Composting in the City

For some city dwellers, composting is as easy as adding your food trimmings and other compostables to the yard waste bin.

But for the millions residing in urban areas without compostable pickup, this reduction endeavor requires a bit of additional effort.

Andrew Hoyles, the compost educator at the NYC Compost Project in Manhattan works to teach people about the many urban options available.

Started in 1993 by the NYC Department of Sanitation, the NYC Compost Project offers composting outreach and education services to NYC residents in a variety of venues including community gardens, schools and businesses.

In Manhattan, the Lower East Side Ecology Center hosts the Compost Project. Hoyles offers these tips for those who may be reluctant to start the process because they are short on time or confined by square footage.

Problem: I don’t know where to start

Getting the composting project going can be a little daunting, but there are a multitude of resources. In addition to many helpful sites on the Web, municipal initiatives like the NYC Compost Project offer classes and workshops on building and maintaining composting systems.

For those living in New York City, contact the Compost Project in your borough to find out about indoor and outdoor composting workshops. If you live outside the Big Apple, get in touch with your local municipality’s waste management department to learn more about your composting options.

If programs don’t yet exist, encourage your local city council and mayor’s office to enact waste reduction initiatives and composting programs. Also check with local community gardens to see if they will acceptable your compostables.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center has free compost collection at the Union Square Greenmarket, and they also have a drop-off at the center’s community garden.

Problem: I have no space in my home

When your apartment is a kitchen, bedroom, and living room all in one, it’s often hard to consider ceding space to anything other than a bookshelf or larger bed.

If you are among the millions feeling pressed for square footage, Hoyles recommends an indoor worm bin, which takes up very little space and is an efficient method for composting.

Don’t worry about bringing worms into your tight quarters, either; the bin filled with your kitchen scraps keeps them contained and contented.

The Compost Project sells worm bins and worms, and they also offer workshops about how to make your own bin. According to Hoyles, “A single person using a small worm bin can produce about thirty pounds of compost in four months.”

Problem: I don’t have enough time

If you decide that it makes sense to take your compostables elsewhere, you may find that differing schedules make it necessary to store your compost until you can make the drop.

“You can store your food scraps in a container and compost materials later. There are several options for compost pails, and you can store these in the freezer or fridge to keep them from starting to smell. Once they fill, take them to your compost site,” says Hoyles.

He also recommends checking with your local community garden to see exactly what it will accept and whether or not your need to be a member of the garden to donate your compost. Those living in New York City can check the NYC Wasteless website to get more information about composting drop-off locations and hours.

Problem: I don’t cook enough to compost

Another common side effect of limited space is a small kitchen and lots of meals eaten out. Even if the contents of your fridge consist of beer, three kinds of mustard, and a bevy of to-go containers, chances are that you still produce compostable waste.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center will accept the following for their community garden compost, and even the seasoned non-cook is likely to find some of these items in their trash:

  • Fruits and veggie peals
  • Non-greasy foods
  • Rice and other grains
  • Cereals
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Egg shells  (rinsed)
  • Nut shells
  • Flowers
  • Potting soil

Problem: Even if I composted, I have no use for the finished product

Step one: accumulate food scraps. Step two: compost. Step three: add nutrient-rich compost to the soil.

Steps one and two are easy, but for city dwellers, finding the soil might seem like the tough part. According to Hoyles, there are plenty of plants in your neighborhood that would be grateful for some compost.

“Often the trees in front of people’s apartments get mistreated with traffic and animals that use the trees as a bathroom, which leaches the nutrients from the soil. Adding your compost to a tree pit will help to support its life, or you can give your compost to a community garden or nearby park.” Hoyles also suggests adding a bit of compost to your houseplants.

Just in case you need more convincing

“The benefits of composting are numerous. Composting is the natural way that organic waste should be processed, and you will create compost for gardening, tree pits, and indoor plants,” says Hoyles. “It’s also an easy way to reduce your individual waste significantly.”

Urban composting efforts need buy-in from residents in order to flourish. Cities like San Francisco, where composting is mandatory, have been able to run successful programs thanks to the eager participation of residents.

Read more from Libuse Binder at Weekly Way and Ten Ways.

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  1. cook at home and stop using wasteful petroleum things in recycled cardboard and paper (both compostable)….living in city is already green and there aren’t too many all you can eat buffets where literally ton of food is thrown away; all over the south, it is very wasteful…if we priced water correctly and accounted for trash, such as charging for how much is thrown out, like new law in ME…this would change rapidly. If we stopped subsidizing big oil/coal/gas, driving habits would change drastically (if gas cost $10 like overseas)….

  2. Dear Libuse,

    Great article! Composting is a great idea to take kitchen scrap waste and turn it into enriched soil to be used for gardening. It’s great and it further reduces the amount of garbage being dragged out to the curb. I started doing that a while ago because it just makes good environmental sense.

    Additionally, I read that “redworms” can accelerate the decomposing of the food scraps to enrich the soil that plants love.


  3. Thanks for the article. It was a great reminder for me to finally dive into composting! I’ve signed up with a local resource provided by the gov’t for the following weekend. Finally I am getting started!

  4. interesting article,this article is very useful to people who are living in urban areas.i am interested in preparing garden compost within my house.first we have to provide some space to prepare garden compost in our house.then collecting all food scraps and prepare garden compost.composition project is very useful project in the world to improve our environment conditions and fighting again pollution.
    thanks for your giving information about how to make garden composting in our house.

  5. I am newly out of the hospital after 2 years and 8 months. The hospital is a lost cause because hey won’t listen, I told the green committee of which I am a founding member. For example the hospital only does recycling and they don’t even do that well. Forget about composting. At the new place I’m gonna take on vermicomposting.

  6. For all of you apartment dwellers who are composting indoors, be sure to cover your bin with a large sheet (like a bedsheet). This will allow airflow to still get into your bin but will keep flies from leaving the bin to breed and then returning. The most important thing (to me) about indoor composting to learn is about bug control!

  7. At the Farm market earlier this year, we bought a Bokashi Bucket. A small bucket, for indoor composting. The secret of it is yeast. You put ALL food waste in it.. including dairy/meat.. couple inches of food in, a handful of yeast on top. Fill to the top, and when it’s done leave it two weeks and we have soil conditioner.. and finished compost. it’s amazing. and it doesn’t smell at all. We’ve figured out, we have to have 2, so we can switch back and forth while one is finishing fermenting (and we got two new buckets out of someone’s recycling to start the 2nd)

    check it out as an option for apartment composting.

  8. Very nice article. I give a lot of presentations on backyard composting/worm composting and I would add a this: 1) a link that takes people to a web site/u-tube video that explains how to make a home made bin (there out there and a couple are pretty good), 2) if the person generating the worm compost doesn’t have a use for the materials, find a friend or co-worker who is a plant lover and give it to them, and 3) you will generate “worm” tea that is a great fertilizer, that also could go to a friend who is a plant lover.

    Enjoy Worm composting!

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