Conviction, Part I

No, I’m not talking about the criminal kind, though some might consider the following story to be crazy. I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while. The tipping point probably occurred when my need to transport the compost bucket from my house to the office AND take the train collided and demanded resolution.

I live about 40 miles from my downtown LA office. As often as possible, I take the train to Union Station, transfer to the subway, and emerge about a five-minute walk from the office. WHEN I don’t have to drive out of the transit zone for a meeting OR work past traditional quitting time, I prefer this schema. Then there’s the situation with the compost bucket. Seriously. Up until this week, I always rationalized that I’d have to drive on compost day because I couldn’t really take the bucket home on the train.

So this requires some back story, does it? OK, then. When I quaffed the green koolaid (maybe it was an environmental absinthe?) sometime back and took the lead in pulling my office along to more sustainable awareness and practice, both corporately and personally, a very natural (pardon the pun) extension for me was to collect the bio-degradable wastes from both our offices (I usually spend time in each on a weekly basis) and take them home for decomposition in my own composting operation.

(Cue the flashback music again.) You see, I’ve been organic in my home garden for nearly a decade, roughly since the time I released the “Chemlawn” people and decided there had to be a more planet- and cat-friendly way to take care of my landscape. Kitchen wastes, grass clippings, weeds—you name it, I learned to celebrate the science of decay, and how it could help my tiny slice of the universe. Granted, I’m a lazy composter—I only turn, water, screen, and so forth on an as-needed basis. What’s fabulous about this is that the natural process just keeps on keepin’ on, whether I really tend to it or not. All I can manage to do is speed it up.

Anyhow, back to the office waste. I bought some buckets with lids and encouraged my colleagues to contribute their non-processed food wastes, with the primary ingredient being the used coffee grounds (and filters) from our constantly dripping caffeine mills. In time, the devoted got the hang of it, and at the peak (before trimming staffs at both locations), I was carting home up to twenty-five pounds a week of prime carbon/nitrogen producing raw materials that otherwise would be now belching up methane in a landfill near you.

The process has been fantastic. The addition of the office green waste (including the trimmings from our plant maintenance people) has speeded up the action in my “high-volume” composting area, due largely to the fact that I have to turn and process it more often due to the accelerated anaerobic action of the increased kitchen wastes (um . . . it breaks down faster.) Now, of course, the tendency of this somewhat volatile process is that the decomposition really works on its own schedule, and, as you might expect, the buckets don’t care to sit around untended for any length of time. They really need to be emptied and replaced every week.

Which brings me back to the train deal. I know at the end of the day, it is more environmentally responsible for me to take the train to work. Furthermore, it’s generally more relaxing, as well, and takes most of the mystery out of the commute. So, faced with the choice of whether I should experiment and take the train on Friday, our half day, or drive the car so I could discreetly schlep home my festering coffee detritus, I have to admit I stewed on it for a while.

Then a brilliant idea struck! If I were to slip the bin into a generic kitchen waste bag, no one would know the wiser what was in it, (even if they could faintly detect the red lid through the walls of the 4 mil plastic bag), and it could rest conveniently in the aisle, like another innocuous wheely.

Today I am happy to report that the entire operation went off without a hitch. The wastes have been added to my compost piles, and the bucket is rinsed and ready to return tomorrow for another week’s collection, and I will take it with me on the train. I guess I should be glad people are probably shy to ask what it is.

So you may be asking, “What could this possibly have to do with multifamily housing.” Stay tuned.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at