How to Compost in Your Apartment
Getting rid of your food scraps can be easy and odor-free with the right products
By Perry Santanachote
Perhaps you’ve relearned how to recycle, you’re working on quitting plastic, and you’ve embraced ways of going green at home. But have you considered composting?
Composting breaks down fruits and vegetables into a nutrient-rich fertilizer so that fewer food scraps are sent to landfills, where they contribute to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. But it’s not a free pass to waste food.
Research has found that people waste more food when they know it will be composted. “It’s a false sense of security in thinking we can waste food because we’re composting it,” says Shelie Miller, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability in Ann Arbor. “Reducing your overall edible food waste is much more important, because composting doesn’t eliminate the much bigger upstream environmental impacts associated with growing food.” (Most food-related greenhouse gas emissions come from production and processing.)
But when it comes to the inedible parts of the food you do eat, composting rocks! And it’s pretty easy to get started. You already have the raw materials—food scraps and paper waste. All you need is a product to help make composting convenient and even fun.
If you’re like me—an urban apartment dweller with zero outdoor space to speak of—indoor composting might seem daunting, disgusting, and near impossible. But there are a variety of methods for getting rid of your food waste responsibly that range from relatively low lift to highly involved. The trick is to choose the method that fits your lifestyle.
“There are factors to consider before starting that will help guide you toward which method to use,” says Luis Chen, founder of Wormies Vermicompost, a food scrap pickup and worm composting company in Grand Rapids, Mich.
What to Consider Before Buying an Indoor Composter
Size and capacity: The footprint of the unit is one consideration. It should suit your apartment space, but it also needs to accommodate the amount of food waste your household produces. I live with two other omnivores in a 1,300-square-foot apartment. We rarely dine out or order in, and prepare most meals at home, producing about 3 gallons of food waste per week (not including bones), which is more than some units can handle.
Food mix: The types of foods each system can and can’t process is an important factor in choosing the right one for you. Some can process meat, bones, dairy, and oils, while others can only process fruits, vegetables, eggshells, and fiber-based waste, such as coffee filters and paper. And worms are a little picky; they don’t like citrus or too many alliums, and require paper waste with their food.
Convenience: Your time and energy is required for each of these methods, and some demand more than others. Having a bin of worms is like having a pet; they need your attention on a regular basis and can die if the temperature rises above 95˚F, and various situations may require troubleshooting. Collecting food scraps for drop-off or pickup also requires some lugging and a schedule to adhere to.
Ick factor: Composting can get slimy and smelly. Some methods smell more than others, and some require you to actually get your hands dirty.
Compost quality: After all that work, what are we getting in the end? Is it high-quality compost for plants? Vermicompost (made by worms) can take three to six months before it’s ready to harvest. Or is it a mixture that requires more processing outside the home? Bokashi needs to ferment for two weeks before it’s buried to finish breaking down. Or is it a product that will be easier on the landfill once you throw it in the trash? The FoodCycler takes up to 8 hours to process scraps and the Lomi can take up to 20 hours.
Bionicraft Biovessel Composter
Price paid: $199
Where to buy: Amazon, Bionicraft
If Frank Gehry designed a worm house, it would probably look a lot like the Bionicraft Biovessel, a postmodern container with curves as organic as its contents. There’s even a loft inside—an elevated shelf where you harvest compost after the worms have done their duty—and a lower level where your food scraps and worms go.
What It Comes With
Size: The bin measures 18x9x6 inches (width by depth by height), and the manufacturer recommends starting with 1 pound of red wigglers (about 1,000 worms, which cost $56 from a worm farm). The small, compact container can hold about 2 gallons of compost and soil, and it easily fits on a countertop or shelf. The maximum amount of food waste per ba
tch is 1 cup, no more than three to four times a week (depending on the rate your worms break down food). This might be enough for one person or a couple that doesn’t cook much, but it can’t handle much more than that, especially for a family that cooks often.
Food mix: Worm feed needs to be around 50 percent food scraps and 50 percent fiber, such as leaves, coffee filters, and paper. The worms gobble up most fruits and vegetables, except citrus, onions, garlic, and other alliums, and also dine on plain bread, pasta, and rice. Meat and bones, dairy products, seasoned foods, and oil are no-no’s.
Convenience: This kit comes with more accessories than most, which could be encouraging for vermicompost beginners. A soil meter helps new users maintain the proper moisture, light, and pH levels for worms to thrive. (Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to assess the condition of your bin just by looking at it.) The hole where you add food waste is tight and forces it to be concentrated in one area. The worms broke down the waste more efficiently when food was spread out throughout the lower level, but this requires taking off the entire cork lid. The lid can also shrink, expand, or warp when the room temperature and humidity fluctuate, leaving gaps along the edges for worms to escape or bugs to enter, or making the lid difficult to remove.
