make your own: indoor compost bin.

June 22, 2020

We’ve had a cardboard banker’s box full of compost underneath our couch for the past month. A few times a day, or any time we add fresh scraps, we turn the rich dark brown mixture with a trowel. When we do, it smells of clean earth and, vaguely, a fire pit. The rest of the time it sits unassumingly under the couch in the middle of our apartment, calling exactly zero attention to itself as it steadily disappears our family’s food and flower scraps.

At the beginning of May, New York City stopped its curbside organics collection and cut funding for community composting programs across the city for at least the next year. It’s a shortsighted austerity measure made in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic and it has the potential to undo years of environmental progress. In that first week, Hiroko Tabuchi, climate reporter at the New York Times, published a piece detailing how, for the past seven years, she’s lived with an odorless compost box beside her couch.

In her piece, Hiroko explains that the method—mixing food scraps into a combination of ash and coconut peat inside a simple cardboard box—is common in Japan, but virtually unheard of in the U.S. Don’t waste any time on incredulity regarding keeping compost in the living room, this method isn’t just cheap and brilliant, it’s tried and tested.

I followed the instructions from the original story and was helped along by these visuals and the Cardboard Box Composting Google Doc that Hiroko created as a follow-up. Among many other helpful details, the Google doc includes a list of all of the kinds of food scraps that can be composted using this method (for us that includes the vast majority of the scraps we end up with). Below are few specific materials that I used to build my box, plus a few tips that have been helpful for me.

Materials:

+ A cardboard banker’s box with lid (I got mine from a neighbor through the Buy Nothing Project.)

+ Extra cardboard to reinforce the bottom of the box

+ ~ 1.5 pounds of coco peat (I weighed it before reconstituting with water. I wasn’t sure if that was the right move, but’s worked perfectly so far.) (At the time when I bought mine, I could only find a large block, so I shared what I couldn’t use with neighbors. If you’re looking for your own supplies, Natty Gardens is a black-owned nursery and gardening supply shop in Brooklyn that carries coco peat blocks.)

+ 1 pound of biochar

+ 1-inch x 1-inch square dowel cut into 12-inch lengths; purchased and cut to size at the local hardware store

+ 4 screws (and a drill)

+ 4 felt pads

+ A sturdy garden trowel for breaking up the scraps and mixing the compost

Tips:

+ I generally chop any larger food scraps into smaller pieces before adding them to the mixture and I keep my trowel in the box with the compost to mix and further break apart any new scraps.

+ In the first week or so, I found my compost mixture was becoming too dry, too fast, so I often added water until I noticed it stopped drying out. (The coco peat is exceptionally absorbent, so my box has stayed totally dry.)

+ To keep air flowing around the cardboard box, it needs to be propped on wooden blocks. These can definitely be pieces of scrap wood, but I wanted to keep the bin as neat and simple for the whole family to use as possible, so I made a small wooden frame from square dowels and adhered felt chair pads to the bottom of it so we could easily slide the box out from under the couch when we add more scraps.

+ With the exception of items not recommended, we add most of our daily food scraps to our box. The compost grows very slowly and does an excellent job of breaking down a relatively robust quantity of daily scraps (we’ve been following the guideline of adding roughly 1.5 pounds of scraps each day). For reference on volume, the above photo shows the mixture before any scraps were added and the first two images of this post show the box as it looks today, after more than a month of adding scraps daily. As you’ll see, the volume is pretty nearly the same.

Action items:

+ Our compost box has been a really successful experiment for our own family, but it doesn’t begin to replace the infrastructure and support, to say nothing of the impact, of a city funded program. In New York City, the city’s budget could be finalized by the end of this week. It’s crucial that New Yorkers make their budget concerns known and ask that at least a portion of the budget for composting be reinstated. Follow Save Our Compost and Big Reuse for daily action items including email templates, talking points, phone numbers etc. needed to make your voice heard.

Other things:

+ For anyone looking to read more about the links between racism and environmental degradation, this reading list by Somini Sengupta for the New York Times is a good place to start.

