Composting Gardening

How to Compost in an Apartment

Indoor bin for storing kitchen scraps in view of composting.

By Alyssa Davies

The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, and wastes 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year. Food that is produced but not eaten ends up in landfills and creates a powerful greenhouse gas that is harmful to the environment. As landfills overflow, finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint is essential.

One way to reduce food waste while also producing nutrient-rich soil is by learning how to compost in an apartment or home. While starting a compost pile might seem daunting, the organic matter that comes from composting kitchen scraps can be well worth it.

Composting can be a self-sustaining project that’s easy enough to do in an apartment space. Zolo’s urban composting guide will show you the many benefits of composting and offer methods that will ensure your space stays clean and tidy. 

What is Composting?

Woman putting kitchen scraps into bucket on table.

Composting is a natural process through which organic material is converted into a soil-like product. Rather than throwing kitchen scraps and other items such as newspaper and coffee filters away, you can convert these materials into compost. The result is a dirt-like substance full of vitamins that help plants grow.

Food waste is a big problem—especially in large metropolitan cities. When tossed into landfills, organic waste can generate methane gas, which can be avoided if you compost. Composting not only puts less CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, but it can actually pull down what’s already been emitted and store it in our soil.

There are also many benefits to composting that aren’t specific to helping the environment. Composting allows you to feed house plants and balcony containers, reduces household waste and saves you a trip to the dumpster.

What You’ll Need

Illustration showing 4 main ingredients for composting

You’ll need four things for successful composting: 

  • Air: Supplying your compost with oxygen is important as organisms in your pile need to breathe air to survive.
  • Water: Water helps with decomposition and keeping the pile’s temperature regulated. 
  • Green materials: Green materials like vegetable and fruit scraps add essential nitrogen to your pile. 
  • Brown materials: Brown materials like dead leaves and paper add essential carbon to your pile. 

There is no need to calculate how much nitrogen and carbon rich materials you’ll need to ensure balance. A good rule of thumb is that each time you add a batch of nitrogen-rich ingredients, add roughly four times that amount in carbon-rich ingredients.

What You Should and Shouldn’t Compost

Illustration showing what you can and can't compost.

Explore the list below for all the materials you should and shouldn’t compost.

Things You Should Compost

A variety of brown and green materials can be used in your composting pile.

Browns: 

  • Eggshells: Adding eggshells will provide calcium to your final compost. 
  • Nut shells: Breaking up the shells into smaller pieces can help them decompose faster.
  • Food-soiled paper goods: Greasy pizza boxes, paper towels and napkins can all be composted.
  • Newspaper: Any type of newspaper can be used (colour or print).
  • Cardboard: Any type of cardboard can be used in compost as long as it is broken into small pieces.
  • Dead leaves: Dead, dried leaves are gold for composting because they add a high amount of carbon to the pile.
  • Twigs and branches: Break branches and twigs into tiny pieces to add some wood and bark to your compost pile. Hay, straw and pine cones can also be composted.
  • Wood shavings or sawdust: It’s fine to compost sawdust and wood shavings from real untreated wood.

Greens:

  • Grass clippings: Grass clippings are excellent additions to a compost pile because of their high nitrogen content.
  • Citrus peels: Citrus peels are fine composting materials, although, like many ingredients, are best used chopped up.
  • Veggies: Add spoiled veggies to your compost pile by trimming them down. Cut big pieces down to smaller sizes that will decompose faster. Vegetable skins are fine too.
  • Fruits and fruit peels: One great addition to your compost is unused fruit and fruit peels. 
  • Tea and coffee: Loose leaf tea, tea bags, coffee filters and coffee grounds can all be composted. While coffee isn’t green, it adds nitrogen to your compost pile.
  • Old flowers: Instead of throwing away dying flowers, give them new life by adding them to your compost pile. Avoid adding flowers that may have died from a plant disease. 

Things You Shouldn’t Compost

Adding the wrong materials into your compost pile can create foul odours and attract pests and insects. Avoid adding the following materials. 

  • Fat and cooking oil: You can only compost leftover cooking oil if it is in very small amounts and is a vegetable oil such as corn oil, olive oil, sunflower oil or rapeseed oil. Adding too much vegetable oil to compost slows down the composting process
  • Pet droppings: Dog waste in compost can carry a number of unhealthy parasites that can affect humans and other animals.
  • Coal ash: Coal ash can contain chemicals or metals that can compromise your compost and eventually damage your plants or garden.
  • Rotting or diseased plants: Avoid weeds and plants that died of unnatural causes as they could spread diseases in your soil.

If you use a worm bin in your apartment, it’s best to avoid meat and dairy products in your compost pile. Although you can compost these items, they are potentially harmful to your worms, and can generate a foul smell. If you are using an outdoor composting bin without worms that you turn regularly, meat and dairy can be composted. You can also save your meat and dairy scraps for donation by storing them in your freezer. 

How to Compost in an Apartment

If you’d like to help reduce emissions and your share of organic waste, apartment composting might be for you. Luckily, there are several great methods to compost in an apartment that are easy to learn and try.

Set Up a Worm Bin

Worm composters also known as vermicomposters, are commonly used for indoor composting. Small, portable and fast, worm bins quickly process household waste and don’t require turning. Just remember to give the worms proper living conditions. Keep worm bins indoors or on a small balcony to make sure temperatures stay between 15°C and 26°C.

