Get started with apartment composting

December 8 |

When I was in Seattle for the Offbeat-empire-weekend-of-awesome, I commented to Ariel about how impressed I was at the public compost bins. I'm a big believer that one of the best things we can do for the earth is to compost. Then I casually mentioned that I had ordered a Bokashi composter to try out and she was all "Offbeat Home post?" Then I told Cat and she was all "Yes! Please!" So here we go.

Compost sign

What is composting?

Composting is, in layman's terms, taking your food scraps and turning them into super-fueled dirt to nurture plants and restore nutrients to the soil. It works by allowing the food scraps to decompose, often combining them with something else (newspaper, leaves) and adding a catalyst — air, worms, or bokashi bran.

better compost

What is different about urban composting?

The only difference between urban composting and non-urban composting is really space, as in we urbanites have very very little, especially here in New York City. We also don't usually have a front lawn or yard or other area where we could store large bins outdoors or have, you know, stuff that grows. We do our best, though.

indoor composting and gardening

Urban composting options:

City or non-profit programs

Tip: Put your scraps in the freezer in between drop offs. It prevents them from smelling!

  • Drop off your food scraps at farmer's market, organization, community garden, etc.
  • Try Googling your city, county, or area name or search out environmental organizations in your area
  • Usually you can only include veggie scraps and egg shells
  • Ask how to bring the scraps — I've seen scraps brought in plastic bags and either dumped out or thrown in inside the bag.
Wanna Compost in Williamsburg?
This is where I sometimes drop off scraps!

Worms

Truth: Composting is kind of gross. Totally worthwhile and important … but kind of gross.

  • This is probably the most common way to compost so there are a lot of resources around the web.
  • You get a box of worms
  • Combine veggie scraps and newspaper or leaves (green + brown) with the worms
  • It tends to be smelly
  • It involves worms

Tiger worms (7 of 7)

Aeration composting

I actually wasn't going to include this, because most of the ones I've seen are very large, garbage can type bins that need to be turned. Other than as part of a city-wide program, I hadn't seen anyone compost with them at home. Then I came across a post on it from my friend, Mike.

  • Get or make a special bin
  • Turn it on a regular basis

Buy an indoor composter appliance

  • Buy an appliance and it does it all for you!
  • Can take meat, fish, and dairy as well as veggies
  • Some say it's loud
  • You have to buy it
  • Uses electricity

Bokashi composting

  • Buy a bin and bran or make your own
  • Uses fermentation to break down the food scraps
  • Can include eggs, diary, AND meat!
  • Need to cut stuff into small scraps
  • Not so smelly
  • End up with liquid, which can't be used directly on plants for food. It can, however, be combined with other (dirt) compost.
  • Stay tuned for my experience …

What do I do with the finished compost?

Good question. A couple ideas:

  • take it to a community garden
  • take it to a park and sprinkle it around
  • nurture your street trees … they probably need some love.
  • sprinkle on any grass near by.
  • start a fire escape or window sill garden (not for Bokashi and some electrical units)

All of the above I have actually done or know people who have done, but I'm sure there are other, clever ways that you all rock some urban composting. Leave 'em in the comments!

  1. When we lived in Korea they were heavy into recycling and composting in our apartment complex. Some friends of ours kept their compost in bags in the freezer which we thought was brilliant and has totally worked for us but we thought we were the only ones doing that. Nice to know it's not just us! Great post. Do you know why you can't use the liquid from composting on food plants? I think my friend does it so maybe I should warn her…

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    • From what I've read, that's only if you include meat products, because they can carry diseases that could affect humans.

      Meat-based compost can be used on non-edible plants, just not on food plants, because if the disease gets carried through it could make you sick.

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  2. I live in Philly, and while we do have a yard, it's not very big and I don't want to use up a bunch of our space with compost bins. We've tried Bokashi composting when we were apartment dwellers and it worked ok… but we kept coming up short of places to put and use compost (with the system we had, you had to bury your compost for 2-4 weeks to let it finish breaking down).

    I read about this guy (http://www.bennettcompost.com/) in our local community green magazine and have been considering signing up for his services – anyone else use a service like this (you pay a monthly fee and he picks up your composting once a week from in front of your house, like trash or recycling removal) and have any thoughts?

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  3. My dad had a worm bin that sat in our kitchen when I was growing up. We would put our veggie scraps and eggshells in there, and the worms would eat it up, and their poop was wonderful, rich, compost great for the garden.

