How to Compost Indoors, in an Apartment

I can’t compost because…

  • I live in an apartment.
  • I don’t have a backyard/garden.
  • I have a phobia of worms.
  • It will make my house stink.
  • It will attract pests.
  • It requires buying too much equipment.

Have you ever said or thought any of these things? I once believed every one of these to be true, but I’ve finally learned how very, very wrong I was. You can compost no matter where you live and no matter how gross you think worms are. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you!

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Why should I compost anyway?

First, let’s discuss why composting is important. In case you didn’t know, even organic matter doesn’t decompose in landfills. The dry, oxygen-poor conditions result in very minimal biodegradation. This is why you may have heard about decades-old banana peels or avocado pits found in landfills, perfectly preserved. Because landfills are anaerobic (lacking in oxygen), they also release methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide, and a major contributor to climate change. Landfills don’t break down trash; they store trash and cause irreparable damage to the environment in the process.

Composting, on the other hand, uses aerobic, or oxygen-rich, conditions to break down organic materials in a controlled environment. Composting returns carbon to the soil, where it belongs, and the finished product can be using to grow healthy, nutrient-dense plants that are less susceptible to pests and disease.

OK, but aren’t there different ways to compost? Which type is right for me?

If you live in an apartment, you probably don’t have the space for a traditional, outdoor compost pile. Fortunately, there are methods of composting that even renters can take advantage of. These include using a composting service, vermicomposting, bokashi, and electric composting. Each method has its own pros and cons. In the end, I chose  vermicomposting due its ease, affordability, and sustainability.

Vermicomposting uses worms, usually red wigglers, to turn kitchen scraps into nutrient-dense compost. The worms eat food waste and excrete worm castings, which is what makes up the finish compost. Vermicomposting requires moderate temperatures, adequate ventilation, and moisture. Vermicomposting is fast, affordable, and low-maintenance. In my opinion, it’s the best way to compost in an apartment, so the how-to portion of this post will explain how to set up your very own worm bin.

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Wait, so you want me to keep a box of worms inside where I sleep and eat?!

Yes! They won’t bother you, I promise! In fact, there are actually several benefits to keeping a worm bin indoors! For instance:

  1. You don’t have to worry about protecting the worms from extreme temperatures.
  2. You don’t have to go very far to dispose of your kitchen scraps.
  3. It’s easy to keep pests away from the compost.
  4. You have a ready supply of organic fertilizer for your houseplants.

You’ll also substantially reduce the amount of waste you produce and, in turn, contribute to a cleaner, healthier planet.

This sounds complicated. How do I do it?

Vermicomposting couldn’t be easier! Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A plastic storage bin with a lid. Try to repurpose an old one, rather than buying new. I scavenged mine from my parent’s basement! Since I didn’t buy mine new, I’m not sure of the exact size, but I would estimate that it’s about 18 gallons.
  • A drill. If you don’t have one, try borrowing one from a friend or neighbor.
  • Red wiggler worms. I bought 1000 red composting worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.
  • “Bedding” material for the bin. I used a mixture of shredded newspaper, potting soil, and coconut coir, also from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. You can buy coconut coir at garden centers or hardware stores too, but I found that most places sold it in quantities that were much bigger than what I needed, and Uncle Jim’s sold it in the perfect quantity for a modest-sized worm bin.

The composting worms and coconut coir were the only items I actually had to purchase for my compost bin. In total, I spent about $60: $40 for the worms, $10 for a coconut coir brick, and $10 for shipping. This isn’t too bad considering the fact that this is a one-time, upfront investment. Unlike with other composting methods, there are no special mixes, enzymes, or other items to buy every month. Unless I accidentally kill the worms, I don’t have to spend another penny to keep my compost bin going for the foreseeable future.

Once you have the materials, here’s to set up your compost bin:

  1. Begin by drilling holes in the top few inches of the storage bin. Do not drill holes in the lid, the lower part of the bin, or the bottom. I can’t tell you how many articles I read that said to drill holes in the bottom of the compost bin for drainage, but do NOT do this if you plan to keep your compost bin indoors! Some people like to be able to add water to the bin without worrying about overdoing it and drowning the worms, but I personally have never added water to my worm bin after I first set it up. I find that the food scraps have enough moisture on their own, and I don’t have to worry about the bin leaking all over the floor! I also recommend completing this step before your worms arrive so that you’re ready to go when they are!

