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Composting for Apartment Living

When you think of composting, what is the first image that comes to mind? I’ve always pictured a large pile of scraps and leaves and a fruitful, sprawling garden in the heart of farmland (or at least the suburbs). Composting is often seen as a practice limited to people who are serious about growing their own organic gardens, and not something to be found in the heart of cities and high-rise apartment complexes with only small balconies providing renters with any sort of outdoor ‘turf.’

In reality, composting is a highly accessible and profitable practice for anyone who doesn’t want food to go to waste. Every year, millions of tons of food waste enter landfills, and represents one of the largest categories of collected waste in the U.S. Although we should strive not to waste food in the first place, composting is a way to turn this waste into nutrient-rich soil useful for the production of more food: it’s essentially recycling food.

So how exactly do you go about composting when you live in a small apartment? Contrary to that initial mental image, you don’t need a large yard or even a garden to compost. All you need is a compost bin, some scraps, and some worms. Here’s how to get started.

Steps to Creating a Compost Bin

  1. Container and Location. Choose a cool, shady place — perhaps a large windowsill in your kitchen, or on your balcony.  You can purchase a pre-made ‘urban composter’ bucket for about $40, designed for kitchen use, a classic worm bin container that runs from $50-$100 (more ideal if you have a balcony location), or make your own with simple materials.
  2. To make your own compost bin, start with a sturdy plastic or ceramic container drilled with ventilation/drainage holes about the size of a standard pencil on both top and bottom, and two lids. The bottom lid will catch any liquid that drains out (use this as fertilizer, too), and the top will keep it ventilated. Worms will not try to escape through the holes unless the bin is too wet and they’re drowning.
  3. Worms. The secret to fast, high-quality compost is the right worm: the Red Wiggler. The best way to get these is to buy them (you can even have them shipped, just like bait). They run anywhere from $8 for worms only to $20 for kit, also depending on how many you want. Worms are low-maintenance, so as long as you keep them happy with plenty of scraps to feed on, the initial batch should last many years.
  4. Preparing the container. Line and fill the container about a third of the way with wet strips of paper or newspaper, and place the worms on top along with a bit of starter soil. Let them sit in the open for a while and they’ll soon bury themselves under the paper. Place more of the wet, shredded paper and any food scraps you have on top to make a worm sandwich (yuck).
  5. As the worms consume the scraps and paper, they’ll create a rich soil you can scoop out (be sure to leave the worms) and use for fertilizing your balcony container garden, apartment house plants, or even donate to a school’s urban garden project.

Tips & Tricks 

  • Whether you create your own bin or purchase one, many people find that it’s helpful to have a multi-level system. As worms eat the scraps in one layer and leave behind soil, they’ll move up through ventilation holes into the next layer and start working there, making it easy to retrieve soil without disturbing the worms.
  • Allow for 1 square foot of space per pound of worms to maintain the optimum worm-per-scrap material ratio. They can eat about half their weight in food scraps a day, and the smaller the pieces are, the faster they’ll turn them into soil. It takes about 12 weeks for worms to process a standard-sized compost bin.
  • Do use the following materials: paper, paper towel and tissue, tea bags, egg shells, coffee filters and grounds, vegetables and food scraps, peels, and dried leaves. 
  • Don’t use the following materials: citrus, dairy, meat, bones, animal waste, plastic, or chemicals. 
  • Keep your bin moisture-balanced. If it appears too wet (the worms are swimming or coming out of the holes), add dry paper; if it appears dry, add a little water. The moisture level of the scraps you contribute will also influence how moist or dry the environment becomes.

Composting Benefits

Not only does composting help the environment by keeping bulky, gas-producing materials out of trash and landfills, you’ll no longer have to spend money on natural fertilizers for your flowers and vegetables, while they look (and taste) better than ever.

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