Groundwork / The Sauce

Composting of food scraps by local communities – the spark, the opportunity, the possibilities

by Pui Cuifen

The Spark

Alan had exciting ideas to share. His community garden was at the edge of a forest. To make the soil better suited for growing edible plants, he could either spend lots of money buying soil that may be unsustainable or of poor quality, or try amending the soil using available resources.

Alan had walked around the market and realised that baskets of banana peels are thrown away daily at the goreng pisang (fried banana fritters in Malay) stall. Knowing that banana peels are high in potassium and phosphorus – elements which promote root growth and plant health – Alan had been collecting them in large quantities three times a month for use at his garden. He also collects and uses coffee powder which is good as a compost activator due to its high nitrogen content. Alan was keen to share this information with others so that more people could benefit.

Knowing Alan to be someone who does simple yet impactful actions, I knew he was onto something interesting. The concept of adding food scraps to soil or compost was new to me, but I was keen to try it out.

At my estate’s community garden, my neighbours and I have been making compost using the aerobic composting method. The abundance of leaf litter from the park formed the ‘browns’ of the compost pile, and garden trimmings, the ‘greens’. Sweeping the dried leaves, I realised that my thinking had shifted. While I once thought that the park had nothing to offer and looked rather untidy with dried leaves on the floor; I started being thankful for the abundance of resources made freely available to us. The only food-related item we would add was fruit enzyme. We started adding it when judges of the biennial Communities-in-Bloom (CIB) competition by NParks told us that the fruit enzyme would speed up the composting process. It took six months for the composting process to complete. When the matured compost is sieved, the fine compost looks, smells and feels like rainforest soil. My community calls it ‘black gold’. We were happy with what we have achieved, but it was obvious that something was missing in the compost or soil we had; the plants did not always look healthy. Neighbours, who were former farmers, would mention that our soil and composting approach was not good enough. Some felt that animal manure was needed to add nitrogen and other essential nutrients to the soil. 

After initial research, I started asking fellow growers, neighbours and people living nearby if they would contribute food scraps. I also started reaching out on Facebook. Initial questions I received included the kinds of food scraps we would accept, how often, and in what quantities. Some people gave us bags of veggie cuttings and fruit peels collected over a week. Some, who live in other towns, would drive down with their food scraps or ready-made compost, happy to be able to contribute in some way. Still others would ask if we could do collection from their homes or businesses. With this, we started adding baskets worth of veggie cuttings, fruit peels, used coffee grounds, used tea leaves and more to our compost pile.

This was when I realised the space allocated for my estate’s community garden was sizable and that we would need more hands on deck in order to transform the soil quality in the entire garden.

As someone who do not drive, I started thinking again about what Alan shared. Could individuals or businesses collaborate to divert food scraps towards  composting or soil amendment efforts? Would people be willing to transport food scraps to where they are needed? Besides us, are other people and places willing to accept food scraps? Would an Uber-like solution be useful? Or would the work be more about nurturing good relationships, above and beyond an efficient solution?

The Opportunity

The famed ‘Tyre Lady’ and I had an opportunity to speak to the organisers of the Singapore Marathon. She had been emailing them to urge them to make mass events more sustainable and zero-waste.

I asked the organisers about the bananas they would hand out to their 10,000 runners. With this in mind, we wondered if we could gather volunteers to ensure proper collection of banana peels (and other useful items), to have these distributed to community gardens that do composting or soil amendment. We had just one month to the marathon to make this work. Eventually, we arranged for Alan to collect bags of rescued peels with his truck, and through Foodscape Collective’s network, distributed them to four community gardens. We set up a new volunteer group, ‘Green Ambassadors’, to ensure proper collection of items that would otherwise be wasted at the event. Li Seng, one of the main volunteers, saw value in this and integrated it as one of the activities offered by his social enterprise, Green Nudge.

Close to 350kg of banana peels were collected at the Singapore Marathon 2017. Not bad for a first attempt. Upon receiving the banana peels, we got down to work immediately; the peels would really smell if left exposed over time. Some buried the bananas in soil. Others, like myself, buried them in compost piles. Still others dried the peels in their dry boxes!

