How to Compost in an Apartment

Food scraps poured into plastic bin with soil inside for composting

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 25 - 45 mins
  • Total Time: 3 wks, 4 days - 12 wks, 6 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $10 to $30

Composting can be a convenient way to dispose of waste, reduce your environmental impact, and produce valuable nutrients for your houseplants. However, composting in an apartment can seem like a challenge.

Many apartment dwellers hesitate to get started composting over concerns about the impact of hiding food scraps in a container and leaving it for several months to decompose. Will composting in an apartment attract bugs? Will the smell from composting overpower a small space?

When set up properly, it is entirely possible to compost in an apartment—without sacrificing too much space, inviting an insect invasion, or subjecting yourself (and any guests) to unpleasant odors.

To be successful, you should understand what compost is, what you can and can't compost in an apartment, and how to build your own apartment-friendly compost bin.

What Is Compost?

Compost is a natural, earthy substance that results from the decomposition of organic matter. A combination of "green" and "brown" materials (that aren't necessarily green or brown in color), is necessary to maintain the right balance of bacteria, which transforms the waste into compost. This aerobic process takes a couple of months or longer depending on how large the composter is, the temperature inside of the container, and the types of materials being broken down. You'll know the compost is ready when few (if any) scraps can be identified in the compost material, and it gives off a slightly sweet, earthy odor. Finished compost looks like soil, with a dark color and fine texture.

What Can I Compost?

Composting is a great way to transform food scraps and some household waste items into "black gold," a beneficial amendment for your outdoor garden or indoor houseplants. However, it's essential that you understand what can and cannot be composted in order to avoid odors, mold, and a failure of waste to break down.

Here are some of the most common items that can be composted:

  • Vegetable scraps
  • Human hair
  • Nail clippings
  • Coffee grounds and paper coffee filters
  • Peels from fruit and vegetables
  • Stale bread
  • Grass clippings
  • Fresh or dried leaves
  • Newspaper, shredded
  • Corn husks or cobs
  • Non-glossy paper, shredded
  • Cardboard boxes, torn up
  • Bread
  • Cooked, plain pasta or rice
  • Eggshells (no white or yolk)

You'll notice that meats, bones, dairy, and fats are missing from the list of compostable items. These items are generally not recommended to be added to a composter. According to the EPA, adding animal products to a composter can cause odors, as well as attract insects and rodents.

Choosing a Bin

There are a number of options for composting in an apartment, including using a worm bin, Bokashi bucket, or electronic composter. Many people will find that a simple compost bin made from plastic containers is the easiest way to get started.

There is no special type of plastic bin required for composting, but it should have a lid and you'll need two bins of the same size for the method outlined in this article. Choose the size of the bins based on the space you have available, keeping in mind that the compost system should be kept in a dark, room-temperature area of your apartment or condo. A popular location for an apartment composter is under the sink, but a laundry or utility closet could work as well.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • A drill

Materials

  • Two plastic bins with tight-fitting lids
  • Shredded newspaper or sawdust
  • Soil

Instructions

Materials and tools to make an apartment composter

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  1. Drill Holes on the Top

    In one of the plastic bins, drill a row of holes around the top of the container, on each side. The exact size of the hole is not important, but each hole should be about 1 to 3 inches apart for this apartment-sized bin. These holes will allow for airflow that is essential to the decomposition process.

    Electric drill adding holes to side of plastic bin for composting

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  2. Drill Holes on the Bottom

    On the same plastic bin you just drilled airflow holes into, drill holes into the bottom of the container. The number of holes will vary based on the size of the bin, but aim to have an even distribution across the entire bin. These holes will allow liquid to drain into the second plastic bin. Also known as compost tea, you can dispose of the liquid or use it to fertilize plants.

    Electric drill adding holes to bottom of plastic bin for composting

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  3. Fill With Soil

    Set the plastic bin with holes inside of the second plastic bin. Fill the top bin with a few inches of soil, then top with dry, absorbent material like shredded newspaper or sawdust.

    Soil added to plastic bin for composting

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  4. Finish With Absorbent Material

    Your composter is ready for use! Add organic waste to the top bin of your composter. Be sure to cover it with newspaper or sawdust to absorb excess moisture and prevent mold and odors. Cover your composter with the lid after adding material.

    Newspaper strips added on top of food scraps in compost bin

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  5. Clean Periodically

    Periodically empty the second bin of liquid and clean it to assist in preventing mold growth or odors.

    Compost bin emptied and cleaned in kitchen sink with running water

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

The composter will take at least a few months (or more) to fully break down waste. Depending on your volume of scraps added to the composter, you may need to have a second set of bins ready to receive compostable waste while the waste in the first set of bins is still processing.

How to Use Compost

Compost is very beneficial as a soil amendment for your garden or for potted plants. Studies show it can enhance drainage, boost beneficial bacteria, and attract earthworms. Once your compost is complete, you can directly add it to your garden or you can store it in a container and add it to your plants as needed.

In addition, the liquid produced by the composting process is full of nutrients. Many people use this "compost tea" to fertilize houseplants or in the garden.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Composting at Home. United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  2. Richardville, K. et alClosing the loop in the city: Leaf mold compost reduces waste, improves soil and microbial properties, and increases tomato productivityUrban Agriculture & Regional Food Systems, vol. 7, no. 1, 2022. doi:10.1002/uar2.20022