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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
The worm has turned
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Want to help combat identity theft, get rid of rats or beat the hosepipe ban? Compost is the answer. The worm is turning for nature's method of waste disposal.

When it comes to identity theft, bacteria and worms are the fraudsters' worst enemy.

Composting confidential documents and bank statements is, apparently, one of the most effective ways of making sure no one else - bar the slugs - gets their hands on them.

Got rats? Composting has also been credited with banishing vermin from inner-London estates where community compost schemes have been started.

With the UK close to sinking under the weight of household waste, much of which is dumped daily in landfill sites, composting is being described as "the alchemy" that could turn this dire situation around.

Image problem

And, boy, do the British need some help. We waste more food than any other country, throwing out up to 40% of all the produce we buy and grow each year, according to research.

Around 30 million tonnes of waste comes from the nation's homes each year. London alone produces enough rubbish to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every half an hour, according to Waste Watch.

1: Collect suitable waste for composter
2: Get right carbon to nitrogen mix by combining cardboard and woody stuff with grass and kitchen waste
3: Chop large items to speed up process
4: Ensure compost is moist, but not wet
5: Introduce air occasionally using fork or spade

Not only is space running out, when the apple cores and potato peelings, that could otherwise be composted, are dumped in landfills they eventually produce significant quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

But, despite these alarming facts and figures, nature's very own method of waste disposal has been ignored by the masses for a long time. Only a third of people in the UK currently compost.

If the rest of the country was to start tomorrow, it would banish 10 million tonnes of landfill waste each year, says the Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap).

And the compost produced could be put to good use in public green spaces and gardens across the nation.


"Composting is the alchemy that turns all kinds of waste material into rich, sweet-smelling goodness to be returned to the soil," says TV gardener Monty Don. "Not only does it create a valuable resource, it also is the best way to solve the growing problem of landfill."

One possible obstacle is that many people don't have a garden to house a compost bin. But composting has kept pace with compact living, and so-called tiger-worm bins are small, and smell-free enough to be kept inside even the smallest kitchen.

Philippa Forrester and children
Philippa Forrester with composting caddy - and sons
"Composting has an image problem," says Nicky Scott, author of Composting For All and chairman of the National Community Composting Network. "A lot of people think of The Good Life and assume only gardeners can do it, they think it's horrible and smelly.

"What we need to get across is that done properly it is none of these things and can solve serious problem."

To tackle the problem of image, trained ecologist and former Tomorrow's World presenter Philippa Forrester has become the face of composting for Wrap.

But the real compost "evangelists" are in the community, like the East London Community Recycling Partnership (ELCRP). It runs community composting schemes on 10 estates in Hackney and several others in neighbouring boroughs.


It all started when local resident and the ELCRP's chief executive, Cam Matheson, decided he was sick of how his estate "reeked" in the summer from the communal rubbish bins, which were frequently overflowing, and attracted rodents and other vermin.

Now doorstep collections of food waste are done four mornings a week on the Nightingale Estate where he lives, put in a community composter on the estate and finally given back to residents for their window boxes and gardens. The participation rate for the scheme is an impressive 80%.

"The plants on the estate are growing like Kew Gardens now," says Mr Matheson. "People can open their windows in the summer because there is not a horrible smell and the rats and flies have gone.

Contents of vacuum cleaner
Human and pet hair
Cardboard and paper (ripped up)
Tea bags and egg shells

"We knew we had to make composting convenient and friendly for people on the estate and sell the scheme the right way or it would never of had a future.

"We didn't begin the project by asking residents if they wanted to do something good for the environment, but asked them if they wanted to get rid of their rat problem. They did - no one votes in favour of rats. Composting like this could easily be extended to every housing estate in Britain."

And it seems that the benefits do not stop at waste recycling - compost could also be an answer to another national problem: the water shortage.

With hosepipe bans in place across six water authorities in the south of England, affecting an estimated 13 million people, compost's ability to help soil hold on to water is said to be the gardener's best weapon against the parching heat.


It seems the compost message is finally sinking in with some. Many local authorities now collect garden and food waste for composting either from the doorstep or at recycling centres. It is then used in parks and gardens, or turned into the peat-free composts on sale in garden centres. Some even offer free compost bins.

