a beginner’s guide to urban composting

The what, why, and how of urban composting when your apartment is tiny and your backyard, nonexistent.

Anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I’m not an impulse buyer. Not even close. I don’t binge online shop, and I definitely don’t shop “IRL” — as kids these days are saying. But one of my favorite kitchenware sites was having a flash sale, and the announcement email somehow didn’t get lost in the dark black hole that is my inbox. So I opened it, and guess what product they were showcasing front and center? A spiffy little indoor composting bin. And I didn’t think twice.

The only problem? I had absolutely no idea how to compost.

Is anything off-limits? Will it make my apartment smell like rotten food? Will it grow fuzzy white mold, or attract flies? Where do I even bring it once the bag is full? 

But I’m a preeeeeety big fan of Mother Nature, so I told myself I’d figure it out. After all, it’s not rocket science, right? RIGHT?

After many weeks of trial and error, Googling, and emailing back-and-forth with the unbelievably patient team at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, I think I’ve got a semi-sold grasp on this whole composting in the city thing.

first things first… what is composting?

It’s just a fancy word to describe the process of making food rot faster. And continue rotting and breaking down and doing whatever it needs to do to become a soil-like substance that helps new plants grow. And repeat. And repeat.

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why should I do it?

Here’s the thing: when organic waste ends up at a landfill with heaps of other trash, it gets buried. And with little to no exposure to oxygen while decaying, it releases methane — a potent greenhouse gas that, long story short, is bad.

Composting not only diverts food away from landfills (reducing carbon emissions from garbage transport in the process), but it also enriches soil with all the good bacteria and limits the need for harsh chemical fertilizers.

how do I do it inside?

There are two main methods to indoor composting, which I scientifically refer to as the “collect and toss method” and the “worm method.”

Collect and toss: If you’re not interested in watching organic matter slowly break down into soil over the span of several months under your tiny kitchen sink, this method is for you. All you have to do is get a bin (more on that below), and maybe pick up some compostable bags while you’re at it. Start piling in the scraps, and bring ’em to a compost collection site to let the magic happen outside. 

For my fellow New Yorkers, the Union Square Greenmarket is your best bet.

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Worm: If you’re ready to up your composting game, whip out the worms to replicate what would happen in an outdoor bin. You will need more space for this vermicompost shindig to occur, and you’ll need holes in your bin to ensure the worms can breathe. But if you’re up for it, godspeed.

what can I compost?

The list of acceptable compost items can be split into food and browns (aka everything else).

FOOD: Any and all fruit scraps, breads, grains, coffee grounds, eggshells, veggies, tea bags

BROWNS: Shredded paper/newspaper, dry leaves, napkins, paper towels, cardboard, toilet paper rolls

what can’t I compost?

No meat/fish scraps or bones, no dairy products, and no fats (i.e. oil or grease). Seriously, don’t do it.

what should I look for in an indoor composting bin?

IMPORTANT! ATTENTION! READ THIS!!$%#&^T&W*^

You need (I repeat, need) one that uses some sort of carbon filter or charcoal liner. This way, air can freely come in (because remember, oxygen = good) and leave through the filter. Otherwise bad things will happen. And by bad things, I mean odors.

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If your compost gets soggy 

Add a handful of shredded paper or dry leaves every time you toss in food. Works double duty to soak up moisture like a sponge while providing additional carbon to your bin.

If, despite the filters, there’s still a smell 

Make room for your compost bin in the freezer.

If you notice fuzzy white mold on your compost 

Don’t make the mistake I made — panic, immediately toss out your compost, open every window in your apartment, and disinfect the entire surrounding area. Because it’s not actually a health hazard to you or your compost, and the collection site will still accept organic matter speckled with some fuzz.

But if you never want to see it ever again, your answer is, yet again, the freezer.

There ya have it, folks. Time to go forth and make food rot.

While we’re on the topic of dirt, read up on this sustainable urban farm in the heart of Paris complete with an aquaponics system, worm composter, herb garden, fruit trees, community vegetable garden… the whole nine yards.