Welcome to Counterpoint, a series in which we challenge commonly held ideas about well-known products. This time: electric kitchen countertop composters.
Enter the kitchen countertop composter– a device that ostensibly turns your food waste into a “dirt-like material”– using electricity. Notably, there’s the Vitamix Food Cycler ($399), the Lomi Kitchen Composter by Pela ($499), and the Tero Food Recycler ($495).
If you watch gardening videos on YouTube, you’ve probably been advertised by one of these devices over the past year. Does “free dirt” and “saving the planet” ring a bell? Or, maybe you have seen some of the reviews of the countertop composter online:
“In as little as three hours, Lomi transforms organic waste into practically odor-free dirt. In 16 to 20 hours, it produces rich fertilizer that can be used for potting plants or nourishing a garden” says CNET.
“My wife Elisabeth keeps a yogurt container labeled ‘Fresh Dirt’ next to the FoodCycler to store its output. Sometimes the output smells like the faint whiff of trash in a city you've never visited. Sometimes it almost smells pleasant” says Wired.
Whether the electric composter has revolutionized composting is actually a bit beside the point. Because the truth is, you don't need one. If you're truly after an easier option to composting one already exists – it's called vermicomposting.
What is an electric composter?
What the electric countertop composter does is dry and grind your food scraps, using electricity. Although these devices may be marketed as revolutionary, the concept isn’t new. Waste autoclaves function via similar methods and inventions like the steam digester date back to 1679.
If you have half an hour to burn, the British chemist Philip E. Mason released a ‘busted’ video on the Lomi countertop composter so pedantic that he received legal action from Pela for it. Although the base of the legal action against Philip Mason regards the use of copyright infringement, Thunderfoot’s claim that the Lomi “desiccate” and “grinds up pointlessly” was also mentioned by the lawyers.
To dig a little deeper, I chatted with Zach Brookes, owner and founder of the Arizona Worm Farm. Each week Zach and his team (including worms and beneficial insects) convert an average of 120 cubic yards of food and green waste from Phoenix landfills alone into nutrient-rich worm castings. That's about 45,873 loads of your 2-liter kitchen composter each week. Here is what Zach thinks of the electric countertop composter:
“So I went out to buy the [electric composter brand redacted] because my customers started to use them. What it is, is a food grinder and dehydrator. It’s heating and grinding and gives you what could be food for something else. You can put the end result in your yard. But, It still lacks microbes to create available food for plants. It’s a gigantic waste of money and electricity.”
Despite expert opinions, the countertop composter has received a lot of praise from the media and is selling out fast. There’s clearly a lot of appeal in saving the earth so let’s talk about the environmental problem these countertop composters are trying to solve.
Our garbage problem
Unfortunately, our garbage problem may be bigger than the wilted lettuce in the back of my fridge. In 2021 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study on the environmental impacts of food waste. Some sobering findings included:
“Food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the United States, comprising 24 and 22 percent of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste, respectively.”
“Globally, food loss and waste represent 8 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (4.4 gigatons CO2e annually).”
“In 2015, the United States announced a goal to halve U.S. food loss and waste by 2030, but the nation has not yet made significant progress.”
Respectfully, the EPA estimates that 35 percent of the U.S. food supply ends up as waste. The EPA claims the agricultural land needed to produce the food lost to waste is around 140 million acres or "an area the size of California and New York combined."
Food waste is occurring on a gigantic scale, and when left to decompose in landfills it emits methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The EPA reports methane as a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 25 times greater than carbon dioxide.
How the electric composter claims to help
Although the key to the electric composter's success may be more related to the marketing, these electrified devices are designed with some global climate goals in mind.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
The electric composter claims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by entirely skipping over the anaerobic conditions that occur in landfills where bacteria decompose food waste and produce methane gas and carbon dioxide as a result. The end output of the electric composter is a dried material that, when kept dry, won’t produce methane gas or carbon dioxide.
Creating nutrient-rich fertilizer
Unfortunately, the claims that electric composters create nutrient-rich fertilizers for your soil are misleading. Some of the devices are sold with tablets and packaged additives to get microorganisms into the dirt-like output of the device.
As Zach points out, “What you end up with [electric composter brand redacted] is dried ground up food. It’s not compost. You still need the microbial process to convert waste into what is food for your plants. The heating and drying actually kills microbes like bacteria, fungi and nematodes. In general, microbes need air, water and food. When you heat them you kill them.”
Reducing the volume of waste
The grinding and drying process in electric composters reduces the volume of your kitchen scraps by 70-80 percent.
It’s impressive in that regard, and as Zach says “Chopping up your food waste is a useful step. The process is not bad. It will reduce the volume of waste, but you still need the microbial process to convert what is in waste into what is needed as food for plants. It’s just not something anyone should spend any money on and it’s not really creating compost.”
How worms outsmart the electric composter
What if I told you there is a better solution to our food waste problem that doesn’t release any greenhouse gasses and doesn’t use any electricity? There is, and it's thanks to worms.
In just a few years Zach and his team have turned a pesticide-drenched cotton field in South Phoenix into a nutrient-rich food forest that's feeding the community and keeping waste out of the landfill. I think It’s an incredibly impressive case study in regenerative agriculture and a true testament to the power insects have to turn our most scorched earth around. Zach however was more humble about it and said he’s not doing anything new and vermiculture operations are all over the country.
Vermicomposting doesn't emit greenhouse gasses
As Zach points out “While traditional composting releases carbon dioxide. Feed the food waste to a worm and it won’t produce any carbon dioxide or methane gas.” Simply put, worms have this waste problem covered.
