Composting: My Experience.

Today I’ve decided to tackle one of the hardest, most important parts of my zero waste journey: composting indoors. Now, this is an article I planned on writing months ago, but I had more difficulty beginning to compost in my apartment than I anticipated.

**If you are looking for a comprehensive step by step composting guide, this is not it. This is simply my experience, along with some tips I’ve learned along the way.**

A little background:

For years when I lived with my parents we had a compost heap out behind the trees where all our food scraps went, along with all our grass clippings and anything else we thought would break down over time. It was easy, but not efficient. It took years for all the stuff we threw out to break down into gorgeous, nutrient rich soil. But it didn’t matter how long it took, because it was out in our backyard where no one else could see it.

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This is one of the only photos I have of our compost pile. It’s food scraps covered in yard trimmings, dirt, and sawdust.

Fast forward to last year when I moved into a one bedroom apartment and couldn’t find a local composting site. I realized I knew nothing about composting indoors. So I ended up going to unclejimswormfarm.com and buying an indoor compost bin along with 2000 live worms.

I had read online that it was simple to make your own compost bin (interested in making your own? click here), but I figured better safe than sorry and I bought the Worm Cafe.  It promised to be fly proof (though I have found small flies can easily live in it) and to be easy to set up. It also looked a lot better than something I could have made.

The package from Uncle Jim’s included a handy set of instructions on how to take care of the worms, which I found to be super helpful. I don’t mind going online to find information, but when it comes to compost there is so much out there that it can get a bit overwhelming. Having a little sheet telling me exactly what to do made it simple.

The Bin:

IMG_5603The bin is made from recycled plastic, and contains three tubs that stack on top of each other. Each tub has holes in the bottom so that the worms can move between them.

For the first few months the bin sat in our living room. It looked nice enough and didn’t smell so having it out in the open was no issue. Unfortunately, after a couple of months it was clear that it couldn’t stay there. The first two problems were structural. The legs were not solid and if the bin got bumped or was moved over even a little bit one of the legs would inevitably fall out making the bin tip. The spout was also an issue, and it began to leak after a couple months of use.

The third issue was possibly my own fault. I added some old potting soil that I had brought from home to the bin, and soon after we started seeing small, gnat-like flies around the house. It quickly became clear that these flies were coming from the compost bin. We’ll never know for sure where the flies came from, but considering this happened in the middle of winter it is likely that they were living in the potting soil that I used.

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This is a much more realistic view of the bin. I filled the first tub too full, so I added books on top to try and keep it shut. 

To solve these problems we removed the legs all together and placed the bin on an old cabinet in our living room closet, while keeping a pot under the spout to catch drips. The flies are now contained, the worms seem happier to be in the dark all day, and my hard wood floors are safe. All in all, I’m still happy I bought a bin instead of making one because it came with instructions and I got to see how an indoor bin should work. But, I can’t recommend this bin to anyone, and I wouldn’t buy it again.

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Here’s my current compost set up. The bin is snuggled in between my snow tires and our winter coats.

My first 2 months composting:

The first week I was convinced my worms were dead.  I checked on them everyday for signs of life, but I saw nothing. Which was a good thing, because it meant that all the worms had burrowed into the bedding mixture that came with my worm cafe. After a couple of days I started adding some food scraps. I was scared to over load the worms so I only added about half of what I was creating (and I threw away the rest). I did this for about 2 months, which is the time it took for me to completely fill the first tub. Occasionally I would run some clean water through the bin and drain it. The instructions that came with it told me to run water through it weekly, but I’m not very good at following directions long term. It also said to add a layer of dirt every time I added food scraps, but again, that seemed like a lot of work everyday. So, I added dirt to it when I remembered and I ran water through it when I thought of it.

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This is a view of the worms immediately after they were added to the bin. They weren’t moving and looked totally dead.Luckily after a couple of days most of them disappeared, which meant they had burrowed in the bedding.

After about a month I started seeing worms on the inside walls of the bin and on the inside on the lid. At this point the bin started to smell rotten and  I realized I hadn’t been adding anything but food for a couple weeks. To make up for this I added some dirt (the aforementioned potting soil) and some cut up scraps of paper and cardboard and mixed it all together as best I could. The smell went away in a few days, but flies started to appear and we moved the bin to the closet shortly after.

My current compost routine:

I add food to my bin when I fill up the compost bowl I keep sitting in my kitchen. I chop up (almost) all of my food scraps before adding them. This means the worms get fed about once or twice a week.

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I no longer worry if I’m over feeding my worms, because there are tons of them now. Once I add my bowlful of scraps for the week, I’ll add a layer of shredded paper and cardboard on top. And if I think of it I’ll cover the whole thing in a layer of dirt. The instructions told me to add a handful of dirt every time I add food, but I’m more of a do it when I remember type of composter.

To make sure I have enough paper and cardboard in my bin I order a couple large pizzas once a month (such a sacrifice, I know) and compost the greasy parts of the boxes by shredding them. I used to use scissors and cut them all into small pieces, which was quite a bit of work, but I recently found a secondhand shredder and it’s been life changing. I also add in shredded paper bags and occasionally some torn up egg cartons.

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If the bin starts to smell I’ll add a layer of dirt along with more paper and cardboard and then I’ll run a large bowl of lukewarm water through it.

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How fast does the bin fill up: 

It takes me about a month to fill up an empty tub in my worm bin. After I’ve filled one tub up I switch it to the bottom of my bin and put an empty tub on top. Theoretically, I should be able to fill one tub up, and by the time my other two tubs are full (the bin comes with three tubs in total) the first tub can be dumped. The catch is, I don’t really have a good place to dump my compost right now since it’s summer and my garden plot is full of plants and I don’t have space to dig a large hole. Because of this, I often reuse a tub once it’s contents have broken down a bit and made more room for new scraps.

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This tub has been sitting for a month and has broken down so much it’s about half the size it originally was. I’ll add new scraps right on top of this.

My first completed compost:

I bought the bin in December and had the first tub filled up by mid February and emptied it on May 25. So the compost sat for about 3 months before I emptied it. There were still some recognizable egg shells, avocado pits, and pieces of hair, but everything else seemed to have been broken down into dirt. I dumped the compost into my community garden plot so that I could start filling the tub again, as my other two were full and I was told that extra tubs could not be purchased separately.

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Because it took my first tub 3 months to fully break down, and I fill up about one tub per month and I only have 3 tubs the math just doesn’t add up for this to work for me long term. I should be dumping one tub every two months, but I don’t have the space and the compost doesn’t seem to be fully broken down after two months. To solve this I will most likely be getting a second worm bin (I will probably make my own this time) so that I have enough space to continue adding new scraps while my old scraps sit and finish breaking down. If I do end up making my own bin, I will write a post on how I did it and how it compares to the store bought version.

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