"Composting is the way forward, if you live in the countryside or the city, in a big house or a bedsit. I suppose you could call me a compost evangelist, always spreading the word," says Mr Matheson.

And with the ELCRP's slogan being "Today the Nightingale Estate - tomorrow the world", he's not joking.

What a fantastic idea! I hate throwing anything compostable in the bin, but I live in a flat and there's no kitchen waste collection in Bath... When will the ELCRP hit the West Country?
Samantha Fisher, Bath

How I envy the people of Hackney. I live in rural Hampshire and have a modest 80ft garden. Yet my local council not only charge for their compost collection (only 24 times a year), yet they charge you again to buy the compost back.
Paul, Aldershot

I've been composting my confidential papers for years - shredding paper allows it to breakdown more quickly & provides air which aids the composting process. Also, add the paper in layers between other kinds of material or even mix it with other material. Wetting it helps too. If you just dump piles of paper on the pile, it remains a soggy grey mess and prevents the heap from working.
S Beken, London UK

I live in a small flat, with small kitchen and no garden, but I still worm compost. I find that 1) I have the lushest house plants ever, 2) anyone with a garden or plants wants the compost when it is done to put on their plants, and 3) even in my small kitchen, not an issue for space. Takes up less space than my bin!
Anna, Exeter, Devon

I've lived around the world, mainly in tropical and desert regions all my adult life and have built compost 'bins' from a variety of cheap materials everywhere I've been. Driven originally by the lack of refuse collection I quickly learned that the impoverished volcanic or sandy soils benefitted from the end product and despite temperatures over 30 degrees there was never any smell. When rats were a problem I discovered that leaving out egg-shells soon made them loose interest. Even with the good soil here in Mexico, the tropical plants do even better and the camellias love the acid from tea-bags and coffee grounds.
Emma Bergh-Apton, Ajijic, Mexico

Hillingdon borough offer garden waste door step collection for recycling and we compost. A free compost bin would still be good though! The community compost projects sound brilliant. For those in flats it must be a great way to be eco-friendly.
Alison, London

I live in a flat and do not have a garden or any communal green area. If i do compost, where would I put the results? I would like the government to encourage initiatives to help people like me, who live in high density areas, to recycle and reduce waste.
Ruth Fletcher, London

I have been composting for years. It is difficult to start with, but you soon get used to putting all the kitchen & garden waste into the composter. It makes bin day every week much better as all you put out is a small bag of rubbish, compared to everybody else's 2-3 bags of waste. The more that is recycled the better, what needs to change is the way that supermarkets package the food/items that we buy. The big stores could help everybody to recycle more by changing the packaging.
Paul, Worthing UK

There's no excuse not to. We have a composter, a green cone for all food waste, paper not collected ie boxes, envelopes etc goes to the tip on the way back to the supermarket. Between the two of us we have five biodegradeable supermarket carrier bags of waste a week for the bin. The bin doesn't smell, everything gets reused. Everyone's a winner.
John Henderson, Washington, West Sussex

My local council,Bromley,is currently running an offer giving away 5000 free 330 litre compost bins to the first 5000 local residents to apply. The only problem with this scheme is that it has not, to my knowledge, been widely advertised in the borough. As such a vast amount of compostable material is being put into ladfill sites rather than being put back onto gardens.
Paul Phillips, Orpington,Kent

Composting is only part of the solution. One of the biggest problems is the ridiculous amounts of packaging that come with everything these days.
Richard, London

You can put a wormery in your kitchen at work for tea bags and apple cores! Kits are relatively cheap to buy and you'll get a high quality fertiliser liquid out of it for the plants in the office.
Emma R, London, UK

I live in a block of flats, and as such, have no garden in which to compost. My city's council talk of better waste management and recycling, however there is nothing in place for those of us residing in high rise flats to compost, and when you consider the amount of people living in them, in proportion to the area of space used, its a lot of waste, and wasted oppourtunities.
Joe, Bristol

It's worth checking you local council website. Woking BC supplied my wormery at a hugely discounted price.
Yvonne Woolven, Woking

