As someone with a disability affecting my whole body, there are some things I wish I could do myself; composting is one of them. Composting is great for the environment. Instead of trashing biodegradable waste for landfills, I turn it into something beneficial for soil and gardens.
Composting is a source of conflict sometimes since I can’t do it independently – my family thinks it’s gross, my personal care assistants (“PAs”) are not crazy about helping me compost, and one of my neighbors complains. I often think maybe I should stop composting. But I haven’t yet. Below are some different types of composting I’ve tried and what has and hasn’t worked for me.
A compost pile is throwing everything on the ground. I had a pile in between my driveway and my neighbor’s fence; there’s a small patch of land that was away from my backyard, where my dogs roam free and pee on everything or could eat compost from.
This is the easiest way to compost, cheapest, and most forgiving. So far, I like the pile method the best.
When done correctly, compost is not supposed to smell bad or attract flies. My compost pile was fine until the summer heat hit. It may have been because it was my first composting attempt or that my neighborhood already gets flies swarms in the summer, but they were partying it up around my pile. So my neighbor complained.
From my power wheelchair, I could uncover the tarp that I used to cover the pile and check on how it was doing, in terms of moisture, etc. I tied a rope to the tarp to make it easier to grasp. As someone with spastic cerebral palsy, dropping things on the ground is a natural occurrence. So I was able to dump a bucket of food waste on the pile. With more effort, I could mix the pile with a pitchfork. I still had PAs help with these tasks and watering when needed.
I tried worm composting (AKA vermicomposting), where you buy red wriggler worms and put them in a bin with air holes and a lid. When you start, you need bedding like coconut coir, which is environmentally friendlier than peat moss but more expensive.
Worm composting takes up less space and can be easily done in apartments. I started them in an old plastic drawer my dad drilled holes in and covered it with a black garbage bag, since the worms like the dark. Unless you get a fancy worm bin, the only big expenses are the bedding and worms.
Worm composting has more limitations. Worms cannot eat large amounts or certain foods, like citrus, spicy, and cooked food. I killed two batches of worms over two years. I think I overfed them and it may have been too hot in the garage.
I could easily open the drawer to check on the worms and deposit waste, as the drawer was tall enough for me to open. However, it was harder for me to cover it with a garbage bag. When the drawer overfilled, I made more worm bins from plastic storage bins with air holes drilled along the top. The lids on these bins were harder for me to open, especially when the bins were on the floor—lower than my reach from my wheelchair. Like all things, individuals with disabilities will need to experiment to find what works for their unique needs.
I got the Lamborghini of tumbler composters made in Sweden for my birthday. It’s basically a horizontal drum on metal rods that you can rotate. My upgraded model had foam to keep compost hot, even in winter.
This has capacity to hold a lot, mine held up to 70 gallons. My tumbler alleges that it makes compost in four weeks once filled. I did find this faster than the other options I tried.
My tumbler was difficult for my dad to assemble, which was a common complaint among reviews. It was also expensive. Even cheaper versions of this can cost hundreds of dollars.
My tumbler had a military latch to lock the bin doors. Although I could unlock the latch to open it to put waste in, I could not lock it. I am pretty strong and while I could rock the tumbler, I could not fully rotate it myself. Since these tumblers are made for able-bodied people standing and for wheelbarrows to fit underneath, I had trouble seeing inside to check on the moisture. I saw several videos of this specific composter, yet I did not know how accessible it’d be until I got it to try myself.
I just learned of and started Bokashi composting. It is basically fermenting your materials with bacteria. You need at least one 5-gallon bucket, bucket top, and Bokashi bran. You can buy Bokashi bran (grain covered in Bokashi bacteria) on Amazon or make your own by watching Youtube video instructions.
This method doesn’t involve any mixing or liquids. The key here is adding as little air as possible, but can compost more types of materials, like meat and dairy.
Some say the Bokashi bacteria smells bad, namely the process of making the bacteria. Also, after the bucket is full and sits for four weeks, it’s not ready to use—it must be mixed into regular compost. Although the bucket materials can be cheaply made (unless you buy a ready made system), the Bokashi bran is expensive.
If mixing is hard, Bokashi (and worm composting) may be the best method. Depending on the type of bucket lid, I was able to open it to put waste in. Tutorials recommended putting a paper plate or cardboard circle cutout on top to press the air out of the compost. The cutout I used was hard to remove myself, as it would usually be moist. I also have limited fine motor skills, so I needed help pouring the Bokashi bran (which is like grain) from a zipped bag into the bucket. I also couldn’t mix the Bokashi end product in my compost tumbler myself.
Experiment to find what works best for your disability. I would love to find a way to compost 100% independently. Save the planet, try composting!
Esther S. Lee is an attorney with a disability affecting her speech and mobility, but not her spirit. She opened Disability Law Collective, an affordable law practice providing legal advocacy for the everyday legal needs of people with disabilities and their families. She also started a non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities, called Able Community.