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47 Comments

  • Reply Megan June 22, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    I wish I had seen this in my apartment days! We recently moved into a new home in a new town and they thankfully have a curbside compost/green waste pick up. Such an amazing resource that needs to be utilized everywhere!! Another cool thing the local waste disposal center has is free mulch, made from the tree/garden waste collected there. This is a lovely and simple idea, what do you think you’ll do with your compost once your box has reached capacity?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 23, 2020 at 8:17 am

      I’ll use it on houseplants and give it neighbors with gardens!

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      • Reply Clementine June 26, 2020 at 7:10 am

        This is holy grail! Thank you so much, no idea how I missed it at NYT. We live in suburbs where we can’t have a composted outside and no compost collection. Will share with all my friends

      • Reply judy moy August 12, 2020 at 8:40 pm

        I need follow up help. I started my box 3 weeks ago and it seems to be coming along nicely. But, how do you know when the compost is ready to be used?
        And- Do you stop adding to one box and start a new one so that you don’t add new scraps into a compost box that’s ready for use in your garden? Thank you!

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        • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 13, 2020 at 7:29 am

          Hey Judy! Generally I’d say this method is primarily really excellent for composting food scraps and keeping them out of the landfill. I think if you’re really hoping to use the compost on a regular basis in a garden, I’d use a different method! That said, when I recently potted a small plant outside our apartment, I dug into the box and pulled out a scoop that was as free of food scraps as possible and used that to no ill effect that I can tell.

  • Reply Lee June 22, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    This is fascinating! Thank you for sharing! When our city’s drop-off compost locations closed due to COVID-19, we were lucky enough to find a community garden nearby that takes compost. I have looped it into my walk route once a week, so we have been able to keep composting.

    And thanks for talking about the links between racism and the environment. You can’t be anti-racist without advocating for the environment and you can’t truly advocate for the environment without being anti-racist!

  • Reply Marie June 22, 2020 at 4:20 pm

    Wow ! We have a worm box compost (as we call it). A wooden box with lots of worms that take care of our scraps. It works well but this sounds like magic ! We also chop larger pieces before adding and the egg shells we dry out in the remaining heat of the oven after bread baking and then we easily crash them by hand into tiny pieces.

  • Reply Carolyn June 22, 2020 at 4:28 pm

    Just incase, there are still some community run spots accepting compost drop off in Brooklyn: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Nfk1r0gmbjYX7zj0SMuwAlmHPfjHzmuxCYr-9wWRAkM/edit

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    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 23, 2020 at 8:16 am

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Lindsey June 22, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    This looks like such a great idea. I am so bummed that my compost drop off site is closed (I’m over in Bushwick) and throwing away m scrape the last few months has been so sad. I do have one concern though-
    Have pests ever been a problem in your apartment? We have to be really diligent to avoid mice and cockroaches where I live, and having scraps under the couch seems like it would invite them.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 23, 2020 at 8:15 am

      I know it; so sad! Definitely check out Save Our Compost if you’re able. They’ve made it super easy to contact local legislators! No pest issues at all, though we only very rarely see bugs and never (knock on all the wood) mice typically. The scraps decompose super quickly once it gets going and there really isn’t any food odor, so I think that and the cover help that!

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    • Reply Lisa June 23, 2020 at 10:57 am

      We’ve been doing this for about a month, too. We live in Flatbush and do occasionally get cockroaches in our kitchen, but as far as I can tell, no bugs by the box (we have it in our living room near a window for airflow!). We keep it covered with an old pillowcase and some string.

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    • Reply Kate June 23, 2020 at 12:26 pm

      Check out @nbkcompost ! They have organized drop offs in your area, if the box method doesn’t work for you.

      xo

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    • Reply SJ June 24, 2020 at 12:05 pm

      The worst rat problem we’ve ever had was when we attempted a compost pile and that was outside in our backyard (but the rats eventually came inside and took 3x longer than the compost pile’s lifetime to get rid of.) It’s a bummer but I won’t do compost on my own until I can afford and have space for a secure container, and rats and mice are so persistent I would still expect them. :-/. So grateful for curbside compost and I too would be devastated if it was eliminated.

