Organic waste being used as compost for an apartment garden.

The Guide to Apartment Composting

Updated December 18, 2019 . AmFam Team

The benefits of composting are undeniable — it’s a cheap way to use food scraps you’d otherwise throw away, it’s great for the environment and your plants and garden will love it, too. Here’s how to do it even when you don’t have a ton of space to work with.

Whether you’ve got a full-fledged community garden you share with other apartment complex tenants or just a couple indoor or outdoor plants, you’d be wise to go green and start composting in your apartment. Even with the smaller amount of space your apartment offers, it’s not hard to get your green thumbs moving and start taking advantage of all the benefits composting offers. 

Why Should I Compost?

If you’re not sold on the idea of naturally feeding your garden or plants, check out all the reasons why it’s smart to compost:

Compost is better for the environment than chemical fertilizers

Any overuse or misuse of fertilizer can be harmful to your plants and your environment. Compost, if created correctly, is totally natural and gives your plants and vegetables more of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.

Compost is nearly free

Aside from purchasing the initial materials you’ll need for a compost bin, compost is essentially free — you’re just putting food scraps you’d usually throw out into the bin and letting nature do its work.

Compost reduces waste

If they don’t go into your compost bin, your food scraps head to a landfill where conditions would cause them to emit methane gas, which is harmful to Earth’s ozone layer. Instead, compost is cultivated into a soil conditioner and doesn’t harm the environment — a win-win!

How to Start Composting in an Apartment

The typical compost bin is a large, outdoor structure that houses certain types of food scraps and paper waste and is generally kept near a garden for ease of use. If you’re living in an apartment, however — especially one not on the first floor — it can be difficult to see how or where in your apartment you can start composting. But even if you don’t have any outdoor space at all, like a balcony or patio, you can still compost in your apartment with a few simple tips and best practices.

Apartment Compost Materials

Contrary to popular belief, composting doesn’t have to be an expensive, time-intensive and exhausting process. The key is in the preparation! Make sure you’ve got all these necessary materials you need before you start composting in your apartment:

A plastic bin with two lids

The size all depends on how much compost you want and need, but make sure you’re able to poke small holes in the top of the container for ventilation and in the base of the container to allow excess water to drain. Use another lid or container to catch the drainage underneath.

Strips of paper

Shred old newspaper, billing statements or any other non-treated paper that doesn’t contain toxic materials and soak them in water. Pull them out of the water, allowing any excess water to drip off, then lay them across the bottom of your container, covering all plastic. If possible, try to fill one-third of the container with soaked paper.

You’ll need the same amount of paper later on in the process for layering, so make sure you’ve got enough compost-safe paper on-hand from the beginning.


Dump your soil over the moist paper strips, being careful to leave enough space for the organic material you’ll be tossing in later. Remember, you’ll need to be able to shift the composting materials around later, so don’t overfill it.


Not just any worm will do — redworms are perfect for composting, and they’ll love taking part in your experiment. You can purchase redworms online or at some greenhouses or gardening shops. Drop them on top of the soil you just poured into the container. A good rule of thumb? Take your bin’s size in square footage, then add the same amount of worms in pounds.


Here’s the fun part — from now on, whenever you peel a potato, toss out an apple core or ditch used coffee grounds, make sure it’s into your compost bin! Stay away from pouring any dairy, animal waste, meat or anything cooked in oil into your bin, but anything raw and organic is fair game.

After you add a round of food waste, make sure to cover it with moist paper like the kind you lined your compost bin with.

Where Can I Put the Compost Bin in My Apartment?

Ideally, you’d be able to place your compost bin outside in a cool area that doesn’t get much sunlight. But if you live in an apartment and your outdoor space is limited, you’ve still got options! Check out our recommendations for compost bin placement in an apartment:

On your kitchen counter

We know what you’re thinking — compost is made up of old food, dirt and worms, so why would I put that on my counter? Well, compost doesn’t always stink. And if it does, it generally means something is wrong. So if you’ve followed directions and have your compost bin flourishing, keeping it on your kitchen counter where easily ditching your food scraps won’t be a problem.

Under your sink

Plenty of people keep their main garbage can under their sink anyways, so hiding your compost bin there isn’t a bad idea, if it’ll fit.

On natural ground

If you have any greenspace outside your apartment building and your landlord and fellow tenants don’t mind, placing your compost bin on dirt or grass outside is a great move. The excess moisture will drain onto natural ground, giving it nutrients it needs while you cultivate your compost.

On your apartment balcony

Having a balcony is a great opportunity to store your apartment compost bin outside in a space that isn’t heavily trafficked. In this case, make sure there’s a drainage catching lid or second bin to prevent any compost liquids from dripping onto your neighbors’ property.

How to Keep Your Indoor Compost Bin From Smelling

One of the main reasons people don’t compost indoors? They don’t want to deal with the smell. Like we mentioned earlier, though, if your compost bin smells, there’s probably something wrong. And if it’s working correctly, it’ll probably smell like dirt! Here’s how you can prevent your compost bin from stinking up your apartment:

Don’t pack the compost bin too tightly

Packing your compost bin too tightly makes it hard for the materials to decompose and can trap in some of the odors in your apartment. Shift the material inside to loosen it up every once in a while.

Keep brown and green materials at a 2:1 ratio

By brown materials, we mean things like dead leaves, small broken sticks and lawn clippings. There should be twice the amount of those things in comparison to green materials like food waste.

Don’t add non-compostable materials

If you add any oils, meat, dairy or animal waste, you’ll introduce materials that’ll turn your plant-friendly compost into a stinky, potentially plant-damaging cocktail. Keep those materials out!

How to Harvest Your Apartment Compost

The time it takes for your food waste, leaves, lawn clippings and dirt to turn into compost will vary depending on the size of your bin, the materials you used and the environment it’s in. It could take a few months, or it could take a year. Here are some tips on harvesting your apartment compost:

Check if it’s ready

If your compost bin is full of a dark brown dirt-like material that smells like dirt and has minimal signs of food waste, it’s probably ready. If you’re not sure, there’s little harm in letting the food waste decompose further.

Check under the top layer

The top layer of your bin might not look ready, but as the material in the bin decomposes, gravity might take it to the middle and bottom of the bin.

Mix it into your soil

Using an approximate 4-to-1 ratio of soil to compost can give your vegetable garden and plants the nutrients they need to thrive. Make sure to mix them thoroughly, and don’t allow clumps of compost to stick together.

Other Ways to Compost When You Live in an Apartment

If you’ve decided that composting isn’t for you, don’t worry — there are plenty of ways you can use your food waste to better the environment. Here’s how:

Research community gardens in your area

If you’ve got a community garden nearby, ask if they collect composting materials. Your food scraps are of much better use in the hands of willing green thumbs than in the back of a garbage truck.

Freeze your food scraps

If you’re unable to find a local garden to donate your scraps to, freeze them in food-safe plastic bags. They won’t stink, and once you do find a willing taker like a farmer’s market or decide to jump into the indoor gardening movement, you’ve got the material ready in your freezer!

And while you take the right steps to better the environment, don’t forget to protect your home from the unexpected with renters insurance. Get in touch with your American Family Insurance agent (Opens in a new tab) today to get the peace of mind you deserve.

Tools & Resources

Explore our tools and smart tips.