Composting in your apartment is one of the best ways to lower your carbon footprint and reduce household waste. You don’t need a backyard at all to do it.
According to the EPA, Americans tossed 61 million tons of food waste was into the garbage in 2018 alone. They estimate each person wastes almost 220 pounds of food per year. The EPA hopes to reduce that number by half by 2030.
Organic matter does not usually break down in the landfill because it needs the perfect mix of oxygen, nitrogen, microorganisms, carbon, and water. When compostable materials go to landfills, they are covered with dirt and not aerated, so they do not break down.
They mummify. Scientists have discovered a 10-year-old pack of hot dogs still in the package and an order of guacamole thrown out in 1967 that was almost as good as new.
This would be fine, except when compostable materials are stuck in landfills with no oxygen; they release methane and continue releasing this toxic gas for years. Methane is said to be 26 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Therefore, composting is a key component in reducing waste and lowering your carbon footprint.
Composting can be done almost anywhere. Big backyard? Perfect.
Balcony? Amazing. Kitchen countertop? Yup, that too!
Discover the benefits of composting and how you can participate in the fun while living in an apartment. Here’s what composting is all about.
What is Composting?
Compost is organic material that helps plants grow when it’s added to the soil. All composting has three ingredients: browns (carbon), greens (nitrogen), and water.
Carbon is going to be paper, cardboard, and dry leaves. Shredded paper is perfect for this since it can’t be recycled.
Food scraps will take care of the nitrogen part of the equation. The water moisturizes, which helps break down the organic matter.
According to the EPA, a healthy compost pile will have equal parts carbon and nitrogen. They also recommend alternating layers of organic materials of different sizes.
The Benefits of Composting
In addition to lowering your carbon footprint, composting has a few more benefits. Compost is an important supplement for gardens. It is a great way to add more nutrients to your flowers or food gardens.
Another benefit to composting is a less smelly trash can. Mixing non-organic materials with organic material in the trash prevents them from decomposing.
This is what makes the trash stink. Compost has an earthy smell but does not stink. Composting is free, easy to create, and good for the planet.
Worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, is a very common way to compost indoors. They are small, portable, and fast.
They quickly make household waste into nutrient-rich soil or worm tea, which is fabulous to use in planter boxes and houseplants.
Keep your worms in temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees F, and preferably at room temperature. Worms will not survive a deep freeze, so they need to be brought inside when temperatures drop.
They also need to be protected from overheating and drowning, so keep them out of direct sunlight and rain. There are ready-made options that are great for apartment composting.
The Worm Factory 360 is made from recycled plastic, has four stacking trays, a vented lid, a worm ladder, and a spigot for siphoning off ‘worm tea.’ This compost company boasts odorless decomposition and enough room to handle additions of daily food scraps.
Worms are needed for this compost setup to be complete. Red wigglers are considered the most efficient compost worms and are available from most suppliers. Do not add dairy, meat, or citrus peels to vermicomposts.
Electric composters can take your food scraps and turn them into fertilizer overnight. A popular electric composter is the Foodcycler.
Technically, these appliances aren’t composting the food waste, but they are making it into something that can be used for patio planters or garden beds.
Electric composters work by heating and grinding the organic matter into a dry fertilizer. These are great for people who don’t have much space outside.
These appliances are about the size of a bread maker. The product the composter creates is small and dry, so there is no smell. One big positive to note: these can process all kinds of organic matter (even bones!) overnight.
Compost tumblers are incredibly easy to use. Toss your food scraps into a compartment, and turn the handle to give it a tumble. Compost tumblers are sealed to hold in the heat generated by the compost.
This speeds up the decomposition process. You can have nutrient-rich compost on your hands in as little as two weeks, but it will usually take a month or two.
Compost tumblers are best in an outdoor space that is easy to access. They usually take up a bit more space than worm composters do, especially since they need room to turn.
They can also get pretty heavy and may be hard to turn when they are full, so you may not want to fill it to the top.
The tumbler with two compartments is recommended the most. When one side is full and needs time to break down, you can start tossing your scraps on the other side.
If you decide on using a tumbler with only one side, you will have to stop adding to it so it can decompose. While this is going on, you will have 3 to 6 weeks where you can’t add to your composter.
Save your scraps and put them in the freezer while you’re waiting for space in your tumbler. This will keep them from rotting and attracting bugs or other animals too.
These are great for small backyards or balconies. Since they are sealed and raised off the ground, tumblers can avoid some of the pest problems associated with compost bins.
