How To Compost in an Apartment

Updated: May 04, 2023

Make a home for friendly worms and learn other ways to easily and successfully compost food scraps in your apartment.

If you think composting in an apartment sounds dodgy, you might be surprised to learn it’s just as viable on the 10th floor of a high rise as it is in a backyard.

Plus, composting your food scraps is more important than you might think. Food waste in landfills is one of the biggest contributors to methane emissions, a major driver of climate change.

“Although collecting your food scraps for composting means making some small adjustments to your daily life, the payoff is huge,” says Stephanie Miller, an author and founder of Zero Waste in DC. “Of all the zero waste changes I’ve made in my life, nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing I am diverting our household’s food waste from the landfill.”

Before you jump into any composting system, set yourself up for success by reading up on how composting works.

“Composting is not rocket science,” says Brenda Platt, director of the Composting for Community Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “But there are basics to learn, such as the importance of moisture and oxygen and balancing nitrogen-rich food scraps with carbon-rich materials to create that beautiful compost or black gold.”

Knowing some basics will also help you prevent your kitchen compost from smelling up the whole floor.

Vermicomposting in an Apartment

Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, works for apartment dwellers. It’s also fast, producing finished compost in one month, versus three to six months in an outside compost bin. If you like to fish, you’ll always have bait on hand. And it’s a great hands-on family activity.

“If you have kids, they love worms,” says Platt. “Worms are incredible communicators — that is, they won’t eat food scraps they don’t like, such as onions, citrus or tough broccoli stalks. Have fun with your kids and experiment with different scraps.”

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy or DIY a worm bin.  They come in wooden and plastic versions, but Platt recommends wood. You could also buy a storage bin with a tight-fitting lid and drill holes in it. Make sure it’s a dark color because earthworms are sensitive to light.
  2. Make bedding, a fluffy material that allows air to circulate while retaining moisture. These include shredded newspaper, decaying leaves and coconut coir.
  3. Buy worms from an earthworm grower, and make sure to get the correct species. Of the 9,000 kinds of earthworms, only seven are good for vermicomposting. The most common is Eisenia fetida. You’ll need at least 1,000 of them, which equals about one pound and costs roughly $45 to $60.
  4. Give the worms a couple of days to adjust to their new home, then add food scraps in small doses. Cut it into smallish pieces, gently pull back the bedding and place the scraps on top (do not bury!). Then cover with at least two inches of bedding so no scraps are visible. Do not add citrus fruit and peels, meat, bones, fish, greasy food, onions, garlic, fat, tobacco, salty foods or pet and human waste.
  5. Only add more food scraps after the worms eat through the last batch. In theory, one pound of worms can eat one-quarter pound of food scraps a day. If you find yourself creating more scraps than the worms can devour, you can start a second bin, hold scraps elsewhere for a few days, or put them in the freezer. As the worms propagate, they’ll consume more scraps.

The North Carolina State Extension office offers more detailed information about these steps, including where to place your bin and how to keep it properly aerated. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance also offers this resource and video on vermicomposting.

Remember, you’re dealing with living creatures that require some care. “Again, it’s not super difficult,” says Platt. “The main task is to keep the moisture high for worms, who breathe through their skins, and maintain adequate bedding.”

Worms can tolerate room temperatures between 55 and 85 degrees, with 70 degrees being ideal. They also need moisture between 60% to 85% (80% is best) and a pH of around 7. It’s OK if you travel; they can survive two or three weeks without being fed, as long as you properly set up their box beforehand.

Another challenge is utilizing all the finished compost if you don’t have a lot of houseplants. Luckily, Platt says, “Vermicompost makes a great gift for friends or family who like to garden.”

Pickup and Drop-Off Composting for Apartments

Depending on where you live, your municipality or a private company might collect compost. “From Portland, Oregon to Hyattsville, Maryland, more and more cities in the U.S. are offering curbside compost pickup,” says Miller. “Congratulations to you if you live in one of those cities!”

If you don’t have that good fortune, you can sometimes take your compostable food scraps to a farmer’s market or another collection spot. The ShareWaste app can help you find a drop-off location.

To set up your compost pickup or drop-off:

  • Check with the composting facility about what’s OK to put into the bin. Some systems can process elements like meat and bones, and some can’t. “This is super important,” Platt says.
  • Figure out where you’ll collect your food scraps. Most people use a small, lidded pail in the kitchen. “You usually don’t need to line the pail, but you could use a compostable bag if you would like to avoid the yuck factor,” says Miller. If you do line the bin, check with the composting service to make sure it accepts them. Or opt for newspapers or paper towels, which are also compostable.
  • If the food starts to smell or attract insects, put it in the freezer between pickups or drop-offs.

“If you don’t want to compost in your apartment and don’t have drop-off or curbside service available, exercise your citizen muscle,” says Platt. “Advocate for policies and programs. Push your local planners and elected officials to support local composting services, training, supplies, equipment, funding and reasonable policies and regulations.”