Your Guide to Apartment Composting

One of the best ways to reduce your waste and impact on your local waste system is to compost at home.

Industrial composting comes with environmental costs that we often don’t think about. For example, collection vehicles make trips to pick up waste in a neighbourhood based on volume – if the vehicle is full before completing the route, it must drop off the waste at the facility, drive back to the neighbourhood and do it all over again – the more waste, the more trips, the more fuel used. Industrial compost facilities also use electricity for heat, general building operations and are not perfect – if the facility is full at any given time, that excess organic waste is likely ending up in landfill. Sadly, some regions don’t have any form of industrial composting in their facilities, so all of the organic matter collected will end up in the landfill, where it will never properly biodegrade.

Home composting is a great way to have a minimal impact, and get some awesome benefits at the same time. There are many fears and anxieties for folks who don’t live in a home with access to a yard when it comes to composting – is it possible? Will it stink? What do I do with the finished product? Let’s break down some of the options for composting in an apartment, condo, or building that doesn’t give you access to a yard.

Composting Basics

The most basic kind of compost is made up of a very simple equation – greens, browns, water and air, or in scientific terms, nitrogen, carbon, H20 and oxygen. You can also call this aerobic composting – air has a role in the breakdown of the greens and browns. (There is also anaerobic composting, but we’ll get to that later.)

  • Greens are things that can tend to stink when they rot (but not always) and could be considered ‘fresh’ – vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, cuttings from houseplants, egg shells, tea leaves, flowers, etc.
  • Browns are things that tend to feel dry and are often derived from trees – paper, tissue paper, cardboard, leaves, twigs, coffee filters, cotton scraps, dryer lint.

The list of what you can put in a compost system is pretty simple – if it’s organic (not made of plastic, synthetics or toxic material), it can go in the compost system with a few vital exceptions:

  • Meat
  • Oil/grease/fat
  • Dairy
  • Animal or human excrement

These four things should always be avoided in your compost system, unless you are a seasoned compost expert, and even then I would strongly advise against including them. The reason? They become really gross, really fast, can invite unwanted critters into your space, are difficult to break down in a home compost system, and have the potential to sustain unsafe bacteria in your finished compost, especially if you want to use the compost in your edible plant containers.

Uses for compost

There are many uses for compost, and it makes a wonderful gift to friends and family who have a garden or a yard. You can:

  • Make compost tea – take a spoonful of finished compost, put it in a coffee filter, tie it up and steep it like a teabag in a jug of water or watering can. Let it sit for 24 hours, then you can dilute the solution and add to houseplants as a fertilizer.
  • Mix it in potting soil when repotting new houseplants
  • Add it to soil when seed-starting (hello balcony tomatoes!)
  • Sprinkle on the top of the soil of your houseplants
  • Dig it into a friend or family members garden or flower beds to give the soil some love and nutrients

What Type of Compost System is Right for Me?

There are four general options for composting in an apartment or home that doesn’t have yard access. Let’s review the pro’s and con’s:

Balcony Composting with Tumbling & Rolling Composters

Pros:

  • Can be used on balconies and small patio spaces
  • Can be used year round, even in winter conditions
  • Holds a high volume of organics
  • No need to obtain worms or other accessories
  • Easiest system to maintain

Cons:

  • Not physically accessible for everyone; requires a pushing or cranking motion from hands and wrists
  • Price runs around $90 – $150
  • Takes up more space than other composters, and should be used outside
  • Difficult to create a DIY version for a balcony or small patio


Does this sound like it would be an option in your living space? Learn more about how to compost on your balcony!


Vermicomposting/Worm Composting

Pros:

  • Uses a small, easily hidden container that can either be purchased or made for approximately $10
  • Easy to DIY, but lots of options available on the market
  • Takes up little space
  • Children love learning about worms, compost and ecosystems – a great educational tool for families

Cons:

  • Need to obtain Red Wigglers, a specific kind of worm (but can be found for free or at low cost)
  • Bin should be maintained regularly to ensure the balance is right
  • Can become stinky and gross if neglected or adding too much organic matter
  • More hands on, especially to remove finished compost
  • Need to be slightly more mindful about organic matter going into the bin
  • Purchasing a worm bin can cost over $100 depending on style


Wondering if worms are the best composting option for you? Learn more about vermicomposting!


Bokashi & Anaerobic Composting

Pros:

  • Uses a small, easily hidden container
  • The one compost system that allows you to add meat, dairy and oil to your other organic matter
  • Has a fermentation stage where you don’t need to do anything for a few weeks
  • Fairly affordable to purchase the container, and the ‘Bokashi bran’ can be purchased at a fairly low price or you can DIY
  • Liquid drained off can be diluted and added to plants or used at full strength as drain cleaner

Cons:

  • Requires specific supplies to start and for ongoing maintenance
  • High maintenance – you must drain the liquid every few days prior to the fermentation period
  • Will become very stinky if neglected
  • Final product should be buried in the soil – not useful for houseplants
  • Can’t add any organic material during the fermentation, which is at least 3 weeks
  • Bigger learning curve than other systems and the smell of the finished product is very strong


Sounds like this might work for you? Learn more about Bokashi and Anaerobic Composting!


Electronic Composters

Pros:

  • Claim to be an all-in-one system that composts for you on a short time frame
  • Some claim to compost meat, dairy and oil without issue
  • Look nicer than other systems

Cons:

  • Very expensive, often run over $300
  • Few reviews available about long term usage
  • Can break down easily and may be difficult to repair
  • Some require ongoing purchases of filters
  • Require an electronic outlet, continuously use electricity and can be loud

Overall, I do not recommend electronic composters – they sound too good to be true and are a big investment without proof of long term function.

What if none of these systems work for me?

A saying in my community of fellow composters is “if you’ve seen one compost system, you’ve seen one compost system”. Everyone’s needs are different, and depending on your home and who you live with, composting in your own space just might not work, at least in this moment.

Community Composting

Before you fully give up on composting, try connecting with local community gardens, farms, animal sanctuaries, and neighbours or community members who have compost systems. There may be someone near you who would love to accept your food scraps and organic waste!

It’s as easy as collecting your scraps in a bowl or container in the freezer, and bringing them to that place or person when it’s full. There is also a very exciting app called ShareWaste that specifically connects composters and organic waste collectors (aka potentially all of us) with each other.


Whatever you choose to explore in your composting journey, I wish you luck and encourage you to find like minded people in your community or online. There are so many valuable experiences and pieces of knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered by interested folks like you.

Remember, it is okay to fail and try again! Even small steps make a big difference.

Follow Christina Harbak:
Christina is a settler living on Treaty No. 6 Territory in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She is a Master Composter Recycler volunteer for the City of Edmonton and loves sharing knowledge and tips about composting, recycling and reducing waste. When she’s not saving bags of leaves from her neighbours garbage cans, she enjoys making jokes with Rapid Fire Theatre. Catch more of her thoughts on waste on her blog yegtrashtalk.wordpress.com

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