How to Compost in an Apartment (Without Bugs or Smells!)

published Jun 28, 2024
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head on shot of foods craps being pushed into a small pink compost bin on a kitchen counter
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Tom Hoerup

Making your own compost (or “black gold”) is a prized skill among home gardeners, who use the nutrient-rich soil additive to boost their outdoor plants as well as their indoor gardens. It might seem like something reserved for those with massive yards, but even those in small spaces can get started with their own apartment composting.

Experts say composting at home is easier than it seems. “The hardest part in getting started was just … starting,” says Sarah Robertson-Barnes, the blogger behind Sustainable in the Suburbs and a 20-year veteran of home composting. “There are so many methods and techniques that I was overwhelmed with where to begin.”

But Robertson-Barnes was able to create a routine that worked for her once she honed in on a beginner-friendly technique. “Eventually, I just decided that a low-effort method was good enough — and it is!” she says.

Like Robertson-Barnes, you might be overwhelmed about all the possible styles, techniques, and equipment that can be part of the composting process, especially when it comes to composting in apartments and other small spaces. Here’s a guide that breaks things down (pun intended) for total beginners, whether you have only a little outdoor space or none at all.

What is composting?

Composting is the process of turning food scraps, yard waste, and other materials into the ultimate soil booster. There are two main ways this matter is broken down: by microorganisms or by worms. (Yes, worms!) You can do both at home, but for apartment composting, you can skip the worms.

To compost, you’ll need a composting container that you keep either in your home or outside. This can be an initial turn-off for some beginners, says Jen Panaro, who blogs about eco-friendly living at Honestly Modern and started her own local composting service called WasteWell.

“Lots of people seem to think that it’s gross to collect their food scraps in a bucket under their sink,” Panaro says. “But most people already keep their food scraps in their trash can, which lives under their sink or in their kitchen. They forget that separating food scraps and disposing of them through a different waste stream isn’t all that different from what they do now.”

What types of composting can you do at home?

Home composters fall into two camps: Those who go through the entire process of turning their scraps into fertilizer, and those who collect their food scraps to deposit at a community drop-off where someone else takes care of the composting.

If you have a yard, patio, or balcony where you garden, the full composting process will be well worth it for you. This homemade soil enrichment will keep plants healthy by helping with soil drainage and aeration and preventing disease, among other benefits. And you don’t have to keep your compost usage outside, either. Kathryn Kellogg, eco-minded author and blogger at Going Zero Waste, says she’s used her own compost for her houseplants as well as her patio garden.

If you don’t have any outdoor space or indoor plants, composting is still something you can do! You have a couple of options: First, you can keep a bin that turns your food waste and other material into compost, which you can list for free on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. “I promise it will be immediately snapped up,” Kellogg says.

But if that seems like too much trouble, the lowest-lift lane is still open to you: collecting food scraps to drop off with a local composting service. You might have a local one, like Panaro’s WasteWell, which will do home pickup. You can also scout out community drop-off locations for food scraps, which are often offered at farmers markets.

“If it’s accessible, I highly recommend using a service to get started,” Panaro says. “It’s so easy, and it’s a great way to get used to separating food scraps and learning what you can compost before having to manage a compost pile yourself. If you use a compost collection service, you really shouldn’t need any other resources. They will provide instructions about what they collect and how to use their service.”

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Tom Hoerup

How do I start composting at home?

If you’re dropping your collection off with a composting service, getting started is as easy as gathering any food scraps into a container.

“If you are storing food scraps on your counter, which is what I do at home, I highly recommend a countertop bin with a charcoal filter inside the lid,” Panaro says. “It really helps eliminate any issues with fruit flies, especially in warm weather.”

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Tom Hoerup

Keeping your compost scraps out on the counter isn’t your only option, though. A smart way to collect food scraps without creating a smell (or attracting pests) is to store them in the freezer. You can use either a freezer compost container, or keep it simple with a plain old grocery bag.

