San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Community Composting Project Bears Fruit

MANY might turn up their nose at theidea of dealing with rotten-smelling wasteand making their own fertilizer. However,residents of Maria Auxiliadora in Santiagode Puriscal, about an hour’s drive southwestof San José, have learned to valuetheir waste, thanks to the determination ofone man: Jorge Chávez, creator of theProyecto de Lombricultura (Compostingwith Worms Project).The project allows the community toconvert its waste into nutrient-rich earth,which is then used to grow organic vegetablessold locally.“The idea to reuse biodegradable wasteoriginated from our disgust at the pools offoul-smelling liquid the garbage truck leftbehind on its rounds,” Chávez said. “Alsowe wanted to separate the trash and recycle.”Chávez was granted money by theEnvironment Commission of the Municipalityof Puriscal to set up the project.The compost center consists of a little hutwhere the compost is made and a plot ofland for growing vegetables. The municipalitypays for an employee to collectbiodegradable garbage once a week fromthe houses and transport it to the compostcenter, where it is made into fertilizer.“THIS project is important to mebecause it runs on so many levels,” Chávezsaid. “We are helping to protect nature byreusing much of our waste; we have ahealthier diet because there are no chemicalsor pesticides used on the organicallygrown vegetables; and we’re educating ourchildren, who have learned how to makefertilizer and grow vegetables.”The children have been involved in theproject since its inception two years ago,and now they help run the show. They areresponsible for sowing the seeds, wateringand tending the vegetables, and sellingthem in the neighborhood.“We grow lettuce, tomatoes, greenbeans, coriander, celery and more,” saidLucía Chávez, 10, who added that sheloved the project. The 14 children involvedare part of a committee and share themoney made from the vegetable sales.From the proceeds they buy themselvessweets and ice cream.“By tending the vegetables and goingout to sell them, the children learn aboutresponsibility, and are more sociable,”Chávez said. “They’re outside playing inthe fresh air rather than sitting insidewatching television.”LIKE most innovative endeavors, theproject has been a learning experience. The15-odd families taking part have had to getused to separating their trash, as onlyorganic waste can be used.Fruit peel from banana, papaya, appleor mango is acceptable, but not from citrusfruits, which are too acidic. The skin orremains of vegetables such as yucca, broccoli,potato and carrot can also be added.Paper items such as napkins and newspapermust first go through a decompositionprocess and be turned into a paste, whichcan then be added to the biodegradablewaste. No meat, rice or fried food shouldgo into the mixture, as these contain toomuch grease.CHÁVEZ admits that, when they firststarted, the smell was terrible. The residentshave learned to control it in severalways.First, they make sure the organic wasteis chopped up into small pieces of abouttwo to four centimeters square, to facilitatethe fermentation process. The waste isplaced inside a large, black, solid containerin the sun to accelerate the decompositionprocess and eliminate the incubationof insect eggs. The closed lid prevents thesmell from escaping.In a plastic box perforated at the bottom,a five-centimeter layer of earth is spreadwith a large helping of special Californianworms. After eight to 10 days, the fermentedwaste is added in a layer five to 10 centimetershigh.To neutralize the smell, dry cow dung orhorse manure is added on top in a three- tofive-centimeter layer.The box must be watered at least onceevery two weeks, and the water that drainsout can be saved to make liquid fertilizer.The box must be kept on a shelf andremain covered with black plastic sheetingto maintain an appropriate atmosphere forthe worms and to avoid bird and ratattacks. It is also very important to makesure that black ants do not get into theboxes.With each worm producing one gramof earth per day, the process takes at leastthree months to complete. When the earthis ready, it is spread on a table to dry andsold at ¢100 per kilogram.The fertilizer obtained is of excellentquality and does not contaminate the environment.Chávez says tests run on the soilhave revealed that it is much richer in calcium,five times richer in nitrogen, 11times higher in potassium, seven timeshigher in phosphorus and three times higherin magnesium than regular earth.Chávez also explained that the liquidcollected from the boxes after watering canbe used as fertilizer, because it is a productof the decomposition and fermentationprocess. Molasses is added to the liquid, asthe sugar helps to ferment the water. It isthen bottled and sold locally by the childrenat ¢500 for two liters, and can be usedat home on plants.CHÁVEZ says the experiment is asuccess, but admits it is hard to changepeople’s attitudes about recycling and separatingtheir waste.He claims participating householdshave been reusing 56% of their waste, andpoints out that if more people did the same,the municipality would save money intrash-collection costs.He hopes that the experience gainedwill help other interested communities inthe future; so far, two nearby schools havemade plans to start a similar process.“The community is important to me,”said Chávez. “Neighbors should worktogether to improve their community.”Chávez added he is happy to help otherpeople or communities interested in startingsimilar projects. For information, call416-5282 (Spanish only).

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