Everything you need to know about community composting and its benefits to housing societies

Community composting is a largely unexploited solution that is gradually getting its fair share of attention in India’s sustainability and waste management landscape. The power to harness the potential of waste lies with housing societies and gated communities today who can reap the benefits of large-scale composting, produce rich organic fertiliser, create organic community gardens, or even generate revenue from the sale of good quality compost.

What is community composting?

Composting is a natural method of waste disposal used to turn biodegradable or wet waste into organic fertilizer. When different waste generators such as small and large households within one or several societies compost organic waste jointly at a specific site (ideally within the society premises, but sometimes in a nearby shared space) it is called community composting. The compost is used as fertilizer for growing fruits/vegetables/herbs and gardening within the society premises as well as individual homes. It can also be sold through municipal buy-back programmes or farmer-connects. Community composting requires large-scale infrastructure that allows large volumes of waste to be managed as close to the source as possible and thus diverted away from landfills.

Benefits of community composting

  • Increased environmental awareness among communities
  • Less waste dumped in landfills and fewer garbage trucks in rotation
  • Improved soil, air and water quality due to reduced use of chemical fertilizer
  • Community empowerment through self-reliance
  • Green and natural neighbourhoods
  • Financial benefits through sale of compost
  • Better utilization of resources to reduce society’s expenses
  • Creation of organic kitchen gardens
  • Better health and well being of people who consume this produce
  • Increased biodiversity

Types of composting

  • Aerobic composting is when the decomposition process occurs in the presence of oxygen-rich conditions. This type of composting is the most common in housing societies.
  • Anaerobic composting is when the decomposition occurs in the absence of oxygen. This generally suits individual homes, but not large-scale operations. It works well only with kitchen waste but not huge quantities of garden rejects. It’s not as easily scalable as aerobic composting is.
  • Vermicomposting is when worms (usually red wigglers and white worms) break down the waste to turn it into nutrient-rich compost.

Choosing the right composting model

There are several different composting methods available to housing societies although in-vessel composting (or vendor-based composting solutions) is preferred by most housing societies. 

A housing society’s decision to opt for the right composting model is driven by the following factors:

1. Quantity of wet waste

According to the numbers, at least 60-65% of waste generated in India is biodegradable wet waste. In cities like Mumbai, 73% of daily waste is compostable wet waste. Extrapolation allows one to conclude that at least half of the waste produced by a household would be wet waste. A housing society of 200 households could produce between 150 to 200 kgs of waste in a day. 

Monisha Narke, Stanford graduate and sustainability expert, says, “Meals are cooked at home almost daily, twice or thrice a day, so we end up generating biodegradable waste. As per our waste audits, on an average a family of 4 members generates upto 1kg kitchen waste, 60-70% of which is biodegradable waste, 20-30% is dry waste and 10% is non recyclable trash. If managed well, we can easily divert 90% of our waste into recycling.”

According to the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, in-situ composting is mandatory for societies that generate more than 100kgs of waste per day, including residential societies/apartments with more than 100 units, and gated communities with an area greater than 5,000 square metres. 

2. Budget

Based on the number of units needed for the entire society, the total investment can be divided among the individual houses. For instance, if a society of 100 households decides to install an aerobic digester worth Rs. 1 lakh with a capacity of 80kg per day, they’d have to invest Rs. 1000 each (and pay Rs. 100 as monthly operational cost).

To figure out which composting models are appropriate for your society, you can use SwachaGraha’s user guide which lists a good number of products and providers. Another resource to refer to is MOHUA’S Advisory on On-Site and Decentralized Composting of Municipal Organic Waste. It is a ready reckoner for housing societies and lists a range of products to compare price/dimensions/processing time and vendor details. The following classification has been made as per the size of the societies and the technology for composting.

Source: MoHUA

Before investing in a model, keep a few things in mind:

  • Read user reviews and feedback online. Visit other sites to evaluate different models and their performance
  • Ensure that the vendor is legitimate and empanelled
  • Be aware of monthly operational costs
  • Shortlist at least 5-6 models and compare the price per unit, waste handling capacity, infrastructure requirement, and maintenance needs

Besides the basic installation, most vendors can train your housekeeping staff, maids and security guards to handle, run and operate composting devices. They provide user manuals which include step-by-step instructions on the entire process, including the carbon-nitrogen ratio (brown and green materials) and the compost turning requirements. Large housing societies with ample budget or time/labour constraints even opt for contracting agreements along with the composting system so that hired professionals can take care of the entire society’s composting setup.

3. Space availability and location of the composting setup

A society needs to designate space based on the number of units and other factors such as aeration and protection from rodents and rain. According to Savita Hiremath, Bangalore-based journalist and composting expert who runs the blog Endlessly Green, housing societies in Bangalore have established successful composting techniques in common areas, terraces and even basements. She adds that though there may be certain challenges initially, residents quickly learn and adapt with enough practice.

