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How To Compost In An Apartment Without Worms (Or Smells!)

Robin and I both grew up in households that composted. My mom had a huge compost bin in our back garden that was feet deep with organic matter that she would use each spring come planting season.

But I now live in a small apartment in San Francisco. We have no backyard compost piles, no balcony for a worm bin, no garden to even use the finished compost on. BUT, it turns out we can still compost! And you can, too. In this post I’ll be sharing how to compost when you live in an apartment and everything you need to know to get started. (No worms required!)

How To Compost When You Live In An Apartment (Beginner’s Guide To Urban Composting Without Worms)

woman puts food waste into white compost bin

Note: Our guide to How To Compost In An Apartment was originally published on our sister blog, Whimsy Soul and has been modified from its original version.

Why Is Urban Composting Important?

Composting in your apartment or home is a cheap, natural way to turn your food waste into nutrient-rich soil that helps plants grow stronger and healthier. Making your own compost saves waste from landfills and also reduces your carbon footprint.

Plus, it makes me feel like a better human. Composting for a year can offset the amount of CO2 a standard washing machine produces over 3 months!

So, is it possible to compost if you live in an apartment? ABSOLUTELY! Urban composting is actually really easy and doesn’t take much extra effort at all in most situations. Here’s how to start composting even when you live in a small space.

How To Start Composting In An Apartment Without Worms Or A Garden

Here’s the tea: apartment composting is easy. No worm composter needed, no permanent bin on your balcony, nothing. Urban composting is as easy as just adding a third bin to your kitchen and separating food waste a bit better.

I held off starting to compost in our apartment for years because I was convinced that I needed to *actually* compost it all myself and then have a space to us it. As much as I wish our landlord would allow us to actually use our building’s rooftop (a garden out be amazing!) it’s not happening.

I thought in order to be a composter, I had to have a large bin, maybe even worms and churn that dirt in an outdoor space. Which just isn’t practical when living in a small apartment.

But then I realized San Francisco has a fantastic composting program! And my building actually takes part in the city program so there’s been a composting bin downstairs next to the trash and recycle bins for years, we’ve just never paid any attention to it.  

Check Your City Compost Program

The first step to urban composting is to check your city’s composting program that they may already have in place. I find that most major cities ( New York, San Francisco, etc) have some sort of program just like they have a recycling program. Google it!

If you live in a building your building may already have a large compost bin from the city like ours did. If your building or home doesn’t, you can probably request a bin and pick-up service just like trash service. 

share a waste program for composting

the Share a Waste program in my city of San Francisco

Share A Waste Program

So, what do you do when there’s not a communal apartment compost bin and/or your city doesn’t have a compost service? Sadly, many smaller towns don’t partake in composting programs yet. (Though, California just passed a law in 2022 that requires compositing for people and businesses, so your city may have a new program ready!)

I do find that most major cities do have service even if they don’t advertise it, but if your city doesn’t do public composting, check out Share A Waste.

Share A Waste is kind of like Tinder, but for connecting you with neighbors who do compost and are willing to accept your compost scraps as contributions to their gardens.

Some of the listings are even for community gardens so you can feel extra good about sharing your food scraps and coffee grounds!

Best Compost Bins For Apartments & Urban Dwellings

 Ok, so once you figure out how you’re disposing of your compost, the next step is to get yourself an apartment compost bin to start collecting food waste! There are a lot of composters out there and while anything with a lid will do, there are some things to take into consideration.

We use THIS white compost bin. I found ours for about $30 from Amazon. I keep ours next to the trash bin so it’s easy to toss food waste into.

I picked this one because it’s affordable, has an easy lid to lock the compost bag in place and even has a handle so I can take the whole compost bucket downstairs to the building bin.

I also liked that it didn’t have any holes on the top (because our cat loves to dig around in trash!) We also grow veggies and herbs in our apartment and are trying to limit the amount of bugs and pests who are attracted to our house.

I really do think it’s the best compost bin for apartments but there are tons of options out there. I almost bought this one since I love the design of it. You can buy so many types of compost bins… mountable ones, tiny ones that fit on your counter, ones that go in the freezer. Some that don’t even look like compost bins.

  • You can also upcycle your composting bin out of an old coffee container or something similar. 

Really, when looking for a composter for apartments it’s important to keep in mind your lifestyle, your space and how much you actually cook. We cook a LOT over here so we have to empty our indoor composting bin usually twice a week, but it’s easy (just a run downstairs.) If you look less, than you’ll find composting in apartments is no more effort at all than your regular weekly cleaning duties.

Next, Buy Composting Trash Bags To Avoid Trash Tea

Ok,next picking good compost bags are key if you are looking for how to compost in a city apartment in a quick, easy way. We’ve found that compost quickly develops that “trash tea” aka the gross water mixture that only is found at the bottom of trash cans. A bag will help contain that so your compost bin doesn’t become a compost puddle. 

