EcoEng Newsletter No. 8, December 2003


Where did Grandmother's kitchen waste go?

By R. Shanthini, EcoEng-Correspondent and K.S. Walgama, Sri Lanka

Contact Shanthini:




Growing up in Trincomalee town, I used to see my mother dividing the kitchen waste generated at our home into two parts. One part containing vegetable scraps, fruit peelings, leftover rice, and coconut refuse, was collected in a wide-mouthed basin. To this basin, she added the water that she used for washing the rice, and the excess water that she removed from the rice that was almost cooked.

All these were given as food to a certain cow, which visited us by noon for its meals. The remaining kitchen waste was disposed of at a particular location by the roadside. Our neighbours also had visitor-cows of their own, and they also disposed of their remaining waste at that particular location.

During late morning hours, not everyday of course, a truck with sanitary workers came to remove the waste that had been accumulated by the roadside. The waste so collected was taken and dumped at a place not so far from the town itself. By this garbage dump emitting an unbearable stench, lived the sanitary workers themselves with their wives and children.

Life was very different at my grandmother's home in a village 3 miles away from Jaffna town, where I used to spend my school holidays. Like my mother, my grandmother also used her vegetable scraps, fruit peelings, leftover rice and coconut refuse to feed animals. She, of course, fed her own animals.

But, she did not dispose of the remaining kitchen waste by the roadside as my mother did. As a matter of fact, no waste ever got out of my grandmother's garden as waste. She turned her waste into gold in her own garden in her own 'garbage dump', which was very similar to the one shown in the artist's impression of Art 1.

Art 1 Suranga's impression of Grandmother's eco-friendly composting unit.


In January every year, my grand mother used to isolate a plot of about 1.5 metre by 2 metre area at a fresh location in her small land, not so far away from her small house, by planting about 1 to 1.5 metre long live branches of the trees Gliricidia sepium and Erythrina verigeta, having the indigenous names 'Giniseeriya'/ 'Seemaikilluwai' and 'Erabadu'/ 'Mulmurungai', respectively. These live branches were planted close to each other, and onto which she fixed thatched leaves so as to make a fence of about 1 metre high surrounding the isolated area.

This isolated area served as her composting unit, into which she added the remaining part of the solid waste from her kitchen. Everyday, she swept her little garden very early in the morning and collected a considerable amount of garden waste, which contained mainly leaves from the trees in her garden. The garden waste was also added to her composting unit.

The live branches of Gliricidia sepium and Erythrina verigeta that she used for isolating her composting unit and for making a live-tree fence around her land, grew into young trees in no time. These young trees were trimmed time and again, and the leaves and branches that were cut and removed from these trees were added to her composting unit.

Owing to the nitrogen-rich nature of these leaves, they were also used for feeding her goats that she always had. In addition, her goats were fed with all sorts of herbal and medicinal plants, whose indigenous names are 'Nidikumba'/ 'Thottachchurngi', 'kaladuru'/ 'Korai Pull' and 'Penela'/ 'Mudakkoththan', which she collected from the unused part of her land.

By the way, a large part of her small plot of land was maintained unused for the purpose of encouraging the growth of indigenous herbs, These herbs were her medicines in times of need, besides being food for her goats. She consumed the mineral-rich milk that her goats gave, and the mineral-rich goat dung was added to her composting unit.


What more was that she had many hens and a rooster, all were freely roaming her land and her neighbours' lands during the day, and sleeping on the young trees surrounding her composting unit in the night. She seldom fed them. It appeared to me that they found more than enough food in her composting unit itself.

The worms and other small insects that came to populate the degrading waste in her composting unit were rich food for her hens and the rooster. They were eternally turning the degrading waste in the composting unit in search of food. In doing so, they unwittingly added their droppings to enrich the mineral content of the waste that was turning into a soil-like material.

This soil-like material, known as compost, was dark in colour and was uniform in texture. It gave off a clean, earthy smell, and was inhabited by earthworms and other similar life forms.

Every January, soon after the heavy rains of December had ceased, a farmer used to come to my grandmother with a good amount of money to buy her quality compost that had been enriched by the nitrogen-rich leaves, and the mineral-rich goat dung and hens' droppings. Because my grandmother kept goats, the farmer paid more money to her compost than what he paid to those without goats.

The farmers were paying all that money to buy compost from the villagers because compost was the only fertilizer then available. The ecologically damaging artificial fertilizers had not flooded the Sri Lankan market yet.

I did not know exactly how much the farmer paid my grandmother to buy her compost, but he paid enough for my grandmother to purchase gold with it. The rumour has it that the boxful of jewelleries that my mother was given as dowry were all bought from the money that my grandmother made by selling her household 'waste', that she magically transformed into quality compost.


My grandmother's composting unit had fascinated me always. Now, as a professional in the field of solid waste management, I appreciate the way my so-called 'uneducated' grandmother managed her waste even more than I appreciated it then. It is because only now I have fully understood the strong elements of ecological balance that prevailed in her method of waste disposal.

My grandmother was never taught the theory of composting, and she had never heard of the word ecology. But, she was simply not 'rich' enough to waste, and she lived in a world of mutual respect. The people of her era possessed the wisdom to know the hard fact that the survival of one depends on the well being of the other, and on the well being of the Mother Nature.

We all would of course agree that the eco-friendly ways of the kitchen and garden waste disposal practised at the time of my grandmother were far superior to the modern world's ways of solid waste disposal, such as the use of dumping grounds. But, we all would say that we don't have the time and space to dispose of our waste in the way it was done in the old time.

It is therefore, an attempt has been made in the remaining chapters of this book to share our experience in adapting the old, eco-friendly method of turning the kitchen and garden waste into compost to suit the temporal and spatial constraints faced by the modern households of Sri Lanka.

As of late, however, some farmers in Jaffna are abandoning artificial fertilisers and going back to using compost as the fertilizer in their vegetable gardens. And, they, like their grandparents, are prepared to buy the compost from the village folks. Is not it a very good piece of news to share with?



*: Trincomalee - Trincomalee is situated in the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and it boasts of beautiful and still clean beaches, natural harbour and many historical temples.

**: Jaffna - Jaffna is situated in the north of Sri Lanka, and it is almost surrounded by the sea with the narrow strait of land correcting it to the mainland of Sri Lanka.

***: Mr. Suranga Manohara is a civil engineer working at the Engineering Design Centre at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.


© 2003, International Ecological Engineering Society, Wolhusen, Switzerland