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:


Happy Dumpster-versary!

I stopped by Walmart the other day to pick up some things for my mom. As I was crossing the parking lot, headed back to my car, I saw a lone orange that had come to rest just a few feet away. Or course, I picked it up. I have no idea how or why oranges (and sometimes apples) end up at the south end of the Walmart parking lot, mostly unaffected by their rather long journey across bumpy and grimy asphalt, but I find at least 1 or 2 a month. In the way that hobos mark the homes of people who are kind, Angie teases that fresh fruit escapes the waste bin and make its way to the area where I’m known to park so that I will give it a good home.

As I picked up the orange, it hit me…February was our food-rescue anniversary. We’ve been digging through the dumpster at ALDI (which is next door to Walmart) for two years now. While we make no secret of this fact, I also realized just how few people in our immediate family know that we do this. For a minute, I started feeling like a superhero – a plain-Jane writer by day who dons a cape and saves food from the landfill by night. Ok, I don’t own a cape…yet…

Imagining us as dumpster heroes was all well and good until I started thinking about why the world needs dumpster heroes in the first place – because we waste so much food! And by we, I mean everyone from the farmer who leaves crops in the field to the stores who throw out good food items to make room for newer ones every week, from the consumer who buys more than what he/she can eat to the restauranteurs that feed the garbage bin rather than their hungry neighbors. Picking up a single orange off the pavement is just a tiny droplet on the surface of a big, big pond of problems.

But…it only takes a droplet to cause a ripple, then ripples create waves, and waves create change.

We dig through the dumpster for many reasons, not the least of which is to raise awareness of the amount of food wasted by retailers like ALDI. Don’t get me wrong, I like ALDI. My sister even works for them (at a different location) and we shop there sometimes, but I hate their policy of tossing food that’s within 3 days of expiration. It’s stupid. It’s even stupider not to mark these items down and try to sell them, like Kroger and Walmart do. I can’t imagine preferring to take a total loss on a product rather than selling it for half-price.  From a business standpoint, that makes no sense to me.

In 2017, we rescued 330 pounds of food from the dumpster. In 2018, it was 348 pounds. And this year, we’re up to 50 pounds already. We eat this food. We share this food. We donate this food to places that can use it. And in the rare case that none of these things happen, we compost this food.

We don’t expect everyone reading this to run to the nearest dumpster and start pulling out produce…unless you really want to, then we certainly support you…but we do hope you will make your own waves of change toward reducing food waste. Here are a few ideas to help get you started: