Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Holy Guano Batman !

Now we've all heard about some of the bizzare items that people have composted or grown things in, the one that sticks out in my mind every time I order my garlic, chilli, crispy chicken, is the Chinese paddy farmers who use human feaces to improve their rice crops, I wince like I just sucked the life out of a lemon every time I think of it, but then remembering the smell of the aforementioned has me bashing the buttons of my mobile to get through to Hi's takeaway like there's no tomorrow.

Now, if you were in China and you were served a bowl of rice, fresh from the field, could you or would you eat it ? knowing that ?

I don't have many days off sick, never have. Always in good health despite doing everything that the surgeon general says I shouldn't. But I reckon this "health" stems from childhood. My parents let me play in the street or best, in the valley next to our old house, which had tree swings and a river at the bottom, polluted as hell mind, I played out in the rain, I hid in snowdrifts, I swung from trees, I ate worms, I ate rocksalt when the roads were gritted, I sampled coal, soil, slugs and my grans rhubarb pie. I think this kept my iummune and auto repair facilities ready for the future.

But even I have my limits and Bat Cr*p is one of them.

I'll next help you picture a scene; you're sat with your partner at a linen covered table, there's a half finished bottle of white wine, the cream roof to floor length drapes are fluttering lightly in the breeze, the view through the doors is out to a sun lit grassed slope that finishes at a rippling silver river. It's peace and quiet you'd bottle if you could.

The waiter arrives, "Your desserts Sir and Madame, Strawberry Cheesecake"

You: "Wow, this looks wonderful"

Waiter: "Yes sir, home grown strawberries as well"

You: "Really ? Very impressive"

Waiter "That's not all, the strawberries are grown in compost, made from the food wastes generated by the restaraunt"

You: "Brilliant, let me sample it (chomp,chomp)"

Waiter: "And bat guano....."

I'm afraid I don't know how to write the necessary sounds here, but it might sound like the clatter of dishes hitting the floor, silverware clinking together, glasses smashing and running feet ended with a liquidy cough. Something like that.

Rocky and the team have the pleasure of knowing that this could be the case, food wastes generated are already being composted on site at a very, very picturesque, popular hi-end restaraunt, that just happend to have 9 species of bats in the old buildings. Bat Guano is a nutritous material and will help to complement the nutritional values of the composted food wastes, the plan for the future, to add the Bat wastes with the food wastes... and continue to grow the food.

I love food waste, compost growing stories, but this one in particular.


Wednesday, 4 March 2009


What's the hardest thing you ever studied for or worked to acheive ?

Mine was my motorbike licence. I failed it three times. If you've ever taken it you'll understand, its a real nightmare. Not only can you fail the test because of your own idiocy, but someone elses.

I'd had my bike, a Suzuki, a blue and white Japanese Plastic Rocket, for weeks. I took my first test within days of owning it. I failed. Why ? Because the test was in the depths of winter and an emergency stop on an icy road was only going to end one way. Down.

The next time I took the test a landrover pulled out of a side street and I nearly had to ride up a lamp post, over a bus stop and through a hedge to avoid becoming another statistic. They failed me for that too. The third, I was so petrified that I could fail for the most ridiculous reason, I rode too slowly and indeed failed again for being too cautious. I finally passed on my fourth attempt. By this time I'd just about given up the hope that I'd have an examiner with an inch of common sense, so I just rode relaxed and presumed I'd fail. Nope... passed.

This was by far the hardest examination or certifiction I'd tried to pass, it took me a huge amount of effort, scores of extra lessons, four test fees, days off work, a fair amount of time in theory study and most importantly my wasted money. All that time and my shiny new bike sat waiting for the entirity - goading me.

Composting has it's certifications too. One in particular, PAS100. PAS 100 is like a kite mark, or standard mark you're likely to find printed somewhere on a bag of compost you'd pick up in the local BnQ or garden centre. It's there to tell you that the product you're buying is quality muck. You need to know it's quality and this standard tells you so, if you were inclined to look a little further into it that is. Truth is, you walk in pick up a bag, pay at the counter walk out and let the bag split as you load it into the back of the wifes baby chariot and never actually look for a certification at any point. You just trust the pack you buy, becuase of it's packaging and the fact it's on sale where you expected it to be.

The bag you buy was probably produced by some organisation somewhere who are composting large amounts of (usually) green wastes, using a huge scale operation, millions of pounds worth of investment and massive machines. But you'd expect that.

To get that compost onto that shelf, you need certifiaction and accreditation to a nationally recognised standard. PAS100. You can imagine it takes a lot of care, a lot of effort and it takes a large amount of money for the manufacturer of the compost to achieve. But does it have to ?

