Thinking Beyond “Garbage”- Interview with ICUCompost

For our 30th article, we interviewed the members of ICUCompost, a circle which collects food scraps from ICU dormitories to reuse it as compost. They started this ativity from around Autumn in 2021.

What is “compost” in the first place? What kind of activities do ICUCompost do?

The members kindly answerd many of our questions including their thoughts through the past three years of their continuous work and their future plans.

Read the full article to find out!

<Members of ICUCompost we interviewed>

Name: Daichi

ID: 24

Major: Anthropology

Affiliated groups/organizations: ICUCompost

Areas of activity & interest: collecting food scraps, composting

Name: Leela

ID: 24

Major: Biology, Environmental Studies

Affiliated groups/ oraganizatiins: ICUCompost, SlowVill, SUSTENA

Areas of activity & interest: Agriculture/Environment/Sustainability 

Name: Yumiko

ID: 25

Major: Politics/ History/ Peace Study/ Anthropology (still deciding)

Affiliated groups/ organizations: ICUCompost, C-Week committee

Areas of activity & interest: Polotical and Social problems

Q1: Please tell us about your activities and areas of interest.

Leela: I feel that my way of thinking and what I want to do in the future is all centered around “waste,” which exists everywhere I go. I see the word “mottainai” in everything: the garbage cans in the dorm kitchen, the leftovers from part-time jobs, the disposal of books in the university library, the plastic that Japan uses, and the biodiversity that we are losing around the world. My activities are limited to composting, but seeing Daichi’s composting efforts, I wanted to expand the idea of eliminating “waste” as part of our daily lifestyle.

Daichi: My current activities are mainly composting at the dormitories. I am also interested in issues such as minority rights and food sovereignty. I am originally from the U.S., so issues of racism and poverty in the U.S. are what sparked my interest in these issues. I have also done anthropological research in Argentina.

Yumiko: My main area of interest is politics and peace. In particular, I feel concerned about the rising trend in indifference and individualism in Japan. And I believe that the history and values of Japan, such as discrimination against the weak and minorities, are deeply underlying social and political problems related to these  trends. I am also interested in the JapaneseConstitution and historical education.

-When do you feel the “social trend of indifference and individualism in Japan”?

Yumiko: I am interested in the issue of homelessness. When I hear stories and read books about it, I feel that the existence of each individual tends to be neglected by state power and policies. I feel that it is wrong to think of people who have made mistakes as “you are the ones who made it happen, so stand up for yourself.” I think it is necessary to look at the background of these people and support them, rather than excluding them.

Q2. What do you think is the relationship between ICU Compost’s activities and your areas of interest or majors?

Leela: I am double majoring in Environmental Studies and Biology. When I first came to ICU, I thought I would mainly focus on Environmental Studies, but after taking a variety of other courses, I began to see the connections between them. So, I started to think that other majors besides Environmental Studies were interesting as well.

Daich: Last summer, I visited an Indigenous community in the north of Argentina as a part of the anthropological fieldwork project. Through my classes at ICU and volunteering with farmers, I became more interested in how environmental issues affect people and communities rather than the finer points of farming techniques. I chose to major in Anthropology because I am most interested in the impact on people.

Yumiko: I have a wide range of interests and have not yet decided my major. I feel like my grasp of social issues are various and superficial, so I haven’t really delved into them. But as I think about various issues, I have come to think that it is very important to “look at the small things.” Composting is a small activity that’s not widely apparent,, but I find importance in such projects. I am also interested in environmental issues, but if I were to answer this question and relating composting and my interest to politics, I think that this way of thinking about looking at small things connects the two.

Q3: What exactly does ICU Compost do?

1. Create destinations for things that are thrown away through cooking

2. Use nutrients from organic wastes to make compost

3. Use compost to grow and preserve plants

We collect food scraps in buckets from each of the dormitories and make compost in a field on campus. We also spread the finished compost at the base of fruit trees to nourish them. We are planning to utilize it for gardening and fields in the future.

