As one of the major driving forces behind Fish Creek Community Composter, Marg Watson is leading from the front with creative new solutions. The Community Composter brings businesses, residents, and community groups together to encourage sustainable food consumption, disposal, and production habits in Fish Creek and across South Gippsland.
Food wastage in Australia
Food wastage is a big problem in Australia, with 7.3 million tonnes of food destroyed every year according to OzHarvest. To put this number into perspective, that amount of food would fill 13,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Food is wasted evenly across the entire supply chain, from farms and homes to the retail and hospitality sectors. A massive 298 kg of food is wasted per person each year, with 20% of all groceries ending up in the bin. From fruits and vegetables to breads and leftovers, $3,800 worth of groceries are thrown away per household each year.
While food security in Australia is fairly good by global standards, reliable access to food is certainly not a given. Over 5 million Australians experience food insecurity each year, and roughly one-quarter of this number are children. Along with food insecurity, food wastage is linked with a number of environmental problems, including landfill pollution. When organic matter is composted and delivered back to the earth, excessive nitrogen and carbon matter becomes a resource instead of a problem.
Simple local solutions to complex global problems
As an experienced green thumb and compost enthusiast, Marg Watson felt compelled to address emerging food insecurity and waste issues in her local community. Like many significant global problems, local solutions can have a huge impact when they're repeated, scaled, and embraced by the wider community. The composter project was an attempt to solve small and tangible food waste problems, first for the local community gardens and then for the wider community.
According to Marg, “The world has quite a few challenges ahead of itself, but that's no reason not to act. Any huge changes come from the bottom up.”
The Fish Creek Community Composter was started by a local collective after receiving a grant from Pick My Project. This initiative was driven by community votes, with Marg and the team handing out pamphlets in local markets and streets to help secure the much-needed funds. After the initial funding drive was successful, the team behind the project soon realised there was lots of work to be done.
Introducing the Fish Creek Community Composter
The premise behind the project is simple, with local residents supplying organic waste material to feed the composter in order to avoid landfill. Not only is this a great way to avoid waste, but it's also a fantastic resource for community gardens across the region. Residents and community groups can both join the project, and the much-needed compost material goes to Buckley Park Community Farm, Fish Creek Community Garden, Manna Community Garden Foster, and Fish Creek Primary School.
Businesses and individuals pay an annual membership fee, at $25 per individual and $50 for businesses. There is equipment available for easy material transportation, and a refundable deposit provides access to wheelie bins, hessian sacks, and food/waste buckets. Members can access the shed at any time with a passcode, with a special delivery time available for agapanthus heads to help avoid blockages and prevent monoculture.
By accepting and composting agapanthus heads, the community composter manages to solve a very real problem in the local community. Instead of individuals composting their own materials, and weeds spreading as a result, the community composter manages to condense and eliminate the problem. This example highlights the advantages of a community-based approach, where the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.
Marg on monoculture within composting: “Let's say 100% Agapanthus Heads are fed into the compost because a monoculture outside is bad for the environment. But to me, I want to give all my bacteria and microbes a bit of variety to eat. So I’m not into monocultures nor am I into monoculture composting.”
The Rocket composter
The Fish Creek Community Composter uses a "Rocket" composter, which is a sealed, automated, and controlled form of composting that offers numerous benefits over the manual alternative. The Rocket runs slowly and silently 24/7, turning and aerating the compost material every few hours. The material inside the composter is lifted and dropped continuously, which keeps away vermin and speeds up the composting process. Organic materials can be composted in roughly two weeks, which is much more efficient than standard garden systems that take up to six months.
The Rocket composter accepts all organic matter, from old fruits and vegetables to plants and weeds. It cannot process plastics, glass, or sprayed weeds, but it can deal with dairy products, breads, and meats. Along with constant movement, the Rocket has a heating element that boosts microbes and speeds up material breakdown inside the cylinder. While there is an energy cost associated with this form of composting, the Rocket is highly efficient and powered by solar energy.
Real community composting
This community composter is great on many levels, not just because of what it does but also because of how it involves the entire community. There are four local cafes involved in the project: Long John Pickle, Gibson’s, and Little Oberon in Fish Creek, and Walkerville Kiosk in Walkerville. Residents come from all over South Gippsland Shire to use the composter, mostly from Fish Creek, Walkerville, Sandy Point, and Foster.
According to Marg, the future growth and evolution of the project is about “getting people to ask questions. The next step is to ask the cafe where all their food waste goes. So if it goes to the landfill well you've got a choice to either support that cafe or say thanks but no thanks and explain why you walked out.”
From the outset, Marg and the team have had a proactive approach to community engagement. They wrote articles in their local newspaper to encourage people to vote for funding, and they continued to keep people informed once the project was up and running. They have entered into partnerships with other local groups, including the Prom Coast Festival and Fish Creek Children’s Literature Day. During the recent opening day working bee, members enjoyed live music and great food from one of the involved local cafes.
Looking towards a brighter future
The Fish Creek Community Composter has entered into a valuable partnership with South Gippsland Shire. While the Shire started a great program planting flowers and vegetables on local street verges, the composting systems in place were inadequate due to shared resources and lack of awareness. Instead of materials going to landfill, the collective created a large bay at Buckley Park Community Farm to support ongoing composting by the Shire.
The collective continues to assist with other environmental programs, including a partnership with the Walkerville Ratepayers Association. They're running a clean-up day at the Walkerville foreshore to remove and compost the problematic sea spurge plant. The project continues to focus on food wastage and sustainable composting in the local community, as residents, local businesses, and community organisations come together around local and life-affirming environmental values.
The Fish Creek Community Composter project has applied for a sustainability grant to measure the environmental and cultural impact of the composter. In addition, Federation University has approached the group about the possibility of doing a research study. The future goals of the project are simple, with Marg and the hardworking team looking to expand the member base, involve more local businesses, and find new ways to benefit the local community. If you're interested in the Fish Creek Community Composter, you can reach out via the Facebook page.