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Published in Slate, June 9, 2009
I recently moved back to the United States after a long stint in Berlin, and I’ve been suffering the effects of Euro nostalgia ever since. I miss the 1-yard-tall Hefeweizens, the civilized city biking, and the oddball 1980s haircuts. But what I find myself pining away for most regularly is how Berliners handle garbage. That’s right: garbage. In the German capital, sanitation goes far beyond the old trash-recycling binary—the city also collects organic matter (excluding meat) in “bio” bins and carts them away weekly for composting.
Although municipal authorities in San Francisco and Minnesota collect organic food waste, most U.S. cities recycle paper, plastic, glass, and metals, at most. I live in superliberal New Haven, Conn., where no politician would dare to cut city recycling, and even we don’t compost. If I want to go greener in the United States, that effort will be strictly DIY.
I resent having to do on my own what any green-minded city should do for me. But this year, urbanites across the States are hitting the mud patch:Michelle Obama’s mucking around her organic garden, and it’s a big eat-at-home, grow-your-own year for budget-conscious entertainers. So I’m hopping on the bandwagon by shopping for a no-fuss, urban-friendly composter.
Let’s first establish my nonexistent credentials: I’ve never composted before, and I don’t garden. I have no yen for getting dirty and no real use for the nutrient-rich dirt that results from the composting process. My priority is to recycle food waste—that’s all.
I’m not handy enough to make my own composter. I also ruled out open bins because they can attract rodents, pissing off your neighbors. Instead, I decided to focus on four smaller, ready-made composters, suitable for city dwellers with tiny backyards. Each composter could score a possible 35 points in the following categories:
Ease of use (10 points): The ideal composter should be easy to assemble and easy to maintain. It should also chomp a wide range of foodstuffs. (Not every model can handle meat, acidic foods, or pet waste.)
Greenness (5 points): Most people in the market for a composter are environmentally minded. So I subtracted points for composters produced from nonrecyclable materials or that arrived in lots of wasteful packaging.
Price (10 points): Why throw away money on pricey gadgets? A higher score in this category equals better value.
Yuck factor (10 points): Don’t make me run my fingers through half-rotten food, murmuring praises to Gaia. I want a composter that keeps me far from Mother Nature’s organic juices and smells.
The results, from trash to treasure:
Green Johanna Hot Composter, $285 What a brilliant name. I can imagine a man tearing open his Green Johanna package, half-hoping a leggy, recycling-minded Swede would pop out and make a giggly, nude dash for the backyard. While this fantasy is, sadly, just that, the Green Johanna does live up to the “green” part of its name: It’s made of 100 percent recycled plastic and is efficiently packaged.
Assembly is easy: Just remove the concentric rings from their package, then nail one to the next, working upward to build the Johanna’s cylindrical body. There’s a sort of cat door cut into its base (a hole with a plastic flap) where compost eventually spills out. Add the trash-can-like top, and your composter is complete.
The Green Johanna’s biggest plus is its promiscuity: You can compost anything in there. Meat, bones, eggs, citrus, paper products, and bread plus fruits, vegetables, and coffee grounds. Just layer in carbon-rich “brown” material (sawdust, leaves, twigs) over every deposit of nitrogen-rich “greens” (kitchen scraps, cut grass, weeds).
One potential downside is that the Green Johanna is a one-chamber composter. This means you have to wait for the entire batch to break down before harvesting any dirt. If you’re really eager to get compost, posthaste, a two-chamber model—which lets you harvest mature compost while adding fresh food scraps—might be better. And despite its market-ready name, I can’t help but think that the Green Johanna is just a big, overpriced trash can. Sure, its top locks nicely, fending off vermin, and the trapdoor fits snugly. But couldn’t someone just slightly handier than I jury-rig a similar contraption with a can and a hacksaw?
Ease of use: 7
Yuck factor: 7
Total: 21 (out of 35)
Sun-Mar 200 Composter, $319
The Sun-Mar is a cinch to assemble: It’s just a matter of attaching the drum to two supports and adding wheels if you want your composter to be mobile.
On the first day, I slid open a door in the drum and dropped in some dry leaves, coffee grounds, and chopped-up citrus. (Like the Green Johanna, the Sun-Mar 200 eats browns mixed with greens; also like the Johanna, it will eat almost anything.) I gave it a spin, and suddenly juice and bits of coffee leaked out the sliding door, spraying the lawn below. It was mildly disgusting, but after the mixture dried out I stopped having this problem. (And I knew to jump clear the next time I added juicy scraps.) The Sun-Mar is a clever, two-chamber model that lets you harvest compost as you go. But it has two strikes against it. First, it’s a bit labor intensive: You need to spin it twice weekly to aerate the mixture. Second, it’s made of all-virgin plastic. (The manufacturer claims this yields a more rugged, longer-lasting product—likely true but still not very green.)
Ease of use: 7
Yuck factor: 7
Total: 22 (out of 35)
NatureMill PRO Edition, $399
The NatureMill PRO, which looks like a CPU tower, is a finicky eater. Bones and peach and avocado pits are strictly forbidden, while acidic foods like citrus, tomatoes, and grapes are allowed only in limited quantities. But—and here’s the real advantage of this composter—it’s automated. Powered by about 10 watts of electricity per month, the NatureMill mixes your scraps every four hours. Such steady aeration and low heat accelerates the composting process. Just two to three weeks later, when your food scraps are well-chewed, you press a button, and compost sifts into the bottom chamber, which you can slide out and dump into your backyard.
Automation doesn’t come cheap—but if you crave efficiency or lack space outdoors, this composter could be for you. It’s made largely of recycled materials, and its electricity use is negligible, so it scores well on the green scale. It’s also easy to use and has a good filter that soaks up odors.
Ease of use: 8
Yuck factor: 8
Total: 25 (out of 35)
The Green Cone System, $185
Unlike the other composters I’ve reviewed, the Green Cone produces no harvestable dirt, just water and carbon dioxide. For gardeners, that’s a drawback, but for everyone else, that’s a plus, because after a bit of upfront work, you don’t need to lift a finger.
The first step is digging a hole in an area with decent drainage. Then you insert a slotted basket, attach the cone (which both absorbs heat and circulates air inside), heap dirt back over the sides, and screw on the lid. Finally, you dump your kitchen scraps in the basket and wait for the worms and bugs in your yard to crawl through the basket’s holes, decomposing the food.
After this admittedly lengthy setup, you can forget all about your compost. There’s no need to aerate the mixture or watch moisture levels. And since the Green Cone eats only kitchen scraps (greens), there’s no need to do yardwork for gathering browns. It’s basically an organic Dumpster: Just toss scraps in the basket whenever you feel like it. (Making sure, of course, that it doesn’t overflow.) The Green Cone can get mildly smelly. But as long as you don’t stick your face down the cone, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
All in all, the Green Cone is the best bet for anyone who wants to dispose of food scraps in an environmentally conscious way but doesn’t want to put any thought into the process from week to week. It’s as close to Berlin-style effortless composting as you’ll get on this side of the Atlantic.
Ease of use: 9
Yuck factor: 7
Total: 28 (out of 35)