SEATTLE'S `MASTER COMPOSTERS'. They spread the good word about easy home composting

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THIS fall Dianne Blake, a Seattle resident, spent much of her spare time making house calls - or, more accurately, garden calls around the city. On other occasions she manned a telephone hot line or an information booth at a shopping mall. Increasingly, she is called on to give slide show presentations. Mrs. Blake is one of Seattle's 100-strong team of accredited ``Master Composters'' who are spreading the word about home composting. They're telling city residents about its benefits and importance both for the individual homeowner and the city at large. Master Composters introduce people to the various composting methods that are available. They show them how to undertake a composting project, sometimes with a hands-on demonstration at the resident's home.

The long-term impact these specialists will have on Seattle's waste stream (some 30 percent of the city's garbage is garden and kitchen waste) is still uncertain. But the participating homeowner's garden will most certainly benefit. So will his pocketbook, because residents are charged by the bag for garbage removal.

Seattle has an ambitious goal: to recycle 75 percent of its yard waste, and thereby extend the life of its dwindling landfill sites. Don Kneass, waste-reduction manager of the city's Solid Waste Utility, hopes that a centralized facility to shred and compost yard waste may come into being sometime in the future. Meanwhile, he hopes that much of the organic waste generated in the home will stay at home - recycled into a soil-enriching odor-free compost.

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The Master Composter's program, modeled on the successful, nationwide Master Gardener's program, is a key element in the city's Community Composting Education Program, begun in late 1985. Master Composters, who range from housewives to book editors and university professors, go through a 36-hour training course that includes both classroom and on-the-job instruction.

Those who successfully complete the course are given that preeminently useful composting tool, the pitchfork, a compost thermometer, and a training manual. Then they are told to go out to spread the word wherever they can and to assist the newcomers to composting at every opportunity.

Among other things, Blake used a couple of garage sales at her home last summer to get out the message. In between selling and making change, she would take any interested party on a quick tour of her family's compost bins. Several invitations to give slide show presentations came from those garage sales.

Currently, she says, ``trouble shooting'' the operations of newcomers to composting is a major part of her work. Frequently, she says, newcomers do much better than they believe is possible. ``Recently I had a call from a woman whose compost pile wasn't heating up. When I got there, I found she had beautiful compost. It was finished and ready to use. She couldn't believe it had all happened so fast.''

The city also has a major composting demonstration site at its Good Shepherd community center, where 16 composting methods - from simple trenches to turning units, and earthworm bins - are on display. The idea, according to Howard Stenn, the program coordinator, is to provide a range of composting options so that homeowners can choose a system that best suits their individual life styles.

In 1984 the City of Seattle made the decision that waste reduction would become a priority in its waste management program and announced it would accept proposals from the general public. Recognizing that yard waste could be most readily and inexpensively removed from the waste stream, Seattle Tilth submitted a home-composting proposal.

As an organization formed some years earlier to promote ecological gardening and farming, it was uniquely equipped to develop such a program. The proposal was accepted and put into operation late in 1985, when the search for ``Master Composter'' trainees began.

Fifty of the first 100 applicants were approved the first year, and another 50 added this year. More will be trained and added to the roster as the need arises.

One gauge of the early success of the program is the roughly 150 guided group tours of the demonstration site in each of the past two years and a similar number of self-guided tours, Mr. Stenn says. He also notes that about 20,000 how-to brochures have been distributed this year, twice the number given out the previous season. The individual Master Composters have made about 8,000 contacts since the program began.

As news of the unique Seattle approach has slowly spread, Seattle Tilth has been approached by civic organizations elsewhere for information. As a result, the non-profit organization has developed a planning packet that includes the original proposal, a training manual, educational plans, display site plans, outreach materials, and budget analysis.

The planning packet mentioned is available for $26 from Seattle Tilth Association, 4649 Sunnyside Ave., North Seattle, WA 98103. Or you can telephone (206) 633-0224.

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