Did you know that composting can transform your trash into new life? And that new life, in the form of microbes, fungi, earthworms, and more, provides the foundation for much of all other healthy life on Earth.
Composting is a great way to create healthy soil to support our people and our planet. Healthy soil is also a magical carbon sink that absorbs carbon from our atmosphere and helps cool the planet. While dead dirt has few living organisms, a teaspoon of healthy soil has more living organisms in it than the entire population of humans on Planet Earth!(1)
We need the world to compost!
Don’t think you can compost? We’ve got a whole set of resources on Everything To Know About Composting At Home, including more You Can Make Dirt interviews. All of this information about composting at home will hopefully prove that just about anyone can make space and find a system to turn their food scraps into nutrient-rich compost to enrich our soil, feed our food cycle, and limit the food waste that ends up in landfills.
This series highlights families in various circumstances who have all found a way that composting works for their lifestyle. Hopefully, you can be inspired to give it a go and help our planet stay a little healthier.
Today, we are discussing yet another method for composting your kitchen food scraps and saving them from the landfill. Celia, from Litterless, lived in an apartment in Chicago (not far from where I used to live), and didn’t have space or functionality to compost on her own. Without much trouble, however, she found a service that picked up her compost just like picking up trash. I’ll let her tell you more about herself and how she composted in her urban apartment.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you live, your family, etc.. the Celia 101?
I recently moved away from Chicago after four years to Madison, Wisconsin. While in Chicago, I co-founded Zero Waste Chicago, a nonprofit organization working to move Chicago to zero waste. I also write Litterless, a blog about simple zero waste living, and I host workshops and speak about composting, zero waste, and plastic pollution.
I now live in Madison with my partner Julian, but for many years I composted in Chicago. We’re still figuring out what our compost routine will look like in Madison, so I thought I’d share instead what it has looked like over the last four years of living in a small apartment in Chicago.
Tell us a little bit about why you decided to start composting?
My family started composting when I was in my teens, and it quickly became a simple part of our daily routine. “Who’s going to take the compost out?” is a phrase that echoes through my childhood.
My college didn’t implement composting until my senior year, and I hated living without it. Every time I tipped my tray in the trash or pitched out a banana peel, I’d feel a twinge in my stomach. So when I moved to Chicago after college, I knew immediately that I wanted to set up composting.
What I didn’t know was what, if any, composting options existed for apartment dwellers. Luckily a quick Internet search yielded a local pick-up service. A month after my move, I signed up, and I’ve been composting ever since!
Living in a city, can you share more details about exactly how you execute this?
We tend to think of composting as the purview of suburbanites or rural folks with the backyard space to host a traditional compost bin or heap. But there are many resources available for city dwellers, too! In Chicago, I lived in apartments without backyard space all four years. To compost, I relied on a subscription pick-up service.
The premise is simple: they drop off a clean five-gallon bucket every two weeks. I fill it with food scraps, organic matter, and whatever else that’s compostable in my life. (Hair from the shower drain, anyone?). They pick it up after two weeks, swapping it out for a fresh bucket. All I have to do is add my scraps and lug the bucket downstairs – it couldn’t be simpler.
It’s also surprisingly affordable. I pay $25 a month for bi-weekly pick-up; I used to pay $20 a month for monthly pick-up. That’s about the price of a meal out or five cups of coffee out and to me, at least, it’s well worth it. If that isn’t affordable for you but you don’t have the space to maintain a backyard heap, I’d recommend looking for a drop-off location in your city. Some farmers’ markets accept food scraps for just a few dollars a load, or you could email a community garden or reach out to a friend with a backyard composter to see if they could accept your food scraps each week.
Do the food scraps smell?
Well, yes and no. The scraps DO smell, but only when the compost bucket is open. In my experience at least, the five-gallon bucket seals tightly enough when closed that no smell escapes. There was a year when I had no outdoor space, not even a back patio, and I kept the bucket under my kitchen sink, even in the hot, hot summer. No smell when the lid was closed, even then! Now I keep it on the back patio, but sometimes in the winter I’ll still keep it in my kitchen to cut down on trips outside juggling bowls of food scraps.
To keep the smell at bay, I try to minimize the number of times I open and close the bucket. I do this by storing food scraps in a bowl on the countertop or in the fridge. When the bowl is full, I open the compost bin and dump it in. Depending on what’s inside or how long it’s been there, the few minutes after opening the bin might be a little stinky, but it dissipates quickly. This way, I only have to deal with it every three or four days – or slightly more often if I’m cooking a lot. If you have room in your bucket, my compost guy also recommends layering in some paper every so often, which further tamps down the smell.
How did you figure out what could be composted and what to do with them?
I’ve been composting for so long that it feels like second nature now. Food scraps, yes. Toothpicks, yes. That little plastic flourish on toothpicks, no. Paper napkins, yes. Biodegradable forks, no. Bamboo toothbrush, yes. Plastic bristles on said toothbrush, no.
If you’re struggling to remember what can or can’t go in your compost bin, there’s nothing wrong with printing out a list and taping it above your compost bin. If you compost with a pick-up service, they’ll likely have a list of what they’ll accept on their website. If you compost using another method, like backyard composting or vermicomposting, search for a list online and print that out. You’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Do you have any special tools, containers, or products that help make composting easier or more accessible for you?
I don’t, actually! I often think I should get a dedicated compost pail for my countertop, but my method of keeping scraps in a bowl, covered or uncovered, on the counter, fridge, or freezer has worked well enough so far. I’ve never had issues with fruit flies or any other things that would prompt me to buy a specialized solution.
How does your partner feel about composting?
Julian is so on board! It took about a year for him to get used to the idea. To add one more step to your cooking or trash routine can seem like a hassle at first, I think. But soon enough, composting starts to seem easy and throwing food scraps in the garbage to seem foolish. Now he’s as staunch an advocate as I am, for which I’m grateful. You can find us both at restaurants squirreling away our paper napkins to take home to compost.
Have you experienced any benefits from composting, especially ones that might have surprised you?
I love not taking out the trash regularly! Now I can’t imagine doing so. For some reason, I’m perfectly happy to take out the compost, but I’m not happy hauling a sweating, stinky plastic bag full of food and other detritus down to the curb each week to be landfilled. I still make some trash, of course, as well as recycling, but as soon as I started composting it dwindled down to almost nothing each week.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers about your composting practices, especially to help beginners gain confidence that they too can compost?
If you’re looking for a compost pick-up service or drop-off spot near you, I keep a state-by-state guide to resources throughout the United States here. Most large or medium-size cities boast private compost collection services that you can sign on to for a small fee. I also answered a few more FAQs about composting using the pick-up method in a recent blog post here.
The difference between compostable and biodegradable is also worth emphasizing. It’s not enough for a bioplastic spoon or container to be biodegradable. That just means it will break down eventually, not that it’s compostable. Be sure to check that disposable bioplastics are compostable before dumping them in. I always think when in doubt, throw it out rather than risk contaminating a larger load of compost. Better yet, bring your own fork and cup and try to avoid them altogether.
Where else can we find you and learn more about what you’re up to?
(1) According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.