does this go? Are we recovering enough? Can we do more?

For too long, our consumption has been mindless. We just don’t stop and think about waste. However, this started to change for many Australians when the ABC aired War on Waste. We needed to be shown. We need to see what we individually pile up and what is happening to the waste we mindlessly throw away.

If we had to dispose of our waste, if we saw it mounting up, and if the damage delivered by waste was more visible to more of us, would we be so mindless?

There is no doubt the work I do, changes me. My composting journey is an outcome of my work. In the past five years I have worked on reducing household food waste in a project funded by Redland City Council. I have supervised two PhD students Dr Jeawon Kim and Aarti Seewak. Jeawon worked on food waste and Aarti is currently working on composting. After helping to deliver the two week intensive Tackling Marine Pollution through Recycling short course, I was moved to act. Maybe I could change the way I consume and cut back on packaging, start composting and more. 2020 began with the resolve to give composting a go.

In earlier project work, we had run co-design sessions. In this work composting was indicated by many people as a solution they would support. A key concern was the smell.

Many people in a workshop listening to a speaker standing out in front of them.
People collaborating at a table with sheets of paper.

When I started my composting journey, I had no idea what to do. I started with Google. This is what I learned.

1. Make sure you have brown and green matter.

2. The ratio that works best for me here in Brisbane is two parts brown to every one part of green. I am told one part brown to one part green can be better in other parts of Australia.

A close up of dead leaves filling up a wheelbarrow.

Brown materials

  • Small sticks (no bigger than your hand)
  • Fallen leaves
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Egg cartons
  • Straw and hay
  • Shredded paper
  • Dry grass
  • Wood ash

Green materials

  • Coffee grounds
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Green tree clippings (cut to finger size)
  • Bush trimmings
  • Old flowers
  • Animal hair
  • Human hair
  • Old flower bouquets

3. Pile it up. It doesn’t really matter how it all piles up. One big pile, lots of little piles or you can build or repurpose wooden crates to have your own holding bays.

A pile of dead leaves.

4. If you want to speed up the rates to get your compost faster, three things really help:

a) Water your compost pile

b) Make sure your pieces are small, e.g. shred or mow them

c) Turn the pile. I found a large, wide turning fork made this easy.

A mound of dirt and dead leaves.

5. When your compost is broken down to a level, you are happy with pop it straight onto your garden or dig it in.

6. Enjoy your garden. You will see an extra flush of green, colourful flowers, and other action in no time.

A close up of a plant in a garden.

Listening to people’s fears about composting during the research we were conducting, I had low expectations for composting. I just wasn’t sure what I was in for. I was totally surprised. There were no or very few bad smells. It is all in the ratio of brown to green. If you get enough brown matter into your pile and throw your kitchen scraps into the pile regularly, there are no bad smells.

I would encourage anyone who has a back yard to use some space – a back corner can do – and to start composting. Over the last year, I have learned we let so much go when we pile it up in our bins. When you think about it, it’s crazy. I now have a ridiculously oversized bin with less than a shopping bag size of waste in a good week. I should have been doing this years ago!

Written by Prof. Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, Founding Director, Social Marketing @ Griffith.

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