How to Compost in an Apartment (With and Without Worms)

eco friendly kitchen

Compared to house dwellers with spacious yards, we apartment composters have limited options.

I really hate that “L” word. But it’s just true. Space and temperamental neighbors can be very real limitations.

BUT – these limitations will not stop us from being able to do the single most powerful power thing in an eco-friendly kitchen.

The solution is to get creative.

This article guides you on how to compost in an apartment, no matter how big it is or where it’s located.

As an apartment person myself, I’ve walked the composting path already, and I have a tip or two to share.

This blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own.

What Is Compost?

Compost is a grouping of decayed organic matter that can gradually break down into usable fertilizer.

The U.S. Composting Council offers a more technical definition:

“the product manufactured through the controlled aerobic, biological decomposition of biodegradable materials.”

Some experts differentiate compost and humus. According to horticulturist Colin Skelly, compost is the mass of scraps that has yet to decompose, while humus is the black and brown soil that results from fully decomposed compost. We adhere to this differentiation.

What Can I Compost?

couple chopping vegetables in the kitchen

With enough time, skill, labor, and resources, you can compost almost any mixture of natural materials. We have to be realistic, though. Parameters will depend on where you live and whether you want the actual decomposition to occur in your home.

Here are some common materials that should work in almost any situation, including small-space composting at home. The EPA separates these items into two broad categories: nitrogen-rich materials (greens) and carbon-rich materials (browns).


  • Fruit and vegetable scraps (or entire fruits and vegetables if they went bad before you could eat them)

  • Eggshells

  • Coffee grounds

  • Tea bags and loose leaves


  • Shredded brown bags and shredded white paper

  • Untreated wood chips

  • Shredded pieces of cardboard that don’t have any wax coating, tape, or glue

    You may add dry leaves, plant stalks, and other yard waste as well, but as apartment people, we usually don’t have convenient access to those materials.

Other Materials That Should Probably Be Dropped Off at Municipal Sites

Unless you have a wealth of composting experience and confidence, these materials are more difficult to compost in an apartment. We recommend dropping them off at government-approved composting sites where they will be taken to a facility. Make sure they are on a list of approved items. If they aren’t on the approved list or the banned list, ask a government worker if they’re OK.

  • Any grain, wheat, or legume cooked or uncooked (takes a long time at home)

  • Dryer lint (EPA advises against doing this one at home)

  • Finger and toenail clippings (sharp, easy to cut yourself on while handling)

  • Hair such as beard trimmings (takes a long time, and can blow away easily)

  • Paper towels, tissues, and paper napkins (takes a long time and a lot of space)

  • Wet wipes made from natural materials and without chemicals added (takes a long time and a lot of space)

  • Expired sauces and spices (takes a long time at home)

How to Compost in an Apartment (Without Worms)

Composting with worms, also called vermicomposting, is a popular method because worms accelerate decomposition and improve the quality of soil.

We’ll understand, however, if you don’t want a bunch of worms wriggling right near your home. Even if you’re comfortable with critters, acquiring worms is not always convenient or affordable. 

Here are some ways to compost in an apartment without worms:

Compost Bins for Completing the Cycle in Your Home

For small-space composting, there are many tested and popular bin/tumbler brands you can peruse. Each has recommendations for material types. 

mill bin

Image Source: Mill

These devices are for people who want to complete the composting process — from compost to usable humus — inside their homes. Packages should come with manuals with instructions on how to add moisture, how to seal the compost, and how often to tumble.

Here are a few choices I will personally vouch for:

Compost Collection for Donating Outside the Home

For apartment people who want the full decomposition to happen outside their homes, the process is far easier.

All you need to do is sort the compostable materials into a regular trash can or compost container. Then donate it for processing, ideally before bugs start to gather. I donate my materials once a week, and I haven’t seen any bugs yet.

Some municipalities provide people with a compost pail or allow residents to request one (either for free or at a very low cost). The upside of a compost pail is that you can reuse it, as opposed to a single-use bag. The downside is you’ll have to regularly deep clean that compost pail so it doesn’t get stinky and attract pests.

How to Create a Worm Bin for Your Apartment

The steps for creating a worm bin in your apartment will depend on how much of a DIY person you are. Buying a worm bin is the most convenient method for people who want to save time and don’t mind spending more. You can even buy the worms. The Rodale Institute recommends redworms, also known as red wigglers.

photo of the Uncle Jim's Double try worm composter

Worm Composter Brands We Recommend:

You Can Buy The Worms Via Amazon:

Bin brands often sell worms in bundles and you can also buy worms from local garden shops.

If you’re hardcore about a natural approach, feel free to scavenge local spots with lots of moist soil or dead plant material. There should be a few redworms hanging out there.

Steps for DIY Compost Bin

photo of a DIY worm composter

If the idea of a DIY mini compost bin excites you, follow these steps:

Step 1: Get the Base for Your Bin(s)

I recommend the 3 layer system for your DIY worm composting system. This is the best deal for multiple containers of suitable quality on amazon. You’ll get a bonus tote you can use for something else.

photo of the ideal bins that could be used for a DIY worm composter

With the exception of antimicrobial materials such as cedar, any sturdy material in box form can be the base for a worm bin. Remember to get a lid. An open box might not work. 