-What exactly is composting in the first place?

Daichi: There are many ways and types of composting, but basically, it is the process of decomposing leftover food scraps and garbage into compost. We put buckets in the kitchens of some dormitories at ICU and have students collect food scraps such as vegetable peels from cooking. We take the food scraps to the field and mix them with fallen leaves collected on campus to make a pile and let it decompose.

Q4. How long does it take for food scraps to turn into compost?

Daichi:It depends on how well it works, but it is quite difficult because they may rot and not decompose properly if there is a lot of water in the vegetables and other materials. If it is decomposed properly, it wouldn’t smell or rot, and the fermentation process will cause the compost pile to reach 50-60 degrees and produce steam. 

Leela:The duration depends on the season and amount of food scraps, but we make several piles and create compost in a sequence, one after another.

Yumiko: The one we made a year ago is looking really good now.

Q5. How many dormitories are participating in your activities?

55% of the dormitories are participating in our activity.

Participating dormitories :Momi 6F, 5F/ Maple 2F/ Oak 3F, 2F/ Zelkova 3F, 1F/ Gingko 3F, 1F/ Canada/ 4WD/ 3WD

-More than half of the dorms are participating! How did you spread your activities  this far?

Leela: At first, Daichi had a bucket on the 6th floor of Momi, and I went to check it out. I felt that if you could collect food waste just by leaving a bucket there, it would be easy and any dormitory could do it, so I decided to make it a club.

I started by talking with dorm residents and explained the idea at dorm heads’ meetings to ask for their cooperation. However, there was a problem. We wanted the buckets to be left outside the dormitories so that it would be easier for us to collect such a large number of buckets, but it seemed difficult to assign a person in charge of this task among the dorm residents. Because of this,some dorms were not able to participate.

Q6. When did you start this activity?

Leela: I went to see Daichi’s activity around April 2021, and started this club in October of that year.

-I see, so Daichi-san had already started activities on his own a long time ago.

Daichi:Yes, I started around November 2020.

Q7. What made you decide to start your activities?

Leela: Since we all shared a kitchen in the dormitory, I watched how everyone cooked and left the garbage from cooking every day. Sometimes, I saw food that had changed color or past its expiration date thrown into the trash. I felt sad, thinking, “I could still eat it”. Even when the food was no longer edible, I felt it was “mottainai”. What Daichi was doing seemed like an easy and fun solution, so I started it in my dorm as well. From there, I gradually expanded it to other dormitories.

Daichi: In high school, I became interested in environmental issues and food sovereignty, and I wanted to work in agriculture. In my senior year of high school, I did a project to compost leftover food from my school. When I entered ICU and moved into the dormitory, I realized I wanted to do composting here as well. At first, I was alone and only took food wastes from my dorm to the field for composting, but eventually Leela suggested that we could spread this activity to other dormitories as well.

Yumiko: I had been composting at home and in high school, and I wanted to compost food scraps from my college dorm. I was familiar with composting because my mother had always done it, and life with composting was normal for me. There are different scales of composting in my house, I keep a round plastic container in the yard and put food scraps in it, which is a simple way to make it easier because there is no need to mix it.

Q8. What made you happy during your activities?

Leela: I was very happy to see people putting their food waste in the buckets. It was a relief to see vegetables and fruit peels, moldy bread, and eggshells having a destination. Besides, it was great to spend more time in the field while learning about the soil. However, the next question was what to do with all this compost.

Daichi: Compost can be quite difficult to make. If there is too much water, it rots, and sometimes the decomposition doesn’t go as smoothly as it should. However, I like being in nature, so I thought composting was fun from the beginning even when I started composting alone.

Yumiko: I think the joy of being able to return food waste to nature instead of combustible waste was great.

Q9. Did it take you a long time to get the composting activity going?