Ick factor: There’s no spigot to remove excess liquid, although Chen says proper compost shouldn’t leach much liquid (a sign that you’re overfeeding the worms). If you accidentally overfeed them, the bin contents could get too wet, and there’s no way to drain out the excess liquid. The bin was mostly odorless, but fruit flies were a problem at times. The instructions don’t indicate any need for covering up the food scraps with bedding (moist newspaper), but not doing so resulted in fruit flies.
Compost quality: Anytime you’re using worms you’re going to get high-quality compost with the highest amount of beneficial microorganisms in it, according to Chen. Because the composter is small, you can pull out handfuls at a time from the loft inside the bin and add it to the topsoil of your houseplants once a month or so.
Vitamix FoodCycler FC-50
Price paid: $400
Where to buy: Amazon, Best Buy, Macy’s, Sur La Table, Target, Vitamix
The Vitamix FoodCycler is an electronic countertop appliance that takes 3 to 8 hours (mine took about 5) to quietly dry, grind, and cool food scraps back down to room temperature before you can throw them away in the trash or turn them into a nutrient-rich soil additive (not technically compost) by adding probiotics via “foodilizer tablets” that are sold separately. “The stuff that comes out of the FoodCycler will degrade faster in landfills than fresh food and could be more palatable for consumers to have around than a rotting food bucket,” Miller says. “It might help encourage participation in composting to have dried food rather than stuff that attracts flies.”
What It Comes With
10.5-cup bucket with lid
Size: The appliance measures 11×12.6×14.2 inches (width by depth by height) and sits on a countertop with less than 4 inches of clearance underneath most upper cabinets. The bucket can hold about 8 cups of finely chopped food, less if the food is more chunky.
Food mix: It can process meat, chicken and fish bones, cheese, grains, cooked foods, and products labeled “compostable,” such as bags and utensils. But—and this is a big but—any mixture that contains these ingredients can’t be used as compost or a soil additive. The FoodCycler also requires a diverse mix of foods in each batch. When I processed a mix of about two-thirds fruit (mostly apples) and one-third vegetables, it turned into a sticky paste and gummed up the machine. The manual says not to process high concentrations of high-sugar fruits, but what is considered a “high concentration”? A Vitamix rep told me to never put in more than 50 percent high-sugar fruits and to squeeze out excess liquid from oranges or grapefruits first. It helps to balance the load out with coffee grounds, eggshells, chicken bones, and vegetables.
Convenience: Even if you have no desire or need for compost, the FoodCycler helps reduce the volume of your food waste and prevent odors. “It’s a well-intentioned product for people who are trying to reduce their environmental footprint, but it’s hard for me to imagine it’s going to significantly improve the environmental footprint of any household, especially if it’s still going into the trash,” Miller says.
Ick factor: The bucket isn’t large enough to hold food scraps for a long enough period of time that it would get smelly. And the finished product is dry, like potpourri, but odorless. The only kind of gross part is cleaning the bucket. There are many nooks and seams for fibers to get caught in, and sometimes the food turns into a sticky paste instead of drying out completely.
Compost quality: The end product is devoid of probiotics, which is why Vitamix sells foodilizer tablets that you can add to the dried food to enhance it with microbes so it can better enrich soil. Even if you use this, you probably can’t use all of the end product as a soil additive. Just like with regular fertilizers, too much can harm plants and grow mold. The Vitamix rep says to wait at least four to six weeks between adding soil amendment to give it time to fully break down. The rest of the time, you don’t need to add t
ablets to your processed waste. If you’re dropping off the dried stuff at a composting facility, do not include meat, bones, dairy, fat, oil, or greasy food scraps in the mix. You can process all these foods if you’re just going to throw it in the trash.
Simplehuman Compost Caddy
Price paid: $50
Where to buy: Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Target, Simplehuman
The gallon-size Simplehuman Compost Caddy is designed to magnetically attach to Simplehuman trash cans, so you don’t need to give up counter space. It also fits in the door of a refrigerator. You’ll need a designated drop-off location, like a farmers market, if your municipality doesn’t offer pickup service. Or you can take your food scraps to a community garden that composts.
