Part of living a sustainable lifestyle includes recycling your food waste. But if you live in an apartment in the city, you probably don’t have a backyard compost pile, so you might wonder how to go about it from the comfort of your kitchen. This guide to urban composting for beginners will walk you through the process of composting indoors, step by step.
You’ll learn about what kind of food scraps can be composted, what sort of compost bins you should get, and how much space you need depending on the method chosen.
The process can seem a bit daunting. But with a little planning and the right tools at your disposal, you can set up a composting system around your schedule that fits your needs and lifestyle.
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What are the steps involved in urban composting for beginners?
Step 1. Choose your composting method.
Choosing your method of composting food waste will depend on a couple of things:
- how much space is available inside your home or apartment
- whether or not you have a patio or small outdoor enclosure
- if you have access to a community compost pile or collection service
The reason for this second point, is if you have a small patio or place to store a large compost bin, and you want to use a strictly non-countertop method for composting, you can opt for the bokashi method, which we’ll get into below.
But if you prefer to compost strictly inside and without ever having to leave your kitchen, here are a few simple options.
A. Kitchen Composting Tumblers
Different from traditional compost bins, these appliances take your food waste and scraps and decompose them with the push of a button, giving you a nutrient-rich product within a day that can be added to your garden or used as eco-friendly fertilizer to help your indoor plants grow.
They are essentially an all-in-one, done-for-you composting method, making them super convenient. So what do they require?
- Counter space
While they will only partially increase your electric bill, they are not suited for those who live off-grid or use solar electricity.
The most popular indoor compost bin for beginners, and one that I recommend, is the Lomi, but the Vitamix FoodCycler is also an awesome choice (as are other options out there).
Using agitation, heat, and microorganisms from supplied pods, the Lomi will churn and compost your scraps in a matter of hours, and the final product can be added to your houseplants or garden area.
**If you don’t have any plants or are not into gardening, you can throw away the final product knowing that your waste is reduced and methane gas will not be a byproduct. You’ve also eliminated most of the odor commonly associated with household garbage.
Now, no urban composting tutorial would be complete without mentioning what you can and cannot compost.
The Lomi and FoodCycler will take the following food and materials :
- fruits and veggies
- small pieces of meat &fish (no large bones)
- eggs and eggshells
- rinds and peels (banana peels, orange rinds, etc.)
- grains like bread & pasta
- beans and legumes
- leftover pet food
- coffee grounds (Lomi will take coffee filters & teabags)
- yard trimmings like dead leaves and grass clippings
- house plants
- shredded newspaper
- Lomi-approved bioplastics in the Lomi ONLY (like their phone cases, paper products, and packaging)
What should NOT be put inside a countertop tumbler :
- large or hard bones from beef and swine
- large chicken bones
- candy and gum
- oil and grease
- hard pits from peaches, nectarines, plums, etc.
- nuts or anything with a hard shell (like pistachios)
- pineapple leaves
- paper towels, napkins, tissues, etc.
- liquidy things like soups and smoothies
For an exhaustive list of what each appliance will take, be sure to confirm before purchasing and using, as restrictions could change over time.
What are the pros and cons of using a kitchen composting tumbler?
Well, there’s the cost of buying and running the appliances as well as routine pod and filter purchases. But these costs are offset by the act of reducing your carbon footprint.
The pros, of course, are having clean and healthy food for your plants as well as minimizing waste.
B. Kitchen Compost Pails
These countertop pails hold your food waste until you can deliver them to a compost pile, whether at a neighbor’s house or a community compost center. And those who partake in urban composting swear by them, myself included. They’re like miniature compost bins.
If you’re unsure whether you have drop-off locations for compost or a municipal composting program, check your city/county website or local college, as many of them offer to compost for students and residents. Some cities offer curbside pickup.
The critical thing to remember is that a kitchen compost bin -or pail in this instance – serves as temporary housing for food scraps and only begins the decomposition process in your kitchen.
A good kitchen composter will have a lid with a carbon filter that catches odors. And metal ones seem less likely to hold onto the smell after washing.
The one pictured here is made by Vremi, and it is odor free and holds quite a bit for a small composting pail.
