Food Digesters

In Metro Vancouver you’re not allowed to dump organic material into the landfill anymore. The organics ban has been in place since January first, but as of July first, garbage trucks will get fined if they are caught. Happy Canada Day!

One answer to the organics question is a solar cone (or two)
One answer to the organics question is a solar cone (or two)

This news is good because, although you might expect an orange peel to quickly biodegrade in a landfill, we have discovered it will not. Apparently landfills are not compost bins. Composts rely on oxygen to do their work, but in a landfill there is no oxygen so that when that orange peel does biodegrade it produces methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases out there–23 times worse than carbon dioxide, for example.

The ban on organics means that if you pay for garbage pick up in your municipal taxes, your municipal service must provide you with an option to have your organic material picked up separately.

In Maple Ridge, the ban provides as opportunity not available anywhere else in Metro Vancouver: saving money.

We have a long history of recycling in our city and we never added garbage pick-up to our tax bill. If you want someone to pick up your garbage, you can hire a private company to do that and you can arrange for weekly, bi-weekly or monthly pick-ups and save money that way. You only pay for the service you use.

These private companies must adjust for the organics ban in the same way the other municipalities do. You can expect the rates to go up a little as they add an extra bin, new equipment, etc., but the tipping fees for organic material are much lower than at the landfill, so it shouldn’t go up too much. If it does, you can comparison shop and maybe find a better deal (but only in Maple Ridge).

Apartments and townhouses have private pick up no matter where you live in the region.

Okay, so composting good, landfilling bad. We’re being forced to change, but it’s for the best. Got it.

Everywhere except Maple Ridge, this means higher costs. Here, however, if you take organics out of your trash yourself, you can save a lot of money.

How? Well, we haven’t paid for garbage service in our taxes so we could just…not.

Take out the organics and you are left with trash that does not smell or attract animals. That means it can wait a month to be picked up and you can change the contract with your garbage hauler to once a month. Better yet, you can hold on to that trash for longer and take it to the transfer station yourself, getting rid of your garbage service altogether!

Now, all you have to do is deal with your organics yourself. But how, James, how?

Well, composting is a lot easier than you think. All you need is a composter and a little outdoor space. You can put a lot more stuff in the compost than you think, too. There are tips and tricks to improve the quality and efficiency of your compost and make it almost odourless, but to be honest, we just toss stuff in ours and let it do its thing.

However, you can’t put everything organic in a compost bin. In general, anything that is going to attract animals–bread, oil, meat, fish–shouldn’t go in. Cat litter, even if it is compostable, shouldn’t go in because of parasites you don’t want ending up in your garden.

So what about that stuff?

One answer to the organics question is a solar cone (or two)
Choose a nice sunny spot

Let me take you into the world of food digesters. The one we have is called a Solar Cone or a Green Cone. They are available here for about $140. This is what it looks like in our garden:

Unlike a composter, a solar cone has no air holes. The visible part catches the sun and heats up the material inside, making it easy for microbes to do their magic. Then worms and insects eat the microbes and your leftover meatloaf disappears into the surrounding soil.Solar cone

Underneath, attached to the cone is a basket that sits in a hole in the earth. You want the earth to have good drainage and adding a little compost at the bottom to introduce some microorganisms and get things going is a good idea, too.

I think of what we used to do with chicken bones–dig a hole and bury them in the back yard–it’s the same idea. The solar cone is a resealable hole in the ground with the added element of heat from the sun. There is no smell to attract animals because the only holes are underground.

You shouldn't see a lot of stuff near the top of your cone--it is pretty deep.
You shouldn’t see a lot of stuff near the top of your cone–it is pretty deep.

Looking straight down, you might see something like this. Does it smell? Only when you open the lid!
Someone put a paper plate or two in there at one of our backyard parties. They will break down, but it may take a while. We put as little as possible in the solar cone, because we don’t want to fill it up. The compost is still the better option for fruit, vegetables, and even bits of paper. If I have a bunch of paper plates leftover from a party, I will probably recycle them, but I could compost them, too.

To sum up, for our family of four, two compost bins and a solar cone is all we need to keep all stinky organics out of our trash. Since we moved here in 2007 we have not hired a garbage hauler and we have made fewer and fewer trips to the transfer station with our own waste.

The big changes that made that possible were getting the kids out of diapers (switching to cloth diapers would also work) and finding a compostable cat litter that can go into the solar cone. Since then, we’ve been golden. Even the ants love it and have built a nest in the pile of weeds Leanne stacked next to the cone.