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  1. Add “bedding” to the bin. I used a brick of coco coir. The coir brick needs to be rehydrating by gradually adding water. Then, mix the coir with shredded newspaper, cardboard, unbleached paper (like from brown paper bags), and/or dry leaves. Finally, the worms need some grit for their digestive tracts, so finish off the bin with a few cups of potting soil. Using the soil from an old plant that has died is just fine (I never have a shortage of these, unfortunately).

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  1. Next come the worms! If you order worms online, they’ll probably be dehydrated and in need of water when they arrive. Dig a small hole in the bedding and dump the worms in. When my worms first arrived, I was so scared of them that I wore gardening gloves so I wouldn’t accidentally touch them, and then I dumped them in the bin with my eyes closed so I didn’t have to watch them wriggle around! Fortunately, I eventually got used to my little friends once I learned what amazing creatures they really are. If you’re as squeamish as I was, know that you’re not alone! You can get over it, and you don’t ever have to touch the worms with your bare hands if you don’t want to!

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  1. After adding the worms, give them some water in accordance with the instructions that come with them. Then, throw their food (fruit and veggie scraps) on top of them. See the chart below for additional guidance on what to feed the worms. Finally, cover up the worms and the food with some of the bedding.

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  1. As the worms adapt to their new home, they might panic and try to escape. To prevent this, spread a damp sheet of newspaper or a damp brown paper bag on top of the bedding. You may still get a few worms that try to climb up the sides of the bin and escape, but just knock them back down into the bin and re-tuck them in under the paper (I actually used a small garden shovel to do this so I didn’t have to touch them). After a couple days, the worms should get used to their new home and stop trying to escape!

Setting up the worm bin is the most time-consuming part of vermicomposting, so if you’ve made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back!

My compost bin is all set up, now what?

 To maintain your worm bin, collect “browns” and “greens” to add to the bin. “Browns” are dry carbon-rich materials that provide energy, absorb excess moisture, and prevent the mixture from becoming too compact. Browns can include shredded newspaper, cardboard, dry leaves, and straw. “Greens” are the nitrogen-rich, wet materials, which provide nutrients and moisture. Greens include food scraps and plant or grass clippings. When it comes to vermicomposting, you have to be careful with the type of greens you add to the bin because worms can be picky eaters. Don’t compost meat, dairy products, acidic foods (like citrus), oily foods, smelly foods (like garlic and onions), or large amounts of starches and grains. Here’s a handy chart to help you keep it straight:

What-to-Compost

I collect my “greens” in a large mason jar that I keep in the refrigerator. Some people use a specialized container with a carbon filter to store their food scraps, but I don’t believe in buying things I don’t really need, and the fridge does a great job of keeping the scraps from getting smelly, moldy, or attracting bugs.

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Then about once a week, I empty my jar full of food scraps into the compost bin. I don’t have to go very far to empty the jar since I keep the worm bin in a corner of my kitchen, but it’s better to feed the worms once a week or so, rather than daily, so I still save the scraps throughout the week and add them to the bin all at once.

It’s also very important to bury the scraps in the bin to prevent them from stinking and attracting bugs. And don’t forget to add a few handfuls of “browns” every time you add “greens.” I keep a bag full of shredded newspaper, cardboard, and brown paper bags next to the compost bin for this purpose.

I’ve had my compost bin in the kitchen for about 6 months, and I have never had an issue with bad smells, bugs, or pests. As long as you maintain the right balance of browns and greens, you shouldn’t have a problem. In my experience, adding a couple handful of browns for every quart-size jar full of greens has worked just fine. To me, the compost bin smells like soil after a light rain, which I actually find quite pleasant!

After a few months of composting, you can start harvesting worm castings from your bin, which are great for growing healthy plants! To do this, just feed the worms on one side of the bin for a few weeks, and they should migrate over to that side. Then, you can harvest from the opposite side by scooping out the compost and sifting it to remove any large particles like chunks of food, cardboard, or stray worms. I use a kitchen colander with fairly large holes in it to do this–just be sure to wash it really well afterward!

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Composting is one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the environment and make the planet a better place. And it’s a lot easier than you might think! If you don’t already compost at home, there’s no better time to start!

If you’re still not quite convinced or have questions about vermicomposting, drop a line in the comments below!

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