Welcome to Art-in-the-Park’s introductory guide to composting!
Look no further! We’ll give you the low-down on easy, basic composting in NYC.
Are you tired of taking so much garbage out to the street? Composting is a simple and low-odor way to manage your food waste. If you cook frequently, especially with fruits and vegetables, this can reduce the time and money spent on trash bags full of stems and chopped leaves.
When food goes to a landfill, it gets covered with dirt and composts in an anaerobic environment. This produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 16 times the effect of CO2. By composting, you create a closed-loop system that puts carbon right back into the soil for use by plants and microbes.
NYC has many parks, but the white picket fence and backyard garden aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be. Composting can be done with a balcony, window, or small space with minimal-no odor if done correctly, and managing the process can be a fun project. Putting a compost + small gardening + cooking project together is a rewarding experience!
At Art-in-the-Park, we strongly advocate getting youth involved in the kind of creative food projects composting supports, which you can read more about here.
Now that we have covered the whys of composting, let’s get into some of the specific methods used.
What is Composting?
You probably know the basic concept: turn organic waste into healthy dirt, which can supercharge plant growth. That covers the basics, but there is more to know about composting if you are looking to get started! Here are some of the variants you can get started with.
Anaerobic Composting - Works like a Stomach
Anaerobic - without air. This kind of composting is essentially putting food waste in a sealed container and letting it sit. The sealed environment creates acidic, stomach-like conditions that break down the organic material and kill pathogens over about a year.
No need to mix and aerate it regularly - low maintenance
Some meat/dairy/fat matter is okay
Eventually, you are going to have to open that bag and aerate it before feeding it to plants
Requires maintenance 1/week to check for insects or issues with composting
Long time period - about a year to be fully composted and safe to use
Aerobic Composting - Works like a Cheese Culture
Aerobic - needs air to work. This composting method is more like natural soil composition than an anaerobic digester. With aerobic bacteria, a mixture of high-carbon materials (browns) and high-nitrogen waste (greens) can be broken down. The process takes about 4-6 months depending on conditions.
Speedy - turn more of your waste into fertilizer faster
Less smell - odors escape more easily
Medium maintenance - add more greens/browns as needed to maintain the compost, weekly aeration
Vermicomposting - Works like a Living Blender
“Vermi-” - Worms. Vermicomposting is technically a version of aerobic composting, but far more intensive. While aerobic composting can take a few months, adding worms to the mix turbocharges the process. Worms can eat 50-100% of their body weight per day in organic waste, an insanely fast composting rate. The tunnels they make in the soil help aerate it, and the castings they produce are hyper-nutritious for plants due to nutrients and enzymes from their digestive tract. By creating a two-creature system of compost + worms, you add some minor complexity for huge benefits.
Blazingly fast - about ½ lb of worms in a 5-gallon bucket can eat up to their weight in food waste per day.
Worms aerate the soil for you
Worm compost is much more valuable than regular compost ($0.50-$1.00/lb. in some cases)
Temperature sensitivity - if you add too much organic matter, the compost gets too hot for worms. If outside temperatures go below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they can die/freeze.
pH sensitivity - too much acid or too much food can lower the pH and kill worms. If the bin smells rotten instead of earthy, you know the pH is too low
Though the Aerobic methods are the most common, each method has its pros and cons. Aerobic composting can be done well with a low budget in an apartment space, so we will use that as our example. The Dept. of Sanitation has an excellent indoor vermicomposting guide here.
Components of an Aerobic Compost
Aerobic composting needs a few things to get started:
A Container with a lid
A sturdy plastic container will do the job. You want it to be large enough to meet your waste needs, but small enough to fit your living space in a closet, balcony, or under the sink. A clean, lidded five-gallon bucket from home depot will do perfectly.
Browns (carbon-rich materials)
These materials form the foundation of the compost. Any Browns should be shredded as finely as possible to help the compost break them down. Good Browns to add are:
Shredded paper/newspaper (unbleached)
Dry dead leaves
Greens (nitrogen-rich food waste)
These are fresh, wet, biologically active materials that feed the compost. Some good Greens to add are:
Fruit and vegetable scraps
Fresh grass clippings
Garden prunings and waste
Coffee/tea (not the filters)
A good rule of thumb - if it is wet and was alive within the last week, it's a Green. This will be important for moisture management later on.
These are healthy microbes that will start the process. Some good sources:
Fermented rice water - fill your after-dinner rice cooker with some water and leave it in the sun for a few days
Other compost - including a previous batch you may have made!
Depending on the accelerator, this is potentially the stinkiest component of your new compost. If you have problems with odor, add a layer of Browns on top of the accelerator to reduce smells.
DO NOT ADD THESE TO YOUR COMPOST
The following will cause issues with your compost, either attracting pests, causing unpleasant odors, or killing the good bacteria in the compost.
Putting your Compost Together!
Drill some ¼ “ holes in the top, bottom, and sides of your 5-gallon bucket. These are needed for aeration.
Add a layer of browns, about ¼ of the total volume.
Add a layer of greens, then browns, in a 1:1 ratio. Continue to add layers until the bucket is about ¾ full. The base layer of browns should make the overall balance favor browns, which will help cut down on odor and pests.
Add greens/browns to the compost. Make sure to avoid adding the materials listed in the above “Do not add” section, and keep the ratio as close to 1:1 as you can while minimizing smells and pests.
Aerate it once a week. Either roll the sealed bucket on the ground while it is light enough or use a tool to mix the insides around.
Add moisture as needed - the compost should feel like a damp sponge, but not leak water when squeezed
Add browns as needed - if odor, pests, or overwatering becomes an issue, dry browns will keep them under control
Cold temperatures will slow your compost - try to keep your container in a slightly insulated area
Tip: chopping up your greens and browns before adding them speeds up the compost
When the bucket is full, and it looks like dirt (no eggshells or original waste visible) your compost is ready to add to plants!
Save some of the larger clumps as a starter for your next bucket, and sift the smaller clumps into your plants for a growth boost.
Follow these instructions, and you should have relatively low-maintenance, low-mess compost that works in NYC living conditions. The planet and your plants will feel the difference!
Composting in NYC
We have compiled a list of resources for help with composting specific to NYC.
Citywide Compost Pickup
The city is set to begin citywide curbside composting in all areas by 2024. Click here for the rollout schedule
Get City Compost
The Dept. of Sanitation has compost giveaways if you want to get some without making it yourself, but supplies are limited and tickets sell out quickly.
Nonprofit Compost Events
Art-in-the-Park is distributing bags of city compost this weekend on May 27th. Click here to signup for some of your own!
Smart Compost Bins
The city operates a series of smart compost bins you can use by downloading the app here for IOS or Android. Below is a demonstration of them in action.
Here is a helpful map of their locations!
Harlem Grown is a youth-focused community farm that would love to accept your food scraps! They also run fun cooking events, and welcome farm volunteering opportunities if you want to learn more about how compost can be used to make great food. They have two locations that accept compost:
118 W 134th Street: 24/7 - look for the blue bin in the entrance area of our farm
77 W 127th Street: M-Sat, 9 am-5 pm - look for the yellow newspaper-style bin out front
Thank you for reading our NYC Composting Guide!
We hope this guide has demystified composting for you, and shown you the benefits and potential of creating your own indoor compost! If you have any questions about the process, or how you can get involved with Art-in-the-Park’s NYC composting efforts, please reach out to us here.