The Ups and Downs of Composting in a Small Apartment

In 2016, we made our first indoor composting bucket – complete with a tap to drain the nutrient rich “compost tea” to use as liquid fertilizer in our garden. We crafted it from a 2-gallon Igloo Cooler that we found at our local Goodwill Store for $4.99. After cleaning it up, Angie drilled a few holes in the lid for ventilation.

And voila! The resulting compost bin fit nicely underneath our kitchen sink.

Until it died. I think 3 years of use somehow eroded the tap and we opened the door to a sea of compost tea in our cabinet last week. For a brief half-second, we thought about not composting…then we tried to throw a banana peel in the trash. We absolutely could not do it. It was as if this one banana peel was going to undo all our good efforts over the past few years. (You’re talking to people here who bring apple cores home from the park to compost, so yes, it was an extremely difficult half-second.)

Composting is one of those tasks that you love but also hate. We love seeing our kitchen scraps turn into a nice garden soil amendment. We also love seeing what crazy assortment of volunteer plants pop up in the garden every year. Last year, it was a dozen tomatoes and an acorn squash.

But, we hate doing all this in an apartment, especially one in a city that offers no composting services or facilities. Oh, how nice it would be to simply toss our scraps into a bin in the yard. Instead, we drive them across town every week to my mom’s house, where we have a larger compost system which consists of a turning bin and a finishing bin (and a garden).

Once upon a time, we tried a 2 bucket system on our apartment’s patio. The flies loved it but management did not, so we decided to try a bokashi system instead. In a bokashi composting system, a special fermented bran is added to the scraps to speed up decomposition. Instead of the expensive bran sold on Amazon, we picked up a bag of compost starter at our local Tractor Supply Co. I’m not sure what the actual bokashi bran smells like but I can wholeheartedly attest to the fact that the compost starter STINKS! In fact, it stinks so bad that we couldn’t have it in the apartment, on the porch, or in the yard. When you can taste a foul smell across a half-acre yard, you know it stinks!

We also considered an electric composter but at $400-$1,200 that seemed a bit ridiculous. So we went old-school (again). Our new bin doesn’t even have a spigot. In fact, it’s just a simple 3-gallon bucket and lid from Lowe’s (cost: ~$6). Angie drilled ventilation holes in this one too and we popped it right back under the sink where the other one once lived.

If we did not have access to a garden space, we would most likely go back to the 2 bucket system and “renegade” composting, which basically means using one bucket while the other composts then dumping the fully composted materials in a public space that needs a bit of fertilizing. We did this a few times in Florida until we found a community garden that would take our scraps.

Whatever the method used to approach this madness, the important part is the actual composting. Not only does compost add vital nutrients back to the soil, it lessens our environmental impact. Nearly 40% of material in our public landfills is compostable (42% is recyclable), meaning 82% of what’s in a landfill shouldn’t be there in the first place. Composting is challenging, especially if you live in a small space, but it’s not impossible. Even the smallest efforts can make a big difference.

Thinking of making your own bin? Here are some tips on what to compost:

 

I Can’t Eat That!

When you’re trying to reduce food waste, you suddenly become hyper-aware of everything you come into contact with. From the core of a cabbage to the strings on your banana, you’re always thinking, “Can I compost this?” If you’re eating a mostly plant-based diet, like we are, then the short answer is going to be yes. Anything that once grew in soil can be returned to the soil. Same goes for anything made from plants – like most paper goods. But what about baked goods?

That’s the predicament we found ourselves in this week. Right out the gate of our food waste project, we were handed a fruit cake. Yes, a fruit cake. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, it came alongside a box of awful tasting pumpkin spice cookies (made from one of those bagged grocery store mixes). Both containers sat on the counter for days. The fruit cake is still there, taunting me. (Notice how the photo makes it look way more appealing than it actually is??)

Let’s talk about the cookies first. They were break-your-teeth-off hard. Not the kind of cookie that makes you want to go back for another, that’s for sure. We couldn’t toss them in the trash but we definitely couldn’t eat them either, and we couldn’t compost them. Or could we? There’s some debate on the compostability of baked goods. On the upside, they will eventually break down in the compost bin. On the downside, they are most likely to attract every squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and bird in the neighborhood before they do. We ultimately decided to save them a step and just hand over the cookies.

Though not the optimal choice, feeding animals is still a few steps above the landfill.

My mom’s backyard is a veritable sanctuary for wildlife. She has birds of all shapes and sizes (even turkeys), small mammals, deer, and a lumbering little opossum that we affectionately call Otis. They come to her yard for one reason – she’s been tossing stale bread out the window every week for 30 years. Whatever your take on feeding backyard wildlife, we have yet to see one bird swell up and die from eating a crumbled biscuit. We do however see them come back in flocks year after year. Yesterday, we had 8 cardinals, 15 finches, and a woodpecker on the bird feeder, nibbling on birdseed infused with pumpkin spice cookie crumbs. On a side note, I also used some of those crumbs, created in the food processor, as a crust in the bottom of a pudding made of pureed acorn squash and apples. Unlike the cookies themselves, it was rather tasty.

But the fruit cake? There are only so many things one can do with a fruit cake when eating it is not an option. (I really did try. I ate one whole slice, washing it down piece by minuscule piece with a mug of hot tea.) Fruit cakes are filled with candied fruit and alcohol. Even if it were compostable, which I’m not sure it is, I can’t imagine putting those ingredients in our bin. And feeding it to animals? I’m not sold on that idea either. Otis stumbles around enough as it is without getting him drunk off a fruit cake.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to decide the fate of a fruit cake. We would never buy one in the first place. But gifts are a different story. You don’t want to hurt the giver’s feeling, especially when they’ve worked so hard and spent so much money to bake the world’s most hated cake and ship it to you. But you also don’t want to make yourself eat something you find unappetizing. For the time being, our fruit cake will sit in purgatory (on the counter). If you have any suggestions of how best to dispose of it or even make it more appetizing, we’re all ears.


Food Waste Update

  • Wasted Food: 3 liquid ounces (milk, salad dressing)
  • Found Food: 33.75 US pounds

Keep up with our food finds in real time by viewing our Food Find Gallery.