Whether you live out in the country or in the heart of a city, composting is a great way to reduce your household waste. Many people believe compost is smelly, attracts pests, takes up a lot of space, and is generally impractical. I’d like to convince you that the opposite is true, and that composting is safe and eco-friendly wherever you live, and that it won’t even bother your neighbors.
The following are four myths about compost that prevent people from starting a pile of their own. I’ll skip reiterating how to make your compost pile and what to put in it, since that information is already all over the web. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a composting guide with everything you need to start.
Compost Myth #1: Composting requires a lot of space and a huge amount of resources. I’d need at least a big yard to start composting.
Fact: Compost can be made in a space as small as a cubic yard, and can be composed almost entirely of food scraps.
It’s important to have at least a three by three by three space for your compost; this is the minimum size for a pile to reach a temperature where it can decompose properly and break down contaminants. In fact, a pile that is larger than five feet on a side will be too dense for proper ventilation, and will not make good compost.
In addition, compost greatly reduces the bulk of your organic waste. Mature compost can be as little as one eighth the volume of the original material that was put into it. I’ve been putting an endless amount of banana peels, vegetable ends, and grass clippings into my small compost bin, and it never seems to fill up!
Good compost can be made without any yard waste at all. Just save your food scraps and add them to your compost bin whenever you have enough. Food scraps are high in nitrogen, an important plant nutrient. It is important to maintain a balance of nitrogen and carbon in your compost pile; dead leaves are a great source of carbon for composting, but if there are no leaves available in your concrete jungle, shredded newspaper is an excellent substitute.
The best composting method for those of us who live in apartments is to purchase a commercial composting bin. A bin helps ensure sanitary, odorless decomposition. If you must set your bin on concrete, metal, or any other impervious surface, be sure to raise it on bricks and put a tray below it. Compost needs to be moist, and excess liquid may occasionally drain from your bin.
Compost Myth #2: Compost smells terrible! It’s a big pile of rotting stuff!
Fact: A strong odor is a sign that something is wrong with your compost, and is easy to fix.
Mature, ready to use compost has a fresh, outdoor kind of smell, and is nearly indistinguishable from fertile soil. Even while your compost is decomposing, a foul odor is a sign that something is wrong.
Much of the decomposition in your compost pile is accomplished by bacteria, which come in two types: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic bacteria require oxygen to do their work; anaerobic do not. Because of the chemistry involved in their oxygen-free lives, anaerobic bacteria produce byproducts we perceive as bad smells.
To create a composting environment that favors aerobic decomposition and minimizes odor, make sure your pile is properly ventilated. Your bin should have air holes. Turn your compost over or mix it around every two weeks, and after turning, poke holes in it so oxygen can reach the center of the pile (except in winter, when it’s best to keep the cold air out of the center).
Compost Myth #3: All this rotting stuff is horribly unsanitary, and will attract pests like cockroaches, rats, and raccoons!
Fact: A few simple precautions can keep vermin away from your compost.
If you live in a city, it is especially important to make sure rats and raccoons don’t find out that there’s a great food source in your backyard, as these animals can be dangerous. The first rule is to not put any animal fats or byproducts in your compost. Continue to throw out your meat scraps and bones with the regular garbage. Meat and milk also smell terrible when they decompose, so keeping them out of your compost will help reduce the smell.
Make sure you use a secure compost container with a heavy or locking lid. Raccoons will try to access the compost like we do, by lifting the lid. If you live somewhere that rats are a problem, use a metal compost bin that can’t be chewed through.
There’s nothing wrong with bugs in your compost. In fact, flies, millipedes, worms, and other crawly, squiggly things are an important part of the decomposition process. Avoid excess flies by keeping animal products out of your compost. Burying fresh scraps in the middle of your pile will also help, but is not really necessary. If you live somewhere prone to cockroach infestation, locate your compost bin outside and as far away from your building as possible; cockroaches prefer to stay indoors. If you store food scraps in your kitchen before adding them to your pile, make sure to keep them in a tightly sealed container, and keep it out on your countertop, rather than under the sink.
Compost produces heat as it decomposes, and properly maintained compost actually reaches a temperature where bacteria that are harmful to humans are killed. Take good care of your compost, and getting sick will be the least of your worries.
Compost Myth #4: My back yard/patio/balcony will turn into a landfill! There’s nowhere for all this compost to go!
Fact: There are as many uses for compost as things you can put in it. A local gardener will be happy to use your extra compost.
If you don’t have a garden, start one! Mix your compost with topsoil, put it in window boxes on the sunny side of your apartment, and grow a victory garden.
Houseplants love compost – add an inch or two layer to their pots a couple times per year, depending on the size. It’s important not to add too much at once, or the excess nutrients can stifle plant growth.
If you still can’t use all your compost, give it away. Post an ad on Craigslist or Freecycle, or look up the nearest community garden. Some local green thumb will be happy to take your excess compost off your hands.
- Create a 3’ by 3’ by 3’ compost pile by filling your compost bin with food scraps and either dead leaves or shredded newspaper.
- Rotate your compost regularly and never put meat, milk, or other animal products in it.
- Keep your bin away from walls, and keep its lid shut tight.
- Use the internet to find needy gardeners who want your extra compost
You already know that composting is good for the environment and great for your garden. I hope I’ve convinced you that composting it’s also easy, safe, and relatively odorless. Nothing will win over your reluctant neighbors better than your own well-maintained pile. Just be sure to check local regulations to see if composting is legal in your city, and take care of any odor or pest problems as soon as they arise. In three months, you’ll have healthy, mature, shovel-ready compost for all your plants to enjoy.
Cullen, Mark and Johnson, Lorraine. 1994. The Urban/Suburban Composter: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony, and Apartment Composting. New York: St. Martin’s Press.