In Defense of Filth

In Defense of Filth

A compost evangelist explains why the stuff that powers our planet is anything but icky.

The first thing I learned when I started to compost is that decay is alive, and it is beautiful. My pile is filled with pill bugs, stink beetles, worms, and even tiny salamanders. Under a microscope, it’s positively luminous. Dozens of tiny creatures skip about, feasting and flitting, doing the enviable work of turning my trash into living, fertile soil. A handful of my compost, patted around the base of a growing vegetable plant, will cause it to bloom overnight, limbs raised and leaves spreading with new and incredible vigor. This has certainly reframed my experience of nature, and—candidly—the world.

A whole career shift to working with compost later (which has included everything from teaching classes and writing weekly about compost to running volunteer teams for my local community garden), it always surprises me how squeamish people can be when they even hear the word compost. "I don’t compost because it smells bad," somebody will tell me, confidently, having never attempted to compost before. "I would compost, but I don’t want to look at all that rotting food," says another friend, revealing that they don’t actually know what’s in compost. (Yes, there are food scraps, but also wood chips, leaves, and even flowers.) I have some version of this conversation every single week. It’s symptomatic of what I like to call the Ick Myth—the pervasive fear, held by many, that compost is "gross" and needs to be hidden. 

I don’t blame people for being fussy. Decades of "anti-bacterial" advertising and the importation of the English garden aesthetic have goaded us into thinking that dirt is bad and a universal health risk. These are aesthetic inclinations disguised as scientific principle, and both ignore a simple and fundamental truth about nature: everything rots. Rot is essential to nature; it’s what powers life. The continuous breakdown of organic matter is how nutrients are able to cycle back into the soil, and become available again for plants and animals. 

 I’m skeptical of any compost solutions that are "pretty" or even remotely expensive.

On a more practical level, many of the most common myths about compost’s "grossness" simply aren’t true. A well-maintained pile won’t smell, you can take a few simple measures to reduce animal visitors, and you won’t have to stare at your rotting food because making compost requires you to mix in all manner of other (perhaps prettier) materials, like twigs and leaves. Google "compost bin," though, and the Ick Myth prevails. You’ll see row after row of expensive and bulky devices that purport to make compost "clean," by isolating your pile from the ground and concealing it from your view. This approach is counterproductive for a few reasons. One, any good compost needs exposure to the earth and air, which helps mitigate odors and speed decomposition. Second—and this is really the key—any good compost needs your attention. It needs you to be able to look at it.

What do you see? What do you smell? Is the pile crumbly and dry? Is it slimy? These simple observations will help you make small adjustments to what you add to your pile and when you turn, helping you maintain it in an ideal state for decomposition. In this way, compost bins and tumblers often just make things harder for you. Binned-up compost is harder to see, harder to turn, and more likely to be forgotten. On the other hand, compost tumblers make turning so easy that I find most of the people I work with keep them permanently mentally filed under "something I can do later"—and never get around to actually doing it. In both cases, it’s tough to know when the compost is ready to use. Bin and tumblers also get overstuffed, leading to compaction, less airflow, and decreased decomposition rates.

As a rule, I’m skeptical of any compost solutions that are "pretty" or even remotely expensive. You can build your own bin with $30 worth of supplies from Home Depot. Cinder blocks, wood slabs, chicken wire, and old trash cans all make excellent compost containers. If you’re lucky enough to have space for a compost bin or tumbler, you have enough space for a simple pile. If aesthetics is a concern, be playful with your ingredients. Every time you add new food scraps, burrow them into the pile, and then sprinkle leaves or flowers over the top. Think of it as a living sculpture, and have fun. 

Apartment-dwellers have it a bit tougher, and it’s no wonder they are easily seduced by Instagram-friendly devices like the Lomi Home Composter. Lomi purports to be a "sustainable" solution, but it insists on refuting basic ecological principles in favor of environmentally-unfriendly standards of cleanliness. For one, the device is made of (biodegradable) plastic. It also requires electricity to run. Plus, it does not make actual compost. It does grind and dehydrate your food scraps, though, which they carefully refer to as "accelerating" the compost process. But really, my biggest issue with the Lomi is that it costs $500.  

Our collective reluctance to reconcile environmental reality with our personal aesthetic preferences is quite literally going to kill us

There is simply no reason to drop a substantial amount of money on any countertop composting device. There are too many ways to compost that are more effective, and also free. My go-to solution for small spaces ​​comes from the Rodale Book of Composting, which outlines a very handy, single bag method for apartment composting: Pile your food scraps and some alfalfa meal (easily purchased for around $10) into a large ziplock bag and shut it, leaving some oxygen in the bag. Store the bag in a cabinet or under your sink, and can mix it once a week by gently rolling it around. Once decomposition gets going, you’ll find that the volume of material in the bag reduces at the pace you’re adding new scraps. You can also try Bokashi composting. This method does require some investment in materials (a plastic bucket, some specialized bran meal), but it's still vastly cheaper than products like the Lomi, and it makes some of the most nutrient-rich compost out there in a matter of weeks. 

For those who are still pinching their noses in knee-jerk disgust, I would like to gently point out that we are now reaping the rewards of this kind of reaction in the form of a full-blown, globe-spanning climate crisis. Our collective reluctance to reconcile environmental reality with our personal aesthetic preferences is quite literally going to kill us. A compost, on the other hand, is pretty and perfect for being exactly what it is: death in media res—on its way to becoming, again, life. 

This illustration is a derivative of "Composition SDIM1536" by Stefan Szczelkun, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


Last Updated