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The Compost Chronicles

The City of Portland has started a composting pilot project. The city is giving 2,000 homes and small businesses plastic compost buckets, the size of a large flower pot, to fill with food waste.

 Metro compost bin
 A compost bin in Northeast Portland

The city will then collect the contents on a regular basis to add to a city-wide compost heap. Sam Sanders, who has been visiting OPB on a National Public Radio fellowship, had his doubts about composting. So we asked him to dive right in.

When I saw the compost bin that OPB was given in the office, I had a lot of questions. Although I'm a native Texan, I was raised close to San Antonio, and consider myself a city boy.

And the last few years I've spent on the East Coast have allowed me to remain quite out-of-touch on matters of the Earth.

I must confess — I am not green. The first question I asked the office about the bucket was "Where's the deodorizer?"

Often, the extent of my conservation is turning the water off when I brush my teeth. If my food scraps aren't fit for the trash can, I don't compost them. Every now and then, I've been known to flush leftover food down the toilet.

My absolute terror, confusion, skepticism, and amusement with the compost bin rallied my co-workers to action. That same bucket was given to me as a gift, and I, the most un-green person in the office, was challenged to start composting myself.

I tried, for a week. Five days to start saving food for compost, learn how it all works, and contribute to a real, live compost heap. These are my compost chronicles.

Day 1:

"The first items for entry in my Portland compost beautiful tan bucket are some old tortilla chips and I've got some leftover Thai, and because I'm really scared of bad scents, I'm going to throw in two dryer sheets, that's right."

Day 2's contribution was some leftover whole grain oatmeal and an apple core.

"Alright I'm gonna open this up. And, it smells pretty bad. Oh God. OOOHHH. It smells awful. God that stinks. This can't be right."

Luckily, I got some help from from coworkers Eve Epstein and July Sabatier.

"Day 3, in the OPB office. I've been reduced to collecting food scraps from the office staff. "

"Hey Sam, so I'm eating an orange, but I was very impressed. When you saw me eating an orange, you ran right up to me and asked me to save it for compost. So there you are — you're becoming a concientsious composter."

"Hi Sam. I have a pear core from this pear that I had with my lunch today. Happy composting. It's not happy yet, but we'll see if it picks up."

When I got home, I had to add all of this to my bucket. "I've opened up the compost bin. Uggghhh, it smells really bad. Yeah, I'm just gonna close it up and hope for the best. Ahh. This has to get better, it can not get any worse."

"Alright, this is Day 4. All I have is a banana peel, courtesy of some think out loud staff. It's a ilttle better, some of the citrus is hitting, but still not desirable. And I've closed it."

I needed help. I sought out a compost expert from the Metro regional government.

 Worm Bin
 Carl Grim's Metro office worm bin

"My name is Carl Grim. Natural Gardening and Toxic Reduction Planner."

I told him what I had been throwing in the bin:

"Apple cores. Fine. Pear cores. Yeah. Orange rinds., Great, Perfect. A coworker gave me some fallen plant leaves from her office plant. Great. Oatmeal. Uuhhhmm. Leftover Thai food. Not a good idea. I dropped in two bounce dryer sheets, into my bin, because I didn't want it to smell bad. I'm guessing that's a no-no. Yeah, probably."

He then told me the basics of composting, much more than I found in my initial Wikipedia search.

"The easy one, two, three is chop materials up as much as you can to speed the process. Mix the brown materials with the green materials. And maintain the moisture damp as a wrung out sponge."

Also, you can't compost meats, oils or grains. The list is pretty specific, but still surprising.

"Yeah fruits and vegatables, and coffee grounds. Even egg shells, coffee filters, tea bags and tea."

As I started to head out, I was hopeful that I might be able to turn things around. But, just before I got out the door, things got weird.

"I actually have a worm bin in my cube, a small one. You actually have a worm bin in your office? You wanna see it? I SO wanna see it?"

Some composters use worms to help break the food down, and use the worm droppings as fertilizer. He walked me to his cube to show me. I'll admit, I was a little scared. But it was actually pretty amazing.

"Oh wow. It doesn't smell bad. It smells a lot better than my compost bin. It smells like a forest."

I got a crash course in worm-assisted composting:

"And so these little specks on the newspaper, they're droppings?"

"Yep, they're worm castings. This little yellow thing is a worm cocoon, and that's where the baby worms will come out of. Several little baby worms will come out of."

And I had some questions:

"Now how do your cubicle buddies feel about this going on right next door to them. When did this start, office composting? Who thought of this? And said this will be a good idea. Let's have a box of worms in our office."

The wonderment did not go away:

"It smells so good! If you made this a cologne, I would wear it! It is amazing. It's great. I love compost."

The last step, on Day 5, was to contribute to an actual compost heap. My coworker, Kevin Mooney, allowed me to go to his home in Northeast Portland and make a compost deposit.

 Sam's Compost
 Sam's circle of life is complete

He had a big, black heavy duty compost bin in his back yard, with vents, a twist stop, and the words "earth monster" on the lid.

"So my personal dream for this week of composting would be to share what I brought with the Earth, by virtue of adding it to a compost heap. It's kind of symbolic for me. It's like a baptism."

I was more excited than I thought I would be.

"Banana peel in. Orange rind, in. Random leaves. Pear core. Apple core. Another apple core. And a pear core. I added dryer sheets, I didn't want it to smell. So that Thai food and the oatmeal will stay in."

"So I've kinda gone full circle now. The circle of life."

And that's it. I know how to compost. Will I keep it up? Well, I don't have a lawn, and I've noticed over the last week that I don't eat or cook nearly enough fresh produce to make a dent. So this may be it. My nose thanks me.

Sam Sanders visited OPB on a fellowship from NPR. Wednesday is his last day in Portland. We'll miss him and we wish him the best.

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