  • Reply Margaret June 22, 2020 at 8:55 pm

    I’m fortunate enough to have a yard and a compost bin myself, but I do have a question. I can see my dogs trying to rip it open. Does anyone address this? Anything beyond keeping it out of reach?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 23, 2020 at 8:15 am

      Interesting. No insight re dogs, but I know we might have to get creative once Calder is crawling!

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      • Reply Bethany June 25, 2020 at 9:14 am

        How interesting! I’ve just started a compost myself in our little garden. Although I’m still looking for wood scraps to make the actual box…I did wonder if cardboard would hold up in the garden…

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        • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 25, 2020 at 10:15 am

          Can’t imagine that would work! This is really an indoor system!

    • Reply Robin June 23, 2020 at 11:33 am

      For my cedar slat compost bin, I ended up wrapping it in chicken wire to keep the dog out. With my black plastic compost bin, I wire the pieces together. It’s annoying to have to remove the wire every time I flip the compost, but it’s worth it.

    • Reply Claudia June 23, 2020 at 6:59 pm

      I’m also curious if this method works equally well outside? Also any idea how long the peat and biochar last?

      1
      • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 24, 2020 at 10:35 am

        I think this exact system is best for indoors because of the cardboard box, et cetera, but certainly many folks doing outdoor composting use biochar or other wood ash. If you’re interested in that element, I might poke around for more guidance in that vein!

      • Reply Susana Galli June 24, 2020 at 5:26 pm

        i think for outside it might be better you look into a vermicompost. They aren’t hard to make at all, I made mine with two Ikea dark containers but anything that fits inside one another will work. I’ve also heard Morag Gamble saying that she has buckets among her beds and she fills them with the scraps (worms for a vermicompost are special, not the ones we find normaly, as they wouldnt like to be in an enviroment with so many scraps), i thought this was a very interesting concept, but I wonder how it would work in Scotland in winter.

      • Reply Amanda Krieger June 24, 2020 at 7:48 pm

        Claudia — my only hesitation to doing this outside would be that, if the box is exposed to the elements, it will also eventually compost. I’m not sure how you keep that from happening, even inside. I compost cardboard all the time (is it because your compost doesn’t heat up as much as a larger, outdoor one does?)
        We compost outside in two huge weather-proof bins.

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        • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 25, 2020 at 8:19 am

          The compost does heat up a bit, but probably less than larger outdoor operations. I lined the bottom of my box with an layer of cardboard and that did eventually compost, but the box itself as been totally intact and the journalist who shared this method reports that she’s had the same box going for several years running. I think the very high absorbency of the coco peat is the reason!

          • Amanda Krieger June 27, 2020 at 4:06 pm

            amazing that the coco peat does that! compost is AMAZING!
            out on my run this morning I saw a woman wearing a shirt, “compost happens” and I had to stop and compliment her! haha!

          • Judy August 1, 2020 at 10:22 am

            I need follow up help. I started my box 3 weeks ago and it seems to be coming along nicely. But, ow do you know when the compost is ready?
            And- Do you stop adding to one box and start a new one so that you don’t add new scraps into a compost box that’s ready to use in your garden?

    • Reply mado June 24, 2020 at 1:56 pm

      I have worm compost buckets in my house and two dogs who will scavenge anything and everything… but so far (2 years ish) they have completely ignored them, to my surprise.

  • Reply Lizzie June 22, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    We’ve been doing this for about a month too! I’ve been so impressed, we keep ours in our dinning room on the bottom shelf of an ikea butcher black side table, when I walk by I catch the faint smell of earthy garden goodness!

  • Reply Audrey June 23, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    How disappointing that New York would take a step backwards here but I love this at-home alternative. And thanks for sharing that NY Times article on racism and the environment. I work in nutrition and I’ve been going down a rabbit hole this last month on racism in our food systems by lack of access to real food through SNAP, food deserts, etc. and what can be done.

