Monday, June 22, 2009

Composting in an Apartment

Living in an apartment has presented a number of self-sufficiency challenges, especially if you want to grow a garden. Growing some of your own food, even if it is only a potted tomato plant and a few pots of basil, is an act of self-reliance and independence. The more of your own food that you can grow, the better off you are and the better quality food you will have.

We are lucky at our current apartment to have both a protected, south-facing balcony, as well as permission to grow a vegetable garden in a small section of the back yard (providing that we do a lot of ornamental plantings and maintain the lawn and hedges). Knowing how valuable compost is to the success of a garden, and wanting to keep rotting food out of landfills where it does absolutely no good to anyone, we wanted to compost our kitchen scraps.

Unfortunately, our landlords (my parents) are not permitting a compost pile in the backyard. But at least we can grow some edibles. At our old apartment, there was no yard nor balcony for an edible container garden, never mind a place for compost pile. In searching online for alternatives, we found three options: an electric composting unit, a Bokashi composting unit, and a worm bin.

The electric composter came with a price tag of about $300 for the least expensive model (for more money, you could change the color of the unit), but would allow for composting all kitchen waste, including meat and dairy. The unit used precious little power, but still, it uses electricity, and we're trying to eliminate any unnecessary electric usage.

Bokashi is a Japanese word for "fermented organic matter", and the Bokashi product is a microbial product that speeds up the breakdown of food waste into compost. The Bokashi unit was around $70, which was a much more affordable option to get started. However, it would require ongoing purchases of Bokashi. A typical 2.25 pound bag would cost around $12 plus shipping. Since Bokashi is not something that we can reproduce here at home, and would be the most expensive solution long term, we chose to bypass this option.

The final option was starting a worm composting bin. This type of composting, called vermicomposting or vermiculture, uses red worms (Eisenia fetida) to break down kitchen scraps, minus any meat or dairy. Worm bins can be made out of plastic storage bins for minimal investment, though we found a cedar worm bin and worms on eBay for a reasonable price. The worms reproduce, so you never need to buy anything else (assuming that you treat your worms correctly and don't kill them), and won't overpopulate, as their numbers are restricted by the size of the bin.

We got our worms last Autumn. In that time, there has never been an unpleasant odor from the bin. The worms have done a fair job, though if we had to do it again, I would have purchased twice as many worms. We bought approximately 500 worms, and we should have gone with 1000. We still ended up throwing veggie waste away because the bin was too full. Now, that the little wigglers have had some time to build up their numbers, we are seeing less and less kitchen waste.

I highly recommend composting with worms. The worms are not gross (actually, they are kind of cute). And they do a great job of breaking down non-meat and non-dairy food scraps. After the initial minimal expense, and minimal upkeep (a spray bottle to keep them from drying out, and an area free of drafts, etc.), the worms take care of the rest. The compost they produce is as good as gold.

So, it would seem that Mother Nature provided the perfect, natural, sustainable composting tool, even if the composting takes place in a city apartment.

Live better, a little every day.

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