What are the pros and cons of a kitchen compost pail?
Many people like using them because they save multiple daily trips to the backyard compost pile or community drop-off center. You also don’t have to worry about your power bill being affected, and your carbon footprint will therefore be smaller.
Most are also small enough to be placed out of sight, like under the kitchen sink or in the corner next to your trash bin.
The biggest con is that they don’t fully compost but rather start the composting process. So you won’t get fast humus for your garden or plants.
This method uses worms to break down food. And while your initial response may be one of disgust, it’s not as bad as you think.
Worms are wonderful and beneficial creatures that break down organic matter, turning scraps of food waste into a rich humus that is perfect for gardeners or anyone who wants to reduce household waste.
There are several vermicomposters available on the market. I like the Worm Factory 360 because it’s simple and supplies most everything you need to start as a beginner, except for the worms (get red wrigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm; DO NOT use earthworms).
It’s also odor free and allows you to compost more naturally, entirely indoors, AND year-round. Yep, it’s kinda like having your own indoor compost pile, but in a much cooler way.
You will need a little space in the corner of your kitchen, laundry room, basement, or spare room. It’s only about 18″ wide, but how tall it gets depends on how many towers you add over time.
A vermicomposter will take the following materials :
- fruits and veggies
- yard waste
- coffee grounds
Do NOT put the following in a worm composter :
It’s important to feed worms a 50/50 blend of food scraps and paper/cardboard for proper composting. Also, if you keep this type of composter outside, remember that worms can only thrive in temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are the pros and cons of a vermicomposter?
Once again, you’re helping the environment and cutting down on waste to produce an eco-friendly fertilizer that can benefit you or a neighbor’s garden.
Worm composters require a bit of upfront investment when setting up, but overall they are pretty low maintenance, requiring maybe half an hour of work each week.
It can take a bit longer (about 2-3 months) to get a usable humus that can be added to gardens and houseplants. But you can occasionally expect “worm tea,” the liquid made during the decomposing process, on occasion once things get going.
Tips for the Worm Factory 360:
- add another tower about every 3 months (the worms migrate UP when the lowest tower is full)
- if you notice an odor, add shredded newspaper
- make sure to avoid adding too much moisture or straying from the recommended temps to keep your worms from trying to escape (or dying)
- to avoid fruit flies, try freezing banana peels ahead of time if you use them (to kill fruit fly eggs); bury food scraps in the “soil” very gently (so as not to disturb the worms); or place natural fruit fly traps like warm water with apple cider vinegar and dish soap
D. Bokashi Composting
Bokashi composting is a wonderful and simple way to compost kitchen scraps and other organic materials. And it’s pretty easy for the newbie to urban composting.
The bokashi method works anaerobically through fermentation, and while it can be started indoors, you will need to move it outside at some point.
All you need for this method is a special bokashi bin (with a spigot) like this one from All Seasons, some bokashi bran, and kitchen scraps.
To start, mix the bokashi bran with water to create a moist mixture. Then, add your kitchen scraps to the bin and cover them with the bran mixture, pressing down firmly each time. Repeat the process until the bin is full.
From there, it needs to be taken outside and buried either in the ground or inside a bin partially filled with soil to finish the composting process. During this time, the bokashi bran will break down the organic material and create nutrient-rich compost.
After 2-4 weeks, your compost is ready to use. You can add it to your garden or use it to fertilize potted plants.
This method also routinely produces a “tea” that can be diluted and used to feed and fertilize houseplants.
As you can guess, the bokashi method is only suitable for those with access to a small yard where the bin’s contents can be buried, whether in the ground or inside a large trash can partially filled with soil.
What are the pros and cons of bokashi composting?
This method works faster than a vermicomposter but slower than a kitchen countertop tumbler. It also creates somewhat of a sour smell that escapes every time you open the lid to add scraps. Some complain that the tea smells worse but this is highly subjective.
I want to point out that while the lid is on, there should not be an odor.
There are several other drawbacks. One is the outdoor space needed to bury the compost bin contents so the fermentation process can finish. And if not buried properly, it can attract unwanted pests.
