Your Compost Will Not Attract Vermin, Take Over Your Apartment or Produce Toxic Fumes

Recent arguments against composting don’t stand up to evidence or experience

Photo: GPL

Environmentally conscientious New Yorkers will soon be able to compost their organic food scraps without walking 20 minutes to the nearest Green Market or tending to a bucket of worms to create their own homegrown soil. Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he’s implementing a food composting program in the city. Like regular garbage and recyclables, the city will offer curbside pick-up of compostable food scraps such as banana peels, coffee grinds and wilted veggies.

Not everyone is on board, however. Some New Yorkers cite a fear of hypothetical vermin. The New York Post, for example, reports:

Skeptical city residents say Mayor Bloomberg’s new food-waste-recycling program is a great idea — if you’re a rat.

“Recycling, in general, takes a lot of effort,” said Geneva Jeanniton, 22, a hairstylist from East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

“People have to be willing to do it. We might not have room for compost inside. It’s difficult to make space for, and pests are definitely a concern.”

Of course, those organic scraps currently wind up in the garbage anyway. The New York Post doesn’t explain why they would be more likely to attract vermin stored on a separate container rather than in the trash bin. And while it’s true that following environmental regulations can be annoying, that’s not exactly a reason to discount them. Most would likely agree that the Clean Water and Air Acts, for example, were a good thing. 

Space is another complaint that comes up, but compost advocates say it’s also a flimsy excuse. Even the most crowded New York apartment is garunteed to have space for a small bag of scraps, whether in the freezer, under a sink, in the back of a closet or on top of the shelves. Rebecca Louie, aka the Compostess, is a certified composter who helps New Yorkers deal with their greatest fears about composting (as in, producing their own compost rather than just putting their scraps out on the curb for the city to conveniently deal with). Most of people’s worries, she told Edible Magazine, are completely unfounded in reality: 

“Whether you have a penthouse or a studio, I will find a space in your space where you can start doing this,” she says.

calmly alleviates her clients’ fears about odors (save for the occasional “gentle onion breeze,” composting done right only produces perfumes of “beautiful earth”) and cockroaches (they can’t invade so long as the bin is properly sealed).

“Things can be done to prevent whatever people’s greatest fears are,” she says. “Like a personal trainer or accountant, I know that every client has his or her own schedule, set of needs, concerns and degree to which they want to engage with their compost system.”

Meanwhile, a research team raised eyebrows with results showing that a number of fungal species, including some that could be harmful to humans, turn up in compost made of rice, sugar cane and coffee, mixed with livestock poop. Of course, unless you’re mixing livestock poop in with your lunch, this study doesn’t really apply to NYC composters. That doesn’t stop some from worrying though. Here’s Inkfish:

Although the composts De Gannes studied weren’t quite what New Yorkers would be collecting in their kitchens—unless they’re keeping pet sheep too—some of the potentially dangerous fungi she found have also turned up in studies of all-plant compost.

Keeping a compost bucket in an enclosed space is “potentially risky,” Hickey and De Gannes wrote in an email. Fungal spores floating on the air can cause infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems. “Compost kept in an enclosed area like a small apartment would probably not have adequate ventilation.”

What Inkfish doesn’t mention is that these fungal samples were collected after the compost sat around for 82 days – a bit longer than the week or less that it will take the city to come collect your scraps.

So far, the thousands of people who already create their own compost in enclosed apartments do not seem to have fallen victim to a bout of eye and lung infections. And the residents of the cities of San Francisco and Portland, where compost pick up has long been offered by the city, haven’t complained much.

And if you’re really paranoid about fungus you’ve got some options. Simply freezing the scraps can alleviate any fears of fungal attack, and compost bins can also be installed alongside buildings’ garbage and recycling containers in the basement or on the curb, as they are on the West coast.

Plus, composting has some environmental benefits to consider: when organic matter decays in tightly packed, oxygen-poor landfills, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas around 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Every day, New York produces around 12,000 tons of organic waste. Is putting a bag of wilted lettuce into a compost pick-up bin next to your garbage really so much to ask?

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