Can't stop thinking about...
A new format for this newsletter
Today, something new 🌱 All the recent changes and additions to the Substack platform have been exciting. But I have to admit: I feel a growing pressure to write more, send more, post more — all in the hope of growing my audience more.
That being said, my guiding credo since I started writing a personal newsletter in 2015/2016 has been to only hit send when I actually have something to say. So I’m sticking to that. It is not, after all, just about writing something that’s worth reading, but also representative of a value system that I espouse a lot in my writing: More, better, faster isn’t always better. And it always comes at a cost.
So for now, two sends a month is what I can handle without feeling like I’m working in the content mines again. However, I’m adding a third format to this newsletter, which I’ll rotate in with the monthly essay/recommendations and the periodic Q&As. You can think of it like an expanded version of one of the link recommendations I include in each monthly list. A deeper dive on a specific article, book, podcast, or piece of media that I’ve consumed. It’ll be something that roused me, inspired me, angered me, or kept me up after my extremely early bedtime. Essentially: Here’s something I can’t stop thinking about.
Let me know what you think of the first one below.
The other day my sister told me about these fancy countertop compost machines that Bay Area people have in their kitchens.
I consider myself relatively au fait with what’s going on in the culture, be it consumer goods, media, or otherwise. But the concept of a composting appliance threw me. My brain could not countenance the prospect of literal decomposition being improved upon.
“You mean like a compost pail? That sits on your countertop to collect your kitchen scraps? I have a plastic one from Aldi.”
A few days later I learned what she was talking about from a New Yorker piece by food writer Helen Rosner. I should say that I love Helen Rosner’s writing. It’s funny, generous, sharp, and treats food-related topics with the right balance of seriousness and levity. But on a purely informational level, I think she mischaracterized how difficult home composting is in this piece. It’s really not that hard. (The best primer you can possibly read on how to compost comes from r/composting on Reddit. Truly, it’s a work of art.)
However the thing about the piece that really struck me — the thing I couldn’t stop thinking about — was the absurdity of what these companies offer. The very idea that the process of decomposition could be co-opted and marketed and turned into a consumer product with an associated subscription fee.
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It gets even worse when you get down the nitty gritty of what these machines actually do (or rather, what they don’t do), which Rosner explains with characteristic clarity:
Despite what a person might infer from how they’re marketed, [the Lomi and FoodCycler] do not actually create compost. They have blades or shears, to grind, and heating elements, to dehydrate. What emerges, at the end of a process cycle, is not the nutritious black gold that results from a proper compost system but, rather, an organic fluff of nicely cooked, thoroughly dried-out stuff. (The FoodCycler’s manual dubs the end product “RFC”: Recycled Food Compound; the Lomi just calls it dirt.) … [T]he end product can be disposed of through community composting—it provides a useful fibre layer—or added to the soil in gardens or houseplants, where it still contributes trace nutrients.
Mill, a startup that promises an “entirely new system to prevent waste,” is not just a device but a service. Mechanically, Mill’s “kitchen bin” functions almost identically to the Lomi and the FoodCycler—dry it out, grind it down, catch the smells—but it is several times larger and is designed to sit on the floor. For thirty-three dollars per month, customers lease the machine and are provided pre-labelled boxes so that they can mail the end product back to the company.
There are two logical fallacies here: a practical one and a philosophical one.
First, let’s talk practical. If the only thing you can really do with these appliances’ byproducts is add it to existing compost/soil, drop it off at a community compost site, or throw it in the regular old trash, I’m not exactly sure there is a clear value proposition here. If you must have access to existing compost to be able to do anything with the machine’s end-product — in other words, if its nutrient-devoid nature means it can’t serve as the basis for new plant life on its own — what’s the point of paying for an appliance to grind down your waste for you?
It also just sounds like a hell of a lot more work than actually composting. Load this thing nightly, and then empty it daily, and then most crucially: figure out something to do with the waste it that’s not just … throwing it in the regular old landfill trash. Surely nobody who lives in a NYC apartment has enough houseplants to incorporate all the nutrient-poor dirt that’s created anew each morning.
It’s true, as Rosner notes, that not everyone has access to land or space on which to have an at-home compost. Community compost schemes, or the city-wide collection of food waste, are the real hero here, as Rosner rightly goes onto note. But the solution to that lack of access is definitely not for-profit companies selling appliances that create something inferior to compost.
Which leads us the the second fallacy here — the reason I am bothering to write these words — which is that these machines run counter to everything that composting itself represents. As the aforementioned Reddit post reminds us: “Don’t overthink it. We are just controlling rot here.”
Indeed, the reason I am admittedly enamored with my own compost pile is because because it embodies all the values and principles that are so lacking in our society: balance, equilibrium, patience, thrift, rest, regeneration, cooperation, and a reverence for the cycles that sustain literally every living thing on earth.
When you consider the vast chasm between how natural systems like a compost pile work versus how the conditions of our modern lives are structured, it’s pretty obvious why our world is in the state it’s in. We are cyclical beings stuck in a linear world, ignoring the pattern that everything else runs so beautifully on.
Many of the climate solutions we see touted by for-profit companies — as well as governments and policy makers for that matter — follow this line of thinking. They double down on the idea that more, faster, better is the way out of this mess. Forget giving the earth time to regenerate, to produce less, to heal — and god forbid humans learning to adapt to that different way of being. Instead, with enough technology and innovation, they seem to suggest, we can reduce carbon and continue wringing out the earth for everything it’s got.
But the problem is, we can’t solve the problems of capitalism with more capitalism. We already have many of the solutions we need. We need to stop thinking we’re the ones running the appliance. We need to embrace the fact that we’re actually just the compost.
As ever, thank you for reading. If you have something you can’t stop thinking about, hit reply or leave it in the comments. 💭 Maybe I’ll write about it next.
If you’d like to support me further, you can update your subscription to paid here. And if you’re already a paying subscriber, my deepest thanks for giving me the time and space to explore these themes. It means a lot.