Urban Composting - It CAN be done!

by Andrea Karim on 14 October 2007 19 comments

I always thought of composting as something that could only be accomplished by people who have vast back yards, or farms. My mother used to compost our yard and food waste, and it seemed like SUCH a chore. We owned this large, plastic polyhedron where we put all of the waste, and you had to rotate it every few days. It produced some great composting soil, but I figured that in order to achieve such a task, one would need somewhere to stash a big pile of grass clippings, raked leaves, and kitchen waste.

Turns out that I was wrong. Almost anyone can compost their food waste. It's easy, it's cheap, and it's SO much better for the environment than just throwing all your organic waste into a landfill.

A couple of months ago, I purchased a small ceramic canister for my kitchen counter. I throw all of my food scraps in there - coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, vegetarian meals that have gone bad, apple cores, and soiled paper towels. Once every few days, I throw the contents of the canister into my neighbor's yard waste container (we have an agreement). If I order pizza, the soiled boxes go in there, too, as do the leaves that I sweep off of my parking spot and front stairs. The City of Seattle hauls yard waste to a local company for mass composting.

That's about it. It takes no more than 5 minutes of every week to do this, costs me $5 a month (since I pay my neighbor for the use of his yard waste bin), and yet I've reduced the amount of normal garbage that I throw away by nearly 1/3. I can live happier knowing that my impact on the planet has been lessened a bit. But for some reason, I can't convince most of my friends to do the same.

It seems that the urban or semi-urban lifestyle leads a lot of people to believe that "messy" things like composting just aren't possible. But it's not only possible, it's really easy! Oh, I'm sure that there are some cities in which the city doesn't pick up yard waste for composting, and that's too bad. And some apartment and condo complexes don't have yard waste bins - but they should! If you're considering composting, but you live in a building with no yard waste or compost bins, consider checking around the neighborhood and seeing if you can split the cost of yard waste pick-up with a neighbor, like I do. Or, pressure your building management to start providing yard waste receptacles.

You don't even need a ceramic container at all - some people just use a milk jug with the top cut off (I like the ceramic container because the top contains a carbon filter to absorb odors - plus, it keeps the fruit flies inside). Some people even do their composting indoors, using worm bins or other methods. If you have a balcony, porch, or garage (hell, even the back corner of an parking spot will do), you can compost your food scraps in a small wooden or plastic bin with a little dirt and some earthworms. There are many online resources that can help you learn how to do this.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

You know, when we ordered our giant double compartment compost tumber, I noticed that the company had smaller ones that could easily be used on apartment balconies. It could easily supplement your own small herb garden in an urban setting.

Good for you for bringing attention to the possibilities!

Guest's picture
Lori O

I have started doing this using worms. We have NO RECYCLING services in our area, so I really wanted to do something for the environment. It is really cool and great for my garden. The worm poopies really help me grow great organic veggies for my family.

We have a very small lot that is 3/4 covered with the house and shed....so space is valuable around here. Worm composting is great!

Some folks even use worms to compost in their office under their desks. It is amazing!

Guest's picture

Great post!

I've always wanted to compost my organic waste but I've never been sure how to. Just the other day while I was cooking dinner I went to take out the garbage thinking about how much could actually be composted instead.

You've inspired me to look more into it!

Guest's picture
Marisa

I, too, live in a Seattle apartment. I just moved here from out of state - is there any way to compost food via the city's yard-waste pickup if you don't happen to have an accommodating neighbor? We have a small apartment, with no yard (and hence no need for compost), and are surrounded by apartment buildings.

Thanks!

Guest's picture

Just a note to everyone considering putting food waste into their yard waste bin: not ever city accepts food waste in these bins, so check and make sure before you do it!

Here in Oakland, it's fine. The city takes yard waste, food waste (including meat and bones), and soiled paper in the same bin. But in order to keep as much of my compost for my own container garden use, I bought an Urban Compost Tumbler.

Here is my post about the various types of tumbling composters I considered:

http://www.fakeplasticfish.com/2007/08/compost-tumbler-solution-to-potting.html.

In addition to tumbling composters and worm bins, people in small spaces might want to consider Bokashi, but you do need a place to bury the unfinished compost.

Andrea Karim's picture

Marisa, thanks for the question. The city does provide smaller food and yard waste bins (I can't recall the exact size, but it's significantly less than 96 gallons). You might be able to use one of those, but then you'll have to pay for pick-up ($10 a month, unless you split the cost with other neighbors). You might want to consider worm bin composting, but it really depends on whether or not you have the space for a bin.

Guest's picture
jesse

As per Grub (the book) I started saving my scraps in my freezer and just putting them in a bucket the night before I'm dropping them off at the community garden. It solves the issue of attracting fruit flies.

