Interview and photos by Emma Badeia
Organic material, particularly from food, makes up the largest proportion of waste in the average Auckland refuse bin, and qualifies as the largest domestic contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
This was the word from the 2018 Auckland Waste Management and Minimalisation Plan – news which further motivated Katrina Wolff with a keen eagerness towards her vision of a city rich in household and community composting systems. Her composting consultation and education programmes share her wealth of knowledge in the hope of rustling up some conscious action.
I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of this education as Katrina toured me through her West Coast organic oasis, explaining the ins and outs of her various composting systems. Every bathtub, bin, sack and hole was occupied with her alchemy; in the form of compost, worm farms and biodynamic preps. Accordingly, an abundant rambling garden radiant with produce speaks for the enriching environment she creates. A simple give and take principle could be applied to the success of this thriving ecosystem Katrina has fostered in her own backyard, and in that of others throughout the city. It seems only right that we nourish the earth with energy in exchange for what we consume.
Perhaps a shift towards a more balanced and harmonious relationship with our food production could only be a matter of perception. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, so to speak, and where some may see leftovers, Katrina sees energy. The term ‘waste’ comes with associations of neglect, excess and redundancy – hardly enticing. With Katrina’s more considered view of our by-products we may come to a path where we better direct it – away from landfill and into our own backyard.
What sparked your passion for composting?
I first got interested in composting after attending a community workshop in Hamilton in 2007, and learned that comfrey and borage are great companion plants to grow especially for compost. This intrigued me, and I began what I now see was ‘conscious composting’.
A few years later I moved to Titirangi, West Auckland, and my children went to the Steiner school there. I joined a reading group to learn more about anthroposophy and Steiner education. The people in this reading group also gathered for biodynamic stirs*. That was my first introduction to biodynamics, and it took a few years to gain the confidence to buy the preparations and use them independently. At some point I came across the documentary One Man, One Cow, One Planet.
I remember putting the biodynamic compost preparations into my plastic compost bin, thinking ‘let’s see if this works!’, and in hindsight, I wasn’t expecting much difference in the end product. I was surprised then, when a few months later I opened up the bin to a compost unlike anything I’d made before – it was soft, and so well broken down, and very dark, like crumbles of a dark chocolate cake. From that point on I was converted.
For me composting is not just about disposing of food waste and garden waste – it’s more of a process of alchemy, mixing different ratios of cow manure, seaweed, companion plants, experimenting with the mixing and layering, and then observing what effects different things have on the end product.
Also, I’m doing my utmost to avoid single use plastic, therefore buying bags of compost is no longer an option for me.
Why do you believe composting to be an integral part of the food cycle?
I love the NZ Organic Magazine slogan – oranga nuku, oranga kai, oranga tangata – healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people. We really do need the soil to be the best it can be in order to grow good food.
The food waste that ends up in landfill is not able to be used for growing good soil, and THIS is the real waste in my mind. I wouldn’t mind being referred to as a soil farmer, as much as a gardener or urban farmer.
I enjoy pulling plants up out of the ground, not just for the joy of cooking and eating freshly harvest vegetables, but more to see what the soil is like that they have been growing in. Year by year my soil is improving, and due to my ‘mix it all together’ style of gardening, there is very little digging into the ground. Digging up a few crops is when I get to have a poke and count the worms.
Tell me about the situation as you see it in Auckland city, your vision for the future and the role that composting plays in that vision.
The household rubbish that is sent to landfill is currently about 50% organic matter, i.e. easily compostable stuff. We are running out of landfill space, and now the city needs to build new commercial composting facilities. These are large, expensive operations, and even with the very best processes, they are probably fairly smelly. Would you want one next door to you?
What’s more, imagine if every rubbish truck that picks up rubbish then takes it to a larger depot, where it goes on a larger truck, which then drives 50-80km to drop the stuff off. Petrol is getting more and more expensive. We have a user pays system, and so the costs are going to rise.
As a city we are moving towards a circular economy. Part of this move is going to be a more circular food system. My vision is one where the materials for composting are not transported far at all, and so the question I ask is this: Can we incorporate the composting process without adding the largely unnecessary carbon footprint of transporting it far, far away?
I see the potential for Auckland to divert a huge amount of food waste away from landfill, and process it in household compost bins, school worm farms, community bokashi buckets, and the end product being used right where it is made – in home, school, and community gardens.
