Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Are you trying to compost without a yard? Bold move. Respect.
One of the main questions urban composters ask themselves is: where do I get my “browns”, or carbon-rich materials? If you have access to a yard, finding that dry mulch material is relatively easy. Twigs, leaves and dry grass all serve as excellent compost “browns”.
But what if you don’t have easy access to the types of natural spaces where you can find these materials? Remember, carbon materials in your compost are absolutely crucial: successful composts operate with a 24:1 ratio (browns:greens).
This article is for the average urban gardener, to help them find “browns” quickly and easily in their own city-cosystem.
Note: Don’t want to have to deal with browns, greens and mucky compost bins? You might want to look into electric composters instead.
Finding “Browns” In Your Home
Oftentimes, you need look no farther than your apartment or condo for those high-quality browns. Don’t believe us? Read on and prove us wrong!
Any time you order something off the internet, the item will come packaged in an industrial-grade cardboard prison. Rather than spend twenty minutes trying to crush the remnants of your shopping spree into you recycling bin, why not make use of the free carbon?
Use an X-Acto knife to break the material up into small pieces (under 3 inches squared) and add them to your compost as needed.
Obviously, some materials are not compostable. Do not add plastic, styrofoam or any other non-biodegradable synthetic.
Not sure if something will break down? A good test is to soak the material in water for a few seconds and see if the texture and composition of the material changes. If it does, it’s probably a safe bet that it will break down in your compost bin.
Do you still receive ye olde news-rag? Well, tossing it is so yesterday.
Shred it and forget it (in your compost pile)! The paper is an excellent absorber of liquids, and the ink is not toxic enough to damage the compost end-product.
We do not recommend including high-gloss paper (magazines, product flyers)
Textiles are what you might call a “high-turnover” material. Clothes are regularly thrown out even though they could be reused or recycled so easily.
While, obviously, donating your clothes to a second-hand shop is far preferable, you may not be able to donate everything from last-season’s wardrobe.
Cotton undergarments, when cut up into small pieces, make a great carbon-material for the compost. This goes for any 100% cotton clothing you own that cannot be donated (stained shirts, ripped or torn pants, etc).
Simply cut those tighty-whiteys into small (finger-length) strips, removing all signs of elastic waistbands or silk bows, and toss them into your compost bin! (Don’t worry… we won’t tell anyone.)
Liquor Store Bags
Does your local party-juice provider send you off with a paper bag to hide your purchase? Yeah, same.
Just like your household cardboard waste, use any paper bags you have lying around as a compost bedding and carbon-source.
Unless you’re living the true hippie lifestyle, where you wash your clothes and hang them out to dry, you probably have access to a dryer. And, as such, you have access to some of the very best “browns” in the biz.
Dryer lint is extremely absorbent, and is otherwise a completely wasted by-product of doing your laundry. Unlike cardboard, paper and most textiles, dryer lint most often ends up in the trash.
When you’re lugging your laundry to the laundry room in your apartment building or condo, make sure to check the dryer’s lint filter(s). Not only is it free, but you’d end up having to empty them anyway! Might as well make use of it!
If you’re the happy pet-parent to a cat or dog, you may have no choice but to deal with an ample amount of hair. Pet hair is very absorbent and completely free of toxins (good news for Fido) - anytime you end up with a clump of hair in your hand from petting your fur-baby, toss it into the heap!
Eggs are the easy go-to for busy homeowners trying to get their protein up without a lot of kitchen-duties.
While not remarkable for their carbon-producing properties, egg shells are a compost favourite: packed full of calcium, they add this nutrient to your end-product, and help plants build cell walls.
You only need to look as far as your fridge for this neutral compost material!
Yup, you heard right.
If you’re wondering where in the world you would find feathers on a regular basis, you may need look no further than your throw-pillow.
While we don’t recommend slicing into your favourite cushion for the sake of your compost pile, re-purposing an old pillow can be as simple as emptying the feathers into your compost.
Kay, real talk. Everyone’s got at least one in their home right now, if not an entire colony - especially if you have a cat or dog.
Dust bunnies seem to crop up just about everywhere - particularly whenever you have guests coming over. Clever buggers.
Round ‘em up and toss ‘em in! No mercy!
Used Coffee Filters & Teabags
Coffee: otherwise known as Office Fuel, Jitter Juice or The Only Way I Can Get Out Of Bed In The Morning.
You might already know that coffee grinds and tea leaves are a great addition to your compost pile, but did you know that the filters and tea bags they come in are actually a great source of carbon?
The beauty of this is that you’re killing two birds with one stone: you’re adding greens and browns to your compost in one fell swoop! Caw caw!
Full Vacuum Filters
A full vacuum is essentially a coral for all those dust bunnies we were just talking about.
The contents of a vacuum are both messy and dusty. Don’t breathe when attempting to empty it - seriously. You’ll be spitting dust for an hour straight!
Most of the vacuum contents are composed of compostable materials: skin flakes, hair, fur, bits of fluff from textiles. All of these can be added to your compost.
Keep in mind, however, that some materials may contain toxins (paint chips, non-cotton fibers, cleaning chemicals and bits of plastic). In small doses, these will not harm the compost end-product, but we do recommend being wary of just how much vacuum debris you’re adding.
Finding “Browns” In Your Community
Weirdly enough, the office is actually a great place to source free and regular carbon-materials for your compost.
Most office spaces have a paper shredder (the best way to find out is to make a cup of hot tea and wait to be scared out of your skin by that horrific shredder noise - the tea burns on your legs are a pretty good sign your office has one).
That paper is free, and would otherwise end up in either the garbage or recycling (or just blowing in the wind, really). Bring home a garbage bag full of the stuff and keep your compost happy and carbon-rich.
Other sources of free carbon include:
Office coffee filters
Any packaging materials delivered to your office
Used desk calendars
Toilet paper rolls
Memos (who needs ‘em!)
Used sticky notes
Just make sure to cut away or remove anything plastic, inky or otherwise composed of toxins before adding it to your pile!
If you’re ever going for a casual stroll and you don’t mind being seen as that odd person who rifled through sidewalk refuse, you can actually find a huge amount of compost-ready materials.
Particularly in the spring, stores will put out tons of cardboard boxes of varying sizes out on the side of the road. If you live in an area near a college, it’s not unheard of to see some starving students pick through these to find solid moving boxes.
Follow their incentive - take some boxes! They’re free and are usually already broken down for easy cutting.
If you live near a park, you’re already ahead of the game! While the guide you’re reading is more for folks without easy and constant access to organic carbon materials, you can certainly make a special trip to a park to collect some of Nature’s giveaways.