From job opportunities to exotic food trucks, cities have a lot to offer, a fact recent urban growth trends reflect. The UN predicts a staggering 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, up from the current 55%. That’s about 2.5 billion more people moving into more condensed spaces in the next 30 years. As urban spaces fill, so do landfills. The World Bank’s What A Waste 2.0 solid waste management report found in 2016, urban dwellers produced 2.01 billion tons of waste; and that number is expected to rise by 70% to 3.4 billion tons by 2050.
Because urban dwellings often consist of small footprint apartments with little-to-no outdoor access, organic waste is finding its way into landfills. According to a 2015 EPA study on Municipal Solid Waste, 76% of food waste in the USA went to landfill (meaning it contributes to methane and other greenhouse gas emissions), and this is waste that is actually compostable! Here’s the thing: living in a small apartment doesn’t mean you can’t do your part to reduce your environmental impact. Turn your balcony into an urban jungle. Get around those strict apartment pet rules with your own worm farm. However small your living situation, you can become a composting extraordinaire!
As a reminder, composting is the process of biodegradation, or breaking down, and repurposing of organic waste, or that “of biological origin”. This basically means or anything that was once living or came from something living, like food scraps (including egg shells and coffee grounds), as well as paper products, plant waste, and fecal matter (e.g. dog poop). Because composting has so many benefits, we’ve created a series of steps and options to help those living in tight quarters still dispose of this waste responsibly.
Many local governments are implementing organic waste disposal services. Some cities, such as Portland, OR and New York, NY offer “brown box programs” that pick up organic waste for composting curbside alongside regular trash and recycling. They even provide the bin and starter kit! We lived in London in 2017 and this was a standard offering in our municipality. If publicly sponsored programs aren’t available where you live, check out private composting services, like We Compost, based in Auckland, New Zealand and Compost Now in the US which offers affordable monthly subscriptions for domestic compost collection.
Much like installing solar panels on your house can make you eligible for tax breaks in some cities, some city councils, like our own, will provide huge discounts (up to 80%!) to private citizens on the purchase of composting vessels. Australian residents can find your council discount super easily through Compost Revolution, a program that has diverted an estimated 9,849,854 kg of organic waste from landfills, as of February 2019. Check to see if something exists in your city…and if it doesn’t, you could always write them a letter and tell them everyone else is doing it!
Rather than throw away or even resort to composting food scraps, first find a use for them: make vegetable stock from vegetable scraps, pamper yourself with a fruit peel face mask, and use stale bread and crust to make your own bread crumbs or croutons. The possibilities for reusing food scraps are almost endless! This reduces the overall mass you’ll need to deal with during the composting process, and when living in small spaces, any reduction in bulk is helpful. The more you can make into other stuff, the less you’ll need to compost, so the less space you’ll need to do it!
You’ve heard the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”… Prepare to bring new meaning to the phrase! There are tons of people out there who would love to make use of YOUR organic scraps. Maybe you have a friend who owns a farm an hour outside town; food scraps are a great way to feed livestock, even if they aren’t suitable for domestic pets. Check your local famers market or a co-op garden. Even grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, are beginning to offer composting collection for their customers, as well as composting their own expired food.
And of course, since this is the digital age, THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT (or a few for the matter). Start by creating a ShareWaste account. It connects nearby people looking to get rid of waste with people who can use it! Think of it as a Craigslist for composting… with less scams. Through this app, we found a local community center that accepts organic waste and turns it into compost. We’ve also had family members discover their own neighbours were looking for organic waste! You can also check out Olio, a new food sharing app and website that “connects neighbors with each other and with local shops so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away”.
If there are no viable community composting programs and you’ve used as much of your organic material as possible (or found someone who can), or you just simply want to DIY, then actual apartment composting is for you. There are several types of composting options suitable for apartment dwellers. Check out our article on indoor compost bins for more on how to choose which vessel best for you:
- Vermicomposting (indoors or outdoors): Worms bins, like the Worm Factory 360 (USA) or Urbalive (UK) rely on red wriggler worms to consume and break down organic waste, leaving behind nutrient rich castings and worm tea which gardens love! If you have a little extra time to care for them, worms are a great, odor-free option for composting in apartments or on balconies (plus they’re like little pets for all those who live in apartments that don’t allow them!).
- Bokashi bins (indoor or outdoors): This is a Japanese method of “shading off” composting uses micro-organisms to ferment a wide array of food scraps (including things you can’t feed worms like meat, citrus, and other acidic foods). As such, these pair well with worm bins, because the product it yields must be broken down further by either burying in soil or feeding to worms. These bins are widely available worldwide and suitable for apartment composting. Here are some options:
- High Tech Composters (indoors): Machines like the Food Cycler FC30 Platinum are electricity run composters that use a combination of heat and vibration to break down organic waste in a matter of hours. Designed to be fast and odorless, as well as able to break down a larger variety of scraps (e.g. meat scraps which can’t be fed to worms) these are good option if you have a little extra to invest in your composter (because these babies don’t run cheap!) and want something super efficient to compost inside your apartment. We haven’t yet tried one of these so if you try it, please let us know how it goes!
- Traditional composters (outdoors): Composters like the Envirocycle Mini rely on either decomposition (aerobic composters) or fermentation (anaerobic composters) to break down food and as such really must be located outside on a balcony due to natural odors emitted in the process.
If you go for a worm farm option, these are real living beings so you need to look after them! There are some key things to remember
- They don’t like heat and need to stay moist so at least once a week you need to pour a big bucket of water through the bin. There will be instructions on how to do this in the pack that you buy and it’s really very simple! The liquid that you can drain out (often through an in-built tap) is WONDERFUL STUFF for indoor and outdoor plants.
- Feed them at least once a week but don’t overdo it – leave some space for them to move around on the surface
- While they are not so fussy about what they eat, don’t feed them onions, citrus or a few other things – see the full list here
If you go for any other indoor bin solution above, realize that they all need a little maintenance – they need to be cleared regularly and monitored to ensure they do their job well! We found it took a little bit of habit building but now is just part of the routine.
The best thing about composting is the cyclical nature of it. Use the compost you produce to create an epic balcony garden, or fertilize your houseplants with worm casting tea. Our Fiddleleaf Fig is LOVING worm tea! And if a green thumb is something you lack, give your composting yields to friends with plants, or even a local community garden.
Living small shouldn’t hold you back from living sustainably. As it turns out, small housing footprints can mean equally small carbon footprints. We personally love our apartment bokashi bins and our vermi-composter; it’s easy to maintain and the worms have become like little wiggly members of the family – it’s particularly exciting when they have babies… but that’s another story :). In short, everyone has a different method to match their lifestyle. We encourage you to look deeper into composting in your community and devise a personalized way to responsibly deal with your organic waste.