People eat a lot of food in the U.S. In fact, the average citizen ate 1,996 pounds of food in 2021. Composting even half of that would reduce methane emissions, help the food supply, and cut agricultural water needs significantly. Unfortunately, composting is still unavailable to many people.
If you’re living in San Francisco, or renting an apartment in New York City, you may have access to municipal composting programs. If this is true for you, all you need to compost in an apartment is a compost container. Otherwise, you can make your compost at home. Read on to learn how to compost in an apartment.
What is composting?
Composting is the natural process of recycling decaying organic matter (compost) into fertilizer. “Compost can be used as a soil amendment in gardens, lawns, and farms,” says Andrew from The Urban Canopy, a Chicago-based urban farm. “Composting helps clean our air, land, and water supply. We like to say, ‘if it grows, it goes.’”
Anything that grows or is made of organic matter eventually decomposes. Composting speeds up the decomposition process by providing a nurturing environment for decomposing organisms such as worms, bacteria, and fungi. While Industrial composting facilities handle a majority of household compost, there are many other ways to compost at home. Putting your food in a municipal compost bin is one way, but you can also start a worm bin, an open-bin compost pile, or a closed-loop system.
Why is composting important?
The solid waste infrastructure in the U.S. focuses on landfilling. Because of this, only about 6% of food waste is composted. Many cities, states, and businesses have created localized composting programs with positive results, but that’s a small portion of the country’s waste. Composting at home reduces the strain on the nationwide composting infrastructure and can grant more people access to community composting programs.
Naomi Comerford, Co-Founder of Artizan Coffee, understands that most recyclable and compostable packaging ends up in landfills. “Buy in bulk and store in reusable glass containers. Look for products made from sustainable materials like bamboo. Our packaging shouldn’t outlive us, yet a staggering percentage of recyclable plastics and aluminum end up in landfills which can take hundreds of years to degrade. It’s the little things, but little things add up.”
How composting helps the environment
Learning how to compost in an apartment can help the environment in many ways:
- Reduces food waste: Food scraps and garden clippings make up the largest portion of solid municipal waste. Composting at home helps reduce this number by diverting organic matter from landfills.
- Cust methane emissions: When organic material decomposes, it’s broken down by organisms that require oxygen, a process called aerobic decomposition. “However, as organic waste sits in a sealed landfill, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition,” says Jennifer Liepis of Love Local, dedicated to empowering local businesses. “Organic matter that sits in a landfill releases methane and greenhouse gas into the air and toxic pollutants into the water. If you separate and treat it properly, food waste creates healthy soil and returns nutrients to the earth without polluting the environment.”
- Improves soil health: Compost creates fertilizer, which is essential for agricultural systems and helps remove the need for harmful chemicals. This fertilizer can also help plants grow faster.
- Conserves water: Fertilizer can improve the water-retention capability of soil. When used on a large scale, agricultural systems can save massive amounts of water.
Using compost in your soil
Instead of buying fertilizer, you can make it at home through composting. Fertilizer improves soil health by providing nutrients and attracting beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms. Some plants require additional fertilizer to thrive.
To incorporate compost into your soil, apply an inch or so to the surface, more if it’s a new plant. You can use a compost tumbler to make this process easier.
Pro tip: try to involve your family
Reza Kashani from Compology, the leading waste metering solution company, recommends involving your kids to make composting fun for the whole family. “Designate someone in your household to be in charge of composting. It’s a great responsibility and teaching moment for kids. They can manage taking out the material and provide enthusiastic coaching to others.”
What can you compost?
What you can compost depends on where it’s being composted. Some items can only be commercially composted, while others decompose easily at home. If you live somewhere with a commercial compost facility, you can compost most organic materials, but this depends on your region’s waste capabilities.
When you’re composting in your apartment, you should generally be able to compost:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Shredded paper
- Organic yard waste
- Cotton and wool (including clothing)
- Hair and fur
Ensure your compost doesn’t contain artificial materials or diseased plants, which can damage future soil. If you’re using a worm bin, don’t include fruit pits, meat, dairy, pesticides, or pet waste because of possible diseases and harmful chemicals.
Composting generally requires four basic ingredients: brown material, green material, water, and oxygen.
- Brown: Brown materials, like leaves, dead grass, and paper, are full of carbon. These materials feed a compost bin, keeping decomposing organisms alive while they break down the material.
