Giant Piles of Compost.

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Temisi is not a place you have heard of, but it is a place you should know about. It is not a nice place, but it’s an important place. It’s a place that is hopeful, but horrible. Yet out of all the landfills in the world this is one of the better ones: a modest dump in the Kabupaten (regency) of Gianyar, here in Bali. The village of Temisi has the only landfill in Bali that has a giant composting facility next to it.

I’ve seen bigger landfills, but all previous compost piles are dwarfed in comparison to this one. Since the visit last week I have developed a bad case of compost insecurity when I look at my own pile. For a moment today I thought about adding another scoop to it, but I’ve rationalized it by renaming my compost, ‘artisan compost’, which is of course superior to Temesi compost, and more valuable because less of it exists. When I start selling it, it will most definitely cost more. Maybe my bags will have a better logo on them too.

The Temesi Recycling website says that the place was initiated by the Rotary Club of Bali Ubud, and was implemented by a local NGO: Yayasan Gelombang Udara. When I was there I didn’t meet the Rotary Club, and I didn’t see any NGO’s wandering around. I did meet a nice man named David Kuper. My sources say that he’s the top dog responsible for out composting me. David is a retired chemist from Switzerland who came to Indonesia to work.  A smart Balinese woman persuaded him to stay. Now he’s saving the world one dump truck at a time. His business card says ‘Advisor’, but I think he should change his title to something more interesting and nerdy like EM#1 (Effective Macro-organism #1)–Only the compost nerds will get it.

This epic compost heap began in 2004, and started by processing a modest 4 tons of waste a day. Now it processes 50 tons a day. It has lofty goals and aspires to sort all the waste from the 500,000 residents and tourists who live in Gianyar. The website doesn’t say how many tons that is, but David did mention that they are way under capacity and could make the pile bigger. They just need more people to buy their compost.

The waste comes into the facility on government trucks that collect waste around Gianyar.  Most of the waste dropped off is organic matter: palm leaves from old offerings, food waste, banana leaves etc. David says this constitutes about 85% of the input. Then there’s recyclables, mostly polypropylene bags and paper, about 10% of the waste. The final 5% is useless and includes pieces of stone, foil plastic wrappers, and polystyrene. Valuable trash like metal cans and PET bottles never makes it onto the truck. Most of it is scavenged by Pemulung (the Indonesian name for people who collect trash to sell to recycling centers). If it does get onto the truck, the dump truck drivers take it before it gets to Temesi.  Who sorts the final 15% that won’t compost? Well, there is an army of Pemulung working there. Temesi Recycling pays 400.00Rp for every Kg of organic waste that they sort. That comes out to about $4 to $5 a ton. Not much, but enough to get someone to do it. I talked to a few of the Pemulung, but they didn’t say much. I got the feeling that rich white kids aren’t very popular among Pemulungs, but maybe I’m projecting.  I asked one man where he was from and he said “Jember.” David said that was a city in east Java. It must not be a very nice place if they would rather come to Bali to sort through garbage. It was depressing.

Yet I felt a lot of appreciation for the Pemulung. They’re the only people I’ve ever met who are finding value in something that the rest of us are trying to get rid of.  David’s a great guy and he’s doing a good thing. I always imagine retired people on golf courses squandering precious water  and energy so they can hit a stupid ball across a perfect lawn. Starting a giant compost pile is admirable. But sifting through trash for hardly anything all day long is heroic. The amount of trash we are producing is a nightmare, a  modern dragon that needs slaying, but most knights don’t want to dirty their shining armor. Here’s to the Pemulung. If anyone wants to collaborate in raising some money to get them good shoes and masks let me know, and of course if anyone knows how to outlaw non-recyclables, I’m on board.

Once the plastic and the organic matter is sifted, it goes in a giant shredder before being dumped into a huge pile that has giant aerators stuck in the side of it to avoid anaerobic decomposition. The Indonesian government–bless them–donated a bulldozer to turn the compost periodically. It gets turned ten times over the course of about two months before being sifted with a big mechanical sifter to remove any remaining bits of plastic and large particles.

The final product is a rich black color. At first I thought it looked really good. But after some further investigation it turns out that it isn’t. It was really dry to start, dust was flying everywhere. The pile decomposes at too hot a temperature; every time one of the workers shoveled into the side of it, a giant puff of steam came out. But the biggest problem is that black color. A balanced compost is brown. Black often means that there is too much nitrogen in it. Good compost has 25-30 parts carbon for every part nitrogen. Based on the numbers David showed us, this stuff has about 11 parts carbon for every part nitrogen. When the nitrogen is that high it makes it difficult for plants to utilize it. It’s better than no compost at all, but the input needs to contain more carbon. Adding sawdust might help to balance it out, but you’d need a lot of sawdust. I ended up purchasing some compost and plan to mix it with sawdust as an experiment.

Temesi is a good start, and I’m impressed by how much it recycles. They also have an education center that does a lot of local outreach.It’s unfortunate that the system only works by using cheap labor to sort through the plastic. For the developed world to have a 95% recycle rate they’d need to export all their garbage to countries like China and Indonesia. The best solution is for everyone to separate their own waste and compost at home. But that only takes care of the problem for half of us; composting in a city is difficult.  Regardless, it is imperative that we find a way to close the nutrient loop with all the organic waste we produce. The landfill doesn’t grow very good food, compost does.

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2 thoughts on “Giant Piles of Compost.

  1. Ok, I’ll comment if you insist.
    That ‘artisan compost’ joke is really good.
    I really like the post overall, you are a good writer, and incredibly knowledgable about compost. It looked like a lot to read when I started but you kept my interest the whole way. (can’t comment without reading it, now, can I?)

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