Late January and we've a training session at a University. There's 3 groups involved in the training session. The catering staff, the grounds staff, and management. Very simple, catering staff produce the food wastes and load the composter daily. They add woodchip that the grounds staff bring, the grounds staff take away the compost. The management watch and listen and are my contacts. Simple.

The operation gets going and the staff work with the instructions, the aim simply, to recycle food wastes on site at the University. Stop waste going to landfill and reduce costs. It's not Rocket science! Simple straightforward waste disposal with a useable end product.

As part of our day to day operation we like to test things, my engineer loves testing things, mainly my patience, today my senior engineer wants some compost samples for testing purposes from client operations. I ask my University contact would he mind ramming a jiffy bag full ? Posting to me and I'll send it for sampling. He did. I did.

We spent quite a lot of money on testing his sample, you wouldn't believe you could spend that much looking at a bag of brown muck, but apparently you can.

The 117 or something tests that were done, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass ...... . I didn't send the sample to find this out, my intentions were to find out nutrient levels so the University could tell the grounds staff what plants would be best suited to it, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass... PAS100. Blood and stomach pills! (as my mother used to say) It's just passed PAS100 !

Ring ring.... ring ring..... ring ring ... "Hello it's Rocky you'll not believe this, but that sample you sent me....."

Absolutely brilliant. It wasn't their or indeed our intentions, but it would appear that food waste composting, some good instruction and the right piece of equipment can bring some surprising results.

We've since had many more tests done, on operations who aren't trying to make headlines, guess what ? Doesn't take a genius does it ?


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Driving food waste down

My office staff take great delight in reminding me as frequently as possible that I'm not as young as they are, I'm sure it happens in just about every workplace in the country similarly, my greying hair, my inability to stay awake past half past ten, listening to radio two (and remembering the tunes) snoring when on weekends away mountain biking and having pictures of Barry Sheene by my desk rather than some scantily clad "Girl Aloud".

I'm happy to let them have their moment though, as on many occasions I make a point of letting them know exactly who's boss.

Hannibal Smith, cigar smoking, grey topped, head honcho of the crack "fix it" A -Team. That's me.... and I let the lads know it, "I love it when a plan comes together", I live for the days I can say that to the office.

Fantastic....... they haven't got a clue what I'm on about.

I've had one of those days this last week...

Rocky's had the fortune of working with a county council and a not for profit enterprise. The project was for the NFP to compost the council collected food wastes, process it at their site, use the material for growing and re-use by the council. The council really have worked hard on this food waste project, invested and spent a lot of time talking compost, they really should be credited.

Problem being, the composting site doesn't quite exist. It would do, but it needs a lot of money to make it so. Imagine an area the size of a swimming pool, now put it on the side of a hill and fill it with grass. That's kind of it. The money's run out, we're struggling now and food waste composting is looking bleak in the short term.

Enter stage right: "Howling Mad" Murdoch we'll call him for all those who know who the A team are.

Mr Murdoch works for a huge construction company and he meets with Mr T from the council. Mr M asks Mr T; "we're building you this massive by-pass for you over the next several years, but we want the construction project to be as "green as possible" but we're struggling with one item, food wastes, is there any way the council could collect or recycle our food wastes" ?

T:"We could collect your food wastes, but we've got a proposal for you.... We've been working with a social enterprise that needs the basics of a site building, you build me a site, I'll get the food wastes collected and a social enterprise will compost it and use it for a growing project, how's that for a suggestion?"

M: "Brilliant, Growing what ?"

T:" Ohh, local plants, shrubs, things like that"

M:"Could they grow us seedlings and saplings to plant by the by-pass?"

T: "Ohhh yes"

" I love it when a plan comes together".... I had to say it.

A multinational construction company, helping out a social enterprise, composting food waste from the construction project, growing in the compost plants that will be used in the by-pass landscaping, a heart warming story about food wastes and collaboration if ever there was one.

Rocky and .....

Friday, 6 February 2009

Oil' be outside, composting

I’m as averse to paying the price at the pumps for the diesel and petrol my cars take as the next man, but most recently my brand allegiance changed and I’d like to tell you why.

It was a chilly late 2008 morning and I was travelling my usual country lane route to work, I was doing my best to duplicate the stunning run through the Welsh Rally special stage 12 by Marcus Grönholm in his Ford Focus, only I was just that little quicker, when Terry Wogan (my co-driver) interrupted his commentary to let me listen to the 8 O’clock news. The headline this morning “Oil Company announces 13Billion Profits….” Only my driving skill avoided what could have been a triple summersault through a hedge and over the Timbersbrook Vicarage vegetable plot.