My fellow growers and I were amazed to see that the banana peels broke down really quickly. In just one to two weeks, the peels were no longer visible in the compost pile. This gave us the idea that aerobic composting could complete a lot faster when food scraps are used. Perhaps the food scraps are compost activators too?

With this visible success, the growers at my community garden became more receptive to giving and receiving food scraps in larger quantities. Growers started offering to collect bags of banana peels from mass events coordinated by Green Nudge. A hotel also reached out to support our efforts, and we now collect large containers of used coffee powder every week.

As we focused energy and time in making compost better, the fastest time we achieved from creating a new compost pile to sieving out fine compost for soil amendment was about three weeks. This was possible through consistent turning of compost at the garden, as well as larger and consistent contribution of food scraps from homes. With the 16 bags of banana peels received from Singapore Marathon 2018 (thanks, Green Nudge!), we created three compost piles, with the peels layered between maturing compost materials. The presence of food scraps attracted black soldier flies, which are welcomed as we have learnt the good work the larvae do from fellow grower, Ben Thum.

Using the fine compost, coco coir and existing soil in the garden, we would amend the soil in our garden beds. While we observed our plants doing better health-wise, we wondered if some simple soil tests would validate our observations. Debbie, a permaculture farmer, conducted some tests for us. Through the tests, we found that our compost was pH 7 and very low in nitrates (i.e. not enough to grow leafy vegetables). She suggested that the low nitrate level might be caused by nitrogen (from the food scraps) escaping when the compost pile is too hot. With this insight, we might now be able to tweak the process. 

The Possibilities

Alan’s community garden is at the edge of a forest. My estate’s community garden is in a small park, bordered by a landed estate. If a similar community composting effort is initiated at an HDB estate, what form might it take? Would the successes and challenges be similar? How might we share these approaches such that they can be adopted by various communities around Singapore? 

While thinking about how to transport car-load quantities of food scraps, I started thinking it would be valuable to have a mobile platform where people who are interested to use food scraps for composting or soil amendment could connect directly with people who are interested to give away food scraps for the purpose. Such a tool would help to remove barriers people face when starting such collaborations. I started to also think about the opportunities for people to earn even in small amounts (who could be paid an allowance for their fuel and time), or to receive something in-kind, so that there is a transfer of value. Yet before launching into developing such an app, we would need to have a sense of the presence of a sizeable community that would use such services.

How then do we know if there is a sizable community? One of my attempts to get a measure of this was to crowdsource for information. The process offered us valuable food for thought. I created forms for potential food scrap givers and receivers. This drew much interest and many people started suggesting food scraps for black soldier flies, eco enzyme or other use. There were many potential givers, including individuals, businesses and events. There were also many potential receivers, including new compost or black soldier fly farms still in the prototyping stage. There were still others who were keen to drop off food scraps at locations within walkable or cyclable distance, but not keen to start conversations with people they don’t know. I was also very hesitant to put my contact details in the web map.

Through exploratory interactions with people working in civil service, it was good to know that there are no regulatory hurdles to cross when introducing food scraps to composting. While the open-air composting approach my community garden uses does not require more than car-load worth of banana peels, these individuals in the civil service communicated their support of these efforts as people’s consistent and repeated choices and actions for more mindful and sustainable lifestyles would lead to tangible outcomes that benefit the community. 

Singapore generates tonnes of food waste everyday. Biodigester machines would be needed to take in much larger quantities of food, and also in more varied forms (not just vegetable cuttings and fruit peels). I envision a future where biodigester machines are more readily available at buildings including the void deck of HDBs. In this vision, one would easily find composting communities around Singapore – communities not restricted to composting in community garden spaces but spread out to parks and green areas, enhancing both the health of the land through its soil structure and also the health of the communities it supports. Perhaps this is something that one can make happen – an Uber for soil, and more.

Sustainability taught Pui Cuifen that sustainable living is more than protecting nature.It is how we choose to live, how we care for ourselves, and the people around us. A founding member of the collective, Cuifen is actively involved notably in areas of organisational development, education, and community. She is in transition, having left her day job as an environmental scientist / data specialist to discover what is meaningful. She is passionate in connecting with people and nature, and giving voice to the causes she believes in.