Critters such as mice and raccoons can’t get into the tumbler, and they are sealed, so they don’t smell. This makes compost tumblers a good option for apartment living.
Bokashi composting is a fermentation-style composting that pre-composts kitchen scraps. All kinds of food waste, such as fruits, veggies, meat, dairy, grains, and pasta, can be put into this composter.
The scraps are sprinkled with a mixture every day until the bin is full then the lid is sealed for two weeks to ferment. The pre-compost will then need to be buried for two weeks.
After that, the result is a soil web that can be used in the garden. This option may be impractical for apartment living since many apartment residents do not have adequate outdoor space to bury the pre-compost to finish the fermentation process.
The trench method of composting is simple: dig a hole about a foot deep and bury the food scraps. The scraps should decompose in about a month.
This method of composting may be unsustainable for apartment residents for the same reason the Bokashi bins are. The biggest concern is finding a place to bury it if you don’t have a yard of your own.
Private Collection Service
Your city may have a private collection service for compost. It could be through the city or run by a small business. A quick online search should be able to tell you if this is something offered in your area.
If you’re not in love with the idea of getting pet worms or giving up patio space for a tumbler, a collection service might be worth a look. They are convenient and usually support local businesses. Plus, this is very clearly the least messy way to compost.
There are downsides, however. Smaller, more rural areas will be less likely to have programs like these, and it is more expensive than composting on your own.
Collecting your scraps and taking them to farmer’s markets is another option for apartment dwellers. Many farmers will have collection bins for organic materials that they take back to the farm and compost.
Ask the farmer before you toss your scraps down, but many are happy to take any scraps they can get. If you know anyone with chickens, they are also usually glad to take compost materials off of your hands too.
Another option in this same vein is community gardens. If your area has a community garden, see if they have a compost pile that you can add your scraps to. This gives you a chance to get involved in the community and grow some delicious food while you’re at it.
What to Compost
Carbon-rich matter (dried leaves, shredded brown paper bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc.) gives compost its light, fluffy body. Nitrogen or protein-rich matter (food scraps, green lawn clippings, etc.) provides raw materials for making enzymes.
Here is a list of compostable materials according to the EPA.
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Shredded newspaper
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Hay and straw
- Wood chips
- Cotton and Wool Rags
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
The EPA also provides this list of what not to compost in your backyard and why:
- Black walnut twigs or tree leaves - Releases substances that can harm plant life.
- Charcoal ash or coal - Can contain substances that harm plant life.
- Eggs and Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt)* - Creates odors that attract pests such as flies and rodents
- Insect-ridden or diseased plant life - Insects or diseases can survive and end up transferred back to other plant life.
- Fats, grease, lard, or oils* - Attracts pests such as flies and rodents and creates odor problems.
- Meat or fish bones and scraps* - Attracts pests such as flies and rodents and creates odor problems.
- Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)* - Might contain germs, bacteria, parasites, viruses, and pathogents harmful to people.
- Yard trimmings treated with pesticides - Might kill your composting organisms
- * Check with your recycling coordinator or local composting to see if these organics are accepted by your drop-off composting program or community curbside.
How to Store Scraps
If you choose one of the methods that leave you needing to store your food scraps for a week or more, there are a few ways to ensure they do not cause a stink or a pest infestation. A compost pail can turn gross pretty fast if you’re not emptying it daily.
Using stainless steel or ceramic bucket with charcoal filters and a tight-fitting lid will help cut down any icky smells. Another idea is to store scraps in the freezer between trips to the farmer’s market. This will keep anything from smelling too bad until you get it out of your apartment.
Industrial Composting Vs. Backyard Composting
I’m sure we have all seen the plastic-looking cups that say they are compostable. This label is a little misleading. These bioplastics will not break down in a backyard compost bin. This cup would have to be sent to an industrial compost facility to be composted.
Industrial composting facilities optimize the decomposition process. This ensures a quick breakdown of the organic material by controlling the temperature and oxygen levels, among other things.
The sustained temperature in an industrial composting facility is higher than a backyard compost is. This makes the decomposition process happen faster at industrial facilities than it does in backyard composting.
Composting is a great way to cut down on your waste and help the environment. Food tossed into the landfill doesn’t break down the way it should.
Instead, as the food slowly breaks down, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere, harming the planet. Composting offers a closed-loop solution to food waste, keeping organic materials out of the landfill and putting nutrients back into the soil.
An apartment may have limited space, but several composting options are still available for those living in one. Vermicomposting, compost tumblers, and electric composters are a handful of great options for living in an apartment.