There are still a lot of foods that worms can’t eat including dairy, meats, oils, fats, and sauces. And that’s where other beneficial insects come in. The Arizona Worm Farm also employs other insects like the black soldier fly that can break down some types of waste worms can't.
Worm castings are more efficient than chemical fertilizers
As you can see at your local garden center, or on Amazon, worm castings are expensive & absolutely worth the price. As Zach points out, worm castings have a lot of benefits above the cheaper commercial fertilizers.
"It’s hard for gardeners to balance nutrients with supplements, whereas plants, worms, and worm castings are packed with microbes that will do this all by themselves. The plants and the microbes have a conversation that tells the microbes what nutrients the plants need. The plants lead the process by producing plant exudates (basically sugars), and the exudates will feed exactly the microbes that contain the nutrients the plant needs most. In commercial and oil-based fertilizers you can get a real shock of short-term growth that isn’t healthy. By using worm castings we add microbes that create what’s like an organic IV drip of food for plants that stays at the root level. Worm castings can’t burn plants or create artificially rapid growth.” Zach says.
Worm castings in agriculture settings have another key benefit above commercial fertilizers– reducing nitrous oxide emissions. The EPAs 2021 study reported that nitrous oxide emitted from using nitrogen fertilization in agricultural operations has a global warming potential 265 times greater than carbon dioxide.
A study by Xin Zhang at the University of Maryland found the global nitrogen use efficiency was only at 46 percent, citing issues where fertilizer is lost to runoff and being washed to depth in the soil out of the roots' reach. This unused nitrogen is what’s feeding the soil bacteria that create the nitrous oxide– through the process of nitrification.
Alarm bells have been sounding for a while now, with a “smoking gun” study of the drastic rise of nitros oxide from agricultural fertilizer use over the past 50 years coming out of a group of chemists at the University of California, Berkeley in 2012.
Fortunately for worm castings, “When you use worm castings, the nutrients stay at the root level” Zach says.
Should you buy a worm bin instead of an electric composter?
Let’s get back to the small scale of your home or apartment. Are you skeptical about inviting a bunch of worms inside? Now, technically you don’t need to buy a worm bin because you can make one according to the EPA. However, what the EPA recommends doesn't look glamorous.
While researching this article I bought the most hyped, trendy, and expensive indoor worm bin the– Urbalive Vermicomposter ($200). In 2017, it won a Red Dot design award, and we respect that sort of thing at Gear Patrol. Air purifiers we like have won the same Red Dot award. It’s got to be good right?
Starting a worm bin is difficult
Unfortunately, starting a worm bin is not as easy as pressing a button.
I was excited to start my worm bin inside; following the instructions I laid a bed of shredded moist cardboard and dirt, and placed some kitchen scraps and red wiggler worms into the bin. I started the bin in my office (so I could comment on the smell) but, within 20 minutes, there were worms on the floor. Almost immediately, the bin was moved out where the worms can find an easy route back to the soil. An opt-out.
I learned a valuable lesson, worms don’t like sterile environments and you should prep the bedding for your bin at least a week before adding worms. Luckily for me, I have a main worm bin full of red wigglers outside where I can just go scoop some more. But, if you bought your worms online, a failed start can be devastating.
Maintaining your worm bin is easy
Once the bin is established things get easier. Worms won’t escape, and the bin won’t smell. You won’t be able to save everything from the trash (fats, oils, meats, cheeses, and sauces can’t be sent to the worm bin). However, you will be able to move through a heap of kitchen scraps, junk mail, cardboard boxes and all sorts of fun leaves. It really is composting for lazy people like myself.
If you're concerned about small flies and gnats. It’s warranted, flies and gnats will show up. Luckily diatomaceous earth won’t hurt worms. I leave a forbidden parmesan shaker of diatomaceous earth near the bin and sprinkle it over the bed when I notice any gnats. It’s not a nuisance to deal with.
Get usable fertilizer with ease
While it’s hard to get usable compost out of a backyard compost bin without routine maintenance, an indoor worm bin makes it easy to collect fertilizer. Most indoor bins will create worm casting tea that is easily dispensed by a spigot located at the bottom of the bin.
With my Urbalive Worm Farm (and others designed like it) a mesh screen separates the compartment full of the worm tea from the compartment where the worms live. Worms and worm castings will build up on this screen and the separation process is as simple as washing the screen down. I like to recycle the casting tea collected in the farm to wash down the filter for a more concentrated product. By just washing the filter with water you don’t have to separate worm castings by hand like Marek shows you. Just keep your filter clean Marek!
The best indoor worm bins
My Urbalive worm farm is great and much deserves the hype, however, there are cheaper options on the market that have the same features. While speaking with Zach, there are a few worm bins that stand out as the best.
A call for a worm bin renaissance
To quote the magical Grace Zabriskie in the movie FernGully, “We have too long forgotten the magic powers of nature. The time has come to call on them again.”
As Zach says, “Cities are woefully inept at recycling. If you want to make sure the material that’s a by-product of your daily life gets recycled, you should have a worm composting operation. You can absolutely do a worm composting bin in a tiny apartment or a gigantic house."
Simply put, we need better worm bins. Vermicomposting comes with a steep learning curve and worm bins are ripe for innovation– say a human-centered design approach. If your skeptical of starting a worm bin inside your house, I don't blame you because the best indoor worm bin has yet to be invented.
Thank you Zach and everyone at the Arizona Worm Farm for making this story come to life. If you have a worm bin inside your house, we want to hear from you in the comments below. How do you like it and what room is it in?