The other is that lugging a full bin can be pretty cumbersome if it’s heavy and you don’t have help.
What I LIKE about this method is that you can add a lot more to it than other types of composters, pretty much all food waste like bones, dairy, citrus, and small amounts of oil and grease, etc. (avoid moldy and rotten food). So if you’re all about Zero Waste, this is a good option.
Urban Composting – What’s Next?
Step 2. Collect your food scraps.
Once you’ve decided on a method of composting and what you plan to use, it simply comes down to learning what you can and can’t put in your composter.
After that, you’ll have to get into the habit of not throwing away your food and, instead, putting it in your new composter.
Step 3. Use your compost to feed plants.
This step is self-explanatory! When your scraps are finished composting, add the humus to your garden and plants to help them grow.
Step 4. Clean and maintain your composter.
Whatever system you’re using, it’s essential to keep it clean in between cycles.
Also, check the warranty information, as this will specify what you can and can’t do or what you should do to maintain it. For instance, sometimes warranties are voided on electric models if you add certain scraps, like large bones or grease.
FAQs about Urban Composting
What is composting?
Composting is the process of turning organic matter, like food scraps and yard waste, into rich soil that can be added to a garden or house plants. Composting is an awesome way to reduce your waste, and it’s easy to do in your kitchen or backyard, whether you have a compost pile or not.
There are many different ways to compost, but the basic principle is the same: organic matter decomposes in the presence of oxygen, bacteria and other organisms, and sometimes heat, and is then converted into a rich, crumbly substance that can be used to improve the health and fertility of your soil.
There’s also what’s known as cold composting, which is tossing your food and yard waste in a big pile in your backyard and leaving it be. This method takes much longer, up to a year, to produce something usable.
It’s referred to as “cold” because it works anaerobically and does not heat up to break down the waste. This is similar to the bokashi method, but with that, you’re speeding up the process by adding the bran.
There are several reasons why composting is beneficial. Let’s look at just a few:
- It’s good for the environment because it reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills and helps keep organic matter out of the trash.
- Composting is great for your garden and yard because it improves the health and fertility of your soil.
- Soil rich in organic matter holds water better, so composting can help you save on water usage.
- Compost reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
- Spreading compost around your yard or garden can help prevent erosion.
Should I bother with the work involved in composting?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 30% of Americans’ trash is comprised of food and yard waste. When all that ends up in landfills and begins to decompose, it releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas. And reports show that about 900 million tons of food go to waste yearly, which is unfathomable.
So if you can compost, you absolutely should.
By now, if you’re seriously considering composting from your apartment or urban home, you should have an idea of what it will take in the way of space required and the time commitment involved. If everyone composted just a fraction of their waste, it would save tons of trash from ending up in landfills. So if you care about making a difference, this is one way to do it.
What can I compost?
Things that can be composted depend on your chosen method.
If you’re strictly composting outside (which this article does not cover), you’ll need a combination of the following:
- brown matter (dried leaves, pine needles, small twigs, bark, newspaper, cardboard, etc.)
- green matter (fruits and veggies, eggshells, nontoxic plant trimmings, seaweed, coffee grounds and tea bags, animal manure other than dog or cat waste, etc.)
If you’re using a kitchen tumbler, the manufacturer’s instructions will let you know what you can and cannot use. And same for the worm and bokashi composter. But the general rule of thumb is that worms cannot have meat, bones, or citrus, whereas those things are okay for bokashi and some tumblers.
What can I do with compost?
There are many uses for compost from the kitchen. It can be used as a natural fertilizer for plants and gardens. It can also be used as mulch if you have a small patch of grass on your patio. You can toss it around fruit trees for added nutrition or scatter it around a local park.
Also, compost does get old, but it does not go bad. Just be sure to keep it from getting too wet or dry.
Apartment composting for beginners, some final thoughts
While this does leave the door open for you to conduct more research, we hope this post on composting mostly indoors has helped you narrow down your decision.
Composting isn’t for everyone if you have limited space and time. But if you can manage it, it’s a great way to be sustainable and make a positive difference in the world.