I can think of 13 million ways 13 Billion pounds can be spent. I was not happy.

However, it would appear that there are some very “Eco Minded” individuals in the big Oil companies these days, long gone are the days of JR Ewing, Bobby and Crystal investing the oil companies’ profits in new shoulder pads and Stetsons.

I’m quite happy to say, that I’m helping “JR” spend my contribution to his pump profits, on food waste recycling projects.

The task on hand for Rocky and the team - the supply of food waste recycling equipment to an Oil Exploration site.

This particular site has 6 smaller sites, each of these sites with a cafeteria or refectory that the oil workers eat at, the food wastes are collected from each of these six sites and transported to a centralised site where the wastes will be combined as one and composted. Excellent idea!

We spent a fair amount of time discussing how the composters would work for them, how the machinery would look, who they could talk to about their opinions of composting, the types of food waste collection buckets we would use and what we’d do with the compost afterwards. Everything was carried out by email and very, very briefly by telephone – as my foreign language abilities stop at being able to order a large beer in a German bar and ask where the toilet is after I order one too many.

The site for composting these food wastes? Georgia, as in - the Baltic State of.

When the order arrived at Rocky HQ, I have to say I was a little speechless. We conducted all investigation without ever even seeing a bucket of food waste let alone a handful of compost. This was no small composter either.

The amount of trust bestowed upon my investigation and correspondence was huge. But they have taken me at my word and gone with the idea.

Now I’ve changed brand of Petrol and diesel, I know it all comes from the same place, but I buy slightly happier in the knowledge that this time my money might be going someway to helping repair some of the damage we’ve done to this very precious planet.

As a parting comment, if this can be envisaged, organised and implemented, in possibly the last place on earth you’d expect, why the heck isn’t more of it happening here at home?


Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Food going to waste

I’m not afraid to admit I’m a bit under the thumb, the better half does keep me in line and pretty much wears the pants most of the time, but yesterday she called me to tell me she’d be “keep fatting” and that making tea was my duty tonight.

She always cooks, I clean – it’s a house rule, she tells me she hates scraping food wastes off plates hates having to clean dishes, it’s a routine now and I’m happy to find myself with “fairy” soft hands whilst “head banging” what’s left of my greying hair over a frothy sink bowl listening to Australians with an aversion to different types of electrical current.

So what shall I make? Spag Bol.

Spag’ Bol’s a favourite of mine and probably the majority of the male populous of our little island, I’m so keen on mine I’ll even give you my recipe.
I know what pans I need as soon as I walk in the kitchen; I know what vegetables, how many stock cubes, how much chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper and minced beef. I know when to put these together and in what order. It always takes the same amount of time and it always tastes just as good and it did again last night.

That’s what got me thinking, I was on autopilot last night and I made “Rocky’s Spag Bol” without even thinking, there were a total of 3 different pans, three processes at different temperatures and 11 different ingredients that made it, if you include water.

Now why do people think composting is so difficult I asked myself?

There’s only two “ingredients” in my composting, there’s only one piece of equipment. How do I get this across to people? So I’ve decided that when I talk with people to explain the simplicity of composting I’m going to ask them for a recipe. Every one knows a recipe, even if it’s jam on toast, if you can recite a recipe you’ve done it so many times its second nature.

The best composters are just that, it’s second nature, you just know what to do and what to look for, just like cooking. My best projects are just that too.

But the reverse will also be applied to certain situations. Occasionally I get asked about large composting projects that involve food waste. The client will picture composting like it’s a compactor or baler that you can just turn on or off, it’s not. It takes a little care and a little learning.

Imagine you’ve never stepped foot in the kitchen before, you’ve never seen an oven and you have never, ever made your own food. This kitchen though is a special kitchen, it’s huge and there is a single line menu on a table, but no recipe in sight. All the ingredients line the shelves around you, the clocks ticking and the “Maitre D” tells you you’ve got to cook Chicken Stroganoff for 200 people. Bugger.

Never get yourself in that situation, learn small, learn the recipe and grow the project that’s my advice. If you can make “Spag Bol” for two, blindfolded, then the chances are through pure mathematics you’ll be able to make it for 200.

The other I thought about too was, why is it sometimes it goes wrong?

If I was making “Rocky’s Spag Bol” last night and at a critical tomato puree moment, my better half took over – it’d go wrong. Why? Too many cooks spoil the broth. Simple.

So I’m going to use two cooking analogies when talking about composting food wastes, one the recipe and two, make sure that whoever uses the composting equipment is either limited by number or knowledge.

Have one or two people only, who know the recipe backwards and it works every time. Just like my Spag Bol.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

From Cars to Compost

Three and a half years ago on a sunny summer’s day, I strolled out from the new car showroom for what would be possibly my biggest decision in 10 years; little did I think so at the time though.

I’ve worked in the motor industry for 14 years and as a devout “petrol head” the only things that really “lit my fire” were the sounds of a highly tuned engine or the smell of burnt “Castrol R” two stroke motor oil. (other brands are also available)

I walked over to a customer who’s just been in for a service on his beloved estate car. I was presented with a bag of “brown muck” and told it was the future – and asked would I like a change of scenery? It was only the fact that my mother brought me up well, open doors for ladies and say please and thank you, that stopped me laughing, “I’ll think about it” was all I could summon in surprise at the time.

I did though, think about it that is. Good job I did.

Now my conversations have changed from service intervals, labour rate increases and
Cam-belts, to pay-back times, moisture content and composting exemptions and I’d like to think that I form part of a team that is industry leading in this area.

Three, four, years ago, those interested in composting, primarily, were not for profit organisations and the occasional “research” establishment, but this has changed, hugely in fact. As the clock ticks and 2009 is now well and truly here, it’s now the HE and FE sectors being the most driven in the investigation of composting and subsequently now our biggest client.

Composting what? One may ask, food wastes. Simple really, the Universities and colleges have read and understood what’s being asked of them and what’s actually needed. The landfill directive our councils are striving to meet is all about “organic” wastes, not glass, not rubber, plastic, used fridges, old boots and tin cans. It’s about organic wastes, we need ultimately to stop sending all waste to landfill – as it’s not a sensible approach at all, but of all the wastes we insist sticking in a hole in the ground, it’s the organic wastes that are causing gaseous emanations, a bit like the “cow trumping” we’ve all heard about. Difference is it’s easier to stop food waste going to landfill than convincing the cows to hold their “bottom breath”.

There’s a huge amount of food waste generated at a University. If you are one of those householders who recycle his or her food wastes at home, you’ll appreciate how much this might be. But let me help you. There’s a University, I’ll say it’s in “the Midlands” this way the Londoners know it’s north of Watford and those in Newcastle know it’s the “Southerners” in question this time, it has an average of around 15 cubic meters of food waste per week, that’s 12 tonnes to those who “picture” weights. That’s a lot of food waste. Every week, week in week out, they do have a lot of students though.

This food waste can be recycled on site, it’s as far as I’m aware the only waste that can truly be recycled on site, everything else you collect for recycling needs taking away to be processed and this means collections, trucks, carbon emissions and probably costs. In the recycling market as it is now with dry recyclables no longer being accepted by China and the revenue or savings you were previously counting on slip through the tightly clenched fingers of the finance department, you could be looking at not only a massive cost saving solution in composting, but a solution with other “benefits” included.

One of the most imaginative projects I always enthuse about and really love to see actioned is growing. Imagine the University or college in question not only composting their food wastes on site, but having a dedicated growing area too. I’m not talking growing rare breeds of English scented rose here, I’m talking spuds, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, I might even suggest tomatoes.

Now, you’re already ahead of me here I’m sure and know what’s coming next. Local food and food miles. You were right. I’d like to suggest to you that those who can compost their own food wastes on site set up a growing area on site and grow a portion of the food that the University uses every day. Just imagine the burger and chips with a side salad served in the main refectory at lunch time today, the tomato, the onion, the lettuce and the wedge chips all having come from the plot outside, brilliant.

Too much work one might say? Not necessarily, you see the students are also interested; it’s not just the Universities looking for solutions it’s the students talking to us too about composting. They are as interested as the establishment, with Universities green leagues being scoured by potential students for their choice of University before application and the students union putting pressure on the estates department for green solutions, perhaps we can encourage them to assist? If they’re looking for a University with Green Methods in place, sourcing local food and serving great meals, perhaps it’s not too much to ask in return.

There are many Universities composting now, around 10% of them in fact, most have started with small “pilot” projects, just to make sure that they know how it works, once proven these pilots are then “up scaled” for larger projects to encompass greater waste volumes and some instances all the food wastes generated. But the stumbling block for the rest? Perceptions. Composting still has its pre-conceived perceptions, a back breaking smelly task, with piles and piles of compost reaching up to the windows of the Vice Chancellors Office. It’s not, there’s machinery to do it for you now and it’s really quite simple and when you “weigh” up the cost savings, the food waste issue becomes just that little bit more palatable.

I like many others were converted, my ideas of composting soon changed and I’d encourage you too to look at the possibility, looking costs you nothing, but do you remember that feeling you get when you discover something new and exciting? Doesn’t happen often does it?