Store the scraps in the freezer until you’re ready to transport, and you’ll have no smell and no mess.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Tom Hoerup

Here’s what you can add to your compost bin, whether you’re storing it on the countertop or in the freezer:

  • Fruit peels
  • Veggie scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea leaves (but toss the bags)
  • Fresh flowers and leaves (like from bouquets)

All of these items are classified as “green matter” in compost-speak. 

Depending on the rules of your composting service, you might also be able to add “brown matter” from your kitchen, including:

  • Eggshells
  • Nut shells
  • Corn cobs
  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • newspaper

Don’t include any meat or dairy products (and of course, make sure to follow the guidelines of whatever local composting service you’ll be using).

Once your container or bag is full, drop it off at a local composting collection spot so it can be processed at a large-scale composting facility.

Another option for turning food scraps into plant food is an electric food recycler, such as the Vitamix Foodcycler. This breaks down fruit and vegetable matter and dehydrates it until it’s a nutritious soil additive for plants. While it’s not technically compost (since there’s no brown matter), it is still a great way to put food scraps to work.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Tom Hoerup

How do I make my own compost?

If you want to create your own compost start to finish, you’ll need a little bit more equipment and space.

For composting in a tight space, like a patio or balcony, look for a compost tumbler like this one that will let you turn the whole container — kind of like a bingo cage — so that you don’t ever have to go in and turn the pile manually.

“Stand-up bins are easy, but I would say a tumble bin is going to be the easiest, especially if you have little-to-no balcony space,” Kellogg says. “And if you live in a colder climate, you can keep it moving a lot easier than if it was just a standalone bin.”

The one downside is that you’ll have to wait for the entire container to compost before you can use any of the material, since there’s no way to separate the finished compost from the still-baking scraps. But regardless of what container you use, you’ll need to make sure that there is proper aeration to allow the microbes to do their job in breaking down the material.

In your bin, you’ll need a 50/50 mix of green matter and brown matter. In addition to the kitchen items above, green matter can include garden trimmings and grass clippings.

Brown matter can include:

  • fall leaves (must be dry)
  • small twigs
  • straw
  • wood shavings or sawdust from untreated wood

Note that there are some materials you should definitely not add to your compost, including:

  • poison ivy
  • diseased plants
  • plants treated with pesticide
  • invasive weeds
  • sawdust and shavings from chemical-treated wood
  • meat or fish scraps
  • dairy products
  • fats, grease, and oil
  • colored or glossy paper
  • kitty litter or cat or dog feces

Another to add to that list: non-cardboard packaging materials that say they’re compostable.

“Be very careful with “compostable” packaging. These items typically require an industrial composting facility and may not be accepted by your local municipal program,” Robertson-Barnes says. “Unless it is clearly marked as ‘home compostable,’ it will likely not break down in your pile, even after many years. I’ve tried!”

Once you have your material, add it in a 50/50 ratio to your container. Alternate the green and brown layers for best results. You might need to add a little water to the mixture, which should be damp but not dripping — often compared to a wrung-out sponge. Monitor the moisture over time and add more as needed, so that the pile doesn’t dry out. If you find it’s too wet, you can add more brown matter.

“I generally approach it with a lot of trial and error, and live by the mantra to ‘Take a Peak, Take A Whiff, and Dig In’ to figure out what the compost pile needs,” Panaro says. “I add more greens when the pile looks too dry, and more browns when the contents get too wet or start to smell trashy. You can fix almost any compost pile even if it’s gone astray.”

Healthy, well-balanced compost piles smell a little sweet and earthy, and not at all like rotting garbage. (Meat and dairy products contribute to stink, so that’s why they’re on the do-not-add list.)

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

What do you do with the compost when it’s done?

You can mix compost straight into the soil of your garden beds, patio planters, or indoor potted plants. In general, try for 1 to 2 inches of compost in the top 3 to 5 inches of soil. Make sure the compost is fully broken down before using it, since scraps of food can attract bugs and other critters.

Where can I find more info?

Resources on composting abound. Here are some of our experts’ favorite picks, plus some extras: