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Compost? But what if I live in a condo?

Today, more than 40 percent of Vancouver's population has ditched houses in favour of  condos, where outdoor space usually means a small balcony or patio. So far, however, the City of Vancouver's Food Scraps Collection program does not extend to these residents, although they may be the people who most need the program, because limited outdoor space means they can't compost.

Or can they? 

The Red Dragon

An intriguing composter for small spaces is the indoor/outdoor electric composting appliance called the Red Dragon for its Eastern origins. Mike Levenston of City Farmer demonstrated it on a recent visit to the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden. Having tested similar electric composters in the past, Levenston was sceptical of the Red Dragon when it arrived for testing last fall, but he’s been running it for over six months and now says he‘s beyond impressed with its performance.

The composter is about the size of a trash compacter, and, like a deep freeze, opens from the top to allow the user to scrape kitchen waste straight from the cutting board into the machine (as simple as scraping it into the trash can, no?). 

When buried in a landfill with no oxygen, organic matter breaks down in an anaerobic decomposition process and creates methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere (www.epa.gov/methane). Composting, on the other hand, is an aerobic process, meaning that the microbes responsible for breaking down organic material breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, which growing plants use to photosynthesize. 

The Red Dragon user adds a microbe solution, water and some material to activate the microbes. The microbe, alicyclobacillus acidocaldarius, occurs naturally in the environment (for instance, on fruit rinds) and is deemed safe by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 

Plug the Red Dragon in and it's ready to go. All you have to do is add kitchen waste: raw or cooked veggies, even meat, fish, and dairy. And, you don’t have to worry about the green to brown ratio (the ratio of nitrogen-rich to carbon-rich material) added. Getting this ratio right is a major concern when composting nature’s way; getting it wrong can result in a sloppy, smelly mess.

A combination of heat (it runs between 40 and 60 deg. C.), moisture extraction, microbial action and mechanical churning with metal tines helps the Red Dragon produce a crumbly, dry, dark brown soil additive in as little as 12 hours.  Shellfish and meat with bones may take up to 48 hours, but that's lightning-fast compared to composting nature's way.

Brian Leung of the Vancouver-based company, GreenGood Canada, which holds the world-wide marketing rights to the Red Dragon, says he keeps his machine on the balcony of his Yaletown condo, but the machine can be used indoors as well.  In fact, its sleek red-and-black design would compliment the most modern of IKEA kitchens and, since there is no associated smell (my own nose can assure you), placing it indoors conveniently at the source of organic waste is ideal. Leung wonders why Vancouver, a city that is seeing such rapid residential development, is not offering composting appliances as a standard feature in new condos.  Indeed, the sales literature could advertise the composter right along with the dishwasher and gas range. 

Having travelled extensively throughout Asia in his career in the aviation industry, Mr. Leung reports that this kind of technology has been around for several years in Korea and Japan. South Korea-based Oklin Inc manufactures the Red Dragon composter and has been in business since 1997.

Criticism of the Red Dragon includes its use of electricity to do the job that nature will do for free and it being just another gadget in a world full of gadgets, most of which end up in landfills (an ironic destiny). 

Mr. Leung was quick to point out that energy use is not a valid criticism of an appliance that has the potential to do so much good. He says that we use electricity for all kinds of lesser purposes: hand dryers, soap dispensers, can openers, dishwashers, not to mention our 24/7 online lives. If one is concerned about wasting electricity, consider line-drying your clothes, watch less TV, and turn off your computer when it’s not in use.

The Red Dragon appliance only pulls 50-60 kWh per month, adding about $3.00 to a household's energy bill. It has an energy-saving mode that reduces active operation to the digestion of new scraps; when nothing new has been added for a while, it goes to sleep just like a computer monitor. 

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