What a great idea - I'm going to try and get one for our house. We'd have to purchase it ourself though - no chance of our Council giving one out for us! West Yorkshire is only just catching on to recycling. We are given a small green wheelie bin which is only emptied once a month. We could fill ours every week. It seems ironic that we have national campaigns to encourage recycling as well as local radio stations broadcasting Local Authority recycling adverts but the service we have from them is nowhere near enough!
Rachel Phillips, Leeds, UK

Totaly agree, not enough people are doing their bit for the environment. We recycle plastic, paper, glas, cans, textiles and have a compost bin in our flower bed which can barely be seen. We now use maybe 1 bin bag per month instead of one every week. Never thought about putting confidential papers in the compost but will do from now as they already get shredded anyway.
Diane Merry, Feltham, Middlesex

I have composted for years and started using it as a security mechanism a couple of years ago. I shred and then compost anything that could be used for identity theft or enable Customer not present card fraud. If you read the CAT report on domestic composting, they identified lack of carbon as a major problem with domestic composting. Adding your old bank statements and pre-printed loan application forms provides extra carbon and makes better compost.
Roni , leeds

What a complete load of rubbish!! we have composted only to find it attracts rats by the truck load! if anybodys got Mr P Pipers email address please forward it on
Mark Bradford, Essex

We are a family of four and we have been composting for about a 9 months, we send no compostable waste to landfill yet the compost bin is still only half full. As it decomposes its volume decreases incredibly. Also, there is no smell. Regards Rob (Bristol)
Robert Bone, Bradley Stoke, Bristol

You have convinced me. I always thought my kithen was too small to host a composter. Now I don't care if it is unsightly. A composter will move up to number 1 priority.
Brenda Gooding, Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

We have requested our local council to provide compost bins for the last 16 years, to no avail. They just dont seem interested in this at all, if we waited for local council to sort things out we would have waisted 16 years of compost at our currect address, which keeps our garden looking good and helps with the environment. we have always composted and my parents before me always composted. Education in schools, work place and media would highlight the clear importance of composting - benefits. LETS HAVE THE GOVERNMENT BEING POSITIVE ON THIS AND NOT HALF HEARTED!!!
linda mitchell

We have four compost bins at the bottom of our garden (suburban, so not massive), at various stages of maturing. My husband brings home free coffee grounds from Starbucks every day to add into the mix of fruit and veg peelings, lawn mowings etc and has even been known to nip down the garden after dark to water the compost with his wee... As a result we have a constant supply of fantastic rich compost and the garden is glowing with health. Composting is an easy way to slow the destruction of our environment.
Jessica Gooch, Harrow

We have been composting for over 20 years, and enjoying the many benefits from better gardens to less waste sent out. We have discovered an even BETTER way, by adding red wriggler compost worms! Wow, what a difference - better compost faster & more beneficial for the garden!
Shirley, Kamloops. BC, Canada

We had a subsidised Council supplied green compost bin at the bottom of our garden which the rats loved. The Council's own pest controller said that he was frequently called out to these compost bins and that he wouldn't have one in his garden !! Never again !!
stephen, Coventry

One note about rats - composting helps avoid rats if the compost heap is in an enclosed space. My parents had a compost heap exposed to the air for many years, and now they are combatting a rat problem. Compost contained in a plastic drum with a rotating handle is much easier to use, and also helps avoid the rats. There are many such drum-shaped compost bins available.
Karen, Florida, USA

Compost can be kept rat-free with a little TLC: keep it slightly damp and turn the contents regularly with a garden fork - rats like neither the damp nor the disturbance. Don't include any cooked material or meat/bones - rodents love this. Add a biological compost enhancer to speed the composting process so recognisable "food" hangs around for a very short time. If you have an open based compost bin you can dig a small trench to sit it in before starting to fill it. All these steps have worked for me, following a short rodent visitation from neighbouring property a few years ago. As for the 80-foot garden in Aldershot - luxury! Small suburban London garden here of approx 30 foot in length but it still has a compost bin that produces enough to provide an annual mulch to all borders. Eco and security friendly all in one!
Don, UK

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