Urban composting (on the cheap!)

Starting my own compost heap has been on my minification to-do list for a long time! After all, composting helps keep food waste out of landfills and out of the water table, preventing everything from excess greenhouse gas production to dead zones in water bodies (created when the bacteria which feed on food waste multiply because we put food down our garbage disposals). Compost is also good for the garden, providing a sustainable, organic alternative to commercial fertilizers.

It took us a while to get started because we live in a townhouse with no yard, which meant we couldn’t do trench composting, the system with which I was most comfortable and familiar. We needed a system that didn’t smell, didn’t take up much space, and wouldn’t attract too many critters. And since we’re still on a graduate student budget, we needed it to be free. Enter the 75 gallon trash bin. (Note: this experiment continued for several years. I highly recommend going with a smaller barrel. Half this size at MOST. It’s more manageable, easier to turn, and you can reach the bottom of it to scoop or stir the compost much more easily!)

The trash bin fits neatly in the outdoor, fenced in storage area in front of our townhouse. Having now tested it out for over a month, I feel comfortable saying that anyone in an urban setting with a deck or outdoor enclosure, or rooftop access, could use the same system. My husband drilled holes in the bottom, sides and lid of the 75 gallon bin to allow for air flow. Every now and then we give it a good shake to aid the composting process. Every day I dump a bowl full of our eggshells, coffee grounds and produce trimmings into the bin. Since we’re vegetarian, we’re able to compost almost all of our food waste (composting meat is a more complicated process, better explained by someone who has actually tried it).

We’re still not a zero-waste kitchen, because we purchase some products that come in non-recyclable, non-compostable packaging, but at least we’re on our way! I’ve also started growing herbs, vegetables and a few fruits on our back deck in large containers – so far I’ve only harvested the basil, but I’m looking forward to a summer of fresh and ultra-local peppers, tomatoes and swiss chard! With very limited square footage but ample sunlight, I think we’ll be able to grow at least a few full meals’ worth of produce. Homesteading it ain’t, but it still feels good.

We’re using a bin we already owned (we used it as a trashcan – we gave it a really good scrubbing before converting it to a compost bin), but I think that when it fills up, we’ll get a second one – that way we can give the full container some time to break down and turn into compost in time for next spring’s container garden!

Here’s the step by step on how to set up your own trash can compost bin:

  • Drill holes in sides, bottom and top of bin. We drilled relatively small holes, close together. If you’re drilling larger holes, you’ll want to screen them in to keep your compost in and small furry critters out. (use a really sturdy bin, y’all. And again, I recommend going much smaller with your own compost bin. This thing was a beast!)
  • Place the bin on a milk crate, bricks, or whatever’s handy, to elevate it and promote air flow (like this):

  • Line bottom of bin with sticks and dirt, several inches deep.
  • Begin adding food waste. After each layer of food waste (“greens”), add a layer of “brown” material (I use leaves and toilet paper and paper towel rolls – coffee grounds also count as “browns”, which is helpful, because we generate quite a few of those in our household!)

  • Make sure the compost heap stays moist, and give it a regular shake/stir  to aid the process. You can use a long-handled shovel for the stirring. Aeration is important – without it, your compost will never decompose! We just (carefully) roll the trashcan on its side, making sure the lid stays on:

A short list of helpful composting “don’ts”:

  1. Don’t compost banana peels close to your house. Just don’t. We wound up with tiny fruit flies EVERYWHERE when I tossed a banana peel into our compost heap. Little did I know that the suckers would come from miles around, attracted by the smell of rotting banana, and that they would die all over my kitchen, for days on end. Lesson learned.
  2.  Don’t compost meat, fats such as butter, other dairy, or items cooked with these. You’ll wind up with rancid compost.
  3. This should be obvious, but don’t toss anything into your compost heap that isn’t going to break down. You can compost brown paper, for example, but that seemingly paper bag you bought your coffee beans in? Check it for a plastic lining – that’s not going to decompose! Tea bags are also sneaky – mine come with a little metal staple affixing the tag to the string – I have to remove the staple before I can compost the rest!

Our compost appears to be breaking down nicely, about 5 weeks in to the experiment.

Just as importantly, it doesn’t smell, doesn’t take up much space, and hasn’t been much trouble to maintain. I don’t know why we waited so long after moving into our townhouse (2 years!) to start our own compost heap, but I’m so glad we started! Happy composting, everybody.