Consider the life history of the typical suburban compost pile. The neophyte gardener has typically already done a little research, believes in the unblemished virtue of recycling and is certain that composting is the cornerstone of a sustainable lifestyle. Starting with a pile of grass clippings, weeds, some tree trimmings, and a pail of kitchen waste, the tableau is admittedly unattractive and disorderly, but our fearless gardener is certain that with the right equipment, the process will be tidy and effortless. A stackable compost bin is purchased. In go the clippings, often carefully layered, according to instructions. The neat plastic lid is snapped shut, and the gardener, confident that nature will do the work, daydreams of scooping out rich, black compost in a few months.

This initial enthusiasm is followed by an indefinite period of neglect, since school plays, soccer matches and business travel take a higher priority. During this period, the compost bin becomes a nagging presence. No other area of the garden is as likely to go untouched as long as the compost area. Weeds spring up, sow bugs form teeming colonies inside, and a welter of fruit flies malinger on warm days.

Episodically, more clippings and scraps are thrown on top; once or twice the gardener may poke the pile with a spading fork, usually judging that it needs more time. Eventually, the gardener opens the bottom flap on the bin, anticipating that rich compost will tumble out. Instead, there is a crawling mass of sow bugs, a plague of flies, slimy weed stalks, moldy leaves and festering orange rinds. Once again, the easiest option is to ignore the compost, and “it needs more time” reasoning serves to push the composting project way down the ‘should do’ list.

Weeks, months, years pass by, and the area around the compost creates its own quarantine zone. The old joke about ‘you know you’re a redneck when you mow your lawn and find a Cadillac” can be adapted to the suburbanite clearing out the side yard and uncovering an ancient compost pile. At some point, resolve builds to a crescendo, and the compost is tackled. The entire contents are spilled out, but after the repulsive matter is separated , the once-proud gardener can claim only a thimbleful of compost, and the ‘unfinished’ material goes back in, creating a compost purgatory that sometimes lasts until a new homeowner moves in.

Chairman Mao, as part of his great leap forward, famously forced Chinese peasants to build steel mills in their yards. Bay area householders who feel obliged to generate their own compost follow a similarly misguided ideology. Curbside green waste recycling truly does benefit from economies of scale. A trip to the composting facility is instructive: Huge tub grinders first process everything (in a surprisingly clean waste stream that includes produce waste from grocery stores) to uniform size. The material is then spread into vast windrows, watered, and regularly turned with massive front end loaders. Many sites even have methane recovery and co-generation abilities. The compost gets hot enough to kill seeds and pathogens. After composting, the material is screened and sold in garden centers. Rich in nitrogen, this compost is, by almost any measure, superior to home grown compost. It is one of the few ‘post consumer’ recycled materials that has a stable market value, is used locally, and incorporates construction wood waste that might otherwise go to a landfill or be shipped to China for use as boiler fuel.

A small percentage of gardeners have the wherewithal to turn their compost regularly, and have a garden large enough to tuck the pile into an inconspicuous location. For the rest of us, there is no shame in putting the kitchen scraps into the ‘green bin’ for regular pickup, and motoring to a garden supply store in the spring and fall to purchase the product. The only problem remaining is what to do with the plastic compost bin. I recommend you fill it with the eco-compost you’ve just purchased. Go ahead, tell your neighbors and friend you made it yourself; it will be our little secret.