- Green: Green materials, like garden clippings, house plants, food waste, and coffee grounds, are full of nitrogen. They help organisms grow and reproduce.
- Oxygen: Aeration is key to healthy compost. You generally need a small amount of air, but not too much. If you don’t have enough air, your compost will decompose slowly and anaerobically, emitting a foul smell and attracting pests.
- Water: Keep your compost damp but not soaking. Food waste generally has enough water by itself, but add a little more if the mixture is too dry.
If you want to make your own compost at home, ensure you have two to four times the amount of brown material to green material, with enough water to help break everything down.
Pro tip: store your compost in a proper container
Even when you subscribe to a weekly service, you still have to store compost in your house throughout the week. Make sure you are keeping your compost in an airtight container (we like using clear containers so we can see what’s going on). If it’s really hot and sticky in the house, store food scraps in a ziplock bag and put it in the freezer until you’re ready for disposal. – Nicolas Esposito, Director of Policy and Engagement at Circular Philadelphia.
How to compost if you have outdoor space
You can use these composting methods if your apartment has a deck, balcony, patio, or otherwise.
- Bokashi: The Bokashi method is an anaerobic composting process that uses treated grains to ferment food scraps. You put kitchen scraps into the Bokashi bucket, cover it with bran, seal it tightly, and wait about two weeks, releasing the leachate every two days. “The majority of the Bokashi composting process is completed in an airtight container, meaning that there are no foul odors or pests,” says Nicki from Bokashi Living. “The composter is small and fits easily into most kitchens or balconies. It’s easy to transfer the completed pre-compost directly into planters, containers, or a small soil factory.”
- Trench method: The trench method requires no maintenance. Dig a trench or hole about 12 inches deep, add four inches of compost, and cover it with soil. The buried compost turns into fertilizer, providing nutrients for whatever you plant on top.
How to compost if you don’t have outdoor space
Many apartments don’t have any outdoor space, making composting more difficult. However, there are a few options.
- Compost container: Small compost containers are the best way to store food scraps indoors for later use – whether that is composting at home or giving your scraps to your local composting program or municipality. Make sure to use a compostable bin liner and clean the bin regularly to prevent bacteria and bugs from building up. You can also store scraps in a bag, jar, or other container and put them in the freezer.
- Compost bin: Similar to a worm bin, you can use a small rubber or plastic bin with a few drilled holes. Start by filling the bin three-quarters of the way with brown materials, like shredded cardboard and dead leaves. Fill the rest of the space with green materials, such as food waste and plant clippings. Next, collect your food waste every week and use a trowel to incorporate it into the green layer. Cover the bin and let it decompose.
- Worm bin: A worm bin, also called a vermicomposter, can be an effective, inexpensive, and easily-maintainable composting method. While it’s common to use a worm bin outside, you can set them up inside as well. Additionally, it shouldn’t smell as long as you provide enough air, a proper mix of greens and browns, and easily-compostable material
- Electronic composting: Electronic composters are futuristic compost bins that use zero-emission aeration, heat, grinding, and drying to turn food waste into odorless compost powder. They can fit on a countertop and work in as little as three hours. The finished powdered product isn’t technically compost, but it provides soil nutrition.
Other composting methods
- Farmer’s markets: Many farmer’s markets have large compost piles. If your area doesn’t compost municipally, bringing your food scraps to a farmer’s market can directly help the local food supply.
- Community gardens: Cities often have community gardens (like the P-Patch program in Seattle, WA), which you can join for a small fee. Gardens usually have compost piles or worm bins for public use. Adam from City Compost, a residential composting service, also recommends using a community drop-off. “By utilizing a drop off, neighbor’s pile, or a pickup service, you can contribute towards local food without the hassle of digging into the compost pile. Perhaps someone will also give you some fresh tomatoes for your efforts.”
- Private services: Local companies often provide composting services when there isn’t municipal service. Claudia McGill, a Philadelphia-based Realtor, suggests subscribing to a composting service. “A convenient option is to subscribe to a service that will pick up your scraps weekly, compost them, and then bring the nutrient-rich soil back. There are several services throughout Philadelphia that provide this service for around $300 annually.”
Pro tip: not enough space? Subscribe to a local composting program
The Make Food Not Waste team, a Detroit-based composting nonprofit, understands that living in an apartment can make composting difficult. “However, you still have options. Many services in Detroit will pick up your food scraps and compost them at a local community garden for you. This is great for when you don’t have the space to compost them yourself.”
