How to Compost in a Chicago Apartment

You’re probably reading this because you believe it’s important to reuse materials where we can. Here’s another way you can cut down your weekly garbage even further: composting. 

Composting allows you to divert all of the food scraps that you’re throwing in your garbage can to be processed into a new material and reused. Banana peels. Kale stems. Apple cores. Sound familiar? Maybe a few of those are in your trash can right this minute? Instead, they could be composted into soil. 

What is composting?

Composting is the act of diverting food scraps and plant-based items (think paper) from the landfill by allowing them to decompose back into rich soil. This finished soil is also called compost. Food can’t properly decompose in a landfill because of, among other things, a lack of oxygen. It instead emits greenhouse gases like methane when it’s added to a landfill rather than composted. 

Composting your food scraps has benefits for you (no more taking out wet, stinky trash bags each week), the planet (reducing emissions from landfills and the amount of landfill space necessary to store our trash), and farmlands (let’s get that soil growing even more food to eat, compost the scraps, and use it to grow more food!).

You’ll often hear of folks composting in a bin in their backyard. But if you live in an apartment or condo and you don’t have a backyard, you can still compost.

Pick-Up Services

Enter the compost pick-up service. For $10 - $40 a month, depending on how often you require pickups, you can pay for a service to do your composting for you. 

Here’s how it works: They’ll drop off an empty five-gallon bucket for you, which you could store under your sink, in a corner (it’s a conversation starter), or on your balcony.  Or you can subscribe to a community bin that is used by multiple households instead.  With both pick-up services, the in-home process is basically the same. 

Image © Zero Waste Chicago

You’ll slowly add your food scraps directly into the bucket or a smaller compost bin: squash rinds, the berries you didn’t get a chance to eat before they went moldy, coffee grounds from your morning cup, eggshells. All these (and pretty much everything else) can go straight into the bin. 

Then, if you have a door-to-door pickup service, you leave your bin outside on your designated day.  Pickups can be ordered weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly and you don’t have to be home during the pick-up time, luckily.  And they'll leave you a fresh empty bucket to start filling all over again.  If you subscribe to a community composting service, then you can add your food scraps at any time.  You'll receive a code to the combination lock when you sign up. 

And that's it.  The compost services will take care of composting the food scraps into actual soil (or compost); all you have to do is keep them separate from your other trash.

Cost:  $10-$40 per month
Unique Benefits: Ease. Regularly scheduled pickups - sometimes by bike!
Get started: There are several major compost pick-up providers that service households in Chicago, but many of them just service an area or two. To see the full list and figure out which one is right for you, visit the Chicago compost services page.

Drop-off Services and Collection Sites 

Another alternative is to take your food scraps to a collection site. The City of Chicago has launched a new drop-off compost program with a rapidly expanding list of locations.  

The City's composting program accepts all kinds of food scraps, including meat and bones, but paper or 'compostable' plastic foodware is not accepted.  Reference this guide to everything you can and can't compost at the City's drop-off locations.

There are no fees or limits to the amount of food that you can drop off.  View dropoff locations and more information about the City of Chicago's new Food Scrap Dropoff program

 Several farmers’ markets and community gardens around the City also take food scraps for compost.  

Cost: Free to a few dollars, depending on location
Unique benefits: Low-cost, and especially convenient for farmers’ market regulars.
Get started: To find a drop-off location near you, visit Litterless compost resource page 

DIY Vermicomposting (aka Worm composting)

You could also vermicompost at home, which requires keeping a worm bin and adding food scraps and paper. It’s perfect for all of you animal lovers out there and for folks who are in the mood for a good DIY. The worms eat your food scraps and turn them into soil - almost literally before your eyes - but this method does require a bit more care since you have to make sure the worms can thrive. 

Here’s a helpful introduction that breaks it down:

video © Nifty Outdoors

Cost: DIY bin = $0-$20, red wiggler worms are around $40 a pound.
Unique Benefits: You get valuable nutrient-rich worm poop castings from your scraps. Great for gardens, fun for kids.
Get started: Figure out a spot to keep your worm babies, then grab a plastic bin and build a home from them. Then, it’s time to get the worms themselves. Look online for shops who will ship "red wrigglers" which are generally considered best for composting.   


You probably have a few questions - here are a few we frequently get:

- Will storing food stink up my kitchen?

Nope. No more than it does when you throw food in the trash.  You can minimize smells by getting a compost bin with a lid that closes tightly, so no smell will escape. You can also try keeping a bowl of food scraps in your fridge or freezer then transfer it to a bucket with a tight-fitting lid every few days. Collecting food for composting is neither smelly nor gross. The only difference is collecting it separately, rather than throwing it in the garbage. 

-I eat meat and dairy. Will I be able to compost those?

Most likely, yes! The City's Food Scrap Drop-Off program accepts meat and dairy, and some pick-up services do accept, too. Before you sign up, make sure to read the list of things that your service will accept to make sure they take these.

-Will I miss taking out the trash now that I’m making so much less of it?

No, no you won’t. We pinky promise.

And, a little more info:

Regardless of the method you choose, you’ll want to make sure you know the ins and outs of what you can compost because it varies by method and provider. 

For example, worms can’t handle pineapples, community gardens can’t take meat scraps, and sometimes those plastic “compostable” cups you get at restaurants are not accepted. When you sign up or commit, spend five minutes making a list of what you can put in your compost and stick it on your fridge, where you can refer to it as often as it takes to get the hang of things! 

The key thing to remember, for the most part, though? If it grows, it goes.  

Myth that you can't compost if you live in an apartment?  Officially busted.  Happy composting, Chicago.
Updated March 21, 2024



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