Compost at Sea


It’s hard to escape your past. After 14 years as the compost hotline operator, it has been hard for me to move beyond that identity. I occasionally think I may have been successful in creating a new persona. Like the time I wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper about eco-density (cramming more and possibly greener housing and office space into cities to avoid urban sprawl) and someone copied it onto the Kitsilano blog site calling me a “sustainable community guru.” Now that’s a handle! But just when my head begins to swell a bit, I am brought soundly back to earth.

For example, this week I was swarmed by a group of feisty seniors after a little talk I gave, on food security. I was on the poster as the food security expert and was to give the keynote address on resilient food systems. But the host managed to slip in a little dirt about my former role in her intro and that’s all that elderly mob wanted to talk about.

Everybody loves to talk about composting. Not that I mind. I continue to revel in the magic of turning rotten food waste into black gold. Still, I never know when the compost hotline is going to ring through to my present.

Several years ago I was in a tiny village in Mexico. It was Christmas morning and I was up early walking around an old deserted church. A couple approached me. I was expecting them to ask if I knew what time Mass was being celebrated, instead the question was, “Hey aren’t you the worm lady?” They were from Vancouver and had attended one of the hundreds of “wormshops” I gave at the Compost Demonstration Garden. The worms were still happily eating garbage on their apartment balcony.

Then just the other day a friend called to find out what she should do with her compost while at sea with her husband. A few days into the trip, she might also be asking what to do with her husband while at sea with her compost. Coincidentally, the two situations could be resolved in much the same way (see brackets).

“If it’s just a couple days, I usually keep it in a bucket and take it home for the backyard bin, but we’ll be sailing for a week this time,” she said.

Presumably, by “it” she meant uncooked fruit and vegetable waste, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters. Nevertheless…

“It (and he) would stink to the high seas by then,” I empathized.

“Should I throw it (him) overboard?” she wanted to know.

Now I knew I was on dangerous ground here. I once threw a banana peel out the car window thinking it would be food for the animals in the forest or would simply decompose and feed the foliage. I was severely reprimanded by an environmentalist who was riding with me. Apparently getting wild animals hooked on our food was not a good idea. I wrote about that in my book Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator.

She could keep a worm bin on deck I suppose. Or even a bucket with some dry fall leaves and stripped up newspaper to bury the food waste in. But I know I can fill a bucket with food scraps after a couple meals. And granted she would need a pretty large bucket for her husband.

“If it were me I’d probably chuck it (him) into the drink,” I said. After all, I rationalized, it (he) wouldn’t be nearly as bad (or greasy) as what the Exxon Valdez spilled, nor as toxic as all the junk those foreign ships are dumping off the coast of Somalia.

“It might get the salmon addicted to organic lettuce (or fleshy husbands), but don’t think it will kill anything,” I reassured my friend. Well, of course depending on which course of action she takes. I did not want “aiding and abetting compost criminals” in any future introductions.

“Let’s just keep this conversation between us,” I said to my friend. Well not a friend so much as an acquaintance.

Oh and ahoy mateys. Just because this site is called The Compost Diaries and my first post is a com-post, please don’t get the wrong idea. This blog is NOT. I repeat NOT about composting food waste (or other compostable items). At least not exclusively.

7 Replies to “Compost at Sea

  1. Hey – never thought of composting at sea quite this way before, so thanks.

    I’m a sailor on the West Coast (of Canada) and I’ve always chucked my food remnants overboard. Given the amount of crap I see in the water, I figure the least we’ve got to worry about is some Harbour Seal strung out on banana peels.

    I do have some important sailing lore to pass along though. When dumping egg shells overboard, it is very important to crush them up into small pieces. Legend has it that ‘faeries’ use egg shells as vessels to get to your boat, where upon much hijinks ensue.

    Glad to see you posting – keep it up !

    -Robert in Vancouver
    SV Madsu

  2. Spring I like your infusion of compost into daily lives. It certainly changes your outlook on eating when you pay attention to where the food you don’t eat ends up. I love that a walk with you, often starts with a trip to a compost heap.

    Looking forward to more posts about the wide world of food…

    – Aron

  3. Sea compost, i love it! As an ocean kayaker, who has wrestled with “carrying out what you carry in” for years, we are living very close to the water line. So paddling through floating banana peels, orange peels and egg shells is not my idea of a good time, and have even been known to pick “floaters” out of the drink (maybe to the chagrin of the faeries)…but of course all is relative..i did miss the exon valdez experience.

    While not ideal, we tend to create a very complex triple bag system…where the 3 bags are placed inside one another, the food waste goes into the bag, a knot is tied and it is tossed in the bottom of the boat until the next meal…repeat process, take home to backyard compost. Longer trips may need more bags. It does get a bit soggy, though doesn’t leak, and smelly, but heck, i am out in the wilderness to have a different experience from home.

    looking forward to other mariner composting lore

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