ceramic jar with the word compost on it
April 23, 2019

The How-To Compost Guide for City Dwellers

Did you know that yard waste and food scraps make up roughly 20-30% of what we throw away? But there's an easy way to do your part and rid yourself of the guilt from that one time you lived in an apartment complex that didn’t recycle. It’s time to compost, urban folks. Composting is actually super simple, and even if you’re in a small apartment with one window and no closet, you can still become a compost master.

Composting Basics: What to Compost

Composting is an easy way to do your part in the fight against climate change.Composting is an easy way to do your part in the fight against climate change.

So what is compost, anyway? Compost is just organic material that you can add to soil to help plants grow, and composting is the process of accelerating the decay of this organic matter. Instead of throwing away these organic materials, like food scraps and yard waste, composting them means they won’t go in landfills and break down into methane. Why is this so important? Methane absorbs the sun’s heat and traps it in the atmosphere, which greatly affects climate change. Yikes is right. It’s really a win-win for you and Mother Earth!

Composting in Three Easy Colors: Brown, Green, Blue

In order to be a master of your new eco-friendly domain, you’ll need to have this color wheel handy:

If you follow the rules of what to compost and how much water and air to give your layers of browns and greens, you will not have to deal with bad smells. Your composting pile should have an equal ratio of browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen). Make sure to layer these different materials. Having a good balance of carbon and nitrogen helps break down the organic matter faster and is way less smelly. As a result of this perfect blend, you’ll have damp but not wet soil. You’re really trying to go for a “wrung-out sponge” feel on this one.

The Dos and Don’ts of Composting

Here’s a list straight from the EPA of what you can and can’t throw into your compost concoction.

Types of Composting

Now that we know what composting is and what we can and can’t compost, it’s time to dive into specific composting techniques that can easily fit into your city lifestyle:

Compost Pile: Some people in cities actually have backyards (lucky ducks). If you have even a small outdoor space, compost piles can be a great, low-maintenance option. Just throw your green and brown scraps in a pile in the backyard over a section of dirt or grass, and sift them when necessary. Or if you want to contain your scraps and make the process a little more organized, you can make a DIY crate with wooden pallets and toss your organic material in there. 

Municipal Composting: Cities all around the country have municipal food-waste programs. Similar to recycling programs, your city’s sanitation department will provide you with a small bin to keep in your home and a larger bin to keep outside. The large outdoor bins usually get picked up weekly, just like trash and recycling. San Francisco, for example, has a mandatory composting program that picks up roughly 600 tons per day of organic matter. Portland, Seattle, and parts of New York City have similar programs, as do many other cities. The EPA has some great resources on community implementation for recycling and sustainability programs, as well as some tips on how to get one started in your town if it’s not already in place.

Worm Bins: If you’re looking for an indoor composting option, worm bins are easy to use and don’t take up much room. You can make one from a variety of materials: a plastic bin, a wooden dresser drawer, or even an old fish tank (we recommend lining these with plastic). Store it in a closet, on a shelf, under your sink, or anywhere you have room. To get started, cut up or tear non-colored newspaper into one-inch to half-inch strips. Add a little water to make sure the strips are damp, but not wet. (Remember that “wrung-out sponge” feel?) When adding the strips to your bin, make sure they’re not packed down. After this, you can add two to four cups of soil to your bin. Now, you’re ready to add your red worms! Cornell University has some great in-depth guides for more information and other types of worm composting.

Other Indoor Compost Options: If you want to compost indoors but don’t want to mess with worms (which we totally get), it just takes a little more maintenance and prep work. First, you’ll need a storage container and lid, such as a 10-gallon or 18-gallon plastic storage bin. Then drill aeration holes in the lid of your bin, add your compost contents, and start composting. (You can even make a cute compost bin small enough to fit under your kitchen sink!)

Pro tips for your indoor compost:

  • Steer clear of adding a lot of really smelly or wet foods, like onion scraps, melons, or squash to your indoor compost.
  • Add a handful or two of shredded paper or dry leaves to your compost every time you add food scraps or coffee grounds. This will provide carbon to your compost, as well as prevent it from getting too soggy.
  • Turn and churn your compost regularly. This helps create microbial activity and reduces any wet or dry pockets.
  • Make sure your veggie and fruit scraps are chopped into small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the faster they’ll break down. This goes for shredded paper, too.

What To Do With Your New Black Gold

Put your compost to good use in your home garden or potted plants.Put your compost to good use in your home garden or potted plants.

Now that you’re a compost master, what should you do with all of your new, rich soil? Here are a few ideas:

  • Use it in your garden or in potted plants in your home! You just made magic compost and your plants will thrive in it like Popeye on spinach.
  • Give away your soil as a gift. Combine it with a pack of seeds and some containers, or pot up your favorite plant. DIY cacti, anyone?
  • Donate it to local farms, non-profit organizations, or community gardens in your city. Check out your local grocery store or market to see if they accept donations, as well. If you’re not sure where to donate, Eat Well Guide has a great list of sustainable restaurants, farms and organizations throughout the U.S.
  • Check with schools in your area to see if they could use any of your magic soil. 

Whether you’re working with a small outdoor space, or in a four-story walk-up, you can become a city compost-master, too.

Amy Haywood is a proud and curious wanderer. Whether she’s being a tourist in her hometown or enjoying a double-decker bus tour in a new city, she’s learning about the locals, exploring the history and searching for the nearest art museum. You can find more of her writing at helloamychristine.com where she educates the masses on relationships, health and wellness.