What It Comes With
Stainless steel bin with a plastic liner bin and plastic flip lid
Magnetic dock that hangs on the side of a trash can
30-pack of custom-fit compostable liners
Size: The bin measures 9.6×5.7×8.5 inches (width by depth by height) and fits about 1 gallon of food scraps, about a third of our weekly food waste. When full, we needed to transfer the contents to our already cramped fridge or freezer. Our city doesn’t offer compost pickup and has suspended drop-off services during the pandemic, so we only have a 4-hour window once a week when we can drop off the scraps at a farmers market.
Food mix: This includes anything that your community compost service accepts, usually fruits, vegetables, coffee grinds, eggshells, paper, leaves, and tea bags. Ironically, they don’t accept the green compostable bin liners that the Compost Caddy comes with (or any “compostable” products for that matter). My local community garden doesn’t accept them, and municipal facilities also require you to remove the food from the bags and throw the bags away in the trash.
Convenience: It’s nice that the bin magnetically snaps to the side of the trash can and I can grab it to place on the counter during food prep. However, there’s no carrying handle, which makes it awkward to move around. The bag liners held up fine when the weather was cooler, but once it got warmer, the liners didn’t hold up through the week and started to disintegrate before the bin was full. I needed to transfer the food scraps to a plastic bag in order to haul it to the compost collector. There were a few instances when I missed the drop-off time and needed to travel miles in search of another place to take my food waste, which probably offset any good my composting was doing.
Ick factor: The smooth interior plastic bin and removable flip-top lid make the bin easy to clean. Odors are kept under control, thanks to the tight-fitting lid, but I did begin to find mold and bugs when the weather got warmer. At that point, I moved the bin to the fridge and it fit nicely in the door.
Compost quality: Food scraps dropped off at local farmers markets or municipal collection facilities get broken down into high-quality compost and distributed to local farms and gardens that use it to grow more food. The caddy itself makes compost, but it helps people contribute to this circular process, which I found satisfying to witness.
Hot Frog Living Classic Composter
Price paid: $150
Where to buy: Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm
The Hot Frog Living Classic Composter is a large vermicompost bin that stands on the floor and uses a stacking tray system to expand your compost and worm collection as it grows. You can purchase additional trays, too.
Photo: Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm
What It Comes With
Plastic worm bin with wood legs
1 brick of coconut coir to use as a starter bedding
1 small bag of shredded paper to use as a starter bedding
Size: The entire system measures 15x15x22 inches (width by depth by height) and comes with two 3-gallon trays. It’s about the size of an end table. The manufacturer recommends starting with 1 pound of worms (about 1,000 worms), which can eat up to about 12 cups of scraps once a week. The trays are supposed to allow worms to migrate from one full tray to an empty tray, but I wasn’t able to get the worms to migrate up into the next tray despite trying three times.
Food mix: Worm feed needs to be around 50 percent food scraps and 50 percent fiber, such as leaves, coffee filters, and paper. Worms love fruits and vegetables, except citrus, onions, garlic, and other alliums, and can’t handle meat/bones, dairy products, seasoned foods, and oil. But they’ll eat plain bread, pasta, and grains. It turns out the paper was the most inconvenient aspect for me. I had to troll the recycling bin in my apartment buildi
ng’s basement for newspapers and broke two manual paper shredders because I was constantly shredding newspapers for my dang worms!
Convenience: The bin has a reservoir at the bottom that catches excess liquid, also known as “worm tea,” that leaches from the food and compost. There’s a spigot to remove that liquid. It was delivered in the open position, however, so I started this adventure by cleaning up a puddle of stinky food-rot juice off my floor. The bin itself is also difficult to clean because of the many nooks and holes in the trays and lid.
Ick factor: Worm tea is already pretty gross, but worms would sometimes crawl down into the reservoir and clog up the spigot, which I had to carefully clear out with a gloved hand and a chopstick.
Compost quality: It usually takes about three to six months to accumulate finished compost, which resembles dark, crumbly soil. Vermicompost is an excellent source of nutrients for your potted plants, but this composter produces more compost than I can use for my own houseplants, so I added it to the soil around the street trees on my block.
SCD Probiotics All Seasons Bokashi Indoor Composter
Price paid: $57
Where to buy: Amazon, SCD Probiotics
The SCD Probiotics All Seasons Bokashi Indoor Composter uses fermentation to break down food scraps that then need to be buried or dropped off at a composting center. You spread your food scraps in the bucket up to 3 inches high at a time and sprinkle a layer of bokashi (microorganism-saturated rice or wheat bran) on top. Then you cover the layers with a sheet of plastic, like a plastic grocery bag, and press down to remove air. Put the lid on tight and repeat these steps until the bucket is full, then let it ferment for two weeks. Once fermented, the mixture needs to be buried in soil to finish breaking down. “I also love bokashi for apartments,” Chen says. “But if you’re concerned about the gross factor, we’re talking about decomposing food waste here, and it can look a little messy when you open that lid.”
