How to Compost in a City
By Maggie Dewane, US Communications Manager at the Marine Stewardship Council
A friend recently asked for advice on composting in a city. I was a little embarrassed to tell her that I had no advice to give! My mom composted in our family’s backyard when I was a kid, but since moving out of the house and having only lived in apartments and cities, I assumed it couldn’t be done (easily) without a backyard. Realizing I must have assumed wrongly, I set out to investigate and here’s what I learned.
What is compost?
Compost is organic matter (mostly food scraps, leaves, twigs, etc.) that has been allowed to decompose and can then be used as nutrient-rich garden soil. The process of composting requires keeping the organic matter in an enclosed space (sometimes in a bin or a partitioned-off section of yard) and then, with proper management, supports the material so it may break down naturally, effectively becoming repurposed or reused existing, albeit discarded, material. There are many resources to teach you how to compost.
Why is it good?
Americans produce an average of 5 pounds of waste per day, around 30 percent of that is compostable food waste. By composting the material that would’ve otherwise been discarded, you’re keeping waste from landfills that can be reused in a positive and eco-friendly way! For example, if you’re an avid gardener, it will save money on fertilizer costs. If you live in a city, you’ll be part of growing contingency of cities that collect compost and reuse it for specific projects or outsource it to communities that want or need the soil for agriculture. Whether in your backyard or in a city, compost reduces the amount of methane gas emitting from our landfills, which is a greenhouse gas contributing to the overall warming of our planet.
How is composting normally done?
There are a variety of composting techniques from compost tumblers to vermicomposting (using worms that eat the material and break it down into soil, also requires the most effort and maintenance) to pick up services and drop off locations, which are useful for city-dwellers like myself.
A useful rule of thumb when composting is, “If it grows, it goes [into the compost pile].”
Plants (dead flowers, weeds, grass, etc.)
Eggs and eggshells
Breads and grains
Paper towels and napkins
Uncoated paper cups and plates (meaning they don’t feel waxy to the touch)
Less desirable compost items include dairy and meat products. While these items will decompose, they may invite unwanted creatures or molds into your space.
Composting in a city
First, get yourself a bin (Planet Natural has some options at the bottom of their page here) to keep your compost in – one that you can tuck into a cabinet or under your sink. If you stick to the above list of compostable items, the bin won’t smell awful, but a lid will be useful to contain any wafting as well as any unwanted pests commonly found in cities.
One neat bin option I’ve found is GreenLid (available on Amazon). The bin comes with a sleek reusable lid while the bin itself is made from recycled cardboard and can be thrown directly into a compost pile or reused if it’s relatively clean.
For city dwellers, the next step is to find out if your municipality offers a compost pick-up service.
See if your city or town picks up compost bins here.
If your city doesn’t, here are some alternative options:
Find out if your apartment complex or building has a rooftop or community garden. If so, it probably has a compost pile. If not, suggest starting one!
Sign up for Share Waste. It connects people who want to compost but can’t (because of their living situation or if they’re on vacation) with people who have compost bins.
Utilize your local farmers market. A lot of weekend farmers markets have compost tents. Take a walk through your local market to see if it has one (and buy some fresh, local produce while you’re there!).
Contact your city council and ask them to consider implementing a program that would collect compostable material from residents.
Like most efforts to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, composting takes time and research, but it has benefits that can serve you, your community, and the planet, so why not give it a try!
Here’s more information from the US Environmental Protection Agency on composting.