Amma has made recycling and composting a major priority for the ashram. Every resident and visitor sorts their trash into separate bins labeled for paper, soft plastic, hard plastic, yard waste, food waste, sharps, sanitary, cloth, dust and hair. Last year there were 16 recycling stations, such as the one in the photo above, scattered throughout the ashram grounds. Since so many more flats have been built since then, I imagine the number of recycling stations have increased as well.
The yard and food waste from these bins plus the leftover food from the various kitchens and dining areas are taken to the composting center and the rest of the items go to the recycling center. Think about how much waste 5000-15,000 residents and visitors might produce in a day and you will get a sense of the scope of these projects.
Once the bins arrive at the recycling center they are re-sorted by volunteers. Items that were placed in the wrong bin are removed and put in the appropriate bin. Once that process is completed, the items are sorted for a third time, in a much more detailed way. For example, items in the paper bin are divided into 10 different subcategories.
The recycled items are sold and help to fund Amma’s humanitarian projects.
To learn more about the ashram’s recycling program go to: Recycling: A Model for the World
The food and yard waste bins are taken to the composting center. The food is put on a metal table and volunteers take out any non-food items such as plastic bags, spoons, etc. Then large food items are cut. Next, items such as fresh cow dung from the ashram cows, egg shells, shredded yard waste as well as wood chips and sawdust from the carpentry shop are added to the food in order to increase the bacterial culture and nitrogen or to make the mix drier. Once the food waste has been processed, it is formed into piles. The piles are covered with more shredded wood and yard waste. As the food composts, the piles can become very hot. You can even see steam rising from them. Volunteers aerate the compost by turning it with pitchforks. (This year I saw signs asking for volunteers to turn the compost at 2 a.m.!) The piles stay at the composting center for two to three weeks and then go to a farm or to the vermi-composting center to finish the composting process.
The yard waste is being processed at the same time as the food waste. The yard waste consists of materials that are gathered when the ashram grounds are swept each morning, along with other garden waste. The waste is put into a container that has a metal grate on the bottom. The grate allows the sand, pebbles and dust to fall through. Next, rocks, seeds, plastic and other items that shouldn’t be part of the compost are removed. What is left is the usable yard waste. That yard waste is then put into a shredder. Once shredded, it may be added directly into the food waste as described above, or it may be spread on the surface of the compost piles.
To see photos of this process go to: Food and Yard Waste Composting in Amritapuri, Pages 19-21
For years, the composting center has been located on the main ashram grounds. When I arrived at the ashram in November, I discovered it had moved. Now it is near Kuzhitura Farm, a 20 minute walk from the ashram. Pick-up trucks take the food and yard waste to the new center and the volunteers who work there generally ride bicycles. The new center is about three times the size of the original one.
The Red Worm Composting blog states that “Worm composting (also known as vermi-composting) involves the breakdown of organic wastes via the joint action of worms and microorganisms (although there are often other critters that lend a hand).” That process creates some of the highest quality fertilizer that exists. Red worms are the type of worms used for vermi-composting.
In the vermi-composting center, worm beds are formed from the food and yard waste compost. When the beds are ready, the worms are then added to the piles. Each day, a “slurpee” made from cow dung and water is poured on the top of the beds. The worms rise to the surface and feast. It takes about three months for the worms to turn the compost into fertilizer.
The ashram’s vermi-composting project moved to the Kuzhitura Farm location over a year ago. When I visited the new center last year, there were eight to ten worm beds. This year there were only the two shown below. I asked one of the people in the food composting center about the change and he told me they had discovered they were using way too much bedding material for the number of worms they had. Taking care of two big beds would certainly decrease the amount of time it took to maintain the beds!
There was another big change this year. In the past, when the fertilized compost was ready, volunteers separated the worms from the compost by hand. It took many volunteers and a lot of time to accomplish that process. (That was a job I loved to do!) The worms are now separated from the compost with a machine that is like a sifter. There was no staff present when I visited so I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to anyone about it, but I did take some pictures of the sifter.
The fertilized compost produced at Amritapuri has always been dark in color and very light weight. I’ve been jealous because it is so much nicer than what my vermi-composting system in Seattle produces. One of the people from the food composting center showed me some of the compost that is created using the new shifting process. It was even darker than it has been in the past…. and was so light-weight. I hope to learn more about these changes the next time I visit Amritapuri.