By Sydney Wells
When was the last time you composted? If you live in a rural or suburban area, your answer might be “just this morning.” Maybe you have a robust compost pile in your backyard, drive your waste to a compost center, or can toss your banana peels out the window. For those living in metropolitan areas, however, it probably isn’t this simple. In urban areas, people often lack yards, live on high-up apartment floors, and don’t own cars. However, composting in an urban setting is possible, and is easier than most people might think.
To get technical, composting is the decomposition of organic material, including almost all plant matter and some animal products, like manure. Microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, work to break down the organic material, creating an end result of highly nutritious soil. Depending on the exact conditions of the compost, specifically factors like temperature and air exposure, the entire process can take from months to years.
One of the most common doubts about composting in an urban setting is the lack of space. A common conception of compost systems is as large, outdoor piles of food waste, often on farms or in gardens. Especially in cities with high population densities, like New York City, most residents do not have access to any yard, let alone their own. There are, however, ways around this. Along with potential compost piles in parks or community gardens, organizations can also host compost collection sites in cities.
Community compost collection systems are an efficient method of urban composting. Grow NYC, a large-scale environmental organization, organizes 31 food scrap drop-off sites throughout New York City. They distribute the waste they collect to various compost plants and are able to divert 23 tons of food waste from landfills per week. This food waste diversion is one of the main environmental benefits of composting. It has been estimated that one-third of the world’s net waste is in the form of food waste; New York City alone sends approximately 3.8 million tons of food to landfills or waste combustion sites. Composting food scraps can help to decrease this number.
Another environmental benefit of composting is the quality of the soil created, especially when compared to commercial fertilizers. The soil product of composting is highly nutritious, containing the three main nutrients that plants need in order to grow (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus). While these nutrients are also present in commercial fertilizers, compost has much less potential for running off into nearby water bodies. This runoff from commercial fertilizers can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, making compost a much safer alternative.
Indoor composting is another possibility for people who live in small city homes. Compost-specific containers are available in compact sizes and various styles, such as Full Circle’s Freezer-Safe Compost Scrap Collector. However, really any sort of sealable container works as a composter, from resealable bags to reusable containers.
Besides space constraints, another major worry about indoor composting is its smell, but this is also manageable. When food decomposes in suboptimal conditions, it sometimes emits that “rotten” smell that we all dread. However, proper compost technique should create no smell whatsoever. This technique is as easy as differentiating between brown and green.
Within the world of composting, organic material is broken into two categories: “brown” waste and “green” waste. Brown waste is the drier waste, such as sticks, eggshells, and papers. These materials provide carbon, an essential nutrient, to the composting bacteria. Green waste is the wetter waste, such as fruits, vegetable scraps, and even lawn clippings. These provide the bacteria with nitrogen, another necessity. In order to avoid any sort of rotten smell, composting experts advise to maintain a 1:1 ratio of brown to green waste in composting containers. Following this simple rule should prevent the compost from emitting any smells, allowing anyone to compost inside their home.
Finally, many may wonder what the purpose of composting is within a city setting, especially if there are few surrounding farmlands or home gardens to use up the compost. Compost can be used as an excellent fertilizer for houseplants, a common facet of city apartments. If made in large quantities, such as by community compost systems, it can also be used in parks and community gardens. Composting is an excellent way to divert food waste from landfills and safely enrich soil, and it is completely possible within urban settings.