How to Compost From Your Apartment (Or Anywhere!)

Compost bin

If you don’t have a garden or plants that need fertilizing, you might not think composting is worth your time and effort—especially if you live in a small apartment or an urban area. Why keep all that smelly rotting produce if you’re not going to use it (and how do you prevent it from smelling up your home?!?)? Glad you asked!

When your food scraps end up in a landfill, they are piled up in plastic bags where they will decompose in anaerobic conditions, causing them to emit methane: a potent greenhouse gas. Composting reduces or prevents the release of methane during organic matter breakdown, so every pound of compost you divert from the landfill means a bit less methane in the atmosphere to contribute to climate change. 

Every year Chicago residents throw out more than 800,000 tons of garbage, which are taken to 4 different landfills over 100 miles away from the city. Much of that garbage is organic food waste, left to produce methane gas as it ferments without oxygen. So as you can see, composting in the city makes tons of sense for the planet. But before you get too excited about emptying your fridge, make sure you eat your vegetables if they are still good! 

How do I get started and how do I prevent the rotting smell?

First, do some research and find out what kinds of composting programs exist in your area. If you’re in the City of Chicago, check out the list of options at the end of this article. Consider how much organic food waste your household produces, how often you want to take out the scraps and whether you want to drop off your compost, pay for a pick-up service or do-it-yourself for a lifetime supply of fertilizer. Get in touch with your neighbors or community garden to see if you can share the cost!

Most pick-up programs will provide you with a bin that seals tightly to keep the smell in and the pests out. However, there are plenty of small kitchen-safe bins and complete “countertop composters” available starting at $20. You’ll probably want to use compost bags to empty your bin quickly and neatly. It’s best to get a bin created specifically for composting if you want to keep it inside. Otherwise, you can keep a container for food waste in the freezer and empty it into an outdoor bin as needed. (Just be mindful of your neighbors and don’t keep it too close to the building!)

What goes in the bin?

If you decide to use a composting service, it’s important to read their guidelines. Each service has its own rules about the scraps they will and will not accept. In general, any waste from fruits, vegetables, grains, paper items like coffee filters and paper towels, yard waste, herbs and spices are acceptable. Some compost services won’t accept meat, fish, poultry, bones, pet waste and some paper products. As a rule, recyclable materials like glass and plastic should always be recycled. Most cartons with plastic coatings cannot be composted or recycled.

If you want to turn your food waste into a nutrient-rich fertilizer compost for yourself, you’ll need a more complex set-up (involving worms). Read this article for tips on building a complete DIY compost bin

Composting Services in Chicago

If you’re not so excited about fertilizer, there are several organizations in Chicago that collect scraps for compost through pick-up services and drop-off locations. 

  • Waste Not Compost provides each subscriber with a 5-gallon bucket and picks up compost weekly or biweekly for $10-12 per pickup. Each spring, members can receive back the finished compost they helped create!
  • Block Bins allows neighbors to share subscription fees with one big 35-gallon bin that gets emptied weekly. Request a bin for your block for $20 per month, and your fee will go down to $10 monthly after 3 other people subscribe to your bin. Join an existing bin for $10. 
  • Drop off compost at farmer’s markets in Chicago with The Urban Canopy or Green City Market.

Summer is about to heat up, so even if you won’t use the compost yourself, you might be eating more fresh fruits and veggies and visiting the farmer’s market more often. Enjoy the warm weather, and happy composting!