How to Compost with a Pick-Up Service

How to compost with a pick-up service for a zero waste home | Litterless

I don't need to spend time here extolling the virtues of composting: I love it, you know by now that I love it, we can move on. I'll spare you the rhapsodizing and jump right in. For the past four years of living in small Chicago apartments, I've used a pick-up service to take care of my organic waste. Without the yard space to devote to a conventional backyard bin or the desire to manage my own vermicomposting bin, getting my compost picked up each month has been an easy way to divert my food waste and other organics from the trash.

If you're in a similar situation and have been thinking about composting but aren't sure how to fit it into your yard-less / busy life (or what have you), a compost pick-up service might be a good option for you, too. Here's how they work:

Getting started:

-Find a service near you. Over the last few years, the number of pick-up services in operation across the United States has skyrocketed. Since few cities offer municipal pick-up, businesses have stepped in to take up the slack and offer options to people who want to compost but lack the yard space (or time or energy) to support their own backyard bin. I've used a pick-up service all four years that I've lived in Chicago, and I can't say enough good things about it. I keep a guide to services across the United States - find out if there's one operating in your city here.

-Choose your service frequency. Most services that I know of use a five-gallon bucket as their container of choice, so the question here is how long will it take you to fill a bucket with kitchen scraps. The majority of services offer a weekly, bi-weekly, and a monthly pick-up option, or some combination thereof. Which you choose to start with will depend on how many people are in your family, how often you eat at home, and how often you’re out of town. For the first few years I lived in Chicago, a monthly option worked for me, but last year I switched to bi-weekly. (Something about all those squash peels filling the bucket up more quickly in the fall, or something).

-Learn what you can and can’t compost. Too much contamination makes the finished compost essentially unusable. Depending on what method companies use to break down the food scraps, putting things in your compost that don't belong there can cause major problems. For example, some compost facilities grind up the waste they receive so that it breaks down faster. This means that if a plastic fork accidentally lands in your compost bucket and doesn't get sorted out in the facility, it might get ground up and hundreds of small plastic shards will end up in the finished compost. Contaminated compost like that can't be used on farms to grow food; instead, it's down-cycled into soil for landscaping or landfill topper.

This is all to say: what you put in your bucket matters! Most companies should have a list or printable that you can post above your bucket or inside a kitchen cabinet until you have your routine down pat. And, like recycling, when in doubt it's sometimes just better to throw it out.

-Mark your calendar. Most services will give you a heads’ up to put your bucket out the night before it's scheduled. After all, they don’t want to make it to your house only to find there’s nothing to pick up. Mine sends me a text the night before, but I usually jot down each pick-up in my calendar a few weeks in advance so that if I’m planning to be out of town, I’m able to cancel or postpone that week's pick-up ahead of time.

How to compost with a pick-up service for a zero waste home | Litterless


Where do you keep your bucket?

I generally keep mine on the back patio I share with a neighbor. With the lid tightly closed, I've never had a problem with animals or weather or anything untoward. One year when I lived in an apartment without any outdoor space at all, I stored the bucket in a cabinet under my kitchen sink and no one was the wiser. 

In the winter, I often move my compost bucket inside, as well. Ice can make it difficult to open and close the lid, and at any rate there's a limit to the number of trips outside I want to make when it's cold. When the weather's nice, I move it back outside. There are of course many options for where to keep your bucket (how about a basement, if you don't have outdoor space but don't want to keep it in your apartment?), but the important thing is making sure to shut the lid tightly each time you open it.

Does it smell?

Well, yes and no. In my experience, the bucket only smells when it’s open. Otherwise, the lid forms enough of a seal that any odors are kept inside. Like I mentioned, a few years ago when I lived in an apartment without a back patio I actually kept the bucket inside my kitchen year-round! To keep odors at bay, I try to minimize how often I open the bucket. I store food scraps in a bowl in my fridge or freezer, adding to it each time I cook. Then, when the bowl is full - every couple of days - I transfer the contents to the bucket. When I have extra room in my bucket, I also sometimes throw in some paper, which further tamps down odors.

What can you compost using this method?

It varies by service, so before you sign up check the website or send them an email to make sure that what you can compost in the service will work for your lifestyle. If you eat meat and dairy and are choosing between two pick-up services, whether or not one accepts those might be a determining factor in which service you ultimately choose. As an example, here's a list of what I can compost using my current pick-up service.

It's also worth checking in with your provider on what to do about forks, cups, and other items that are purported to be compostable. Certifications, decomposition times, and materials vary greatly, so take note of what specific non-food items, if any, your service accepts. Biodegradable doesn't mean the same thing as compostable; what you're looking for here is the latter designation.

What less expensive options are out there for people who want to compost but don’t have yard space?

From what I've seen, services tend to run between $15 - $30 a month depending on how often you need your bucket picked up and what exactly is offered in your area. I used to pay $15 for a monthly pick-up, but now pay $25 for bi-weekly.

If you live somewhere without outdoor space and want to compost but can't squeeze an extra expense into your budget, there are other options out there, but (like any service!) they vary by city. Many farmers' markets will accept compost drop-offs (sometimes for a fee of a few dollars), or you can search around for other drop-off locations in your city. Perhaps a local community garden might take your food scraps if you send them a friendly email, or you could reach out to a friend with a compost bin and ask if you can swing by their house a couple of times a month to add to it. If none of those work, ShareWaste is a website connecting people who have compost bins with people who want to compost. Or, there's always vermicomposting...

I have a backyard compost bin, but we can't put meat and dairy in it. Could this be a good supplement?

Yes! Backyard bins shouldn't play host to oils, grease, meat, or dairy, since the compost typically doesn't get hot enough to break these things down quickly enough (plus, they're calorie-dense and can attract critters). If you compost at home but want to stop throwing meat and other oils in the trash, a pick-up service might be a nice once-a-month addition to take care of things you can't compost in your backyard. It would also give you a place to compost all those pesky compostable forks, etc., which likewise don't typically break down in the backyard. Before you sign up, double check that the service accepts everything you'd want it to accept: then go for it!

What other questions can I answer? Or other tips you'd like to share? How are you composting these days?

PS. Read more about how to compost here, and check out the guide to pick-up services in the U.S. here.