What Goes Around, Comes Around: Community Composting in the Era of COVID-19

With the current pandemic, everything has changed. And yet, when you think about it, nothing has changed. We still breathe (if we’re lucky enough), we still eat (again, with luck and help from our friends) and we generate food scraps. What do you do with yours?

We have been composting at our house in Burlington’s South End for the last six years. We have a simple four-bin system for hot composting, building a new pile every month or so from April through October. As a service to our neighbors and because we need more food scraps than we generate, we get weekly scraps from three families and a small child-care center down the street. It works. With enough buckets & tight-fitting lids, with a fair bit of elbow grease (turning the piles, checking the temperature, cleaning the buckets, scrounging enough hay or leaves, grinding up garden debris with the lawn mower), we make enough good quality compost for our 1500 square foot vegetable and flower garden. Everything that grows at our place (and a fair amount that grows elsewhere) eventually goes back into building soil.

Ruby and I are also Co-Site Leaders at the Calahan Community Garden, in the park across the street from us. Five years ago, unhappy with shipping the collected garden debris to CSWD at the end of each season, we started doing hot composting there too. This was a little more complicated and labor-intensive than our home operation. These were the elements we had to figure out:

  1. Shredding debris: While you can make compost – eventually – by just piling up tomato stalks and dead sunflowers, if you want to make it HOT (130-160 degrees F), you really need to make the particle size smaller. BACG supported us by renting an industrial-strength shredder each month and eventually bought the shredder for future use in all the Burlington gardens. This still means some concentrated work each month, mobilizing volunteers and Parks & Rec employees, but it works well enough.
  2. Food scraps: Theoretically, we could get food scraps from the 20 families at Calahan Garden, but this proved unreliable. We made a deal with City Market to have access to waste from their produce department. This means going each month with a couple of volunteers who are willing to dig out fruit and vegetables from the bins at CM. Messy, inelegant, but reliable and voluminous.
  3. Carbon: To make a pile work, you need nitrogen (food scraps, fresh garden debris) and carbon (hay, straw, leaves, sawdust, shredded office paper). We have to scrounge up enough “brown” material every month, which is sometimes a challenge. Again, BACG has often come to our rescue with old bales of hay or (in the fall) bags of leaves.
  4. Labor: each month, we have called out for garden volunteers who, on a given day, move the old piles to the next bins, layer in the ingredients (25 buckets of food scraps, several bales of hay, lots of water, shredded debris, some old compost for inoculant) into the first bin. And, oh, did I mention cleaning out the smelly food scrap buckets? With a gang of at least five people, it works well, takes about two hours.

That was our system…before the pandemic of 2020. This year, we are stymied from several directions. We can’t gather work groups together in the garden, so unless Ruby & I are willing to do it all, our hot composting can’t really happen. The other problem is this: compost piles function as a sort of wildlife sanctuary. You depend on certain wild critters (thermophilic & mesophilic bacteria, fungi, earthworms, centipedes, millipedes, pseudoscorpions, pill bugs and others) to do the work of decomposing and aerating the materials in the pile. There are other critters you want to exclude: anaerobic bacteria, raccoons, skunks, rats, flies, salmonella, e-coli, and, most recently, SARS-CoV-2, the tricky virus that causes COVID-19.

It turns out that the biggest risks of viral contagion in our composting system are working closely together (breathing hard, laughing, talking, shouting) and handling food scraps. Once the stuff is in the pile and heating up, there is very little further risk. “The coronavirus is a wimp,” one scientist stated at a recent Zoom composting webinar. Apparently, when SARS-CoV-2 is exposed to high (140-150 F) temperatures for only four minutes, it dies (in contrast to some other pathogens). So when you’re turning the piles after the initial heating phase, the risk of infection – if you’re doing it alone – is almost zero.

This pandemic season (hopefully, it’s only one), we are not building our usual compost piles. Kind of ironic or tragic that it’s the same year that mandatory composting of food scraps goes into effect in Vermont. With the help of Ben & Gustave from Parks & Rec, we have continued to shred our garden debris. In the process, we have discovered that shredded debris plus water heat up almost as well as our hot compost piles. It turns out that the carbon:nitrogen ratio in fairly fresh debris is just about right for heating up compost. While it doesn’t make up for the missed work parties at the garden and the piles of reliably good compost, this discovery does represent a thin silver lining in our COVID composting journey.

So, keep composting, y’all. In food waste, as in all things, what goes around, comes around.


By Andy Simon

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