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The Ultimate How-To Composting Guide for City Dwellers

by Jack Grover
urban area composting illustration
Reading time: 31 min Prefer to listen?

In the bustling metropolis, amid the towering skyscrapers and honking traffic, you might feel disconnected from nature. But there’s one way to bring the earthy goodness right to your urban doorstep — composting.

Now, before you cringe or turn up your nose at the thought of a pile of rotting waste in your pristine city apartment, let us assure you — composting can be clean, odor-free, and rewarding.

Contrary to popular belief, composting isn’t about living with a stinky heap of trash. It’s about transforming waste into something wonderful. It’s about nurturing a cycle of life right in your kitchen or balcony.

Intrigued? Let’s dig deeper into the subject of urban composting and see how you can turn your city dwelling into a hub of eco-friendly practices!

The Why of Urban Composting

Think of composting as nature’s way of recycling.

It is the transformational process that recycles organic materials, like kitchen scraps and yard waste, into a valuable resource — nutrient-rich soil. This soil, often referred to as ‘black gold,’ is a boon for gardening enthusiasts and city dwellers alike.

In cities, green spaces can be scarce. Every tiny balcony garden or potted plant on a windowsill becomes a haven. Composting provides the nutrient-dense soil these little urban green patches need, making them thrive in otherwise challenging conditions.

By composting, you’re not just creating rich soil — you’re transforming your concrete surroundings into a greener, healthier living space.

compost life cycle

But the benefits extend beyond your personal living space. Composting has wider implications for our urban communities and our planet.

Take a moment to think about how much waste you produce each day. Now consider this: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals that over 30% of what we throw away is composed of food scraps and yard waste.

That’s a significant amount of waste heading to our already overflowing landfills, where they decompose anaerobically, generating methane — a potent greenhouse gas.

By composting organic material, we can significantly reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills and lower our carbon footprint.

The composting process breaks down organic matter aerobically, meaning it produces minimal methane compared to landfill decomposition. Thus, every individual who chooses to compost is actively contributing to environmental sustainability.

Moreover, composting encourages mindful consumption and waste production. It helps us become more aware of the cycle of life — our food’s journey from farm to table, then back to the earth again.

Composting can become an exercise in sustainability and conscious living, making us not just better gardeners but more responsible citizens of our planet.

Why compost in the city? It’s simple, really — for the love of plants, for the health of our cities, and, ultimately, for the well-being of our planet.

What Can You Compost? 4 Building Blocks of Composting

Composting is a science, and like any good recipe, it requires the right ingredients.

To master the art of urban composting, you need four key components: Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, and Air. These are the pillars of successful composting, transforming your waste into a treasure trove of organic black gold. 

Carbon and Nitrogen: The Power Duo

Carbon-rich materials (“browns”) provide energy for the composting organisms, while nitrogen-rich ingredients (“greens”) supply protein.

Carbon comes from brown organic materials like dry leaves, twigs, wood shavings, and pine pellets. Nitrogen is added through green waste, such as food scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and plant materials.

Note: Caution must be exercised when adding food scraps. Meats, processed foods, dairy products, fats or oils, diseased plants, and pet waste can attract pests and produce unpleasant odors, making them unsuitable for urban composting.

What You Can Compost at Home

paper trash bag
Nitrogen-Rich Material (“Greens”)Food and vegetable scrapsMeat, fish, and bones
Most grass clippings and yard trimCheese and dairy products
Coffee grounds and paper filtersPet waste and cat litter
Paper tea bags (no staples)Produce stickers
Eggshells (crushed)Fats, oils, and greases
Glossy paper
Treated or painted wood
Aggressive weeds/weeds with seeds
Carbon-Rich Materials (“Browns”)Dry leavesDiseased and pest-infested plants
Plant stalks and twigsCompostable food service ware and compostable bags since they’re designed to be composted at commercial composting facilities.
Shredded paper (non-glossy, not colored) and shredded brown bagsCooked food (small amounts are fine)
Shredded cardboard (no wax coating, tape, or glue)Herbicide treated plants
Untreated wood chipsDryer lint

Related: [Quick Answer] Are Peanut Shells Good for Compost Or Not?

So, generally speaking, all organic matter is compostable. This includes fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells, leaves, and grass cuttings. However, certain items should be avoided in urban composting systems due to potential risks.

Remember the golden rule: If in doubt, leave it out.

Water — The Catalyst

Water plays a crucial role in the composting process by maintaining moisture levels for the composting organisms to thrive. However, over-saturation can drown these beneficial organisms and halt the process.

Aim to keep your compost pile as damp as a wrung-out sponge — moist but not soggy.

Don’t forget to place a tray beneath your composter to collect nutrient-rich ‘compost tea‘ that leaks out during decomposition. This liquid gold can be used to water your plants, giving them an extra nutritional boost.

Air — Breathing Life into Compost

Lastly, air fuels the aerobic decomposition process by supplying oxygen to the microorganisms breaking down your compost materials.

Regularly turning your compost pile or bin ensures proper air circulation, prompting quicker decomposition.

Successful urban composting is all about maintaining a balanced mix of carbon and nitrogen materials while ensuring adequate moisture and aeration. It’s about creating an environment where nature’s recyclers — bacteria, fungi, and worms — can work their magic turning your waste into rich, fertile soil.

Choosing Your Composting Method

As city dwellers, we might not have sprawling gardens and large compost piles, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compost.

In below sections, we take a closer look at some of the most popular methods for composting in the city,

Indoor Composting

Indoor composting is a space-saving, odor-free, and efficient way to recycle organic waste right inside your apartment. Here are four practical methods you can consider:

Indoor Worm Farm

​​If you’re looking for a composting solution that is compact, odorless, and engaging, an indoor worm farm could be your answer.

Also known as vermiculture, this method uses red wriggler worms as your personal composting army to break down organic waste into a nutrient-dense soil amendment. These tiny creatures consume large amounts of food scraps swiftly and reproduce quickly, given a continuous food supply. They also thrive in a wide range of temperatures, making them ideal for indoor composting.

Indoor worm farms are particularly suitable for those with limited or no outdoor space. They can operate entirely indoors, making them a perfect year-round composting solution. You don’t have to worry about turning the compost pile — these tireless worms do all the hard work for you.

Many commercial indoor worm composters are both budget-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. They are designed to blend seamlessly into your home decor without becoming an eyesore.

Indoor Worm Farm

Feeding your worm farm is simple. Unbleached paper, cardboard, and kitchen scraps serve as excellent worm food.

However, it’s important to avoid feeding them citrus or pineapple scraps, meat, dairy, and eggs. Citrus is too acidic for the worms’ liking, while meat, dairy, and eggs are not part of their vegetarian diet.

As your worm farm matures and reaches capacity, you’ll find yourself producing rich, organic compost right from your kitchen scraps — a truly remarkable feat of nature! Over time, you’ll harvest nutrient-rich worm castings or “black gold,” which is an excellent natural fertilizer for houseplants or gardens due to its high nutrient content.

So, why not invite these little composting champions into your home? An indoor worm farm not only provides an effective solution for organic waste recycling but also offers an interesting learning experience for kids and adults alike.

Bokashi Method

Bokashi composting — a Japanese technique — brings the power of fermentation to indoor composting. This method combines organic waste with a special compost accelerator in a sealed bin, creating a fast, efficient, and odor-free anaerobic (without oxygen) composting process.

Bokashi Method

The unique advantage of Bokashi composting lies in its ability to handle a wide range of kitchen scraps, including those that are typically off-limits for other composting methods. Yes, you read that right — with Bokashi, you can compost even meat and dairy products!

The secret behind this method is a product called “Bokashi Bran” — a potent blend of grain products, sawdust, molasses, and beneficial microorganisms. When mixed with your kitchen waste, this bran initiates and accelerates the decomposition process through fermentation.

person putting grainy things in wastage

Unlike traditional composting methods, which often require outdoor space and extensive setup, Bokashi is compact and adaptable. You can conveniently place your Bokashi bin indoors or on your balcony without worrying about unpleasant odors or pests.

To get started with Bokashi composting at home, you’ll need a specialized bin equipped with a faucet at the bottom. This faucet allows you to tap off the nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer produced during the composting process. Known as “leachate,” this liquid is teeming with beneficial microbes and can be diluted and used as an excellent organic fertilizer for your indoor plants.

Getting your hands on a Bokashi composting kit is easy — you can find them online or at garden supply stores. The same goes for replenishing your Bokashi Bran supplies.

Countertop Food Recycler

Countertop food recyclers are the epitome of convenience and speed. These sleek, electric devices are small, stylish, and noiseless — fitting perfectly into modern kitchens.

Countertop Food Recycler

However, it’s important to understand what these devices do — and don’t do.

Despite common misconceptions, countertop food recyclers aren’t traditional composters. They don’t facilitate organic decomposition but instead work by drying and reducing the volume of the ingredients.

So, while they are extremely useful in managing waste, they produce a compost alternative rather than traditional compost. The end product resembles potting soil in appearance and carries a neutral odor. It boasts an NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) value of 4-1-1, indicating its potential as a soil supplement.

However, caution is advised when using this product directly on house plants later on. Because the organic materials haven’t fully decomposed, they could cause plant burn — a condition where leaves turn yellow-brown due to nutrient competition between decomposing bacteria and plants. 

This doesn’t mean countertop food recyclers aren’t beneficial. You just need to know how to use the end product correctly. 

