Interview With The Straits Times (Full Transcript)

We were recently interviewed by The Straits Times for a composting article that was published on 21 January.

Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the interview. We believe it will help you get to know us—and all about composting—better!

Please introduce yourselves.

Hello, we’re Joseph and Sarah, a husband-wife team that makes up Composting In Singapore (CIS). We’re also founders of Kainosis Sustainability Development Consultancy (Kainosis).

 

When did you start Composting In Singapore (CIS) and why?

We first got to know about composting in 2009. At that time, we were undergraduates in National University of Singapore working on a user experience design project related to composting.

After the project ended, we wanted to gain first-hand experience in composting—right at the corridor of (Sarah’s) HDB apartment. We also wanted to turn household wastes into fertiliser for our plants at home.

Composting bins at the doorstep of Sarah’s HDB apartment. They’re conveniently placed beside potted plants and located directly above the corridor drainage.

 

A closer look at the composting bins

We were surprised to discover how easy, odor-free, and pest-free composting was—even in space-strapped, high-rise apartments. As not many people in Singapore practiced or knew about composting at the time, we decided to create a website and YouTube channel to share our experiences.

 

When did you start the CIS Facebook page and why?

When we started sharing our composting experiences on our website and YouTube channel, we started getting a lot of interest and questions from local and overseas viewers.

Shortly after, we created a Facebook page to answer queries on a more central and interactive platform. This also enabled us to form a composting community where people could share tips and exchange ideas.

Screengrab from Composting In Singapore’s Facebook page

CIS is also unique because it provides composting guidance for people who live in the tropics. If you do a quick search online about composting, you’ll find most information catered to temperate climates only.

We’re also passionate about our country’s long-term sustainability. So we decided to share everything we know and guide others on how they can easily recycle wastes into something incredibly beneficial like fertiliser.

We’re blessed that CIS has grown a lot since 2009. Today, we run a consultancy that provides fun and interactive compost booths and workshops for schools, corporates, and communities.

Our experiences include a composting demonstration on ‘live’ television and a composting feasibility study in Cambodia where we had the opportunity to train and teach villagers.

Joseph (extreme right) with presenters of Hello Singapore, a news and current affairs programme. We were invited to demonstrate do-it-yourself composting on the ‘live’ television program.

Our long-term vision is to combine our first-hand experience in aquaponics (growing fish and vegetables in a closed-loop system) with composting. We see great synergy between them, and we believe they can play a significant role in food security and sustainable living.

 

What do you compost at home?

We compost common household wastes such as raw kitchen scraps (rotten, unwanted vegetable parts), fruit scraps (banana peels, apple cores etc), newspapers, empty toilet rolls, used coffee grounds, used tea bags, and many more.

There’s really plenty at home that can go right into a compost bin and be upcycled into fertiliser!

What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

There are commonly two challenges to composting—pests and smells.

However, these are easily mitigated by balancing the moisture in the compost bin. For example, for every bowlful of ‘greens‘ (i.e. raw kitchen wastes) that you add to your bin, add the same (if not, slightly more) amount of ‘browns‘ such as shredded newspapers.

This prevents the material in your bin from getting too wet and soggy—one of the main causes of pests and smells.

It is also important to layer the top of your bin with sufficient dry material (such as hay or layers of newspaper). This forms a first line of defense from flies that are finding a moist place to lay their eggs in.

We also leave our bin open, rather than closing it with a lid. This allows oxygen to enter the bin—another important factor for composting.

Other tips include keeping the area around your bin clean and dry. And if you’re having trouble controlling odors, an immediate fix would be to cover the top of your compost pile with a thick layer of hay.

There are many types of composting methods. Which do you use and why? Can you briefly describe how the method works?

There is a method called “hot pile composting” which requires your compost pile to be large in size (at least 1m x 1m x 1m). In this case, the temperature in the compost pile would rise so high that you can even see lots of steam coming out of it!

Because of the high temperature (that is made possible by a large compost pile), it is safe to add wastes such as cooked food and animal manure. The heat would be able to kill harmful bacteria found in these materials.

However, as we live in a high-rise apartment, we don’t have much space to compost in a large capacity. Our compost bins are only slightly larger than a regular wastepaper basket. As such, our composting method is called “cold pile composting”, because the temperature in our bins remains at room temperature—if not warm, at most.

We use this “cold pile composting” method as it is virtually free—there’s no need to buy any expensive equipment or material except for a simple plastic container to compost in. It also does not require electricity or any form of automation.

Simply add your household wastes to your bin, ensure a good mix of wet and dry materials, add a bit of water and “compost starters” (such as soil or used coffee grounds). Keep it warm with a layer of newspapers at the top, and the beneficial microorganisms in your pile will automatically go to work on your wastes. This method is easy to maintain and portable.

For a step-by-step guide to creating your own compost bin, click here.

We look forward to composting on a larger scale with schools, communities, and corporates. When done correctly, we can yield heaps of compost within a short couple of weeks—thanks to our warm and humid climate!

