Talking Trash with the Queen of Composting
A passionate urban farmer, civic leader, social media influencer, homemaker, caregiver, and voice for sustainability, Vani Murthy has become known by many names, some of which include the Queen of Composting, Compost Queen and Worm Rani.
“I call myself a constant trash-talker because of how much I talk about sustainable waste management,” Vani laughs as we talk over the phone.
Hailing from old town Malleswaram in Bangalore, Vani’s journey of sustainable living practices began over 10 years ago, when she visited a local landfill with a few concerned citizens.
“That changed everything for me,” Vani explains, “The one thought that kept troubling me is what do we leave behind for the future? There are generations to come, and if we exhaust all the resources by meaningless wastage, how do we leave something better for the future?”
This excursion laid the foundation for what is now known as the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT). Composed of those who visited the landfill on that epic day, SWMRT began with an aim to mobilise their understanding and practices, and hope for a cleaner, brighter and more sustainable future for both their city and the world.
“We needed to take it forward, to make campaigns, to get more people to understand and to sensitise people on the issue of waste,” Vani explains.
The team, made up of members from all over Bangalore, knew that they must first look inward, and take stock of their own waste before preaching to others. Setting up sustainability models for apartments, schools and even campuses their first major campaign was a city-wide colour-coded waste segregation drive known as 2 Bins, 1 Bag. Arguing their case in court, the members managed to get this mandate by the court for the city of Bangalore. This method of waste segregation at source of generation for the city, a major achievement for both the environment and the team, though Vani admits the ruling was great, the real challenge was scaling it up.
“Enforcement is a problem in our country.” Vani explains, “When groups of citizens are aware and have a leader in that community that pushes the program, that’s when change happens. Nobody is afraid of the law, and there’s nothing to hold them accountable for not segregating,”
Despite this lack of enforcement, the team were seeing the results of their hard work, and began rolling out their second major campaign: SwachaGraha, a call to arms for citizens to maintain 3 green zones within their homes; one for composting; one for growing and soil building and; one for organic farming and safe food. The team provided citizens with composting kits and hoped to inspire change with a challenge.
“We said if you don’t send your waste out for just one week- see what happens, see if you can manage it.” Vani says using the kit, “Compost, and see what compost feels like, what it looks like. People have constraints of space, time- all of that would break down in this one week- and then you get composting!”
The collective has, in their long career of championing the cause of sustainability, authored a how-to book titled Trashonomics, full of simple, easy and fun waste management activities for all ages, as well as supporting campaigns for sustainable menstruation practices, incorporating alternatives to disposable sanitary napkins, amongst many many others. At present, members of SWMRT are actively engaged in connecting farmers to city compost facilities, in order to help them grow produce using natural fertilisers.
Vani’s own efforts toward sustainable waste management have trickled down to her family members, who support her vision of a clean, healthy future. Last June, Vani’s own son celebrated his wedding with a zero-waste extravaganza.
A Family Affair: The Zero Waste Celebration
°The Terrace Marketplace
Using her voice to encourage people to live more sustainably, and to view their waste not as refuse to be dumped, but as a powerful resource with which to fuel the future, Vani had been making the rounds of workshops and events. On one such occasion, she was invited to an event conducted by Dr. B. N. Vishwanath, a pioneer in the terrace gardening movement in Bangalore, to speak on the benefits of composting.
“I had never grown a single plant in my life,” Vani reveals, “I always thought there was something known as the green thumb- which I realised later was nonsense. Once you connect with nature I think it comes naturally. I then discovered there’s a hidden farmer in each of us.”
The terrace gardening group introduced Vani to a culture of budding young, passionate urban farmers, some of whom had young children and were hooked on to growing safe food.
“It was so exciting to see this bunch coming together on a Sunday, it was like a mela!” Vani reminisces, “these guys were urban farmers who were growing food organically, exchanging seeds and saplings, some were exchanging produce,”
Equipped with her own batch of worms and compost, Vani soon bartered one sustainable tool for another, beginning a journey which would redefine her way of life and consumption.
“With the state of farming in the awful place it is today, there’s no organic matter in the soil, it’s dead soil, which is repeatedly pumped with chemical fertilisers and pesticides sprayed on the food, there are so many toxins that come onto the plate.” Vani explains, “When I grew my own vegetables I realised the value of good food. You have to nourish the soil, the soil, in turn, nourishes the plant and the plant, in turn, nourishes us- that is the path of nourishment which we need to put into this body which is so lacking today, that’s why I love growing food!”
Today, Vani’s own terrace garden is a private marketplace of her own. From drumsticks to lemon plants, cabbages, cauliflower, gourds, turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, chillis, cherry tomatoes and more, Vani explains she hasn’t visited a grocery store or supermarket in a long time, having subscribed to her weekly veggies and groceries from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)
“Going to the landfill and what I eat today- they are totally connected.” Vani explains, “I was throwing away peels that should have made my soil, that could have gone to my garden and made living soil, soil that is alive is where food needs to be grown.”
°Social Media and Sustainable Living
A celebrity in her own right, Vani’s name has become synonymous with practices of sustainability, largely owing to her vibrant and vocal social media presence. From viral YouTube videos on composting and soil creation to the countless e-workshops and programs she conducts, Vani’s most important tool in the fight for healthy living is her voice.
“I think the very fact that I am able to use social media to reach out to people I don’t even know, the people who are not near me, miles away, and I’m able to influence, that’s the biggest achievement for me.” Vani explains, “Wherever I go, people recognise me and say because of this video you put up, or because I followed you, I began composting, I stopped using single-use disposables. I know by the kind of feedback I get, that reach is so powerful,”
While one would imagine the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus would have put a damper on Vani’s efforts, the Composting Queen reveals it has done quite the opposite.
“It’s almost every other day that I’m on a live program, webinars, Zoom calls, WebX, or Insta Lives, it’s been so productive because while staying at home, I am able to reach thousands of people, it’s been very fulfilling,” Vani explains, “there’s immense satisfaction in being able to continue doing what I love doing, and it has not stopped me.”
As we part ways, Vani leaves us with a touching message about our nation’s past, and how turning back time may be our only hope for the future.
“If you go back in time, India had a natural way of being sustainable. In our grandparents’ time, there was nothing that would be called waste– everyone lived minimalist lives- they all had small holdings and their own backyards, they would grow vegetables. All that we’re talking of today is turning back,” Vani says, “Minimalistic living is very deeply ingrained in the Indian system, but over a period of time, we aped the West, and the culture of use-and-throw has become a big part of our lives. It isn’t too late, there’s still hope that we can all reverse back. Sustainability is about putting yourself in reverse gear for just a couple of generations. If we try to keep these practices alive, I think we can all live sustainably,”