Composting in an apartment
June 7, 2020 5:56 AM   Subscribe

Have you been able to collect food scraps for compost in an apartment without it smelling like rotting veggies? Tell me how.

Inspired by the food waste question on the blue-- have you ever successfully collected your veggie scraps in an apartment in a relatively stink-free way? I'm not interested in actual composting solutions, I'll be taking it to a composting collection point-- more about the collection of the food scraps part. And the smell.

Limited space to work with. I'd be taking it over to my community garden, I think it's realistic to think I would be able to empty it once a week.
posted by geegollygosh to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Frequent dumping or moving to a sealed container was our only way to avoid inevitable fruit flies. People who can get by with anything else make me green with envy.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:00 AM on June 7, 2020

The general suggestion around here (NYC) is to keep it in your freezer. I find an empty 32oz yogurt container in the door works well.
posted by hoyland at 6:00 AM on June 7, 2020 [19 favorites]

Sealed containers at room temp stink like hell when you open them, due to anaerobic metabolism. And it’s hard to get something easy to clean that seals tight enough to not let out that powerful stench just a little bit, even when closed.

If you don’t do freezer, use an open-topped container under the counter and you should be fine if you can empty it often enough. It won’t develop that putrid smell in a week. Coffee grounds also help.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:08 AM on June 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Here is a picture of our local composting bin. If you can find something like it, I recommend. It's ventilated which gets rid of the smell problem and the lid is tight-fitting enough to contain potential fruit flies (till now, we have had none). I'd imagine you can get the organic bin-liners online if not in your normal store.

It seems you know where to dispose of your waste, but I'd like to put it in here that before we had this service, I'd bring vegetable waste for composting to our local cemetery, where there are dozens of bins for composting all the flowers and stuff.
posted by mumimor at 6:12 AM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

In our old place, we used to drop off every week/two weeks... We buy coconut coir in bricks, and when we start a new batch, throw a handful of the stuff on the bottom of the container to absorb any liquids. One $10 brick lasts like 8-9 months of composting, so seemed worth it. We also let tea/coffee grounds dry in a bowl on the counter over night before adding.

On the winter, we kept the container on the fire escape, in the summer, fridge or freezer, depending on space. We also got in the habit that the day before drop off, we'd go food shopping and prep a bunch of veggies so the peelings didn't sit around. It forced us to batch cook, particularly in winter and was a great system when we could manage it.

A lot also depends on how much your collecting... Small bag on freezer worked when I was alone, sealed bucket worked for when we were both working out and cooking at home.
posted by larthegreat at 6:20 AM on June 7, 2020

The freezer is the answer I've always heard. I did have a friend who had great results with vermicomposting (worms) in an apartment, but it sounds like that's not what you're looking for.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:20 AM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Old plastic ice cream containers are my preferred scraps collectors. Keep the lid on them to keep the cats out and avoid attracting mice and roaches, and stick them in the freezer three days after first adding scraps or when they get full, whichever happens first. Ice cream is sold in a range of sizes so you should be able to find containers that suit both your freezer and your scraps accumulation rate.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 AM on June 7, 2020

I bought a used mini-fridge just for this purpose. Life-changing if you can find room.

You could also use a container with a lid. Cut large holes in the lid and lay a carbon filter on top. Waded newspaper in the bottom can help prevent pooling of liquids. I've also used a bucket with a mesh-type wastepaper basket suspended in the bucket so there's air all around. This only works if you line the inner basket with newspaper or use compostable bags.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 6:30 AM on June 7, 2020

Freezer. I keep a big tub in my freezer. I put it on the countertop when I'm cooking and toss all my scraps in it (so I don't have to keep opening and closing the freezer). It goes right back into the freezer when I'm done. Every 2-3 weeks, or whenever it gets full, I take it out to the community composting bin.

I've also started keeping a small container at work for my coworkers to contribute to. I take that to the community composting bin as well.
posted by aquamvidam at 6:34 AM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I tend to keep all food scraps in the fridge until it’s time to dispose of them. This works for bacon rinds (clearly don’t try to compost those) as well as fruit and veg. I use a large freezer bag or a tupperware container in the fridge.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:36 AM on June 7, 2020

I'm in an apartment and paranoid about attracting bugs, so messy wrappers for cheese, salmon, etc. go into a bag in the freezer as well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:21 AM on June 7, 2020

Newspaper composts well, so you can use some to absorb moisture, or used paper towels. Compostables can be kept in a ziplock bag in the fridge. The zipper part will fail and then In just fold it over and use a chip-clip. The bag will get gross; I rotate several sturdy bags. Rinse when empty and let dry; it can all go in the fridge or freezer.

There's a dog in my neighborhood that occasionally gets into garbage, so I bag and refrigerate meat scraps as well until garbage day.

Compost is good, keeping material out of the waste stream and benefiting your garden. But your veg. scraps and apple cores compost down to a tiny bit of organic matter. Balance the value against using any additional fossil fuels or resources to create it.
posted by theora55 at 7:56 AM on June 7, 2020

Do you have coffee grounds that you'll be composting? A layer of those near-daily definitely cuts the smell from our in-kitchen compost solution (which is a big plastic coffee can.)
posted by cobaltnine at 8:35 AM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

We use an empty cat litter bucket to collect our scraps before taking it to a friend's compost bin. If you don't have a cat who uses litter from giant tubs, a friend or a local Facebook Group might be able to hook you up.

