How Composting Has Gone High-Tech
Share Button

How Composting Has Gone High-Tech

We tried out four new ways to encourage rot that are easier, chicer and far less smelly than the hippy methods of old.

By Jordan. G. Teicher
Thu, Jan 21, 2021 12:46amGrey Clock 3 min

Humans have composted food for about as long as they have grown it. But in a world increasingly obsessed with tidy convenience, many view the chore of converting food waste into fertiliser for plants and gardens much as they do tending to kombucha scoby or committing to cloth diapers for their infants: too time-consuming, too “granola” and too plain icky.

Composting has “been perceived as this very stinky project that takes a bunch of time and only makes sense if you have a big backyard,” said Friday Apaliski, a San Francisco “sustainability concierge” who works with clients to make their homes more green. She believes that people “are starting to understand how truly phenomenal composting is.”

Composting has ‘been perceived as this very stinky project that takes a bunch of time and only makes sense if you have a big backyard,’ said Friday Apaliski.

Indeed, new composting technology has emerged that makes the process easier, faster and more stylish. Some composting systems are now small enough to live on your kitchen’s countertop and sufficiently attractive that you won’t mind looking at them day after day.

And with houseplant ownership skyrocketing (compost is just as good for Instagramable succulents as for an old-time vegetable garden) and a growing desire to reduce methane-producing food waste, more Americans are trying the ancient practice out for themselves. Between 2014 and 2019, according to the 2019 Composting in America report, the number of American communities offering composting programs increased 65%. This summer, Vermont became the first state in the nation to make composting mandatory.

If you’re going to do it, why not do it as pleasantly as possible? Here, our four favourite new products that use sharp design and cutting-edge technology to speed up, shrink down or even glamorize composting at home.

For Lazy Gardeners

Anyone looking to turn food scraps into fertilizer has typically had to house the refuse in rudimentary backyard containers and use their own forearm strength to intermittently aerate it with a shovel. New age tumblers like the Envirocycle do most of the aerating for you: You need only spin the drum manually a few times a week. Stored outside, the device is fully enclosed—keeping funky smells in and curious critters out. The company offers a 64-litre version of its classic 132-litre tumbler designed to fit on a patio or balcony. It promises to produce usable compost for your pandemic victory garden in a month. (US$210, envirocycle.com)

For Odor-Averse Urbanites

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Once, environmentalists looking to keep their kitchens smelling fresh had no good option but to stuff their scraps in the freezer or bring them immediately to the collection pile outside, even on inconveniently freezing January nights. These days, tabletop bins like Bamboozle’s are designed to accommodate charcoal filters under the lid that oust odours through adsorption. The Bamboozle’s handle also makes it a good way to transport waste to a nearby community garden or compost collection site if you lack the space or ambition to make plant food yourself. (US$40, bamboozlehome.com)

For the Worm-Curious

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Vermicomposting (that is, worm-assisted composting) can speed up the tedious process, but “pretty” is not something you’d call red wigglers, or the tiered plastic vermicomposting structures they typically live in. Uncommon Goods’ sculptural Living Composter, however, gives hardworking worms chicer digs. Just drop peelings and sawdust soil mix into the countertop device’s opening and the worms-in-residence (order yours from Uncle Jim’s, from US$28, unclejimswormfarm.com) will get busy processing about 1 kilogram of food a week into nourishment for houseplant babies. (US$200, uncommongoods.com)

For Impatient Gearheads

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Microorganisms take weeks to do their work. High-tech machines like Vitamix’s Foodcycler, meanwhile, require only hours. While not technically a composter (the definition requires “natural” decay), the microwave-sized device can turn a wider than normal range of organic material into “recycled food compound” in no more than the 8 hours you’ll be asleep in bed. You can add in dairy, meat scraps and even some bones. But be warned: the Vitamix has a relatively tiny capacity of only 2.5 litres, and is less environmentally friendly than methods that don’t require electricity to work. (uS$350, vitamix.com)



MOST POPULAR

What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.

Related Stories
Property
I.M. Pei’s Son Speaks of His Father’s Legacy of Creating ‘Places for People’ Ahead of a Retrospective in Hong Kong
By ABBY SCHULTZ 12/06/2024
Lifestyle
EV Trade War Could Spread to Luxury Cars
By STEPHEN WILMOT 12/06/2024
Money
Louis Vuitton Unveils Its Most Extravagant High-Jewellery Collection Ahead of Olympics
By LAURIE KAHLE 09/06/2024
By ABBY SCHULTZ
Wed, Jun 12, 2024 5 min

I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”