Composting Possums

Words by
Luke Quinn
Images by
Georgina Reid
| October 31, 2013

Apparently there are many non-compostable materials in the world. I have been told by a number of ernest eco-hipsters not to put meat scraps in my compost because I will get rats in my garden and they will come into my house and spread the bubonic plague. Apparently nuclear waste isn’t good for Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale etc) and whales are not compostable.

I reckon I could compost these soap-boxing would-be urban sustainability spruikers. They would make beautifully rich soil, and if I did it right no rat would come anywhere near them. I could use a few tons of wood filings that would otherwise end up in landfill, and all the vegetables Woolworths throws out in a week, which might save some dumpster divers from being knee deep in expired pickles and glass.

The erstwhile eco-hipster would become a beautiful Black Russian tomato, or a Royal Blue potato, or a soft lemon-yellow petal on a climbing rose.

It is obvious that death of the aforementioned spruiker is inseparable from new life. This is not Buddhism or Metaphysics, it is composting.

To me, composting is turning waste into a resource from which my plants will grow, and in turn nourish me. Composting doesn’t stop in the garden. We need to apply its principles on a larger scale. Yes, you, me, and the other seven billion humans on this earth need to learn how to turn the huge amounts of waste we create into a utility. Why? Because our planet is basically a closed system, and in one form or another, we will end up eating the whales, hipsters, and nuclear waste. This stuff does not just disappear into thin air – it just changes form.

Without a good supply of whale, I decided a possum would be a good start. I found it smeared on the road near Centennial Park, next to a grand Flindersia Austrails it could have been sitting in, watching the cars and admiring how smooth, sleek, and silent the new BMW SUV’s were.

Its tail was still intact, so I picked it up and popped it in my car. I had a compost heap already coming alive at the community garden, but it wasn’t up to my usual standard of steamy, decomposing goodness. It comprised of wood filings, leaves, unwanted vegetables, weeds and horse poo.  I levered up the edge with my 5-tigned composting fork, and put the possum in its new home. I crossed myself and muttered ‘you shall not have died in vain, sweet little possum’.

Within a few days the compost was hot to touch, even on top. The little bugger had got the aerobic microbes so excited I could have cooked an emu egg in there. I turned the compost and there was no sign of our martyred marsupial, not even a bit of skull or some dental records.

My cucurbits will love what the possum will bring to the soil, and life will grow out of death.

What else can we find to compost in our closed system? And is anything off limits, un-compostable? Hydrocarbons are tricky, as is evidence from the plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean. Garden variety composting microbes won’t degrade plastic, but lets think outside the compost bin for a moment, and look towards the ocean.

Alcanivorax and Marinobacter are two genera of bacteria that were found proliferating in the greasy disaster that was the Gulf of Mexico, after the devastating oil spill from the Deepwater Horizons drilling rig. They are hydrocarbon degrading bacteria, and many other similar species exist. Composting plastic might not be so farfetched if we can learn to harness the abilities of these bacterial dynamos.

But who cares about hydrocarbons? We’re going to run out of oil soon. Nuclear is the way of the future. Soon we will be dealing with masses of nuclear waste, under constant threat of catastrophic power plant meltdown, and toxic radioactive sludge may be leaking into our waterways and onto our plate.

Enter Paul Stamets, mycologist and author of the part evangelical/ part scientific Mycelium Running, a copy of which I was recently given. In his chapter entitled ‘Mycoremediation’, Stamets discusses the possibility of using mushrooms to turn nuclear wastelands into non-toxic, arable land.

The process would involve specific fungi that accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals, including radioactive caesium; collecting the mushrooms, incinerating them, and reclaiming the metals for relevant industries.

The moral of the story is this: The earth will not run out of resources because all the elements are still here. The question is – what waste do we want to create with the thought of turning it into a resource? The reality of recycling oil and plastic with microbial activity seems only to be a twinkle in the Earth’s oceans, and the slow process involved in mycoremediation to rid us of nuclear waste suggests that maybe it is easier not creating more. Maybe these are too much too soon on our recycling mission, our quest as composters to turn waste into beautiful black soil.

Hopefully though, this has made it easier to answer in the affirmative to the question, “Can I compost this?”

 

 

Luke and possum

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