My never-ending compost story

Throwing away organic waste and mixing it with general rubbish is one of those things you are almost physically unable to do once you have learnt to compost. Still, in most cities, this is far from a simple thing to do. Today kicks off international compost awareness week and it has reminded me that our relationship with waste is of a very personal nature and I thought I would share “my compost story.”

Our current bokashi compost system

As a child growing up in a rural part of Colombia I was raised to respect and value nature. After all, my parents had done their utmost to leave the city and the small flat where they were raising two children, to provide us with healthier air and physical space. My mother, to this day, credits their move to the countryside with the end of my early onset bronchitis.

I grew up to enjoy nature but to love cities. As soon as it was up to me, I moved “back” and have since, chosen to compromise on space as long as my home is close to urban amenities.

Unsurprisingly, one of the challenges has been dealing with organic waste and with the exception of the university town where I lived for a couple of years in the US, this has been a riddle I have had to figure out –not always successfully.

In my early years of living in Cape Town, I would sometimes take along a bucket of waste when I went to visit a friend in Muizenberg (who inspired me to write this back then) until I moved into a building which had a composting container for residents to use.

In Bogotá, a few years ago, I would often wait for my mother to visit and send her back with a bucket of organic waste in her car. Once, I even travelled in TransMilenio, the local Bus Rapid Transport system, with a bucket myself, but I didn’t earn many friends on that particular trip.

Since being back in Cape Town, my partner and I tried persuading our building trustees and presented a proposal which we thought was strong in theory and implementation, but fear of rats and other problems was larger than the evidence-based information at hand.

It has therefore been a pleasure to meet people who are interested in making composting and organic waste recycling a real option for all. On one hand, the pressure to minimise organic waste from landfill is mounting as the climate crises looms; on the other, the renewed interest in urban agriculture has meant the demand for compost has also increased.

There is a flurry of community-based initiatives across Cape Town finding ways to address this situation. The Cape Town Together Food Growers Initiative has been one of the most inspiring platforms bringing people together to talk about food, plants and most recently, organic waste. As someone in a recent online webinar said “you can compost all your problems.”

There are places like the Oranjezicht City Farm which collects waste from 200 households (my partner and I are testing out a microhauling idea to see if we can help grow this number), and various businesses offering similar services. Even the City of Cape Town is currently carrying out a pilot project which I joined a few months ago. It consists in getting a 5-litre bucket and returning it once a week at which point, a clean bucket with some sawdust is provided so the process can start again.

And so it feels as though my compost story is only starting. I am learning to appreciate the significance of figuring it out at a personal level, but also across our city and beyond. It is indeed one of those problems we will soon not be able to continue ignoring. For one, local government has banned all organic waste from landfill by 2027 –and 50% by 2022; but more importantly, there seems to be an increased sense of responsibility and the understanding that what we often see as waste, is an actual great resource after all.

Composting heaps at the Oranjezicht City Farm

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.