It also helps with any odor inside your apartment AND keeping your communal building compost bin smelling a bit better. Using bags also helps to deter animals and bugs. We buy compostable trash bags from Grove Collaborative, they’re under $6. 

You can choose to forgo a compost bag if you want to cut down on materials. Keep in mind, some city programs require waste to be dumped in bags in the bings, and some don’t care. Not using a bag will mean you’ll have to clean your bin out more often in order to keep it from molding or attracting bugs.

How To Compost In An Apartment Without Worms: Steps To Take To Get Started

Now onto how to actually use your bin! I absolutely was a little worried: what if I put the wrong thing in? What if it makes my apartment smell too much? Don’t worry, it’s easy.

Every city is different and has different regulations about what organic materials they will or won’t accept into a compost. It’s important to check what your city requires first.

But, most organic matter and food scraps can be composted. Everything from herb stems to leftovers to egg shells can be composted (but refrain from raw eggs.) You can even compost leaves from outside or house plants, sticks, grass cuttings, newspapers, etc. We put a LOT into our compost bin! 

This is what the City of San Francisco accepts and is probably similar to what your city will take:

  • Bread, grains and pasta
  • Coffee grounds with paper filter
  • Dairy
  • Eggshells and eggs
  • Fruit (pits & peels)
  • Leftovers and spoiled food
  • Meat (including bones)
  • Seafood (including shellfish)
  • Tea and tea bags
  • Vegetables
  • Branches and brush
  • Flowers and floral trimmings
  • Grasses and weeds
  • Leaves
  • Tree trimmings (less than 6 inches in diameter and 4 feet long)
  • Coffee filters
  • Greasy pizza boxes
  • Paper plates
  • Paper bags, napkins, tissues and towels
  • Paper take-out boxes and containers (metal handle OK)
  • Tissues
  • Cotton balls and cotton swabs
  • Hair, fur, and feathers (non-synthetic)
  • Plastic and cutlery clearly labeled “Compostable”
    (green stripe or sticker to allow for easy identification)
  • Vegetable wood crates (metal wire is okay)
  • Waxed cardboard
  • Wood – small pieces of lumber or sawdust from clean wood only (no plywood, press board, painted, stained or treated wood)
  • Wooden chop sticks
  • Corks – natural (drop in barrels at Whole Foods)

Will My Compost Bin Smell?

Nope! Obviously, if you leave it for a long time it will smell just like a normal trash bin does but as long as your take it out on a regular schedule just like your trash or recycling, it won’t smell. We find ourself emptying our compost bing about 1-2 times a week depending on how much we’ve been cooking that week. 

If smell is a big concern for you, I recommend you use a compost bin that doesn’t have any holes in the lid to help contain the smell. You can also try one of the freezer compost bins. 

Will My Compost Bin Attract Bugs?

Probably not. Again, when you use the right compost bin and compostable trash bags, your compost inside your apartment shouldn’t be attracting any more bugs that your normal trash does. So if you’re not currently having a bug problem with your trash, you won’t have issues with compost! 

I find a good bin that locks in smells and keeps out bugs and using a city program is the best way to compost in an apartment, so again, choose your bin wisely and lean on the city to integrate composting into your daily routine.

I would love to be able to go even more zero waste in the future (I dream of growing as much of my own food as possible!) but I don’t think that’s possible at the moment. So, in the meantime I urban compost since it’s a step in the right direction. One day I’d love to have a garden and do backyard composting with worms and all! I shall live out my cottagecore farmhouse dreams one day…*shakes fists*

How To Compost In An Apartment Balcony & Make Soil

Ok – let’s say you have a balcony and are interested in being a little more involved and robust with your compost. Kudos to you my green friend! If you want to learn how to compost kitchen waste in apartments and turn it into nutrient soil, either for your house plants, indoor garden or neighbors, then you’ll want to get a large rotating composting bin like this one. Or, you can opt for the Bokashi Composter, which produces almost no greenhouse gases and is a slightly different process.

You may need manure and worms to help facilitate the process with your composter tumbler, which is a lot to handle in an urban area. But, you can totally do it if you have the outdoor space!! Honestly, if we had access to that rooftop I mentioned and was allowed to grow a garden on top of it, I would totally install one of these composter tumble bins.

trash can, compost bin and recycle bin

Our trio (recyle, trash and compost bins!)

If trying to make more sustainable swaps in your life is something that interests you I highly recommend you check out Grove Collaborative. This post isn’t sponsored by Grove but they have been a partner of ours for over a year and we’re just huge mega fans. Grove curates sustainable household + beauty brands so you know you’re shopping ethical, sustainable products. They also have some of their own in-house products (like those compostable trash bags!)

Alright, fangirl moment over. If you have any composting tips to add leave them below for everyone to see. And if you have any questions drop a comment and I’ll be happy to help!

And, I hope this guide helps you learn how to compost if you live in an apartment. Cheers, our fellow Soul Homesteaders!

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