Photo: SCD Probiotics
What It Comes With
Lidded bucket with spigot and carrying handle
1-gallon bokashi, enough to ferment 2 buckets of food scraps. (Bokashi is also sold separately when you need to re-up your stash.)
Size: The bin measures 12x12x18 inches (width by depth by height) and can hold 5 gallons of food waste. It’s large enough to collect food scraps for about two weeks, thus reducing trips to the compost drop-off. It’s also easier to transport than loose bags of leaky week-old food scraps.
Food mix: You can toss all of your food waste in here, including meat, bones, dairy, grains, cooked foods, and oily foods. However, if you’re taking the finished product to a community composter, it might not accept bokashi with those ingredients in it, so check first.
Convenience: The bucket is easy to clean, but bokashi can clog up the spigot. I also needed to stockpile food scraps before having enough to layer in the bokashi bin (about 3 inches of food per layer). So I used the Simplehuman Compost Caddy to collect waste on a daily basis and layered it with bokashi about once every five days.
Ick factor: I’m not gonna lie—this stuff looks funky, especially when white stuff begins coating the food. But it doesn’t smell bad, just pickled. One big plus is that pests are not at all interested in fermented food waste.
Compost quality: The end result is a fermented matter, not compost, so you still need to transfer it to a traditional compost pile or bury it in soil to fully finish breaking it down. If you’re going to bury it, the mixture needs to sit undisturbed in the bin to further ferment for a couple of weeks before, which means you need another bin to collect your food scraps in the meantime. Composting companies love it when you bring them bokashi because you’re also bringing them lots of beneficial bacteria that will help break down everything else in their pile.
Urban Worm Bag Version 2
Price paid: $130
Where to buy: Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm
Chen’s favorite indoor composter is the Urban Worm Bag. “A zipper makes it completely enclosed to prevent fruit flies and stray worms,” he says. “It’s more convenient and cleaner than other systems I’ve used.” The funnel-shaped, canvaslike bag is coated on the inside with polyurethane for moisture resistance, and hangs from a frame that you put together using iron pipes and plastic three-way connectors.
Photo: Urban Worm Company
What It Comes With
Size: Including the frame, the system measures 27x27x32 inches (depth by width by height). This was the largest bin I tried out, and I would consider it prohibitively large for most apartments. It’s also an eyesore (or a conversation starter if you want to think positively), which would be fine in a basement, but it was rough having it eat up three-quarters of my hallway. If you have the space for it, the worm bag is the only composter I looked at that can process a large amount of food waste with a whopping 6 pounds of worms. When I transferred my 1 to 2 pounds of worms to the bag, it suddenly became a breeding ground thanks to the extra space, and I saw lots of baby worms in the compost just a couple of weeks later. At max worm capacity, this bin can handle about 6 pounds of food waste every three days.
Food mix: Same as the other worm composters, around 50 percent food scraps and 50 percent fiber, such as leaves, coffee filters, and paper. Feed the worms plain grains, fruits, and vegetables, except citrus, onions,
garlic, and other alliums. Avoid meat/bones, dairy products, seasoned foods, and oil.
Convenience: The zipper top prevents fruit flies and other critters. Plus, I didn’t need to shred and dampen newspaper to pile on top of the food. The manual says to just place a sheet of newspaper on top to help retain moisture and boost microbe colonization. Harvesting the compost didn’t require much sifting or screening to remove worms because the funnel shape of the bag helps separate the worms from the finished compost. But the process can still be a literal pain if you have a bad back or knees. It requires you to get down low—either on your knees or in a deep squat. No matter which position you’re in, you’ll be hunched over and have a giant bag of compost right next to your face. I accidentally brushed my cheek against it and might have reacted a bit melodramatically. You have to undo the drawstring at the bottom of the funnel and kind of caress the compost out, like milking a giant udder, into the collection tray that clips onto the bottom.
Ick factor: The bag produced much less worm tea than the other worm bins I looked at, possibly because the bag fabric is designed to be breathable. The contents generally seemed cooler and drier than in other bins. There is no spigot, so you have to be careful to not overfeed the worms or create a too-moist environment. The bottom is held shut only with a drawstring cord that leaves a small hole in the center, so liquid will leak out. Even when my compost was fairly dry, there was liquid creeping out the bottom, so I had to place a bowl underneath it. I noticed some seep through the fabric, too, which left a stain.
