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How to Compost in an Apartment and Why You Should

by Shannon Vernier

Many people are feeling powerless right now with what’s going on with the current administration’s stance on climate change. However, in the face of that, many companies and cities have started implementing their own sustainable practices. Numerous things are being done to help slow the effects of climate change, especially in Pittsburgh, but we’ll cover those in a separate post. Right now, there are a few simple changes that individuals can make to ensure a greener future. Composting is a huge way to reduce methane emissions.

What is methane? It is probably one of the most powerful gases on the planet. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is roughly thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane accounts for about ten percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane emissions result from a number of sources, including production and transportation of resources, livestock and other agricultural products, and the decay of organic waste in landfills. Actually, landfills, are the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States.

This decay of waste is where composting comes in. When organic matter is sent to a landfill, it is trapped between layers of non-organic waste such as plastics or metals. This does not allow for oxygen to get in and decompose the waste naturally. When organic matter decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), it produces methane and, according to the EPA, over 97% of food waste ends up in landfills, leading to methane production.

Large compost outside my house that I got from Home Depot.

Sowhat can you do? what can you do?

  • Well, for one, if you work in the food industry as a distributor, a restaurant, an urban farm, or even a nonprofit, consider donating food that is about to go to waste to food nonprofits such as 412 Food Rescue, which, according to their site, was “founded as a direct response to the disconnect between food waste, hunger and environmental sustainability.” Many companies such as 412 Food Rescue have been established to help reduce food waste overall, and if you are in the food or agricultural industry, I would encourage you to check out all of their programs. They also accept monetary donations.
  • If you are looking to limit emissions on a smaller scale, you can reduce your waste by being a conscious consumer. Opt to shop in bulk and limit the amount of plastic packaging you get. Instead of buying water bottles, try getting a reusable filter. Rather than use plastic bags and cling wrap, get washable containers to keep leftovers or lunches in. Purchase reusable grocery bags instead of plastic ones (they are much stronger and can fit more, so that’s an added bonus for all of you who are adamant about making one trip from your car to your house).
  • Recycle. Most areas in Pittsburgh have recycling services, and information is available as to what is recyclable in each municipality. Furthermore, encourage your workplaces to begin a recycling program if they don’t already have one. At one job I’ve had, I purchased a recycling bin and set it up in my office’s break room. Employees began using it regularly, and I would take it home on weekends and empty it into my own recycling. It was an easy and effective way for everyone there to reduce the amount of recyclable materials that inevitably end up in landfills.
  • Compost. If you have a yard, consider building a composting bin. You can also purchase one at many large stores like Home Depot. If you are like the many other urban dwellers and don’t have a yard, you can make your own odor-free indoor compost bin that fits easily under your sink or next to your trash can.

So here is how to build your own apartment-friendly compost bin:

Start by gathering your materials. You’ll need:

  1. A container to house your compost pile. It can be as small or big as you like, depending on where it will be in your house
  2. A tray for under your container in case you spill anything
  3. A small bag of soil
  4. Some old newspaper
  • Many different kinds of containers will work, such as plastic storage bins, buckets, or garbage cans. You’ll just want to make sure they have a lid that can seal. You’ll want it to be covered for it to remain odorless. At my house, I have a compost bin outside that I bought from Home Depot, and a smaller indoor one made out of a trashcan with a step-to-open lid. As an added measure, I ensured it had a plastic, reusable liner that I can take out to easily dump the pile into the larger bin if needed. I’ve also seen DIY compost bins made from window boxes for apartments lacking space, which you can find with a simple online search.
  • If you don’t have a compost bin in the yard that you can dump your kitchen pile into, you’ll want to drill some small holes in the bottom and possibly, a few holes around the bottom rim. If you keep your compost bin on a deck, porch, or patio, you can drill holes around the top. The holes allow for oxygen to get in and help the decomposition process. Otherwise, you’ll end up with methane, which defeats the whole purpose.
  • Cover your tray or liner with newspaper, and set your compost bin on the tray. Add a layer of dirt, and then a layer of something dry, like shredded newspaper or paper towels. Then, voila! You are ready to begin composting.
Small trash bin used as a kitchen compost. Shown beside Matthew, my small trash cat for size.

Tips for maintaining a compost bin:

  1. Add food scraps as you produce them. After meals, scrape in any compostable material. Also take coffee and filters, and tea bags without staples, and add it to the bin in the morning.
  2. Keep a wet/dry balance, so add newspaper scraps or plant clippings in between your layers to keep it from producing an odor.
  3. Mix it often using a small scoop or hand shovel. It helps it warm up, and increases microbial actions. It also helps make sure you don’t have soggy or dry pockets in the bin.
  4. Stir the compost weekly and add a bit of soil to the mix.
  5. If the bin starts to smell, it means the balance is off. Add more newspaper or drill extra holes for more oxygen.
  6. You might even add an extra bin for when your old one gets full but hasn’t broken down yet.
  7. The smaller the pieces you add to the bin, the faster they’ll break down. Chop bulky food into smaller bits if you want them to break down faster.
  8. Bread products may invite unwanted pests, so use caution.
  9. When your compost is done, you can use it to nourish houseplants or donate it to a school, community garden, or local farm. You can also donate it to Shadyside Worms, a vermiculture composting business. Shadyside Worms also has a Curbside Compost Exchange Program that works with many different organizations to provide nutrient-rich soil. Or, donate it to AgRecycle at one of their drop-off locations (although you will need to check with each particular company for any specifications for composting materials or pH balance).


What can be composted:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags (without the staple)
  • Nut shells
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Yard trimmings
  • Grass and plant clippings
  • Hay and straw
  • Leaves
  • Sawdust and woodchips
  • Cotton and wool rags
  • Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
  • Hair and fur
  • Fireplace ashes

What cannot be composted:

  • Meat, fish, or dairy products
  • Fats and oils
  • Diseased or insect-ridden plants
  • Pet waste
  • Trimmings or clippings from plants treated with chemical pesticides
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
  • Citrus Peels, onions, and garlic scraps (if you are donating to a worm farm or vermicomposting)
  • Glossy or coated paper
  • Sticky labels on fruits and vegetables
  • Synthetic fertilizer

Click here for a more extensive list.

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