Plastic seems to be the most common material. The Rodale Institute’s Rick Carr said wood and styrofoam can work as well. Home Depot recommends a rubber storage container like the ones above. Take your pick.

Step 2: Make Holes in the Bin(s)

a power drill on an apartment balcony

Now it’s time to break out the power tools.

Drill 1/4″ holes about 2 inches apart all over the bottom of two of the bins. These will be your rotating top two layers. You’ll also want to drill 1/4″ holes along the top 4″ band of each of the totes’ walls to create sufficient oxygen flow for the worms inside the bins.

You’ll also need to drill 1/4″ holes all over the lid that will sit on top of the whole system, again, for aeration.

Step 3: Start Composting

garlic and bok choi on the kitchen counter

As you would in any composting situation, add food scraps and the like to the middle bin. Pepper the pile with scraps of office paper or newspaper.

Spray with water to maintain moisture, then add the worms. This will be your middle layer.

Place the empty bin on top with a lid.

Step 4: Get Your System Down

The reason for the 3-layer system is simple and genius. It’s a way to have a continuous supply of worm castings ready to add to the garden or to your house plants.

Start with the worms and food scraps together in the middle bin. Once they have composted all of the food scraps and the bin is full of worm castings, you can add scraps to the top bin and the worms will climb up to the top container through the holes you drilled and start composting in that bin.

Once you have finished compost in the middle bin and the worms have migrated to the top bin, distribute your fresh worm casting compost from the original (middle) bin and put the now empty bin back on top.

This is the cycle! Super easy.

The very bottom layer will not have holes in the bottom because it is there to catch the liquid byproduct of the worm composting. The “compost tea!”

Here’s a pro tip: Add a cooler drainage piece to the bottom layer that will collect the liquid from the composting process.

This “tea” can be diluted (1:5 with water) and used just like fertilizer. It’s potent stuff though, so an application just once a week is good.

There you go. You now have your own compost!

How Can I Use Compost?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to use compost when you live in an apartment building:

  1. Outside the home

  2. Inside the home or on your balcony

In rare cases, building managers set up compost piles in outdoor common spaces such as roofs and terrace gardens.

herbs in pots on a window sill

Composting Outside the Home

If you want the majority of the decomposition process to happen outside your home, research whether your area has municipal compost pickup services or dropoff locations. Look for bins (usually brown) with local government signage.

Remember that this approach can still count as composting. The expert we cited defined composting as gathering the materials and beginning the decomposition process. Who says that process has to end in your apartment as well?

For those who can’t get pickup to their apartment building, farmer’s markets and public parks often host official dropoff sites. During certain hours of the week, volunteers and city employees oversee select composting stations. 

a brown bag compost hand off at the farmers market

As someone who composts by carrying bags of accepted materials to a brown bin in a park near my apartment, I highly recommend this method. All you have to do is sort the materials and carry them out before they get stinky. 

Website pages and signage should list which materials are acceptable and unacceptable. Read carefully because the restrictions are not always intuitive and vary wildly between geographies. When I first started researching, I assumed meat would be acceptable because it’s natural and organic. Nope. In my local area, NYC, city compost collectors discourage us from mixing in meat, bones, and dairy.

To make sorting and disposal convenient, my wife and I place different trash containers around the apartment in areas where we’re likely to handle organic waste. There’s a large bin under our kitchen sink where we toss municipality-approved food scraps and napkins. The other large bin in our kitchen is where we dispose of all organic materials that aren’t municipality-approved, as well as non-organic trash that can’t be municipally recycled. There is a small trash can in our bathroom and another in our bedroom. These spots are where we usually toss tissues, bathroom wipes, hair clippings, fingernails, etc. Once a week, I grab all the compostable material-filled trash bags in the house, take them to the park, and dump them in the government-approved brown bin. Once I get back home, I replace the trash bags, and the cycle starts all over again.

How To Use the Compost Once It Turns Into Humus

When compost becomes humus, the use case will depend on your goals and living situation. If you want to use it for your own benefit, you’ll need potted plants or a garden. In this case, the humus is free fertilizer. Simply layer it around the base of the plant or crop you’re trying to grow. You can also try to sell it to someone, but the chances of a successful sale are low.

an apartment balcony garden of potted plants

If your goal is to aid the environment or other people, there are several ways you can distribute useable humus:

  • Visit a local farm or farmer’s market

  • Donate it to a manager or members of community gardens near you

  • If you’re allowed to, distribute it directly to plants, crops, and trees in a community garden

  • Layer it around trees on public land

  • Donate it to industrial composting facilities (They usually distribute it to farmers.)How Does Composting Help the Environment?

When we don’t compost, our food scraps usually end up in a landfill where they can’t become usable soil.

the earth all green and healthy

Instead, this waste festers, creating methane and carbon dioxide that pollute the air and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Every time we compost successfully, we reduce our carbon footprint, shrink landfills, and increase the supply of fertilizer that doesn’t depend on added chemicals.

Small Space, Big Impact

We may live in smaller spaces, but we can create as much compost and humus as people with big yards. It’s all about how much time we want to commit.

Remember, apartment composting starts the moment you put food scraps in the compost bin, and the process to compost food scraps can be as easy as a walk around the block.

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