Soil and the City: How to Compost in an Urban Setting

A guide for city slickers and apartment dwellers

I have a confession: My roommates and I have worms.

Fortunately, they’re not the contagious kind ... they’re the composting kind. You see, unlike most of our apartment-dwelling friends, we have a backyard to put them in. Plus, we live in San Francisco, which offers residents free citywide bio-waste collection.

Still, even here in the eco-enlightened Bay Area, many of our friends’ landlords don’t participate in the program (which baffles us, considering, um ... it’s free). And not many other cities in the U.S. offer an equivalent to their green-minded residents.

But, intrepid eco-urbanite, never fear: It’s still possible to put your green waste to green use in the city you know and love. Here’s how to get started:

1. Find a collection vessel. One- to five-gallon plastic buckets with lids (used by restaurants, bakeries, housepainters, and contractors) are ideal. Ask around, scour the dumpsters for a freebie or buy one at the hardware store.

2. Sort your scraps. Not all food can be composted on a small scale, so unless you have access to an industrial-grade compost heap (like the one provided through our pretty city by the Bay), you’ll have to separate your scraps ’yerself. Bones, meat, dairy products and fats should not be thrown into your compost bin (eggshells are fine). Vegetable scraps should be chopped up for maximum breakdown effectiveness.

3. Scout out a dumping ground. If your city offers a bio-waste pickup that your apartment doesn’t participate in, find out what night the pickup is and tip your bucket into any curbside bin. Alternatively, scout the neighborhood for a community or demonstration garden project with a compost pile (or befriend a neighbor with a green thumb), and negotiate dumping rights with them.

3-1/2. Start a guerilla compost pile. If step 3 fails, you can go commando and start your own compost pile in a vacant lot or urban wildland. A galvanized aluminum or heavy-duty plastic trash can is a great, rodent-resistant container. Punch small holes all around the sides so oxygen can get into the heap, and fill half-full with dry leaves, sawdust, newspaper or dried lawn trimmings. Food scraps can then added on a regular basis; mix with a compost turner, shovel or gardening fork, or by rolling the can around on its side. Compost should be kept moist but not soggy, and more dry material added regularly. If all goes to plan, you should have usable compost in a month or two that you can then use ... for guerilla gardening projects, of course!

4. Reach out. Community composting is a great way to get to know your neighbors, and with strength in numbers, you can work together to establish more permanent composting options in your area. 

Hungry for more composting how-to’s? Check out Gaiam Life’s comprehensive Composting Guide — everything you need to know, from why you should compost to which composter is right for you.



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