How to Create a Worm Composter

For those who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, building your own worm composter might be for you. Setting up a worm composter is easy and affordable, but it does require some maintenance. Follow the instructions in the below visual guide to create your own worm composter.

Illustration showing how to creat a worm composter.

Tips for DIY Worm Composting 

If you have the space, the best model uses two stacked containers. First, you always have a place to add kitchen scraps, even when one of the containers is full. Second, the worms will make their way between containers—crawling through the holes from one to the other — to access the container with fresh, ready-to-compost scraps. This means that with a two-story model, you can harvest the finished compost from one container without having to separate the worms from the soil.

Use Tumblers

Compost tumblers or rotating compost bins are larger than worm bins and are the most efficient enclosed bin method. They aren’t designed for indoor use, but are rather something you could use on a balcony. They are fully sealed to preserve the heat generated by your compost — increasing the speed of decomposition. They come with a handle to help aerate and mix the contents, and some work so quickly they can process household waste in as little as 13 days.

Compost tumblers don’t smell or attract pests since they are sealed, making them well suitable for urban areas. 

Try Bokashi Composting

Also called Bokashi fermenting and fermented compost, it’s a method that involves fermenting your food waste using inoculated bran. This is a dry mixture of bran, molasses and EM-1 microorganisms that breaks down kitchen waste. There are many benefits to using the Bokashi method in your apartment as it is less hands-on and does most of the work for you. You don’t have to keep in mind the balance of nitrogen and carbon as the activator mix hastens the process of decomposition. Also unlike traditional composting, you can use meat and dairy food scraps for fermentation.

Use Food Digesters 

Countertop digesters are great for people with zero to minimal outdoor space. The resulting food waste is small and dry, so there is never a smell from your composter. Countertop food digesters are electricity-assisted and tend to be the size of a bread-maker appliance. An electric composter is an indoor compost bin alternative which uses aeration, heat and pulverization to reduce food waste volume, emissions and odour. The average food recycler is countertop-friendly, though certain models are about the size of a large garbage bin.

Collect and Donate Your Food Scraps 

If you’re unable or uninterested in composting in your apartment, that doesn’t mean you can’t limit your contribution to reducing food waste. Collect and donate your food scraps to a local restaurant or community garden that composts. Remember to freeze your food scraps in a container each week to prevent pests from getting to them. Many communities have curbside pickup options for collecting food scraps — if yours doesn’t, it might be worth looking into small businesses or farmer’s markets that might offer compost drop off locations. 

Establish a Community Compost Bin 

If at-home composting isn’t for you, try teaming up with other members of your community to start a communal compost program. Locations for community composters could range from community gardens to municipal property. Environmental organizations, such as Winnipeg non-profit Green Action Centre, offer tips and resources for people wanting to start their own community composting program.

What to do With Compost

The time it takes for compost to finish depends on the size of your compost pile and the method you used. The best way to figure out if it’s ready for use is by looking for the following characteristics. 

  • Texture: The texture of your compost should be crumbly and smooth. There shouldn’t be any recognizable materials like peelings or leaves. 
  • Smell: Your compost should smell like a forest on a wet day. Any traces of sour odours might mean that your compost needs more time. 
  • Colour: Your compost should be a dark rich colour, similar to dirt or coffee. 

When mature, your compost pile will be reduced to about one-third of its original amount. Using compost before it’s ready can attract pests and damage your plants. 

Use Your Compost as Mulch

Mulching is not only an easy way to apply compost to balcony planter boxes, but it also keeps down weeds and helps your soil retain moisture. Spread the compost in a thick (three to six inch) layer on top of exposed soil.

Replenish the Soil in Your Potted Plants

Another way to use compost in your apartment is replenishing the soil in potted plants. When potting new houseplants or transferring plants to larger pots, adding compost can boost growth. Mix with potting soil and/or peat moss for better absorption.

Donate Compost

If you want to help but lack a green thumb, donate your finished compost to a local farm, community garden, school or business who might be interested in using it. 

Ways to Compost During COVID-19

Even in a pandemic, there are ways to lower your food waste. Here are four ways to compost creatively during the pandemic:

Call in a Collection Agency 

If your city or municipality’s weekly composting drop-off services have been suspended due to COVID-19, see if there are any compost pickup services that will collect your scraps. While they might charge you, ask your neighbours to go in on a composting service and split the costs. 

Create a Fridge Freshness Schedule

Since food can easily get pushed to the back or forgotten in your fridge or freezer, regularly audit your fridge to make sure food that needs to be eaten is at the front and what needs to be tossed can be composted. Pull everything out and check the freshness of your items. Sort the produce that needs to be eaten from the ones that have more time, check your expiration dates on items that have been shoved to the back and compost the food that is truly bad. 

Sprinkle Coffee Grounds On Plants 

Instead of composting or tossing your coffee grounds, sprinkle old coffee grounds around your plants, working the old grounds into the soil. 

As you can see, there is more to composting than worms and dirt. Reduce your food waste and learn how to compost in an apartment today. 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “How to Compost in an Apartment

  1. Judy Losier

    I see no fruit peels. I’ve been using them for yard and wonder why.

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