SaltySalticid is right, closed containers get smelly. Our cat litter bucket seems to work well, though. [Although it might be because we drink a lootttt of coffee (and thus a lot of grounds to neutralize other stinks...)] our bucket only smells when you open it, and the smell doesn't linger. It hasn't seemed to attract insects. This is in New England, it may get smellier/buggier if you live in a warmer climate. We dump it about every 2 weeks in the summer, every month in the winter.

In the summer, we rinse out the bucket with a hose and let it air dry in the sun. I've also rinsed it in the shower, and let it dry in the sun.
posted by Guess What at 9:28 AM on June 7, 2020

So glad you asked! This is a good question and there is a really good way to deal with this problem. Deal with it the same way you'd deal with a compost toilet.

cobaltnine is on the right track. Cover your compost with carbon matter. Carbon matter is any of a number of natural brown things (such as dead leaves). To get carbon matter in the city, visit your local coffee roasters and ask for a bag of coffee chaff, or your local wood shop and ask for untreated sawdust.

Then what you do is you keep two containers.* One for carbon matter and one for compost. You "flush" just like you would "flush" a compost toilet by covering the compost with carbon matter. If it still stinks, add more carbon matter. Voila!

*I prefer a small trash can with a pedal at the bottom that you hit to open the lid, with a removeable liner. Great for when your hands are full of kitchen scraps.
posted by aniola at 9:56 AM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

The above will work fine in a small apartment, we live in an apartment-sized house.
posted by aniola at 10:02 AM on June 7, 2020

Response by poster: Hey everyone, thanks for the ideas!

We do produce a looottt of coffee grounds, glad to hear that will help.

I don't have a lot of freezer space, but for some reason keeping it in the fridge hadn't occurred to me-- that is definitely a workable option.

Didn't realize that airtight would make the smell worse, that's great to know. For those of you advocating for non air tight containers, do flies not become an issue? Does the organic matter that people have been suggesting help with that as well?
posted by geegollygosh at 10:02 AM on June 7, 2020

You can use a tea towel held in place with a rubber band! Keeps the flies out/smell in, but let's some air circulate. This actually helps a ton. We then used to seal it with a lid for the walk to the drop off site.
posted by larthegreat at 10:20 AM on June 7, 2020

We do produce a looottt of coffee grounds, glad to hear that will help.

First thing to try, then, is keeping those in their own container. That way, you'll always have them available to cover over anything else you add to your main container.

The stink caused by keeping lids on comes from anaerobic (oxygen-free) digestion happening in the scraps bucket, which can really only get going after aerobic (oxygen-consuming) organisms have sucked up all the available oxygen inside a sealed container and/or under a layer of wet juices.

It ought to be possible to keep the aerobic community going and the anaerobic community suppressed for a fair bit longer, even inside a sealed container, by putting something in there that releases oxygen as it breaks down. So if you're needing to use a closed bucket for vermin suppression and you notice that it usually starts to smell bad before you can empty it, you might want to experiment with throwing a spoonful of an oxygen-based bleach powder, such as is commonly used for sanitizing cloth nappies, in with the scraps a day or two before that usually happens. I can't see how small amounts of oxygen bleach would mess up any compost bin that the scraps are eventually headed for.

Do not use a chlorine-based household bleach like Clorox for this - there's a fairly high likelihood of ammonia being generated in rotting scraps and the reaction between that and chlorine from the bleach will make poisonous gases that you do not want in your lungs.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 AM on June 7, 2020

I was very worried about flies when this started, but if anything, we have had less than usual. I think it's because we are more conscious about using our fruit and veg in time now. The basket in itself does not seem to attract flies.
posted by mumimor at 12:51 PM on June 7, 2020

Just to add to the fridge/freezer suggestion, I use a paper bag (like a brown paper lunchbag) inside of a ziplock bag. The plastic bag keeps it from leaking or tearing, and makes it less gross to take down to the green bin.
posted by ITheCosmos at 12:52 PM on June 7, 2020

Do you have a fire escape or the like? We keep our bin right outside the apartment door, beside the steps.
posted by egeanin at 1:00 PM on June 7, 2020

Carbon matter covering the compost should keep flies away. If it doesn't, add more carbon matter.
posted by aniola at 1:13 PM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

We have something like this metal container, probably bought at a grocery or drug store. It's lid fastens securely to keep any fruit flies in, but there's a charcoal filter in the lid to let air through and trap odors. I can tell it needs replacing when it gets whiffy. (Also, we've had fewer fruit flies since we started washing the bananas as soon as the enter the house. We still get them sometimes in summer berry season, but mostly avoid them the rest of the year. Worth trying, if you don't already.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:52 PM on June 7, 2020

We use a stainless steel bucket that has a charcoal filter in the lid. The filter is pretty effective.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:00 AM on June 8, 2020

A Bokashi is exactly what you are looking for. You put in the day's scraps plus a sprinkling of the mix, and tamp it down.

We are in a house but use one anyway because it's a lot easier to put the day's compost in it when it's nearby, than go out into the garden at night to use the big traditional compost bin.

It fits about 3-4 weeks of scraps for us, but we do produce a lot. When it's full, you open the tap at the bottom and out comes this "interesting" smelling liquid that you can use as a fertiliser on plants, or they even suggest can be used as a toilet / drain cleaner. NO smell at all when you take the airtight lid off each day. Take it to the collection point to empty - the oldest stuff will be mush, the newest stuff only barely decomposed.
posted by trialex at 4:43 PM on June 8, 2020

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