Daichi: I think there were two types of piles: those that worked well and those that did not. Some of the piles that worked well would ferment and decompose in a week or so, while others would grow mold and not work well. There are no clear rules on how to make compost, but we generally try to make a 3:1 ratio of fallen leaves to food scraps, with a good mix of nitrogen from the food scraps and carbon from the fallen leaves. We call this “browns and greens”, and if you get the balance right, you can make the composting process work, so we managed to make it through trial and error. The reason I thought it was a challenge to do a composting activity in ICU was to collect trash from the dorm,so it  was a little bit difficult to handle the large amount of garbage and how to divide the work among them.

(The composting is done across the street from ICU High School, where there is a faucet, so please go check it out!)

Q10. What do you find most rewarding about your composting activities?


  • When I saw the whole big oranges and watermelons in the compost bin (it was a great feeling to be able to put them back in the soil and not in the burnable trash).
  • When the compost is warm and working properly. It’s nice to see the steam rising.
  • When new dorms join us.
  • When we talk to people who have heard about our activities (how do they react?)

-What kind of things do you talk about composting with other people?

Leela : If I met an ICU student for the first time and they lived in the dormitory, I would ask them, “Do you know about composting?” If they don’t know much about composting, we can ask them about it and have a conversation about what they think about composting. For those who don’t know much about composting, this is a good opportunity to learn about composting and to expand our activities, so I think it makes both parties feel good. (I think what we’re doing is meaningful.)

Daichi: It’s fun to do it alone, but it’s even more fun and rewarding when you can get involved with other people through the activities. Also, as I said before, I love nature, so the joy of going to the fields and working there motivates me. There are many social problems and many issues that I am dissatisfied with in the world. In the midst of it all, I’ll do what I can anyway.

Yumiko: When I cut back the compost every week to see how it is going, I feel a great sense of accomplishment by actually seeing the process of food waste fermenting, decomposing, and returning to nature.

Q11. What have you learned or realized through your activities that you would like ICU students to know about? Also, please let us know if there are any books or movies you would recommend to ICU students about your field of activity.

Daichi: Before I started, I was not sure if I could do it, but after trying it, I realized that it is surprisingly possible when various people cooperate. I also learned that there are many things you can learn by getting involved with various people through activities. I think the best way to acquire new knowledge is to get involved with other people, such as by volunteering at a nearby farmhouse or visiting a community garden.

Yumiko: Environmental issues and the climate crisis tend to be difficult to internalize, but I felt that composting is an opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of waste problems that we can practice in our daily lives. Garbage separation has always been a cliché and a “pain in the ass,” but since the total weight of food scraps from each dormitory each week is over 30 kg, we feel that simply separating food scraps into composting buckets can have a significant impact. I feel that the benefit of making compost is not only environmental, but also has a positive impact on my own mentality. (for those who want to do composting at home)

ーIt is true that many people may think that garbage separation is a “hassle,” but what can we do to make it easier?

Yumiko: I think that burning garbage wastes money and carbon dioxide, and the result is not good for us. Even if it is a “hassle,” it only takes about 10 seconds to make the difference between just throwing it away or putting it in the compost bin, so I think it is important to imagine and think about the story of where this garbage will go if I throw it away.

It will be a positive thing for me in terms of my own feelings.

Leela: The only thing I ask the dorm residents to do is to put it in the compost bin instead of the trash can, so I don’t think it is that much of a burden. One previous request from a dorm resident was for a box with pedals.

On a different note, in the UK, the government is distributing small buckets for composting, and they are trying to spread composting in the most hassle-free way, which I thought was a good activity.

ICONfront : I used to live in England, and there was a children’s TV program called “Let’s make compost.” There was a field, vegetables, which would normally be thrown away, but there was a compost bin here, and if you put them in it, it would be thrown away. But you don’t see that kind of thing in Japan.

Q12. Why do you think composting has not spread in Japan?

Leela: Because you think it’s not nice to be dirty, smelly, or rotten?

Yumiko: I have often heard that recycling was done well in the Edo period. At that time, human excrement, cow dung, food scraps, and everything else was circulated, and there were even people who sold it, so it was a kind of resource rather than garbage. I am also interested in how the culture and values that existed in those days changed, as using them made money and improved people’s lives.