The simplest solution to compost at home: the worm bin
It’s easy to start a worm bin at home. And no, it’s not smelly or gross. Here’s how to do it in five simple steps.
- Get a bin and a lid: You can use a small plastic or rubber bin, but a larger container makes composting easier and faster.
- Drill holes and apply mesh: Drill four holes – two near the top of the bin for aeration and two on the base to allow for drainage. Cover the holes with tight mesh to prevent worms or other bugs from entering or exiting.
- Add a thick layer of brown material: Fill the bin two-thirds to three-quarters of the way full with a brown (carbon-based) base layer. Shredded paper, cardboard, and dead grass all make for good options. Water this layer so it’s damp but not soaking.
- Incorporate worms: One pound of worms is sufficient for most worm bins. Use Red Wigglers; they are the most efficient and maintainable variety of worms. You can buy them online, at bait shops, or in garden stores.
- Begin using the bin: Now that you have an aerated bin with a layer of brown material and worms, you’re ready to start feeding the worms by adding food scraps and garden clippings. Worms don’t like to be disturbed often, so only add your compost once a week. You can store this in a separate small container. Cover the bin with more brown material every time you feed the worms.
How to harvest from a worm bin
If you stick to a weekly feeding schedule and keep your bin damp and aerated, you should have finished compost in three to six months. Once this happens, push the completed compost to one side and add a new base layer to the other side, feeding that side until all the worms move over. Now you can remove the completed compost, sift through it, and start again.
How to speed up the composting process
Depending on your composting method, it’s possible to speed up the composting process. For example, the Bokashi method takes around two weeks no matter what you do. However, there are ways to speed up composting if you have a compost pile, worm bin, or trench.
- Add more compost: If your worm bin or compost pile is too small, it won’t generate enough heat or retain enough moisture. Experts recommend having at least one square meter of compost.
- Add more worms: Worms can help speed up composting. However, too many worms can lead to overcrowding, and they will start trying to escape. Ensure they are red wigglers, not invasive Asian Jumping Worms.
- Keep it warm: Bacteria, worms, and microbes thrive in warmer environments. Keep your compost warm to help them break it down faster.
- Have a proper brown-to-green ratio: If your ratio of brown to green is off, the organisms won’t have enough fuel to break down the compost. Be sure to have much more brown than green compost, a ratio of about 4-1. Use shredded cardboard, hay, and sticks to help speed the process up.
- Turn and aerate the compost: Allowing air to flow through the compost is crucial in speeding up decomposition. Fresh oxygen helps regulate temperature as well. This is the primary reason food doesn’t decompose in landfills; it doesn’t have enough oxygen.
- Keep the compost moist: Compost should be as moist as a damp sponge but not too wet. If you think your compost is too dry or wet, try adding more compost to help control moisture levels.
How to compost in an apartment without it smelling
Composting in an apartment should not be very smelly; healthy compost emits a pleasant, earthy smell. “Compost should smell like soil,” says Igor Lochert, President of The Worm Farm Portland. “It will likely start to smell bad if you add meat, dairy, or seafood. Otherwise, there is another issue with your compost bin.”
When your compost starts to smell, it’s telling you something is wrong. There are a few reasons why your compost may be smelling.
- Not enough oxygen: Compost breaks down through aerobic decomposition. If it doesn’t get enough air, it enters anaerobic decomposition, emitting carbon dioxide and methane, causing unpleasant odors. Let your compost breathe by adding air holes or rotating it.
- An imbalanced mix of brown and green: Carbon and nitrogen are essential to healthy compost. If your ratio is off, it can cause nasty smells. Add more browns if you’re unsure.
- Too much moisture: Too much moisture prevents microbes from breaking down the compost. When this happens, everything starts to rot instead of break down, leading to a decaying odor. If your compost is too wet, turn it and add some dryer, brown materials to absorb the moisture.
- Smelly food scraps: Avoid adding fat or meat and dairy products. These can also attract pests and unwanted bugs.
Pro tip: composting is vital in fighting climate change
“Few communities have municipalities that offer organic waste collection and provide solutions for apartments, multi-family developments, restaurants, and businesses. There is a massive gap in the accessibility of organic waste collection, and solutions need to start coming from local sources. If we don’t address our organic waste issue, begin implementing solutions, and adopt new habits, we will continue to see rising temperatures and more major natural disasters.” – Katie Forsyth, Co-Founder of Friendly Composting, a Kamloops, Canada-based composting service.