Don't burn leaves, compose them

By Times Of India on 22 May 2018 | read
The burning of leaves can cause lung diseases like asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease. In an already polluted city like Bengaluru, the daily burning of dry leaves only adds to our woes. Still, it remains a prevalent practice, only because people don’t have — or rather don’t know — better alternatives. In August 2017, the State government banned the burning of solid wastes of any kind, including twigs and leaves, in open places. This followed a proposal submitted by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. This is a measure from the government’s side. So, what can we do? A lot!

“Left to itself, nature accomplishes everything at its own pace. All we need to do is create an atmosphere that does not harm its processes in any manner,” says Savita Hiremath, who has researched and documented 16 community composting methods, with 2-3 still pending. Community composting is the best way to ‘deal’ with dry leaves. Unlike burning, which leads to health hazards, composting safely decomposes the leaves, and the resulting compost is rich in nutrients, making the plants grown in it better for consumption.

Leaves end up being burnt, since it is an easier alternative to transporting them elsewhere. “We all need to get in touch with pourakarmikas, since they’re the ones who scoop up the dry leaves. This is the kind of social engineering that needs to take place,” says Savita. “You can ask the pourakarmikas to dump the heap of leaves they collect in front of your house. Then, all you need to do is place them in a composter and add a little bit of cow dung, which is the most effective way of turning dry leaves into compost,” she adds.

The first batch takes longer (around a month) because the microbes have to colonise. So, you have to treat it with more cow dung or other accelerators, says Savita. Once the first round of composting is done, she adds, you can save 1/3rd of compost from first batch and inoculate the next batch with that. All you need to do is ensure the correct amount of moisture. In the case of dry leaves, just moisten them and leave them in a corner and they will compost. You don’t even have to use an accelerator, but it will take longer. “All over the planet, composting happens in the same way, like in the forest. In urban areas, we have space limitations, which is why we can’t just let leaves be; we have to pile them up and use accelerators to speed up the composting process,” says Savita, who adds that the best thing about this system is that you can keep adding new waste on top and harvest the ready compost from the bottom — it’s a continuous system.

Savita explains that when leaves are green, they contain a lot of nitrogen, and when they are brown, they have a lot of carbon. When green and dry leaves are mixed, you get a wonderfully
balanced compost, in terms of the carbon and nitrogen ratio. At this time of year, there are a lot of flowers and leaves from the honge mara (millettia pinnata) strewn around. These are high in nitrogen and are wonderful soil amendments when composted.

In cities, procuring cow dung may not be easy. An alternative is Effective Microorganisms (EM1) solutions, which are liquid accelerators, filled with essential microbes that are beneficial to the soil. Growing food in this makes it healthier. Ornamental plants grown in this also flower better. “Dry leaves take a little longer to compost, but it is an easy process and you generally don’t encounter any problems. Most people turn their backs on composting because they think it is smelly and a breeding ground for insects. But that’s not the case. Compost is smelly only when it is not done right,” says Savita.

These are the steps listed out by Savita on her blog:
  • Step 1: Add dry leaves up to 1/3rd of the composter. You will need around five sacks of dry leaves for a small composter that is of 3-feet diameter, or 10-12 sacks for large composter of 5-feet diameter
  • Step 2: Spread 5-20 kg of compost
  • Step 3: Dilute one litre of Essential Microorganism (EM1) solution in 10 litres of water
  • Step 4: Sprinkle cow dung slurry (10 litres of cow dung mixed in 30 litres water), EM1 solution (1 litre EM1solution diluted in 20 litres of water), or one 5 kg bioclean block soaked in 10 litres of water
  • Step 5: You can now add dry leaves, green leaves, flowers, donne, banana leaves, vegetable peels, fruit peels, used coffee or tea ground and compost