Compost quality: The compost—ready after about six months—was drier and fluffier than the other bins, making it easier to handle. It’s a lot of compost, though, way more than my houseplants and even the tree wells outside my apartment can handle. I found a community garden to take it.
Price paid: $499
Where to buy: Pela
Pela’s Lomi is an electronic countertop appliance that takes 3 to 20 hours to dry, grind, and cool food scraps back down to room temperature before you can throw them away in the trash or turn them into a nutrient-rich soil additive (not technically compost) by using the low-heat “grow mode” and adding probiotics via LomiPods, 45 of which come with the appliance. Similar to the Vitamix FoodCycler above, the stuff that comes out of the Lomi can be tossed into the trash (it’ll degrade faster in landfills than fresh food), added to a conventional compost pile (depending on what you put in it), or added to your houseplants or garden soil at a ratio of one part Lomi compost starter to 10 parts soil. Lomi also claims to process some bioplastics, such as compostable bags and utensils.
What It Comes With
Size: The appliance measures 16x13x12 inches (width by depth by height) and sits on a countertop. The bucket can hold about 10 cups of finely chopped food, less if the food is more chunky.
Food mix: It can process meat, fish bones, cheese, grains, cooked foods, and products labeled “compostable,” such as bags and utensils. But like the Vitamix FoodCycler, any mixture that contains these ingredients shouldn’t be added to compost or used as a soil additive. The Lomi suggests a diverse mix of foods in each batch for the best results. Too much sugary fruit or starchy food can gum up the machine. It helps to balance the load out with coffee grounds, eggshells, and vegetables.
Convenience: Even if you have no use for compost, the Lomi can help reduce the volume of your food waste and prevent odors in your trash can. However, the Vitamix FoodCycler is more convenient to use and costs $100 less. The Lomi is less convenient for a number of reasons.
Setup: I had to fill up two chambers in the appliance with activated charcoal pellets. The manual said each bag had an appropriate amount for each chamber, which were different sizes. But the two bags had the exact same amount and both had an excess amount of pellets for the chambers. Expecting the pellets to perfectly fill the chamber, I poured, and before I could pull back, pellets had overfilled the chamber and spilled all over the Lomi, my marble table, and the floor, staining everything they touched. I was able to scrub out the black markings from my table and floor, but the Lomi remained marred with black etchings. The manual says this process should be repeated with fresh pellets every three to six months.
Cleaning: The lid wasn’t difficult to clean, per se, but water got into the cavity of the lid since it’s just two panels screwed together with seams all along the sides that allow water to seep in. Even when avoiding a lot of high-sugar content in the food mix, food got stuck under the mixing blades, which sit so low and close to the bottom that I couldn’t wedge anything under to scrape out the stuck food—not even card stock. It’s still there, stinking away.
Time: The Lomi has three modes. The eco-express mode processes food in 3 to 5 hours but produces a low-quality product that you should throw away or combine with a traditional compost pile. If reducing the volume of your food waste is the end game, this mode works great. Grow mode takes 20 hours and processes food at a low heat to preserve microorganisms in the mix so you can add the nutrients to your soil. The end product I got looked like some dirt with chunks of food in it. An entire day and it wasn’t able to fully break down the food—even with the added probiotic tablet. A troubleshooting tip on the manufacturer’s website suggests processing the mix up to three times for the best result. That helped to further break down the onion, lemon, and avocado peels, but some chunks were still visible. Finally, the Lomi-approved mode takes 5 to 8 hours to process compostable bags, utensils, and a handful of other bioplastics that are labeled “Lomi approved” on the manufacturer’s website. The bag that the Lomi came packaged in said to add it to my food waste at a ratio of 1:9 and it’ll process the bag on this setting. It did not do anything to the bag except mangle it around the mixer and get it good and dirty. Customer support later told me via email to cut up the bioplastics into pieces (a detail missing from the manual).
Noise: It’s not gratingly loud, but while processing, it sounds like an old dishwasher.
Ick factor: The bucket isn’t large enough to hold food scraps for a long enough period of time that it would get smelly. But the finished product has a funky sour smell, which also clings to the lid and bucket even after cleaning them. The bucket has
a slick nonstick coating, which makes it easy to clean the surface, but fibers get caught in the blade and it’s near impossible to get underneath it.
Compost quality: The end product in eco-express and Lomi-approved modes are devoid of probiotics, but grow mode is supposed to maintain microbes. Lomi provides probiotic tablets that you can add to the food mix to enhance it with microbes so it can better enrich the soil. Even if you use this, you probably can’t use all of the end product as a soil additive. Just like with regular fertilizers, too much can harm plants and grow mold.
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