How to Compost in an Apartment
No backyard or green space? You can still reduce your household waste by composting.Posted Mar 8, 2017
When I was growing up, my family compost pile was a mound of stinking black earth decorated with vegetable peelings, nutshells, and denuded, forgotten apple cores. Teeming with worms and other wriggling digesters, the pile took six months or more to transform our jettisoned detritus into the fragrant loam my mother would later scatter at the base of her peonies.
The pile was not something that could ever work in an apartment.
But not all composts are created equally, and if you have ever rejected composting because of a less-than-spacious abode, think again. Today’s composters are streamlined and odor-free, offering options to accommodate even the smallest of apartments. Is it time for you to get on the composting bandwagon?
The Benefits of Composting
While you may not have peonies demanding a steady diet of nutrient-rich fertilizer, composting has other benefits. Not only can apartment dwellers use that black gold to feed house plants and patio containers, you can also reduce household waste and save yourself a trip to the dumpster.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food is the biggest ingredient in American trash. Currently more than 35% of the average garbage can is filled with kitchen scraps—scraps that could be diverted from the landfill altogether.
And diverting those scraps is important. When tossed into landfills, organic waste generates methane gas, something that doesn’t happen when you compost. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas that increases the rate of global climate change. In fact, municipalities like Seattle, San Franciso, and New York City operate curbside collection and composting programs and get a carbon credit for their efforts. Despite this, about 95% of food scraps in the US are still thrown away.
To help reduce emissions and divert your share of organic waste, apartment composting is the answer. Luckily, there are several great ways to compost in an apartment. The type you choose will depend on your situation.
Apartment Composting Option #1: Private Collection Service
If you live in a community without curbside pickup courtesy of your municipality, it’s worth investigating whether or not private collection services exist. In most larger centers without municipal collection, small businesses run residential compost pick-up on a for-profit basis. That means apartment dwellers using services like Boston’s Bootstrap Composting can expect to pay $10 per week (or $12 every two weeks) for the removal of a five-gallon pail of scraps. The company replaces this with a clean bucket, ready to go for another round. Three times per year they also offer subscribers the opportunity to take home five pounds of compost (though this isn’t mandatory).
Is private compost collection right for you?
- Private compost collection is convenient and trouble-free. You are supporting local businesses doing good work (many donate some of the finished compost to local community gardens).
- Curbside pickup means you never have to deal with system maintenance or cleaning issues related to composting.
- Having someone pickup your compost is more costly than composting your own—usually over $500 per year if you pay for the service year round.
Apartment Composting Option #2: Worm Composters
Worm composters, also known as vermicomposters, are one of the most versatile composters available today. Small, portable, and fast, these composters quickly process household waste, producing nutrient-rich ‘worm tea’ suitable for houseplants and planter boxes. Best of all, worm composters don’t require turning, that backbreaking work often demanded by the less-than-tidy compost piles some of us grew up with. As a rule, organic waste doesn’t decompose quickly without mixing, but since the worms do the turning for you, your main job is to feed them regularly and give them the conditions they need to thrive.
Here’s what else you need to know about worm composting.
DIY worm composter:
The most basic homemade worm composter consists of a plastic tote perforated with holes (drainage holes in the bottom and ventilation holes in the top) and filled one third full with moistened, shredded newspaper. If you have the space, a better model uses two stacked totes —the upper tote perforated on the bottom for drainage and for worm travel. This version has two important benefits. First, you always have a place to add kitchen scraps, even when one of the totes in full. Second, the worms will make their way between totes—crawling through the holes from one to the other—to access the tote with fresh, ready-to-compost scraps. This means that with a two-story model, you can harvest the finished compost from one tote without having to separate the worms from the soil.
Ready-made worm composter:
If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own worm composter, there are several ready-made models on the market that work well in apartments. The Worm Factory 360 is a great option for anyone looking to convert kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer with little bother. Made from recycled plastic that comes in three colors, the Worm Factory 360 has four stacking trays, a worm ladder, a vented lid, and a spigot for siphoning off ‘worm tea.’ The design ensures odorless decomposition and offers plenty of room for your daily scraps.