Ants running up the cone.
Ants running up the cone.

However, I’m not going to tell you the transition is all sunshine and roses. There is a dark side to the solar cone phenomena and, for us, it involved that cat litter I mentioned.

When you read the manual of many products you may have noticed they exaggerate what the product can do. Cars are always less fuel efficient than the sticker says, and your solar cone can’t handle as much as its pamphlet says. That may be because it was tested in a warmer climate or…who cares! For example, Leanne’s brother used his solar cone as a handy place to put dog poop from their yard. In theory, that should have been fine, but their two dogs eventually filled that solar cone with poop. Not good!

I felt guilty because I could have warned them. We filled ours the first time, too. In our case, I think the compostable cat litter clogged the gaps in the basket and the microbes couldn’t get in. Or maybe the microbes just got sick of eating cat litter, “More leftover food, please!”

Whatever the reason, the cone filled up so we couldn’t add anything else. I didn’t know what to do, so I dug two new holes, one as a new location for the solar cone (where it sits today, two years later) and the other to bury the excess. It seemed logical at the time, but it was a pretty disgusting operation. Leanne and I were shaking the thing upside down as partially digested clumps of the worst kitchen and cat waste fell into its new grave. It didn’t come out very easily, so we had to use a spade and dig it out. Happy memories!

Remember, we went through this ordeal more than two years ago and the solar cone doing digesting food just fine with no hint of losing its appetite.

For a special treat, I’m going to show you what a Solar Cone Failure looks like. We purchased a solar cone about two years ago for our tenants in the Little Yellow House to help them reduce their waste (what good landlords!). Predictably, during that time, they filled it up just like we did. Now I am faced with the same challenge and I’m determined not to deal with it the same way.

The Little Yellow House' solar cone is in the back next to the garage. It gets the afternoon sun.
The Little Yellow House’ solar cone is in the back next to the garage. It gets the afternoon sun.

How to check up on your solar cone.

1. Approach your solar cone. Speak soothingly.

"Nice solar cone. Atta girl..."
“Nice solar cone. Atta girl…”

2. Turn the latch and lift the lid.

3. If you are sensitive to odours, well, there will be some. Peer inside. The organic matter should appear far below underground–oh dear mother of dog!

Here we learned more about our tenants’ diets than we really wanted to know. The main problem, however, is simply that the cone is just too full.

Someone put a weed in there
Someone put some weeds in there. Wasn’t me!
"Rot it"
“Rot it”

I didn’t have a new solution except to wait until it goes down before this topic came up on the Hammond Neighours Facebook group and the Solar Cone guru from Ridge Meadows Recycling Society said, “If you add microbes such as rot it the solar cone will work a lot faster. The solar part helps the microbes to multiple faster. Yes, some like it hot.”

I ran out and bought some “Rot it” and dumped it on top like sugar on cereal.

That was about a month ago and, you know, I think it has gone down, but it’s really hard to say. I am an impatient person sometimes and last week I wanted to hurry things along. I decided that if I filled the whole thing up with water it would help…somehow.

Did that help? I don’t know yet. I’ll keep you posted.

The lesson here is to put everything you can into your compost and the rest in the solar cone. When you look in, it should look like a hole in the ground with some stuff in the bottom, not a cone with a pile of stuff in it. If you feel like you can easily reach in and touch the stuff, slow down and pull out the Rot It.

On a final note, I think I should address the issue of animals like rats, raccoons, bears and even cougars. Composters and solar cones can attract animals if they are not done right and I would leave it to the experts to give advice on this since we have never had a problem. That said, a compost bin filled with nothing but plant matter shouldn’t attract animals and the material should break down pretty fast, especially if you mix it like the experts say. Food Digesters contain meat, bones, etc. that will attract animals if they can smell it, but there are no air holes exposed so they shouldn’t. You want to keep the outside of the cone absolutely clean (maybe you could also mask the scent with an odourous plant? get your dog to mark its territory on it? do that yourself?) and make sure the food is digesting efficiently. Animals don’t like rotten food, do they?

If you compare this option to bins of delicious organic waste being left out at the curb for pick-up by either a private or a municipal tax-funded service, I think composters and food digesters are preferable. Both are a bridge too far for some people, but the fewer organics being left outside to attract animals, the better (In My Humble Opinion).

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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