I arrived in Spain in a roundabout way. First, I took a detour to Nottingham, a town in the heart of England. Little did I know, until my dad admonished me for being uncultured, that it is also the setting of the Robin Hood. I was not there, however, to revel in tales of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Rather, I was there to see Anna de la Vega, the founder of the Urban CIC, whose leading a different kind of movement. Through workshops, events, and an online campaign called 1000 Worm Farmers, Anna has inspired thousands of people to take up worm farming using buckets, trash bins, or whatever type of container they have available. She also helps businesses worm compost in innocuous dump bins, which at first glance don't look any different than the normal trash/recycling receptacles you would find behind a business.
Talking with Anna was refreshing. She has been working on championing vermicompost for over a decade. She also had been on a global fellowship to study vermicompost--who knew I wasn't the only one? Her advice was to write everything down and share what I learned. I hope this blog is a testament to my efforts 😂.
After England, I took a ferry across the English Channel to arrive in Spain. My first stop was to meet Dr. Naxto Irigoien Iriarte, a professor who studies organic waste management at the Public University of Navarra in Pamplona. Naxto showed me the ins and outs of composting and the circular economy in Pamplona with an infectious energy. It felt like a dream. Pamplona has implemented both urban organic waste collection and on-site compost units for more rural/suburban area. Although, everything I learned could be its own separate blog post, I'll try and share the highlights.
Compost Collection. I stayed in Naxto flat in an area outside of the ancient fortress walls of Pamplona. In the flat, there were collection buckets for food, plastic, paper, and one for everything else. When the buckets filled up, I walked to the street corner (about a 1 minute walk) where there were five containers, one for each type of waste. In other part of the city, there were posts where people hung their buckets. Monday they would set out plastics, Tuesday organics, Wednesday paper, and so on. This was Naxto's favorite type of system because it has an incredibly low contamination rates. Each bucket-hook had the house number on it, so any contamination is traceable to a residence. No surprise, accountability makes a difference in contamination levels.
I asked Naxto why Pamplona has such a good collection system, were people here really eco-minded? He answered no, and advised that with any effort "30% of people will support it, 30% won't care, and 30% will oppose it." I'm not sure about the other 10%...but I understood his point.
From what I gather, what has allowed Pamplona to pull this off is 1) Support from the municipal government, both financially and legally 2) A strong system of social enterprises that produce bins and help collect waste 3) A pay-for-the-waste-you-produce system. As a bonus, separating organics actually saves money for the region, since separating organics means that the other bins smell less and need to be picked up less often. (I was surprised to learn in one town people only pay 100 euros/year for waste collection!)
Compost Processing. The organic waste went to a biogas plant outside the city. The methane produced from the anaerobic breakdown of the food waste was used for energy, while the solid residuals were composted and applied to local farm fields. Driving past a field on the side of the road, Naxto and I were able to see the compost up close. Admittedly, there were some pieces of plastic and shards of glass, but there it was--compost from city residents being applied to farm fields--a circular system. Though, I didn't get to see the biogas plant in person, I did get to see a Home Biogas system that one of Naxto's students is testing out for use in a refugee camp.
In suburban and rural areas, three bin compost systems are placed in a central location. The bins are made of removable, recycled-plastic planks and are produced by a local business called Vermican. Residents dump their organic waste in and then cover it with dried yard trimmings, provided in separate bins. It was amazing to see the old ladies in the neighborhood bringing their buckets of the compost to the container like it was no big deal, because it wasn't for them.
While there, I also got a chance to see the results when compost collection contamination is not checked. I visited a site where the municipality has done little to prevent contamination and pays a farm to dump local waste. It reinforced the importance of separation at the source.
With the weather cooling down and me starting to miss my garden. I decided to volunteer at a farm in the mountains outside of Valencia. The range of climates and cultures in Spain amazes me! Ferran, Nadia, and their three kids live in a stone house in a small village. Their small farm, or "Biohuerta" produces a range of leafy greens, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables. Both were incredibly patient with my slow and broken Spanish (when I came to Spain, I thought my Spanish was decent, only to be humbled and discover it's pretty mediocre! Though, it gets the job done). During my time there, I was able to build them a three-bin compost systems in their chicken coop.
I was also able to cross paths with my Uncle in Valencia. We climbed a 200 step tower that overlooked the city and got to dip our toes in the Mediterranean.
Overall, I have loved my time in Spain. The people have been warm and inviting, and I've been amazed at all the composting going on here! I have one more week left here, but I would love to return one day ❤️.
Next stop, Malawi.
Fun Fact: Worm composting in Spanish is called Lombricultura (lombrices=worms + cultura=culture)