I imagine a city where making humus rich soil is a valued skill, where truckloads of cow manure are brought into the city and given out in small amounts to whoever wants it, where the trees that have to be trimmed then get mulched and that mulch is then made available to gardeners who can make use of it, be it in compost or for making pathways. I would even say that the green waste garden bags don’t need to be trucked out of town to the commercial composting facilities. Has the time come to meet more of our neighbours and support home composters? Or have we created so many jobs ‘dealing with waste’ that a change in behaviour would now mean economic uncertainty for too many who rely on a systems approach to large-scale composting?
What are the key societal shifts that you feel need to happen in order for composting to become mainstream?
People need to understand that composting is creating something valuable. Once we value the contents of our compost bins, then perhaps more people will value the raw ingredients – the food scraps, the weeds, the mulch, the cow or horse manure, the grass clippings, and the companion plants.
It is tempting to think that when the problem is huge, the solution needs to be equal in size. I would like to make a counter-intuitive suggestion, and say the opposite. Although the problem is large, perhaps the solution is small, but small measures taken by a huge number of people. Much the way ants or bees work, each contributing what they can. I would personally be quite happy to do grocery shopping and arrive home with a bucket of vegetable scraps along with my groceries. If 500 people did that each day, would there still be an enormous problem?
We are becoming more health conscious as a society, and asking what is in our food. I would like to think we can also start asking ‘what’ is in our soil’?
What drives you to share your skills and resources through education programmes?
I was not brought up using a compost bin. It’s a skill I learned as an adult and even as an avid gardener I spent many years throwing food scraps into my general rubbish bags. Once I did learn about composting I decided to share this skill. I meet so many people who are at the stage I was at not very long ago – thinking composting is difficult, and something you have to do correctly or not at all. In actual fact , like most things, it’s best to just have a go, and learn by making a few mistakes, and trying a few different methods.
Another aspect of the skill sharing is driven by my conviction that growing food is cheaper than buying it. We have too many families in New Zealand who cannot afford to eat well, and this just has to change. I might not reach everyone who needs to learn, but perhaps I can influence people who in turn will have influence over a whole school, a church, a community centre, or an apartment complex. There is a tipping point coming, and the key is repeated conversations, and sharing the knowledge until it is totally mainstream.
Tell me about the interactions and feedback you have received through these programmes – has it been optimistic?
The response I get from people is what encourages me to keep going. One acquaintance left the country to go live in England, and the last thing she said was ‘Please keep doing what you are doing, it is so important.’
A lot of people love what I’m attempting. There are skeptics, of course. And the hardest to convert to a sustainable waste-free lifestyle might be my own parents!
The most enthusiasm comes from the children I meet, and I’m so pleased to be able to say that most of the primary school aged children I meet are very clued up about gardening, worm farming, how food scraps are valuable, and why we ought to grow food in our backyards.
The interactions that sadden me are the people who have not yet learned to garden at all, but always wondered if they could. There’s a sense of nervousness, a wish to get it right without failure, and a need to figure out all the rules before beginning. We have perhaps come so environmentally aware, that we only trust the experts to do it right?
What are some easy steps that people could take to start to implement composting as a part of their routine?
Firstly, do a waste audit. Take a look at what goes into landfill, and see if it’s all unable to go anywhere else. Then, if you aren’t a composter, get to a workshop or lecture (compost collective run free courses through Auckland). There are video clips on the internet, there are books in the library, and chances are there is someone who lives near you who would love to give you a helping hand.
ShareWaste and MakeSoil are great mechanisms for getting your scraps into the right kind of compost system. I’ve had donors bring me their scraps, who then decide they will compost themselves once they learn a little bit. I think this is an example of a successful model of education – peer to peer learning.
Finally, if you want to do it on your property, but don’t want to do it yourself, then call on me at Blue Borage for my customised compost care. I’ll probably end up encouraging you to learn with/from a neighbour, but will have a go at getting you up and running with small changes, tips and tricks.
Each household is so different. I doubt that there is a single perfect solution to meet the needs of every family in Auckland. So get playing, and figure out what could work for your home.
* A biodynamic stir refers to Biodynamic Preparation 500, in which a small quantity of cow dung – fermented in a buried cow horn over winter – is dissolved in water by stirring it for an hour, often as a group, in one direction and then the other, crating vortexes which oxygenate and energise the water.