Over the Composting Handlebars.

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I fully buy-in to the recycling and composting paradigm.  I have studied the posters showing me what to compost, what to recycle, and what to consign to a faceless landfill for the rest of human history.  I pride myself on demonstrating my earth-friendly knowledge at the local Starbucks’ condiment bar, tossing my used cup in the compost and used plastic lid in recycling, with theatrical flair.  I may even make a snarky comment if the patron standing there shoulder-to-shoulder with me does not follow suit.

And God help the Lululemon-wearing nanny who absentmindedly flips a ripped Sweet & Low packet into the “garbage.”  Gasp.  I might just reach down in there, past the coffee grounds and organic milk containers, up to my armpit now, to pluck out the delicate pink paper and pinch it into its proper end through the “compost” circle.  Maintaining laser eye-contact with Lulu all the while, even as I politely hold open the exit door for her with a tight smile.  I’ve got my eye on you, Lulu.

I’m committed to this.

The saying goes that there are two types of bicycle riders:  Those that have gone ass-over-tea-kettle and those that will go ass-over-tea-kettle.  Likewise, there are two types of composters:  Those that have had a disgusting, nightmare-inducing experience with their compost system and those that will have a disgusting, nightmare-inducing experience with their compost system.

I fall into the former category.

You see that shiny, confidence-inspiring, metallic compost can pictured at the top of this blog?  It looks great, right?  Fits in on anyone’s kitchen counter.  Looks clean, sanitary, sturdy.  Not exactly a shiny Tesla, but surely as iconic a symbol of its owner’s intention to save the planet.  Well, Teslas, it turns out, will spontaneously combust from time-to-time.  And that cute little compost can packed to the gills with food scraps can be equally evil.  No good deed goes unpunished, apparently.  Probably serves us right for being so self-righteous about saving the planet.  But I digress.

Emptying the compost can in our kitchen is perhaps the least-desirable household chore around here.  The kids pretend it’s not there.  My wife pretends it’s not there.  I use the thing religiously, each tossed-in coffee filter, eggshell or garlic skin making me feel like a really good person.  Look at me, I’m saving the planet!

I might as well be stuffing gun powder, wadding, and a cannon ball into a cannon.  Jam that stuff in there until nothing else could possibly fit.  Then jam some more stuff in there.

I don’t usually bring the contents of the compost can down to the green Recology bin in our garage until I absolutely have to.  I know what’s been stuffed in there over the past few days.  Or weeks.  A couple fruit flies spring free when the can’s top is lifted?  Not quite ready yet.  The compostable plastic-ish bag has fallen down on one edge, the victim of over-stuffing?  Reach down and pull it up a bit, like a reluctant dress sock with its elasticity long gone.  That sucker is good for at least a couple more days.

But pull off the lid and spy what appears to be a chicken bone dressed like Santa Clause?  Yep, it’s time.  Particularly if you can’t recall even making chicken for dinner in the last couple weeks.  And especially since you’ve read a bit about toxic spores, mold and such.  It’s definitely go time.

If you haven’t waited as long as I do, the process of transporting your little green bag of righteousness from your kitchen down the stairs to the large green bin of righteousness in your garage might go swimmingly.  Maybe you’re whistling or even humming while you are saving the planet.

But remember that I have gone over the composting handle bars.  There is no whistling or humming or thoughts of planet-saving when you’re in mid-air and turning a flip over your front wheel (to stretch the metaphor a bit further).

A week or so after a little Fourth of July get-together (involving the aforementioned, bearded Santa Clause chicken bones), I had my composting moment.

The cute little green bag burst, evidently pulling one “G” too many as I rounded the corner halfway down the garage stairs.  The thing exploded like a bomb, spewing stuff that no longer resembled anything I recognized as ever buying or cooking or serving to anyone in our house.  It looked like a blood-spattered crime scene in Dexter.   The sheer volume of the contents, splashed on the wall, stuck between the railing and the wall, scattered and oozy all over the carpeted stairs, it was staggering.  Almost too much to take.  I’m a little light-headed and panicky just thinking about it.

Expecting my wife to be home at any minute, I sprang into action; Harvey Keitel’s “the Wolf” in Pulp Fiction.  Just like that. Efficient.  Precise.  All business.  I managed to clean it all up, timely, and no one would have been the wiser had I not decided later to tell the story at the dinner table.

I was proud of myself, self-satisfied, clearly embracing this composting thing, despite having now seen its ugly underbelly.  Saving the planet.

Then it dawned on me that in my cleaning, I had deployed about a dozen bottles and canisters of completely toxic liquids, powders, and gels.  I threw everything I had at the crime scene.  Plastic bags to contain the vile stuff, bleach-soaked wipes removing the final traces of the explosion.  And all of it was deposited in the shameful, black trash bin.

I tried to console myself.  It was the best effort I could muster in the moment, so consumed with all the dry heaving, swearing and sweating.

Still, I had probably undone a year’s worth of planet-saving composting and recycling activities with those 15 ill-conceived minutes of toxic remediation in my garage stairwell.  Oh, if Lulu could see me now.

So like I said, there are two types of composters, and your time is coming….

Thanks for reading.


  1. Your only hope is to shoot recycle/stuff into earth’s orbit and then make sure you never go up there w/o a kevlar suit and underware!!

  2. This is why my husband takes the whole pail with the compostable bag and its contents out to the compost heap in our backyard. Of course, since we do much less planting than we used to (none) I’m not sure our compost will ever be used, but at least it’s not all going to the landfill.

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