What about the worms?
In most cases, you’ll need to purchase worms for your worm composter. Red wigglers are the most efficient compost worms and are widely available from most suppliers. (Note: the Worm Factory 360 comes with the option to purchase one pound of composting worms.) Allow one square foot of space per pound of worms.
Is a worm composter right for you?
- Worm composters work well indoors or on a small balcony, providing temperatures stay between 40 and 80 F. Worms won’t survive a deep freeze and should be brought indoors when temperatures plummet. Worms also need to be protected from overheating and drowning—so watch out for direct sun and rain.
- Worm composters work best if you have regular supply of shredded newspaper (or another source of carbon) to buffer the high nitrogen content in your kitchen scraps.
- You can add kitchen scraps continually to your worm compost, though having multiple totes or tiers means you never have to separate worms from finished compost.
- Worm composting is best for small-scale, small-batch composting.
Apartment Composting Option #3: Compost Tumblers
If you are lucky enough to have a good-sized balcony, or you can get permission to use your building’s rooftop patio or other communal area, you have another composting option at your fingertips: compost tumblers.
Larger than worm composters, compost tumblers are fully sealed to preserve the heat generated by your compost—thereby increasing the speed of decomposition. They are equipped with a handle or another turning mechanism to help aerate and mix the contents, and some work so quickly they can process household waste in as little as 13 days.
Because they are sealed, compost tumblers also avoid the common pest problems associated with compost bins. Rats, raccoons, mice, and other creatures can’t get into a tumbler, so they are suitable for urban areas with concerns about vermin. Their sealed design also means they don’t smell, so they are a tidy, attractive option for communal areas.
Storing compost in between trips to the tumbler
While compost tumblers are quick and efficient, they are too big to use indoors. That means you still need a place to store your compost until you’re ready to take it outside. In an apartment or other small living area, the average compost pail can turn ripe quickly and start to smell, unless you’re emptying it daily. To cut down on potential odors, choose a stainless steel or ceramic pail with a tight fitting lid. Adding a charcoal filter will help absorb unpleasant smells.
Is a compost tumbler right for you?
- Compost tumblers are best set up in an outdoor location with easy access. They usually take up more space than worm composters. Some models need more clearance than others for turning.
- At some point you’ll need to stop adding scraps to a tumbler so it can fully digest the materials. That means waiting two to three weeks (or more, depending on your location) before you can use it again. To solve this issue, some tumblers have dual compartments so you can add kitchen scraps to one side while the other composts.
- Some people may find larger compost tumblers hard to rotate when full. In this case, you may not want to fill it completely before allowing it to process.
- Compost tumblers generally hold more material than worm composters.
While some people recommend Bokashi composting for apartment dwellers (a fermentation-style composting that ‘pre-composts’ your kitchen scraps), most people living in an apartment don’t have adequate space to bury the pickled matter that results from the fermentation process. Since Bokashi doesn’t produce finished compost, you still need another system to finish the job. For most apartment dwellers, that makes Bokashi composting impractical.
In the same way, electric-assist composters (coffee-maker style appliances that grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, loamy soil) are excellent in theory. Unfortunately, mixed reviews don’t yet support the idea that these gizmos are trouble-free.
What to Put in Your Compost
No matter what type of composter you choose, it’s wise to observe a few guidelines when adding scraps to your composter’s interior. Balancing high-nitrogen vegetable and fruit scraps with carbon inputs is extremely important, both to speed decomposition and prevent unpleasant smells. For detailed information about the carbon/nitrogen content of common compost ingredients, see our chart, What to Compost.
Using Finished Compost
Even if you cultivate houseplants or seasonal patio containers, you may end up producing more compost than you can realistically use. Here’s the good news: no matter where you live, finished compost is usually in short supply. It’s a gardener’s dream, and everyone wants more. If your own building’s landscape doesn’t need it, chances are your local community garden will. Donate your excess and watch neighborhood plants thrive. Who knows? You may even find some fresh tomatoes on your doorstep as a thank you.
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Shannon Cowan is the blog editor at Eartheasy.com. She lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard poultry flock.