Another method that we use at home is vermicomposting. It essentially turns trash to high-grade fertiliser with the help of composting worms. We enjoy this method as we get to interact with “friendly crawlies” (it is actually therapeutic to watch and handle them!) They are also very easy to maintain, just like “cold pile composting”.

Raw kitchen scraps (such as carrot and potato peels) added to the top of our vermicomposting bin. The brown soil-like material is compost that was once kitchen scraps.

A close look at the composting worms inside our vermicomposting bin. Called the Malaysian Blue Worms, they have a visible blue sheen when brought under light.

A composting worm with a swollen yellowish part near its left tip. It is carrying a worm cocoon containing hatchlings.

If you keep your worms’ habitat cool, shaded, and moist (i.e. by placing your worm bin in the corner of your toilet or under your kitchen sink), the worms will gladly go to work on your wastes.

What happens is this: they feed on your wastes and “poop” out high-quality fertiliser. Vermicomposting is also less likely to attract pests as most of your wastes will be buried under vermicompost.

A blue vermicomposting bin placed in a dry corner of our toilet. A spray bottle of aged water hangs near the bin—for convenient adding of moisture once every few days to keep the worms’ habitat damp (not wet).

In our opinion, these worms are the most beneficial, hardworking, and gentlest pets! 😉

Could you share some tips with a beginner who would like to start composting?

The good news is, you can turn to our Facebook page and website to find out how to compost right at home. We answer all queries, and are always happy to advise whenever we can!

Also, it is helpful to first understand how composting works before you start. Check out this page for more information. This increases your chance for success despite composting for the first time.

Another tip we frequently share with first-timers is to add more more dry material (such as shredded newspaper) to your compost pile. Although this results in a slower composting process, it is a lot easier to manage. As you gain confidence over time, you can start mixing in more wet material (such as raw vegetable scraps) and sprinkle in some water.

Avoid adding cooked food, dairy, meat, bones, used tissue paper etc as the temperature in your compost pile will not be high enough to break down these materials and remove all harmful bacteria. These also attract pests and release odors. The general rule is this: If in doubt, don’t add.

If you have questions, post them on our Facebook page and we will be happy to answer them. There’s also an army of composting enthusiasts who will be happy to help you out!

Who do you provide composting workshops and services to?

Our composting workshops and booths cater to schools, educational institutions, corporates, cafes, restaurants, and communities. Communities include communities centers, community groups, gardening groups, interest groups, library talks etc.

Some of our clients include the National Environment Agency (NEA), Central Singapore Community Development Council (CS CDC), UBS AG etc.

For services apart from composting, do head on over to our consultancy’s portfolio highlights here.

We’ve done a wide range of sustainability-related work such as aquaponics, agriculture consults, documenting and publishing best energy-efficiency practices, and local and overseas feasibility studies.

Teaching locals in Cambodia about composting and aquaponics. (Photo credit: Geraldine Lim)

Joseph harvesting a sizeable pak choy from a hand-built backyard aquaponics system. We believe aquaponics and vermicomposting could jointly contribute to Singapore’s long-term sustainability and food security.

Notably, the organisations we’ve worked with have a direct impact on communities. For example:

 

Has your number of clients increased over the years? What does it show about the awareness or popularity of composting?

When we first started in 2010, there was a general belief that composting and food waste recycling could be done only on a large-scale basis by large organisations.

But in recent years, we have started to see a greater demand for our composting workshops, educational booths, and speaking engagements from a wider demographic, such as government institutions, schools (pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, undergraduates etc), teachers, corporates (i.e. financial institutions), and grassroots communities.

Today, composting and food waste recycling have become a lifestyle consideration rather than mere arm’s-length topics.

What do you think are the possible reasons for the growing popularity of composting?

This could be due to greater awareness about sustainable and environment-friendly living, which are being promoted by many local organisations (i.e. NEA) through events and initiatives.

For example, in July 2016, we were invited to conduct a composting workshop as part of the 12th Central Singapore Environmental Regional Workshop. It was an event jointly organised by the National Environment Agency-Central Regional Office (NEA-CRO) and CS CDC. The participants strategically comprised of district councillors, grassroots leaders, corporate partners, schools and town councils representatives.

Sarah conducting a composting workshop for 200 participants. The workshop was part of the 12th Central Singapore Environmental Regional Workshop.

Sarah demonstrating how to create your own compost bin with less than $20.

Another notable event that we were engaged in was the annual Central Clean, Green & Sustainable Singapore Carnival (CGSS) in November 2016. It was also organized by NEA-CRO and CS CDC to inspire the public to lead an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. There were interactive stage presentations, games, activities, experiential exhibitions on environmental topics. These aimed to educate the public on making simple lifestyle choices that contribute to a greener and more sustainable Singapore.

We’ve also noticed a recent spike in the number of students’ requests for interviews related to composting and food waste management. This shows that local educational institutions are increasingly involved in composting and food waste management as a teaching module, research topic, project assignment, or school initiative.

Overall, there’s been an ongoing thrust by the government to reduce the amount of wastes entering the general waste stream and ending up in incineration plants. The public have also become more aware of their lifestyle’s environmental impact and are exploring ways to live more sustainably.

Useful links and information:

CIS is part of Kainosis’ consulting and services.

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