An Adventure in Composting Gone Very Wrong

At what point is an indoor compost drawer no longer okay?


Years ago, before the advent of quiet kitchen composters that look more like Xboxes than trash heaps, I got a worm bin. A worm bin is essentially a compost bucket filled with worms that eat your table scraps and, over time, turn them into ... compost. You're supposed to get a worm bin because you're trying to reduce landfill waste. You're supposed to get a worm bin to create nutrient rich dirt-stuff for your beautiful plants and/or terrific garden. You're supposed to get a worm bin to help create a more sustainable planet. I did it for all those reasons, but mostly I got a worm bin because I'm lazy and hate cleaning.

I'm what my dad would call "not administratively inclined," which is a businessman's way of saying I'm a mess of a human being. I used to say I hated cleaning because it was "anti-feminist," which fooled no one. I'm sure bell hooks owns a broom. But I do have real reasons. The first one is cleaning products make me nervous because of all the chemicals, and the second one is because I feel like it's a waste of valuable time. When I clean I can't help but think of everything I'm not doing. Forget that realistically what I'd be doing is probably wasting time on the computer watching kittens swimming or whatever is de rigeur for falling into a bleak time suck of cat videos. Somehow, the very act of cleaning itself thwarts me into thinking there's some higher purpose which is and remains unfulfilled because I've got to clean the gunk off the dumb stove. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, I'm very absent minded -- I enter the kitchen looking for an apple, and leave with all the cabinet doors wide open and something cooking in the microwave I may or may not claim later, and whatever it is, it'll be awhile before I clean it up. I feel bad for anyone who's ever lived with me (so does my dad -- you'll be on his side in a sec).

I thought worms that ate garbage could help. It seemed like a way to be lazy while reaping the good guy benefits of looking out for the environment. I didn't have to take out the trash if there was none to take out. I'd just throw the worms in a bin, add my scraps, and then have wonderful compost -- a process similar to how a Muppet might cook a souffle.

My bin arrived -- all seven parts of it, and I quickly learned composting with a worm bin is nothing like a Muppet souffle. There are five layers to the decomposition process portioned out by trays, and within the trays is this mixture of newspaper and peat moss, and you have to regularly monitor the system because it can become too alkaline or too acidic. There's also a matter of the living worms, which you have to keep alive in order for them to do their job. In order to keep them alive, in addition to having a PH-balanced mossy paper plastic tray house to live in, they must be spared from the elements such as excessive heat, or rain.

For a while I was making the system work. I would bring little jars of compost to my friends like a little Greenpeace Santa Claus. "This came from stuff I ate!" I'd proclaim over and over again, hoping they wouldn't run out of enthusiasm for dirt gifts. This system worked for a while, and then...

It rained. At the time I remember thinking, "Worms can't drown," but this is stupid. I knew worms could drown, but my brain wanted to believe they couldn't because the idea of cleaning up one plastic bucket of dead, bloated worms woven amongst wet, mossy newspaper seemed daunting. The idea of five buckets sucked infinitely more.

When the rain stopped after a few days, I opened the sliding glass door to my little stucco balcony in Culver City where my worm bin had once towered proudly only to find what I feared -- 5 tiers of stinking bloated Red Wigglers. I took a deep breath and cleaned up the tiers, leaving the plastic bins out on the balcony to dry. Although I failed, I felt proud that I was responsible enough to at least clean up my mess. I made a solid promise to gather more newspaper, buy more worms and peat moss, collect more table scraps, and rebuild the worm tower. Only one of those things happened.

I never bought the worms, or the moss, or collect the newspaper. I did keep collecting table scraps in my fridge though -- banana peels and wilted lettuce and the like. When the crisper drawer of my fridge became at capacity with table scraps, I thought a lot about cleaning it out, but never seemed to find the time (not being able to "find the time" by the way is an excuse lazy people say when they're too paralyzed by their own inaction). Inevitably, table scraps turned into bruised fruits and wilted veggies, turned into neglected tupperware filled with expired leftovers, turned into basically squirreling away straight up garbage. You know, for the worm bin -- because worms are super good at digesting half cans of diet soda and a week old pot of mac 'n cheese. Welcome to being on my dad's side.

Eventually the fridge became beyond my control and I was scared to even open it. I imagined opening the door and there would be this Biblical-sized reckoning where Ghostbusters-style ooze was everywhere like when Vigo's all up in the sewer. My laziness had created a completely different decomposition system than I'd intended, and it was frightening me. But like how I'm inclined to deal with most situations that have frightened me in the past, I thought it best to just ignore the thing, cause that's how you make things go away, right? Meh.

For a while, with the help of Thai food take-out, I could almost ignore my disgusting refrigerator and whatever potential Superfund site was percolating inside. Then I had to move out of my apartment.

Maybe the one thing I hate more than cleaning is asking for help. So even though I found packing up an entire 250-square-foot bachelor apartment to be absolutely daunting, when my friend Jackie called offering to come by later and help, I said, "I've got it under control, thanks!"

She came over anyway. And when she came over, she went right to the fridge. And I said, "If you love me, you won't open that," which is the thing you say when whatever's inside will change your relationship forever. Fearing someone might discover your copious number of cocaine bricks, or a dead body part collection, might be good reasons. This is another reason.

It was so sweet of Jackie to try and play it cool -- like she'd seen a bucket of expired Thai food leaking into a Wall Street Journal from 3 months ago on top of a baking dish lined with green fur ALL THE TIME. Meekly when she saw The Horror, I was like, "You don't have to do that..." And she said, "No, it's fine."

Then, 30 minutes later, she reneged on her coolness. "This is SO not fine!" She shouted from between the fetid fridge racks.

And I said, "It was for the environment!"

And she exclaimed, "Who are you!?"

And I pleaded, "Remember the compost?" But she was busy off and throwing away entire pots and dishes and forks -- so many forks in my fridge! I realized it would have been better if I just would have thrown the food out like normal instead of trying my luck at composting to begin with. And what was I even thinking trying to have a worm bin for compost when I couldn't even take care of the plants the compost was meant for? My stucco balcony had one wind chime, that's it!

Any time I tried to gain back control of the situation, Jackie would rightly tell me to shut up, and I'd continue packing my part of the apartment up in silence. And we're not really friends anymore, not because of this, but maybe because of this. My dad's still my friend though, but he kind of has to be I guess.

I've gotten better -- a lot better. I still think cleaning is a waste of valuable time, so I try to listen to a podcast or something while I do it to make sure my brain doesn't die. I try to use environmentally friendly cleaners when I can get them, and I try very, very hard to close all the kitchen cabinet doors when I leave the room. And I even manage to choke the tiny voice in my head once in awhile that says asking for help makes you a weak person.

The trunk of my car though -- I loathe that eventual day of reckoning like you wouldn't believe. And the day will come. That thing's leased.