How to Choose the Right Composting System for You

food scraps in open compost pile

If you don’t have a yard

If you live in an apartment or don’t have a yard, composting can seem next to impossible. But it’s actually much easier than you’d think. Thanks to in-vessel composting systems, you can recycle your organic waste even when space is at a premium. From kitchen composting to worm bins on the balcony, here’s how to choose the in-vessel composting system that suits your lifestyle best.

In-vessel composting with Bokashi

Best suited for: Yardless homes and apartments with limited space.

bokashi composting

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

How it works

Rather than using worms or a combination of nitrogen- and carbon-rich materials to decompose food scraps, Bokashi composting systems use bran inoculated with anaerobic bacteria, which don’t require oxygen, to ferment the waste.

Designed by a Japanese horticulturalist, the process essentially pickles organic material, which has two significant benefits: The fermenting waste releases no noticeable odor and actually repels flies, rats and other pests, meaning you can use a Bokashi system indoors or outside on your porch or balcony.

Another challenge that inevitably faces the yardless composter is what to do with the leftover compost. If your city doesn’t offer curbside pickup for organic waste, start by asking your neighbors, along with local rec centers, churches and school and community gardens, if they could use any extra compost for landscaping and gardening.

And make use of private composting services in your city. Brooklyn-based composting company Vokashi will give you a bucket and some Bokashi bran, pick up the leftovers on a monthly basis and leave you a fresh bucket in return. Recology provides similar services in San Francisco, while composters in Washington D.C. can head to Compost Cab for their pickup needs.

PROS: Most Bokashi systems, like this one from Gaiam, are small, fast and easy to use. In seven to 14 days, the nutrient-rich matter is ready to be buried in your garden. These innovative systems can also process animal products, such as meat, fish and dairy, in addition to fruit and vegetable scraps – making them ideal for non-vegetarian composters.

CONS: The end product can seem slightly unappealing. Food scraps will not be broken down but will instead develop a pickled and slightly moldy appearance. After they are fully buried in your garden, the fermented scraps should fully decompose in about two weeks.

Vermicomposting

Best suited for: Yardless homes with a balcony, basement, laundry room or large kitchen.

worms in compost

Photo: Flickr/Mely-o

How it works

Vermicomposting, also known as “worm composting” or “worm bin composting,” utilizes live worms to break down organic material. Red worms – not nightcrawlers or field worms commonly found in gardens – dine on your food scraps and produce high-quality compost called castings.

Worms can process all forms of fruit and vegetable scraps, but avoid placing animal products, such as meat, fish and dairy, into your worm bin. If working properly, a vermicompost bin will not smell. But if you notice an odor or have other problems with your worm bin, check out our guide to troubleshooting your vermicompost system.

PROS: Vermicomposting produces the highest quality compost you can make. And it’s speedy, too! One pound of mature worms (approximately 800 to 1,000 worms) can eat up to half a pound of organic material per day. It typically takes three to four months for worms to produce harvestable castings, which can be used as potting soil. Vermicomposting also produces “worm tea,” a high-quality liquid fertilizer for house plants or gardens.

CONS: Even the when the lid of your bin is closed, it’s not uncommon for a few adventurous worms to crawl out into your kitchen. Avoid this by placing your worm bin in the basement or laundry room or outside on your porch or balcony.

Keeping your worms alive can also prove to be a challenge. When vermicomposting indoors, providing enough food and bedding is usually all it takes to keep your composting buddies happy. If your bin is outside, keep it in the shade to maintain the bin’s optimal temperature – from 55 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the EPA.

All About Worm Bins: I Got Worms! Composting & You

Automated composter

Best suited for: Small urban apartments and yardless homes with limited space.

How it works

Automated composters take the guess-work out of recycling your organic waste. Some models, like this one from NatureMill, can fit comfortably under your kitchen counter for easy composting in even the smallest spaces.

For most automated composters, you simply add your waste, along with composting aids like sawdust pellets and baking soda, and let the machine do the rest. The unit will automatically mix, aerate and moisturize your food scraps for efficient composting. Most units will create fresh compost in less than three weeks.

PROS: Odors are minimal or nonexistent for most automated composting models. These units are also easy to use and process waste quickly: The NatureMill unit can produce fresh compost in only two weeks. Most automated composters can also process meat and dairy to suit all dietary preferences.

CONS: Automated systems can get pricey (the largest NatureMill unit costs $399, plus an extra $49 for the under-the-counter installation kit). As the name implies, most automated units also require energy. But the good news is, it isn’t much. The NatureMill unit requires a mere 5 kilowatt hours of energy per month to create fresh compost.

Guide to Composting: If You Have a Yard

Feature mage by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

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Mary Mazzoni

Comments

  1. I’ve been vermicomposting for a few years now. It’s so much fun. I look forward to throwing all kinds of waste in there for them to break down. The base is dried leaves and paper. I also add coffee grounds, any old produce (they love fruit), citrus peels in moderation, hair, dead leaves off my house plants, pulverized egg shells. They will handle it all. The compost yielded from the system is first rate.

    I’m a little wary of the half pound a day processing weight. I find that my worms consume far less than that. In vermicomposting, less is more. It’s better to put too little “green” stuff as it’s called than too much. If your system is in balance, it will have a nice earthy scent at all times, never of rotten food. I use an upward migration system. Currently I’m running 5 trays. I tend to put food in all of the trays. Gets a little heavy, so if you have limited movement, perhaps not the best plan.

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