My Compost Turned to Toxic Waste

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[Originally Published in Elephant Journal, June 22, 2012]

For six months, I have been trying to be a good person. I did it wrong.

Ever since returning to the U.S. in January, I have made it a habit to save every bit of acceptable biodegradable waste I produce. The waste problem in West Africa will do that do you.

Composting is not hard, and you should do it. However, saving your orange peels and rotten tomatoes to make into gardening soil is not as clean and nice as it sounds. In fact it stinks—literally.

I first bought an attractive ceramic countertop compost jar. It is convenient for saving food waste in the kitchen, and it’s sealed for odor and sterility. The jar fills up about once a week.

From there I went to Home Depot and made my first mistake. I bought a 10-gallon stainless metal container to keep the waste on my small apartment deck. The container said “Not For Storage of Liquid.”

For a while my system worked out very well. I would dump the kitchen jar about once a week, and stir the large container every two or three. I didn’t look forward to these jobs—the latter was particularly smelly—but I was proud of my efforts. I was doing something good.

Then things started going wrong.

As my compost piled up and broke down, the ripest, gnarliest substance grew. Somewhere between liquid and solid, moldy food and toxic waste, I had created something terrible—and it was alive. For a while the creature was contained, as long as I kept the lid closed. That was until it started to leak.

From the bottom first, a vile liquid slowly leaked. A plastic tray beneath protected my deck and the neighbors below. The black color was one thing, the smell was another. It smelled like the most rotten culture of Parmesan cheese you can imagine.

As the black liquid grew, so did the Parmesan stench. Soon I couldn’t open my doors or windows. Then the AC started pumping the rotten air in. I dumped the tray of the deck and washed it in my tub. The outside of my building took on the smell, and so did my bathroom. Worst of all, the tray filled up again in a matter of hours.

I thought it might be the end.

In my desperate state, I threw in the towel. I put a garbage bag around the whole container and carried the toxic monster down to the dumpster. Six months of work, and it ended with no without making a difference. I suck.

Click here for a basic guide to composting successfully. My major flaws were 1.) my container, and 2.) not mixing in dry brown waste to counter the slimy green waste.



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