Leela-san actually showed us her compost at home!
It was interesting to know that we can easily start composting from such compact box.

Q13. What do you want to appeal to or convey to society?

Yumiko: All kinds of waste issues are having a significant impact on climate change, and because human life and waste issues are inseparable, I feel it is important to redefine the “waste” we produce in our daily lives. I have realized that what we used to view as “garbage” in mass production and consumption systems can be transformed as a new resource with a little effort. If we pause and think about whether food scraps and other things that we throw away in our daily lives can be reused or utilized as other resources, our sense of value toward “garbage” will change drastically.

Q14. Please tell us what you would like to do or challenge in the future !

Leela: We have incorporated composting activities in more than half of the dorms on campus and many are helping us. We believe that other ICU dorms that haven’t joined our composting project will join us eventually. We believe that our activity is a sustainable activity, and we need the next generation of people who are willing to take part in it. We also hope to spread this system to other universities (ICU is probably the only university in Japan that is publicly composting) and encourage people to compost at their own homes. I want people to know that composting is very easy and that it is very rewarding to transform waste into nutritious soil.

Daichi: In the future, I would like to do farming or forestry. I think that the composting and other activities I am doing now are important experiences toward that goal. I also hope that through my anthropological research I can work on social issues that I am interested in in some way.

Yumiko: I would like to make a new compost crate using bamboo, which grows abundantly on the ICU campus. I also want to work on making compost using bamboo chips. I find it very interesting to connect the bamboo problem and composting activities to come up with a solution. We are planning to build a rooftop garden in the Troyer Hall (the new science building), and we plan to use compost from the composting process. We also want to use composted manure to plant flowers and vegetables on campus. As ICU Compost continues to expand understanding of composting, we will listen to and incorporate a variety of opinions, and strive to make improvements where we can.

What is a bamboo problem?

Yumiko: I have heard that it is not good for bamboo to grow too much, and I would like to make a bucket for composting using the bamboo if they are cut off anyway.

Q15. I saw in ICU compost’s installment that you wrote, “Some people think that it is a waste to throw food in the combustible waste and eat it instead of throwing it away, but if they have compost and it eventually goes back to the soil, they don’t feel guilty about producing a lot of food waste. Can you elaborate on these conflicts?

Daichi: In the compost bucket, there are fruits and other things that can still be eaten every time.

Leela: Just yesterday, I had an argument with my friend about throwing away a brown banana because it didn’t look good, even though it was still edible. I think the issue of food waste is like, metaphorically speaking, encouraging the water coming out of a faucet to flow in a different direction without stopping it. I think our role is to encourage the flow in a different direction through composting, and I would like to make it our goal to reduce the amount of water coming out of the faucet, in other words, to reduce the amount of waste.

Daichi: I used to be a member of a farmer’s club, and the reason I started composting is not because I am self-sufficient, but because I have an image in my mind that I want to use compost in the fields. I think that is my motivation. I started this project with the hope of creating a cycle of food production in a sustainable way.

– Do you have any involvement with other circles? Do you exchange ideas with other circles and talk about composting?

Daichi: In the future, we are thinking of collaborating with other field circles to use the compost for fertilizer. For example, we hope to share with the other two field groups the farming method of mixing compost into the soil and letting it sit to increase the nutrients in the soil. We are also thinking of using it on the trees in front of the science building.

Yumiko: As for other uses on campus, I heard from Dr. Fujinuma of Environmental Studies that a rooftop garden will be built in the new Science Building, and I would like to use compost in the rooftop garden, and there was an opinion that it would be beneficial to dormitory students as well by doing composting, so I would like to grow flowers and vegetables. I am considering a plan to use composting to grow flowers, vegetables, and other things that will give them a tangible sense of the composting process.

Hashtag: #icu_compost

ICUCompost’s Instagram Account: icu_compost

Follow me!


メールアドレスが公開されることはありません。 が付いている欄は必須項目です