For instance, the dried byproduct works great as mulch, placed on top of your soil, where it can slowly decompose and release nutrients over time. If you choose to bury it in the soil, give it a couple of months before planting on top to allow natural decomposition to occur.

Indoor Compost Bins

Indoor compost bins can seem like an easy, budget-friendly option for those seeking to compost in the city. They employ the traditional composting method but on a smaller scale, using a balance of green waste (kitchen scraps) and brown waste (dried leaves or shredded paper).

Indoor Compost Bins

However, there are a few considerations to keep in mind if you choose this route.

One significant challenge with indoor compost bins is their limited capacity. They fill up quickly, and once full, they need to be left alone to allow the composting ingredients to decompose completely. This can be impractical if you generate a large amount of kitchen waste regularly.

One effective strategy is to operate two compost bins simultaneously. When the first bin is full and left to decompose, start filling the second one. By the time the second bin is full, the first should be ready with finished compost.

To keep unpleasant smells at bay, opt for indoor compost bins equipped with carbon filters in the lid. These filters effectively absorb any odors emanating from the decaying organic material inside.

It’s crucial not to include any animal products in your indoor compost bin. These items do not decompose quickly enough and could present health hazards when composted indoors.

Whether you choose worm farming or bokashi, countertop recycling, or a simple bin, indoor composting can be an effective way to participate in the cycle of life, bring nature closer to home, and make your urban lifestyle greener.

Composting in a Small Yard

Having a small yard in the city is a luxury, and it provides an excellent opportunity for composting. It offers you more options than indoor composting alone, allowing you to manage larger volumes of waste and produce more compost.

Composting in a Small Yard

Here are three effective ways to compost in your compact outdoor space:

Outdoor Compost Bin

An outdoor compost bin is essentially a larger version of its indoor counterpart. Its greater capacity allows continual addition of waste at the top, while mature compost can be extracted from a hatch at the bottom.

This method utilizes the natural process of decomposition aided by earthworms and microorganisms. The bins are designed with ventilation holes to ensure adequate airflow, speeding up the composting process.

Compost Tumbler

If you’re looking for a faster, more efficient method, consider a compost tumbler.

These barrel-shaped containers are elevated off the ground and easy to turn, ensuring optimal aeration and mixing of compost materials. They come in various sizes to suit your yard space and are secure against pests.

Since they are sealed and heat up quickly due to their black color, compost tumblers can break down organic material faster than traditional bins.

Outdoor Worm Farm

If you have enjoyed the benefits of vermiculture indoors, why not try an outdoor worm farm? They can be compact enough for small yards yet offer larger volumes than indoor worm farms. 

The worms work diligently to transform your kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich worm castings and liquid fertilizer, perfect for boosting your garden’s health.

For those with small yards, consider combining indoor and outdoor composting methods. This approach allows you to utilize your indoor space for quick, daily waste disposal while the larger outdoor systems handle the bulkier or slower-to-decompose waste.

Remember: Even the smallest of yards can play host to a thriving composting system. It’s all about choosing the right method that suits your space and lifestyle.

Municipal Composting Programs

Recognizing the pressing issue of food waste, many cities have taken proactive steps and introduced municipal composting programs. These initiatives are a collective effort to divert organic waste from landfills to composting facilities, transforming heaps of trash into rich, fertile soil.

If your city offers such a program, your role in this green movement is simple but crucial. You’re required to separate your compostable waste — think fruit peels, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds — from non-compostable items. These segregated wastes then go into designated bins provided by the city for pick-up and subsequent composting.

Composting Programs

Across the US, more and more cities are embracing these composting programs. But what if yours isn’t one of them? Don’t fret! Many private companies offer curbside composting services. For a nominal monthly fee, they provide you with a bin for your compostable waste and schedule regular pickups. 

These services can be an excellent solution for those who want to compost but lack the time or resources to do it themselves. Plus, subscribing to such services often supports local green businesses.

Community Composting: Cultivating Green Communities

Community composting is a collective effort of eco-conscious individuals who come together to convert food waste into valuable compost. It’s about creating something beneficial from what would otherwise be trash, right in the heart of your community.

Community Composting

By setting up a community composting program in a central, accessible location, like-minded neighbors can contribute their kitchen scraps to create a communal compost pile.

This not only raises awareness about food waste but also creates a sense of collective responsibility towards environmental sustainability.

The resulting compost can serve multiple purposes — it can be used by community members to boost their home gardens, or it can be packaged and sold to fund other community initiatives. In some instances, contributors can even earn credits for their contributions, encouraging more participation.