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  4. So… pardon the newbie question, but why can't you use bokashi/appliance-made compost on your veggie garden? Is it because of the meat scraps?

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  5. I use a Bokashi in an apartment with a balcony garden. I have two that sit on top of each other. The top fills while the bottom ferments. The contents go into a worm farm to finish breaking down (because of space). The worms initially don't like because it is too acidic. Give them some TLC, I sandwich the Bokashi with cardboard (usually pizza boxes) and spent potting mix.

    The liquid is a natural drain cleaner.

    The only problem I have is that it smells when the lid is off. That means I am the only one in my household willing to touch it. Also I had one that leaked, smelly gross. It went and the others are doing great!

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  6. What I did at our old house (we had lots of wild and feral animals in our neighborhood) was to get a black plastic trash can with a tight fitting lid, (aprox 15 dollars) cut the bottom off, set it into the ground (just twist it in) a couple of inches, and put our food/yard scraps into it. A couple of times a month, I'd pick the whole thing up, making all the compost fall out of the bottom, put the trash can right next to the pile of compost, and shovel it all back in. It worked like a charm and only needed about 8 square feet of space to work. This is a LOT cheaper method than buying one of those expensive composters, a lot less time intensive than worm composting (which we use now), and works just as well. So for the poor people with a small space outside, this works really well!

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  7. Our council collects our kitchen waste & garden waste to compost. Which is awesome.

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  8. We use aeration composting on our small urban plot of land (1/10 acre). The bin is 3 ft x 3 ft so it really doesn't take up that much space in our yard, and it works really well! Once we started the compost, a whole bunch of worms moved in and now the compost is broken down super quickly.

    For anyone who wants to try backyard composting, I recommend checking with your local waste management district or the city/county where you live. My county offers discounted bins for purchase, plans for building your own bin, and free compost workshops for residents. It was very cheap for us to get started.

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  9. Has anyone here had experience with using soldier fly larvae? I'm fortunate enough to have a fair sized yard with a big compost heap and I've found some soldier fly larvae in my pile here and there. They are voracious! I've heard about a compact indoor or patio composter to be used with these little guys but haven't heard much about efficacy, smell etc.

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    • I'm a bit gutted now that I know they're so good for composting because I'm allergic. Think I'll have to make friends with the worms!

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  10. I'm so paranoid about urban composting since a co-op I used to live in did something wrong and it attracted rats… How do you, um, not do that?

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  11. i want to compost very badly, but it's a tad harder to find supplies b/c i live in thailand. so, i'd like some advice. i have space outside, but 'm nervous with what to do. i have no idea where i can find worms … not many in my yard when i was gardening. i worry about the intense heat here & fires starting in the compost. i've heard of that. also why do you need newspaper?

    can we please have some diy articles on how to do this is you can't buy a machine?

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    • Fires shouldn't start in a compost pile if it's working correctly. It's supposed to be moist, not dry.
      You can buy worms online. I'm not sure about shipping to Thailand, but you should be able to find something. And the worms make more worms and more worms and more worms, so it's a one-time investment.
      I would check out dirtdoctor.com. This guy is great. My family used to listen to his morning show on Saturdays as my dad was an organic gardener who had two compost piles in the yard and a worm bin in the kitchen.

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  12. I used to have a worm composing bin that I kept in my apartment under my sink to substitute for a garbage disposal. I found it WAY LESS stinky than putting those same scraps in garbage. If anything it just smelled of fresh dirt.

    People that I had over never knew that I had a bucket of worms under my sink, unless of course I threw scraps in while they were over. However, I had a friend that would come by for worms every time she took her kids fishing!

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  13. We've been using a Worm Factory and have been quite pleased with the results. We probably need to buy more trays because we are quickly outgrowing the three we have. We used the compost dirt in our leftover wedding glass bowls to create indoor herb pots. I haven't had an issue with smell except for the last tray full of squash leftovers. But even then, its only a smelly problem when I lift the top off to add more. I love composting in an apartment!

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  14. What about during the winter? Won't the worms freeze? How do you prevent this?

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  15. Are maggots typical to the process? I noticed some in our bins last week. Most of our compost is veggie (the occasional meat scrap gets in though). Our town picks up compost/compost able materials biweekly but if we forget to put out the bin it sits longer.

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