Many of us don’t have the luxury of having access to a big yard, or lots of spare outdoor space where we can place a hefty compost bin. Because of this, most big-city and even some suburban dwellers forgo composting altogether, thinking it isn’t possible to do so without a large yard.
While you obviously can’t build a giant, open compost bin in your third-floor walk-up big-city apartment, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options available to you if you want to start sustainably disposing of your food waste.
Put simply: Can you compost if you live in an apartment? Absolutely.
What Does ‘Compostable’ Mean?
Since you are here, it probably means you are already enthusiastic about composting, but do you really know what the word “compostable” actually means?
You see, even the most well-intentioned eco-enthusiasts have been known to misunderstand the true meaning of being compostable, since many large corporations use greenwashing marketing tactics to convince consumers that their products are more environmentally friendly than they truly are.
The most common misunderstanding regarding this term comes from marketing teams using the words “compostable” and “biodegradable” interchangeably. Despite being distinctly different, these two terms have become somewhat synonymous in the world of consumer marketing.
Compostable materials will completely degrade within a short, set period of time in a composting environment. Biodegradable materials can also degrade entirely, but the time it takes to do so is entirely indeterminate.
Basically, if you toss a biodegradable item in a compost pile, it will probably still be there in a month, a year, two years, and possibly longer than a decade.
Toss a compostable item in the same pile, and you won’t be able to distinguish it from the rest of the compost in just a few short months.
Why You Should Compost
Composting is essentially the perfect system. The scraps from the food you eat can be composted, and that compost can, in turn, be used to grow more food. Besides allowing you to utilize your food and organic scraps to the fullest, composting is also better for the environment than adding organic material to a landfill.
As organic waste breaks down in the landfill, the anaerobic fermentation process produces greenhouse gasses (primarily methane), which are then released into the atmosphere and surrounding environment.
With a potency 26x higher than carbon dioxide, methane is a significant and dangerous contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. The solution? Composting!
Landfills are an anaerobic environment, meaning that they do not receive significant aeration. Once dumped in landfills, waste is covered with layers of soil and more waste until the landfill is filled and eventually sealed over.
Composting is an aerobic process, requiring considerable amounts of oxygen to remain healthy and functioning. Compost pile owners must regularly turn their compost, either by shovel/pitchfork, or some other gardening tool, or by spinning a rotating compost bin.
The addition of air helps to reduce the production of methane, allowing the scraps to break down quickly to become nutrient-rich compost.
Things You Can Compost
If reducing your household waste is important to you, there are few ways more satisfying than composting. Once you realize how many things you can compost rather than tossing in the trash, we know you’ll be hooked.
Rather than tossing crusty bread ends, apple cores, and moldy veggies in the trash, you’ll be able to repurpose them for future use as fertilizer.
When composting, it is important to create a good balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Adding plenty of both will ensure your compost has a healthy composition, but be sure not to add too much of one or the other, since this can throw off the balance. Ideally, try to stick to a ratio of around 3:1, browns to greens.
*Note: don’t be fooled by their names. Green materials are not always green, and brown materials are not always brown. Here are some examples of both:
“Green” Compostable Materials
- Coffee grounds (a good substitute for manure, which you understandably don’t want in your apartment)
- Houseplant trimmings/dead leaves
“Brown” Compostable Materials
- Paper plates/napkins
- Coffee filters
- Printer paper
- Dryer lint
- Cotton fabric scraps
- Uncoated cardboard
Indoor Composting Units
If you don’t have a yard or outdoor space to accommodate a compost bin, inside of your apartment is an equally good option! There are tons of options for composting indoors, and if you manage your bin properly, you won’t have to worry about a foul smell or attracting pests.
The Bokashi Bin
The Bokashi Bin is essentially just a miniature countertop compost bin, but this wonderful little apartment-friendly creation composts in a fraction of the time it takes to compost in a traditional backyard compost bin.
While larger compost piles may take several months to a year to fully compost, the Bokashi Bin turns solid organic scraps to usable nutrient-rich material in a little less than two weeks.
This bin is about the size of a kitty-litter bucket, and can easily be kept under your sink, on a balcony, or even on your kitchen counter.
The Bokashi process is simple:
- Chop food scraps into small pieces. Everything from vegetables, fruit, coffee grounds, eggshells, and even meat, dairy products, and foods high in fats/oil can be added to this indoor composting solution. Add up to 3” of waste at a time
- Sprinkle a handful of activator bran between each layer, then cover bin until next addition of scraps
- Drain the bin through the front spout every 2-3 days to dilute the mix and reduce the buildup of gasses/anaerobic byproduct
- The compost can be used once the bucket is filled, and all materials have fully decomposed
Worm bin composting is exactly what it sounds like: composting by putting your food scraps in a big bin full of worms!