Setting Up Your Community Compost System

person working on compost system

Establishing a community composting system requires planning and cooperation. Here’s how you can start:

  1. Organize. Gather interested community members to discuss plans and delegate responsibilities.
  2. Find a location. Identify a central spot where everyone can conveniently drop off their compostables. Ensure this location complies with local by-laws. Some municipalities might even collaborate by permitting composting in community parks, which could then benefit from the organic waste generated during park maintenance.
  3. Delegate tasks. Distribute duties among participants. This could include managing the compost pile, turning it regularly, and maintaining cleanliness around the site. Getting youth involved can make it an educational experience for them, too.
  4. Promote. Raise awareness within your community to attract more participants. The more contributors, the greater the impact!

A successful community composting program goes beyond just waste reduction. It encourages urban agriculture, enabling city-dwellers to grow fresh produce right at home using nutrient-rich compost. It creates stronger communities bound by shared goals and mutual respect for nature.

So, why not take that first step? Rally your neighbors, share your vision, and start building your own green oasis in the heart of your city!

Tips for Maintaining Your Compost

Embarking on your composting journey can be a thrilling experience, a chance to give back to the environment and cultivate a greener lifestyle.

But like any new endeavor, it can also pose its fair share of challenges.

Maintaining Your Compost

How do you ensure your composting effort is successful, odor-free, and efficient? That’s where these handy tips come in: 

Select the Bin That Fits

Your compost bin should suit your living situation.

If you have outdoor space, consider a tumbler or stationary bin. For those with limited space or living in apartments, an indoor worm bin or bokashi system may be more appropriate.

Look for bins that are easy to use and clean, with good ventilation and access points for adding waste and removing finished compost.

Think Green and Brown

Successful composting requires a balanced diet of green nitrogen-rich materials (like vegetable peels and coffee grounds) and brown carbon-rich materials (like dry leaves and cardboard). 

Aim for a ratio of about 3:1 – three parts browns to one part greens. Too many greens can cause a smelly mess, while an overload of browns can slow down the decomposition process.

By keeping the green-to-brown ratio balanced, you ensure a healthy, odor-free compost pile.

Cover It Up

Covering your compost pile retains moisture and heat, both essential for decomposition. It also helps control odors and keeps flies away.

Use a layer of brown material like straw or wood chips as a cover every time you add new green waste. If you’re using a compost bin with a lid, ensure it’s closed securely after each use.

Keep It Damp

Moisture is critical for the composting process, but finding the right balance is key. As we’ve mentioned earlier, your compost pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge – damp but not soaking.

During dry periods, you might need to add water to maintain moisture levels. During rainy seasons, keep your pile covered to prevent over-saturation.

Let It Breathe

Composting organisms need oxygen to do their job efficiently. Regularly turning or stirring your compost pile ensures it gets sufficient air circulation.

If your compost smells bad, it’s often a sign that it’s not getting enough oxygen. Turning your pile not only adds oxygen but also mixes the materials for better decomposition.

Make It Rodent Proof

While composting is great for reducing waste and creating nutrient-rich soil, it can also attract unwanted guests like rodents if not managed properly.

To rodent-proof your compost, avoid adding food items like meat, dairy, or cooked food that can lure pests. Ensure your bin has a tight-fitting lid and small enough ventilation holes that keep pests out but allow airflow.

Speed Up the Process

You can speed up the composting process through:

  • frequent turning,
  • maintaining the correct green-to-brown ratio,
  • cutting larger items into smaller pieces before adding them to your pile.

Adding a handful of garden soil or finished compost can introduce more decomposing organisms into your pile, thereby speeding up the process.

Know When It’s Ready

Your compost is ready when it looks dark brown, feels crumbly, and smells earthy — similar to forest soil.

It may take anywhere from two months to a year for your compost to be ready, depending on factors like materials used, temperature, and maintenance practices.

Use Your Compost Wisely

Once your compost is ready (which may take anywhere from two months to a year, depending on your method), it’s time to put it to use!

Finished compost is packed with nutrients making it excellent for enriching garden soil or potting mix. You can mix it with potting soil for houseplants or use it as mulch in garden beds.

Remember: Not all plants require high nutrient levels, so research individual plant needs before application. Overuse of even organic fertilizers like compost can harm plants due to nutrient overload.

If you don’t have plants at home, donate your finished compost to local community gardens or farms that would be more than happy to benefit from your nutrient-rich soil.

Final Thoughts

As we navigate the hustle and bustle of city life, composting provides us with a unique opportunity to reconnect with nature, reduce waste, and contribute to a greener planet.

Beyond just the transformation of kitchen scraps into ‘black gold,’ it opens up a world of mindful living, conscious consumption, and environmental stewardship right from our urban homes.

The road to successful composting in the city is paved with understanding its principles, selecting the right tools, maintaining balance, and patience. Yes, it’s an endeavor that requires effort, but the rewards — both tangible and intangible — are substantial.

Remember, every bit of compost you create not only enriches your little green space but also helps reduce landfill burden and greenhouse gas emissions. So, embrace this earthy endeavor and become an urban composting champion.

After all, change often begins at home — or in this case, perhaps in your kitchen bin.

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