How to compost in Pittsburgh: A beginner’s guide

Yes, you can compost even if you live in an apartment building.

You can learn how to do it yourself — or outsource the work to an expert.

You can learn how to do it yourself — or outsource the work to an expert.

Courtesy of Shadyside Worms
Rossilynne Culgan

Even though Pittsburgh doesn’t have a citywide composting program, that doesn’t mean you can’t compost — yes, even if you live in an apartment building.

But first, why is recycling your food scraps so important anyway?

Well, excess food scraps fill up landfills, which are already in crisis.

“Our food waste and garden/lawn/yard trimmings contribute a lot of materials to our landfills,” said Nancy Martin, environmental educator at the Pennsylvania Resource Council, a grassroots environmental organization committed to protecting the state’s resources. “By diverting our organic material from landfills, we’re reducing our impact on the environment. … If everybody were to compost, we could reduce the amount of materials sent to our landfills 25 percent. If you recycle, you can add another 50 percent diversion rate.”

Plus, she said, composting adds organic matter to soil — “back where it belongs” — rather than wrapping it up in a plastic bag. What’s more, Martin added, spring is a great time to get started, and the byproduct of composting “is called gardeners’ gold.”

Here’s how to do it:

1. Decide what kind of composting fits for you.

This is easier than it sounds. It basically comes down to this:

  • Do you have an outdoor space and want to manage composting on your own? Try a rodent-proof backyard bin.
  • Want to compost at home home with worms? There’s a workshop for that.
  • Do you live in an apartment and want someone else to manage the composting work? There’s a local company for you.

2. Learn what’s compostable.

Here’s the advice from the experts:

  • Do: Compost lawn trimmings, fruit and vegetable food scraps.
  • Don’t: Compost meat, dairy, dog waste, cat waste, weeds that have gone to seed, and diseased plants.

3. Start with a workshop or meet-up, and get your equipment.

To compost in your backyard

The Pennsylvania Resource Council will host dozens of backyard composting workshops over the next few months across the region. Workshops cover the importance and benefits of composting, details about the process, information about setting up a compost pile, tips for proper maintenance, and suggestions for using finished compost.

Each participant will receive an 82-gallon composting bin, ideal for urban and suburban areas. The workshop costs $70 per person (or $75 for a couple).

To compost with worms

The Resource Council also hosts vermicomposting workshops, though less frequently, explaining how to use a worm-based compost system. These workshops also cost $70 per person (or $75 per couple) and include one compost box with worms.

To have somebody else do the work

Or if you’d prefer to collect the waste and let somebody else handle it, Shadyside Worms can help with their residential compost exchange program, a subscription service of sorts. The process starts with a mini-workshop with owner and CWO (Chief Worm Officer) Travis Leivo. He’ll explain the process, answer questions and give you a 3.5- or 5-gallon bucket with a liner, which you can keep inside your house.

You’ll fill the bucket with table scraps — veggie/fruit scraps, eggshells, starches, rices, cheeses, flowers, and yard debris. Then, Leivo picks it up every week to clean the bucket and compost the waste using a combination of red wiggler worms and hot composting at Shadyside Nursery. The company picks up in the East End and North Side. Every three months, you’ll get a bucket of compost in return (if you don’t have a garden, you can donate it back to a nonprofit gardening program). The program costs $20 per month.

To drop off food waste

If you just want to drop off some food scraps and learn a bit more, track down the Braddock-based Steel City Soils at the Bloomfield Winter Market. The group mostly focuses on composting from restaurants at the moment, but they are collecting residential food waste from people who bring it to the market, said Jeff Newman, managing member. They’re also open to answering questions at the market from people who are interested in composting.

He hopes to be able to continue collecting food waste through the Bloomfield summer farmer’s market, as well. Steel City Soils uses a thermophilic composting method (a.k.a. hot composting) at a cattle farm in Beaver County.

Other ways to get involved:

  • Work with a composting agency to pick up your whole apartment building’s compost.
  • If you’re planning an event, work with Pennsylvania Resource Council’s Zero Waste PA to handle waste management. The initiative has diverted thousands of pounds of waste at events such as the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Deutschtown Music Festival and Farm Aid, where vendors use fully compostable plates and napkins.
  • If you own a restaurant — or know someone who does — check out Steel City Soils. The group picks up food waste from 15 restaurants around town (including Apteka, Square Cafe, Good Life Juice, Spirit, The Vandal, Burgher’s, Caffe D’Amore, Staghorn Cafe, Great Harvest Bread Company, Senti, and Tina’s Bar) and composts it, using the byproduct for urban farming.