Don’t worry, if someone in your household is squeamish about having a bin of worms in the apartment, just tell them you are “vermicomposting” and hope they don’t inspect too closely!
Making your own worm bin is pretty simple, and can be done with a few buckets, a drill, and some determination. If you live with a partner or a roommate in your apartment, a kitty litter bin or basic bucket from the hardware store will provide plenty of space for your vermicomposting environment.
Here’s a simple outline of the worm bin composting process:
- Purchase or make a worm bin (check out this DIY worm bin tutorial from The Spruce)
- Check with your local garden centers to find one that sells vermicomposting specific worms. Your best bet is to purchase a pound of redworms or red wigglers to get started
- Shred newspaper into thin strips and add to bucket
- Gradually add water to the newspaper base until the paper is fully saturated but not soaked. If possible, add a shovel-full of garden soil or finished compost to the base
- Gently sprinkle your worms over the bedding base, then cover your bin and let it sit undisturbed for two or three days
- After 2-3 days, your bin is ready to start receiving food scraps, and the worms will do the rest of the work
By far the fastest method of indoor composting, electronic composters can be finished in as little as 5 hours.
Unlike the Bokashi Bin and the worm bin method, electronic composting is fully assisted in order to accelerate the process and minimize odor, hands-on labor, and effort.
Electronic composters (like the FoodCycler) use a three-phase process to break down food scraps into usable organic fertilizer:
- Heat is applied to the mix in order to kill any pathogens, diseases, or harmful bacterial. The heating phase also works to dry the mixture
- The mixture is ground, reducing its volume and turning the dried scraps to fine shreds
- The mixture is cooled, which removes additional humidity and makes the mixture safe to handle. Once cooled, the compost is ready
Yard-Less Outdoor Options
If a countertop or kitchen cabinet compost bin doesn’t sound like the right option for you, there are several outdoor options accessible to you that might be a good alternative.
Ask a Neighbor
The easiest way to compost outdoors if you don’t have your own yard is to take advantage of someone else’s.
If you are well acquainted with one of your neighbors and know that they have a backyard compost pile, ask politely if you can add your household scraps to their compost. If you ask nicely, chances are good your neighbor will be happy to have the additional scraps.
Don’t have any neighbors with compost piles? Believe it or not, there’s an app for that! If you don’t have a kind, compost-pile-owning acquaintance, join the 60,000 person strong ShareWaste community where you can connect with compost pile owners close to you.
The Trench Method
The trench method is also pretty simple, but it does require you to do a little scouting and a little digging.
This method of composting simply involves you collecting your scraps, then burying them in the ground. Finding a good place to dig is usually the challenge, but scouting for a remote piece of nature can be a great outside activity to do with the family, so don’t let that deter you!
Community Composting Resources
If you don’t want to compost in your kitchen, don’t have a friendly composting neighbor, and don’t think you can find a reliable place to dig holes every time you need to dispose of your compost, don’t give up, there are still more options for you!
Community gardens, plots of land gardened by members of the community/neighborhood, often have their own compost piles and welcome scraps from garden members.
If you live in a large city, chances are good there are one or two community gardens within a few miles of you, and a simple Internet search should reveal their locations easily.
Compost Pick-Up Services
Like community gardens, all it takes is a quick Internet search to find out whether your area has a local compost pick-up service.
These are services that routinely collect food and yard scraps from residential homes, then bring the scraps to their own facility to be turned into usable nutrient-rich compost. Signing up for compost pick-up is as easy as signing up for regular trash and recycling collection.
Farmers know better than anyone how valuable compost can be, so it should come as no surprise to learn that many farmers’ markets also have on-site compost piles.
Damaged produce from vendor stalls, food waste scraps, flower stems, and plenty of other organic waste is generated daily at the farmer’s market, and many distribute their communal pile back to the farming vendors to use on their crops.
If you have a farmers’ market nearby, check to see whether they have a compost pile, then ask whether they accept community scraps in addition to those produced by market vendors. Bring your scraps with you on your weekly trip to the market, and enjoy the feeling of knowing that your waste helped to grow the fruits, veggies, herbs, and flowers being sold there.
Using Finished Compost
If you are composting inside, that probably means you don’t have a garden. While composting is a worthy venture whether you can use the compost yourself or not, it can be overwhelming to find yourself with several cubic feet of compost and nowhere to put it.
Here are a few ways you can use your finished compost, even if you don’t have a garden:
- Add finished compost to your potted plants and windowsill herb garden
- Give away compost on Craigslist
- Add compost to your neighborhood trees and flower beds (stick to public gardens and planters)
- Gift jars of compost to your gardener or houseplant loving friends and family
- Donate compost to local farms/schools/gardens