Savita advises communities to do their due diligence by visiting the vendor site to check all components involved in an enclosed composting option. “The success of your compost lies in getting the recipe right. If societies have any doubts about the quality of their compost, they should get the compost tested in a lab to ensure it meets the standards.”

Regarding housing societies wanting to opt for composting systems other than in-vessel style, Savita, who is also a member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table says, “It’s not that housing societies cannot opt for vermicomposting, but it’s more prevalent in individual households and not everyone may be comfortable handling worms. Pit composting on a large scale is also possible, provided there’s enough space and housing societies are willing to take up a labour-intensive project. Besides, community composting is largely driven by volunteerism. Those who initiate the project are enthusiastic and proactive, while others may not be as motivated. But for societies that are willing to take action, there are plenty of resources online, a plethora of composting products and social media communities for assistance.”

Monisha, who is the Founder & CEO of RUR Greenlife, makers of RGGC bio-composters for small and large-scale composting, offers some words of caution, “Traditional methods like pit composting and vermicomposting have been extremely successful in composting vegetable peels and garden waste, however they pose challenges when we add citrus peels or cooked food. The high calorific value of cooked food releases heat which is not favourable to worms, while the cooked food in compost pits may invite rodents and pests that can lead to secondary problems.”

Why should housing societies avoid instant composters?

There are multiple instances where builders have installed 24-hour composters as well as societies that have fallen prey to automatic waste composters claiming to produce compost instantly. “These machines produce toxic smoke and burnt carbon which is detrimental to soil and plant health, while increasing the power bill to Rs 25,000 or Rs 30,000 per month. Societies should not blindly accept what a builder or a vendor offers. They must ensure that the model they choose allows for natural composting,” Savita says.

Monisha adds that concepts like 24-hour composting and 14-day composting are myths. “Composting is a natural process that requires 90 days to stabilise fully. Within 45-60 days, under right conditions it starts to smell earthy and is ready to be applied to the soil. The best method is to let nature do its job,” she advises.

How to use your society’s compost?

  • Leachate/compost tea can be diluted (20 parts water-1 part leachate) and used as a spray for gardening
  • Use the final compost for your own society, then distribute the leftovers to others
  • Compost can be distributed among all residents to encourage them to take up balcony gardening
  • Leftover compost can be sold to nearby bulk buyers or local farmers through a local network

The future of community composting

There is still lack of awareness among communities who either don’t know about the benefits of composting or are not interested in it. 
Monisha cites 3 reasons why composting isn’t popular everywhere.

  1. Easy availability of avenues to throw the waste away and ‘not in my backyard’ mentality
  2. Myths that composting is dirty and smelly
  3. Lack of strict implementation of policies

But she is of the strong opinion that with increasing consciousness among people towards climate change and sustainability, the future looks promising. “India being a tropical country, the temperatures and other climatic conditions favour the natural composting process. As a futuristic approach, one must think decentralised composting at individual homes and in communities so that the waste is not traveling to another location to be composted or dumped irrationally. Through decentralised composting, one can mitigate massive CO2 emissions.”

Amarpreet Singh, Head of Business Strategy and Sales at Daily Dump, a design-led composting solutions company that makes Aaga composters, observes, “Seven years ago, nearly everyone who started composting in their communities was doing it for environmental reasons and to reduce their contribution to the waste problem. Over the years we have seen that due to fresh policies and stringent measures, communities have started composting as a way of adhering to the regulations as well. For a few months composting of wet waste took a back seat and the decisions to start composting were delayed. But there are encouraging signs of people coming back to thinking about wet waste management. Also because of working from home, there has been a rise in the number of individuals and communities wanting to garden and grow food in their premises.”

Savita advises communities to do their due diligence by visiting the vendor site to check all components involved in an enclosed composting option. “The success of your compost lies in getting the recipe right. If the societies have any doubts about the quality of their compost, they should get the compost tested in a lab to ensure it meets the standards.”

Community composting success stories

Several housing societies in Bangalore and Mumbai have produced amazing success stories of composting done right. For instance, a housing society in Mumbai has turned 4 tonnes of trash into 400 kgs of compost and 16 big societies in Mumbai who do on-site composting are donating compost to farmers. One society in Mumbai has been selling compost fertilizer to farmhouse owners at Rs 10-15/kg. 

Housing societies in Bangalore are at the forefront of the composting movement, creating vegetable gardens with the compost they produce. Some produce up to 70kg of compost a day. Through a campaign called SwachaGraha Compost Connect, a brainchild of Solid Waste Management Round Table, the excess compost is taken from bulk generators to farmlands. The campaign has so far sold 60 tonnes of compost in about 40 truckloads. The idea was to encourage more farmers to turn organic and at the same time make it easy for societies to deal with their excess compost. The initiative addresses the issue of soil health on a macro level by taking the 3 Ms to degraded soil: Moisture, organic Matter and Microbes.

There is no dearth of techniques for societies willing to take up community composting. Although community composting takes research, participation and perseverance, where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

What do you think?