Composting in a City

A friend of mine recently asked for some advice on composting in a city. I had NO helpful information for her so I figured I should do some research. My mom has been composting in our family’s backyard since I was a kid, so I’ve known about its existence, but since moving out of the house for college, I’ve lived in apartments and cities, and I have no concept of how it’s actually done. So here’s what I’ve learned…

What is compost?

Compost is organic matter (mostly food scraps, leaves, twigs, etc) that has been allowed to decompose and can then be used as nutrient-rich garden soil. The process of composting requires keeping the organic matter in an enclosed space (sometimes in a bin or a partitioned-off section of yard) and then, with proper management, supports the material so it may break down naturally, effectively becoming repurposed or reused existing, albeit discarded material. There are a ton of resources to teach you how to compost.

Why is it good?

Americans produce an average of 5 pounds of waste per day; around 30% of that is compostable food waste. By composting the material that would’ve otherwise been discarded, you’re keeping waste from landfills that can be reused in a positive and eco-friendly way! If you’re an avid gardener, it will save you money on fertilizer costs. If you live in a city, you’ll be pleased to know you’re part of growing contingency that’s making the planet healthier. Some cities will collect your compost and reuse it for specific projects or outsource it to communities that want or need the soil for agriculture. Whether in your backyard or in a city, compost reduces the amount of methane gas emitting from our landfills which is a greenhouse gas contributing to the overall warming of our planet.

How is composting normally done?

I’ve got to be honest, I’m still figuring out the science behind this, but I’m going to give it a try myself in my northern Virginia apartment in the coming weeks. From what I understand there are a variety of techniques from compost tumblers to vermicomposting (using worms that eat the material and break it down into soil; also requires the most effort  and maintenance) to pick up services and drop off locations which are useful for city-dwellers like myself.

A useful rule of thumb when composting is, “If it grows, it goes [into the compost pile].”

More specifically:

  • Fruits
  • Veggies
  • Plants (dead flowers, weeds, grass, etc)
  • Eggs and eggshells
  • Breads and grains
  • Paper towels and napkins
  • Uncoated paper cups and plates (meaning they don’t feel waxy to the touch)

Less desirable compost items include dairy and meat products. While these will decompose, they may invite unwanted creatures or molds into your space.

Composting in a city

First and foremost, get yourself a bin (Planet Natural has some options at the bottom a of their page here) to keep your compost in— one that you can tuck into a cabinet or under your sink. If you stick to the list above, the bin won’t smell awful, but a lid will still be useful to contain any wafting as well as any unwanted pests commonly found in cities.

My mom currently uses GreenLid (available on Amazon) to collect food scraps in the house and will dump the contents into our backyard compost pile when it fills up. The cool thing about this bin is that it’s made from recycled cardboard and can be thrown directly into the compost pile itself! If it’s clean enough to reuse, then that’s an option too.

Living in a city, my biggest takeaways from my research are that you find out if your municipality has a pick up service.

See if your city or town picks up compost bins here.

If your city doesn’t, here are your alternative options:

  • If you have a local farmer’s market, it may have a compost tent available for weekly drop-offs.
  • Find out if your apartment complex or building has a rooftop or community garden. If so, it probably has a compost pile. If not, suggest starting one!
  • Contact your city council and ask them to consider implementing a program that would collect compostable material from residents.
  • Take a look at Share Waste. It’s a free app and website that connects people with compost material but no place to compost (because they live in an apartment building) with people who have compost bins.

Like most efforts to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, composting takes some time and research. I’ll be giving it a try myself and will report back with an epilogue to this post in the coming weeks. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve done this in your apartment or city abode and how it’s been! I’d love to share your successes and learnings!

More information from the US Environmental Protection Agency on composting

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