Composting in a small, indoor space

 
Veggie scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds can all be returned to the earth in the form of compost. Photo by Jennifer Gardner

Veggie scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds can all be returned to the earth in the form of compost. Photo by Jennifer Gardner

You may have heard of people composting their kitchen scraps and thought, gee, I wish I could compost, but I live in an apartment. Or maybe, I’d like to try composting, but my roommate is... skeptical. Well, have no fear, I’m here to tell you that you can compost even if the space you live in is tiny, located in an urban high-rise, or shared with an unenthusiastic roommate.  

So why bother? Why should any of us care about composting? First of all, by composting at home, you can help the planet. Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting kitchen scraps and other organic materials instead of tossing them in your trashcan, you can help reduce methane emissions. And when you return organic matter to the earth in the form of compost, you’re building beautiful soil that’s better able to conserve water, absorb excess carbon dioxide, and grow plants without using lots of chemicals.

So let’s get started.

Set up a system for collecting waste.

You can keep a covered bowl or small bin in your kitchen to collect food scraps. I like to keep my bin next to my trash can under the sink. Almost anything goes except for meat and bones, dairy, and oily foods.

In addition to kitchen scraps, which are your “greens,” and high in nitrogen, you’ll also need to add carbon-rich materials, or “browns” to your compost, such as peanut shells, shredded paper, junk mail, or newspaper clippings.

If you’re composting on your own, rather than outsourcing to a composting service, you’ll want to aim for a ratio of one pail of green waste to two pails of brown waste to effectively break down your scraps. If it starts smelling bad, or goes mushy or soggy, add some more brown waste— torn up newspaper is a good quick fix. If the compost pile is taking a long time to break down or looks dry, add more green waste. You’ll also need to turn it once in a while - unless you’re using worms. (More on that in a second.)

What about the idea of “outsourcing to a composting service”?

Investigate, because this is by far the easiest way to compost if you live in a city. Even if your city doesn’t offer a free composting service, many private companies, such as Veteran Compost and Let Us Compost, will pick up your compost curbside for a fee. To see what’s available near you, check this list or search here.

Another option is to donate your scraps to a friend who composts. This can get tricky given the necessity of arranging weekly hand-offs, so another option might be to contribute to a community garden, farmers’ market, or urban farm. People who live in Washington DC, for instance, can drop food waste at any farmers’ market, which is then taken to a local composting site at no charge.

If you can’t rely on a composting service, you can choose between two approaches.

You’re not going to have worms snuggling up next to you on your pillow while you sleep at night, I promise. (Though wouldn’t that be cute?)

One involves worms, also known as vermicomposting, and the other does not. I know what you’re thinking, Ick, gross! Worms?! In my home?! Back in my city-dwelling days in Washington, DC, thinking about the worm part is all it took to discourage me from composting. But I’ve since learned how worms can really efficiently break down table scraps, cardboard, and even lint.

Also, you’re not going to have worms crawling all over your house and snuggling up next to you on your pillow while you sleep at night, I promise. (Though wouldn’t that be cute?) If you do it right, they will stay inside their worm bin and you will never even have to touch them. It’s like having an ant farm. Or a fish tank.

Time to find your bin.

The first step to composting—worms or no worms—is to choose your composter. Because it’ll live indoors, you’ll want to compost in a closed bin that’s small enough to be moved around easily and tucked into a corner of a porch, pantry, or closet. They’re not hard to find. Go ahead and google “compost bins small enough for an apartment.” Lots of choices!

If you’re willing to spend a little extra, you can buy an apartment-sized composter that rapidly breaks down scraps, like the FoodCycler, which claims to break down food by 90 percent in as little as three hours.

Back when I first heard of vermicomposting, it grossed me out. Look at me now! Photo by Jennifer Gardner

Back when I first heard of vermicomposting, it grossed me out. Look at me now! Photo by Jennifer Gardner

If you decide to give vermicomposting a try, a tiered bin like The Worm Factory 360 is a great option that resembles a high-rise for worms. It’s also small enough to move around fairly easily, and comes with accessories, materials to get started and an instructional DVD. If that price point seems off-putting and you’d rather put together your own worm bin, you can Build a Worm Farm for Under $10, or try this Worm Composting bin design. After you’ve set up your bins, you’ll need to add an initial layer of bedding, moisten (but not soak) it, and a layer of food.

More about bringing worms into your home.

So where can you get worms?  A good place to start is a friend with a worm bin. Even if they live in a different state, they can mail you some. About 50 worms is a good start. If you’re the vermicomposting pioneer in your community, then order your worms online or buy them at a local nursery. Not just any worms will do. You’ll want worms that are good for vermiculture, like the California Red Wiggler.

Once you’ve got your worms, introduce them into their new home and give them some time to get used to things. Some people recommend dampening a piece of newspaper and placing it on top of the worms to help make sure they’re living in a nice moist environment. Worms don’t like light or extreme temperatures, so be sure to put the lid on and keep the bin in a dark, temperate space in your home.

I’ve seen a few YouTubers mix up their worm scraps in a blender. (I mean some people really spoil their pets).

And now you’re ready to start composting! Remember that small bin of kitchen scraps that you placed under your kitchen sink? Add it to your worm bin no more than once a week, starting in one corner of the bin and working your way around each week. Keep in mind that worms have small mouths, so you’re going to have a better success rate if you chop up your scraps a bit. I’ve seen a few YouTubers mix up their scraps in a blender. (I mean some people really spoil their pets). I don’t think you have to go that far; you want this to be easy, after all. But I probably wouldn’t put a whole pineapple top in my worm bin and expect the worms to be able to break it down.

When it comes time to harvest your worm castings, you can easily collect them from the bottom bin after the worms move up to the second tier. If you’re using just one bin, take off the lid, pile up some compost in the middle and place it in direct sunlight. The worms will crawl down into the bottom of the bin and you’ll be able to collect some compost from that pile.  

If you decide not to use worms or a quick composter like the FoodCycler, then things may just take a little longer to break down. You may need to start a second bin while you wait for the first one to break down, but as long as you’re managing your greens and browns properly, you should still end up with lovely compost.

what to do with the compost once you have it

I live in an apartment, you say. I don’t have a farm or even a backyard to throw it in. What am I supposed to do with my compost? Well, if you have houseplants, you can sprinkle it on those. Or maybe try your hand at growing an indoor kitchen herb garden. And of course, share the wealth. Do you have friends or family members who could use some compost for their garden? Can you donate it to a community garden? Or maybe you’re looking for some extra income? You might actually be able to sell your compost, especially if you have worm castings. Yes, it’s true! A growing number of vermi-preneurers are making a side hustle of selling both their worms and their worm castings online.

So there you have it

No more FOMO. If you live in a small, urban, indoor space, you don’t have to miss out on the composting fun!

No more FOMO. If you live in a small, urban, indoor space, you don’t have to miss out on the composting fun! And if your questions aren’t covered here, look here or here, on blogs and youtube. It’s also likely someone in your community is giving a composting demo or workshop you can attend and ask more questions in person before getting started.

There is more open-mindedness about the idea of composting than ever before, and people of all ages are realizing it’s not as difficult, gross, or stinky as they once feared. So I really hope you will feel inspired to give it a try because we truly can return so much richness back to the earth from the bounty it gives to us. You may even discover you like worms - especially the way they tickle your hands if you hold them just so.