Many of you are wondering how to compost food waste in the city (or any urban, suburban or similar area where space comes at a premium and neighbors are almost in your back pocket). You may be concerned that, even if you do find space to compost, odors, bugs and other bigger, badder pests will crash your composting party – and perhaps your neighbor or landlord relations! Nothing dampens compost enthusiasm like a pile or heap “gone bad.” Alas, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve been teaching composting since the early 90s when my partner and I became a Master Composters in Washington State and our city made composting education mandatory in order to take advantage of the “free” and very subsidized compost bin deals. I’ve worked with dozens of bin designs over the years and what I’m proposing here is my Ultimate Bomb-Proof Urban Composter. It is pest-resistant (I’ve never known a rat to chew into this, but I haven’t met ratzilla yet), discrete and affordable (maybe free). I’ve actually never tried to destroy it with a bomb; maybe I need a new name. Nevertheless, here it is:
- Get a galvanized metal trashcan with a lid.
- Drill 1/2″ holes all over the lower half of the can, including the bottom. The holes can be 4-5″ apart or even a bit tighter if desired and you have well-drained soil. Optional: Drill two 1″ holes just below the rim of the lid and cover with no-see-um mesh from the inside to allow additional ventilation w/out bugs being able to get in. If you’re super bug-phobic, you may also want to gasket the lid for a tighter fit.
- Bury the can in the ground just deep enough that the holes are underground and not visible. Pick a location that a) you are likely to actually use and can easily get to with a bucket of kitchen scraps, b) is well-drained and not in a wet spot and c) matches your aesthetic needs to either hide your composting activities behind a shrub or fly your compost flag by prominent placement (your choice).
- Make sure soil is filled in all around the buried portion of the can. You can even plant something interesting around it.
- Deposit food scraps into the can whenever your kitchen container is full, covering each “dump” with some dry, carbonaceous material like sawdust, wood chips, dry leaves, etc. (keep some stockpiled nearby). Do NOT “dump and run” without covering the fresh material. The water content in the food waste should be enough moisture to keep the process going.
- Secure the lid with bungee cords to keep raccoons and curious kids out.
- Compost happens.
- Every 2-3 years “rest the bin” for a few weeks, remove the contents (or dump back in the hole when you pull out the bin), and move the bin to a new spot and start again. The spot you’ve just vacated is perfect for planting a tree or shrub – super fertile! The 2-3 years figure is based on a household of 2-3 vegetarians or 3-4 omnivores (the latter not putting meat/animal products into the bin).
What this is not:
This is not a system for creating large amounts of finished compost product; it’s just a way to manage your food waste sanely rather than sending it to the landfill or incinerator.
This is not a system for composting “yard waste” like grass clippings, branches, etc. That would require a different setup which you can certainly do side-by-side with this if you want to make your whole composting operation less attractive to animal pests.