    I’m privileged to live in a town that prioritizes composting and recycling efforts and picks these up for us (in Boulder, CO), but I’ve been toying with the idea of a backyard compost instead. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Reply Kate June 23, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    This looks great! I tried worm composting once indoors and it was a mess! Also, in case this method doesn’t work for some, here are some other avenues for continuing drop off 🙂 Check out @nbkcompost @bk_rot (North Brooklyn pick up and drop off locations) and @naturebasedny for a Gowanus drop off! Just sharing these, in case the box method isn’t convenient for some.

  • Reply cathy June 23, 2020 at 9:05 pm

    I love this! We have a bin in the yard, but maybe I’ll give it a go this winter when there’s too much snow to trudge to the bin. Thanks!

  • Reply Tamara June 24, 2020 at 1:36 am

    This is awesome! Stopped by my gardening store today to see if they have bio char and coco peat and they had both. They had coco peat in bulk so I measured 1.5 pounds but am just now realizing you said that was before you reconstituted it and maybe bulk coco peat is already reconstituted? I just saw on the google doc that she used 4 gallons. Anyway, if you can clarify, I’d so appreciate it! Thank you for sharing this. We have curbside compost here still but I’d love to be able to have our own compost.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 24, 2020 at 10:33 am

      That’s so great! The quantity part was a little tough to figure out, so I decided to really go with the 3 parts coco peat to 2 parts ash (or biochar) directive. The biochar I found came in 1 pound bags and I used that as my guide! Hope that helps!

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  • Reply Charlotte June 24, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    Which biochar did you buy from the linked website (wakefield biochar)? There are a few different options. Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 25, 2020 at 8:23 am

      Tossed the bag mine came in, but I think I went with the compost hero!

  • Reply Amanda Krieger June 24, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    Composting has emerged as one of my strange “I suppose this is what it’s like to be closing in on 40” passions. It truly gives me SO MUCH JOY to compost.
    I’m so curious, though, what will you do with your compost? I put mine in my veggie garden; I’m always curious about what those without large gardens do with that black gold 🙂

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    • Reply ERIN BOYLE June 25, 2020 at 8:17 am

      I’ll be using some on my houseplants and giving the rest away to friends and neighbors with gardens!

  • Reply Lauren Schlesinger June 24, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you for this post. I had been trying to find more details about this method and this is perfect!

  • Reply Jenna June 25, 2020 at 10:34 am

    This is so awesome – I will be moving into a new apartment in July and have been looking into different options for composting. The city I will be living in doesn’t have any sort of organic pick up, so I figured composting myself would be the best option. Will definitely be referencing this post for later!
    Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? Life of an Earth Muffin

  • Reply Alison July 2, 2020 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you for this amazing post, Erin! I just started about a week ago and was wondering how long it takes before you start to notice the food scraps breaking down?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 2, 2020 at 4:56 pm

      10 days ish?

  • Reply Bifen Xu July 15, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    I started doing this and followed your instructions. I am starting to see fruit flies though. Any suggestions?
    Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

      Haven’t had a fruit fly problem! Possible you’re adding more scraps than the pile can decompose swiftly!

    • Reply Clare Chippendale July 16, 2020 at 5:48 am

      We get fruit flies from our kitchen scrap bucket occasionally and a small dish of apple cider vinegar and a little dish soap traps them all. I just have it on the window sill.

  • Reply Clare Chippendale July 16, 2020 at 5:46 am

    This is amazing, I’ve never heard of this method. Compost is so magic. We organised a massive hot bin for our complex of 14 townhouses as our council won’t take ours . We just keep putting in SO MANY SCRAPS and it never seems to rise. Amazing.

  • Reply andrea September 10, 2020 at 7:05 am

    Hi, I love my box! been keeping it going for a couple months. But suddenly there are fruit flies. Can you help?

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    • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 10, 2020 at 9:39 am

      We’ve never had a problem with fruit flies, but I imagine you might be adding too many scraps and that backing off from adding new, while still turning frequently will solve the problem! Good luck!

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