I tried worm bins 2x but ended up somehow killing the worms so I have no idea what happened but I'm not willing to go for a 3rd massacre! (I expect both areas I had them in were too hot.) The community garden is easy and it gives me an excuse to go there.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good thinking!

Andrea Karim's picture

Worm bin composting can be tricky - you have to monitor it carefully to make sure the soil isn't too acidic (too many coffee grounds and orange peels) and not too warm. Kids seem to enjoy it, though. But yes, I believe they do have to be sheltered. The freezer idea is a good one - I only wish my freezer wasn't packed full of soup stock!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

I used to live in Toronto, Canada, and the city has a great recycling/garbage system. Pick-up for garbage, recycling (paper and plastic), and compost items is both free and weekly. 

As I travel, I am surprised to discover that this isn't the case in many other Canadian and U.S. cities. Something to work towards, I guess!

Guest's picture
Also in Toronto

Where did you get your pretty white ceramic compost pail? I'd love to get something so visually pretty for composting.

Andrea Karim's picture

I found it on Amazon. I was really taken with the stainless steel pails, but they were $40! I think I only paid $19 for mine, because I shopped around a bit. Prices fluctuate on Amazon, so sometimes you have to wait it out a bit.

Guest's picture
allen

Often times on Amazon, you can price-watch an item.
http://lifehacker.com/software/featured-firefox-extension/track-amazon-f...

Guest's picture
Cameron

I'm so glad this is starting to get popular!

There's a great site with some good info on vermicomposting, limited space composting-the whole deal. Good for all urban composting: Balcony Compost - check it out

Guest's picture
RB

I couldn't see spending $75 on a bin so on the advice of a seasoned composter I made a composting area in my yard that was 3ftx3ft. I took a pile of grass, layered with brown leaves, food scraps (no meat, oil or dairy), 1 cup Miracle grow, 1 can sugary soda, and 1 gallon of water. Mix it all up and in no time it heats up. Turn it and add to it every few days. It reduces down to practically nothing,(now in <1 wk) and is greast for my small garden. I don't even have to add soil conditioners every spring. I can add shredded bills and newspapers and in my area Starbucks gives away the old coffee grounds that we add in there too. The kids love the green science experiment.

Guest's picture
Bellen

I live in a 55+ manufactured home community where having anything outside for veggie gardening, except planting pots and EarthGrow Boxes, is not allowed. So, we vermicompost in our lanai, use a 2nd hand blender to puree veggie scraps to use for the worms and as supplements to our growing pots. Because, I guess, we are in SW Florida and so is quite warm, we do have a fruit fly problem with the worms - but it's outside so we are just careful when opening the door. We can also use the veggie scrap puree to feed our foundation plantings - hibiscus really seem to like it. This plus recycling paper/cardboard, glass & some plastics has reduced our garbage to just 1 13-qt bag a week.

Guest's picture
Liz K

I just bought a house and my partner and I have been discussing the creation of a compost pile. It looks like a daunting task though and so we keep putting it off.

One day, we finished up this large tub of pretzels we had bought at a warehouse store and I looked at it and said, "there's got to be some way we can reuse this giant plastic tub instead of recycling it."

My friend suggested we use the plastic tub to create a kitchen compost bin. It works absolutely WONDERFULLY! For two people, we don't really create enough waste for a huge compost tumbler. And talk about easy to turn! We just give it a shake and everything's mixed in! This tub fits under the kitchen sink and whatever we successfully compost goes right outside to the gardens.

Someday, we'll build ourselves a beautiful compost pile but for a quick and easy fix, this works great!

Guest's picture
Zannie

...not everyone has a place for the bin. I live in a mixed commercial/residential area, and we barely have room for the small size trash and recycling bins that we share with our neighbors. There's no way we could fit a yard waste bin in there too. Some friends in another mixed commercial/residential area say they have the same problem.

Fortunately, we have a yard and I compost in a tumbler out there, but our neighbors have no access to the yard, so they're pretty much stuck unless they've got space for a worm bin somewhere and the time to tend it. And while the composting I can do cuts way back on our trash, I can't compost any meat, dairy or oily foods, all of which I'd be able to put in the city bin if we had one. (I've got enough problems keeping the critters away as it is!)

But in general, you're right, a lot of people could compost with far less effort than they realize. Even composting in a tumbler is really not that much work. Put the compostables in the tumbler. Tumble it. Voila. If you're not going for speed, you don't even need to tumble it.

Guest's picture
Tee

It is awesome that recent advancements in recycling and sustainability that composting is becoming very much mainstream, especially in urban areas. The beauty of the small composter crocks that is anyone can now compost no matter where they live. And they are so easy to use. There is no mess and really no fuss.

One of the things that scares many people from composting indoors is they are afraid it will create a foul odor. These little crocks do a great job of filtering any odors. Of, course, if you are composting correctly there shouldn't be any foul odors any way.