Trash to Treasure: A Step-By-Step Guide to Composting On Your Balcony

Published on: December 10, 2021

Want to do your bit to reduce food waste?  Give composting a try with Megha’s tried and tested system that even suits apartment dwellers.

By Megha Jindal

I avoided composting for many years. It seemed complicated and messy. What method to follow? Which bins to use? What to throw in, what to keep out? Four years ago, I decided to roll up my sleeves and figure it out. 

After a year of trial and error, I successfully started composting on my Bangkok balcony. Here is my fool-proof method for getting started.

Equipment 

  • An earthenware composting tower. Mine is a tower of three pots and came from a small local enterprise called Pakdone. It’s natural, beautiful, and efficient.
  • A pair of gloves for courage and cleanliness!
  • A gardening fork to stir the compost mix every week.
  • Two wide bricks to raise the height of the tower, making it easier to retrieve compost from the bottom chamber.
  • A scoop to add soil enricher to the tower.
  • A lidded 1 liter container to collect daily food waste in.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Food waste collection

Collect your daily food waste in a collection bin next to your kitchen sink for easy access. As a rule of thumb, smaller pieces will facilitate quicker break down. So snap your corncob into 3–4 pieces, and chop up your mango and banana peels. You’ll discover that things like peanut shells, onion skins, and mango seeds take longer to break down. Some people put toilet paper rolls and other paper items into their compost, but I keep mine restricted to food waste.

Things to add: Crushed eggshells, coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit peels, food leftovers, corncobs

Things to leave out: Dairy products, meat and seafood, citrus fruits and peels, paper and plastic, liquids 

Enricher

In traditional pit-style composting, the soil and dried leaves act as a catalyst to break down food waste. On my balcony, this job is done by an ‘enricher’. It creates the right environment for the composting process to occur. The result is compost that smells, feels, and looks wonderful—like the smell of wet earth after it rains. 

I learnt a specific method for making this enricher from an agriculture expert back in India. It takes some effort, but it works like a charm. Alternatively, you can buy enricher from a local vendor like Pakdone.

Ingredients for one big batch of enricher 
  • Sawdust – 40 liters
  • Coir dust – 10 liters
  • Cow dung – 10  liters
  • One big ripe papaya – deseeded
  • Two wide deep buckets (30 liters each) or IKEA Sortera recycling bins and gloves
  • A lidded container to store your enricher 
Method 
  • Put cow dung in the bucket. 
  • Add enough water so that you can break down the lumps of dung with your hands into a damp cookie-crumb texture. 
  • Add coir and sawdust, mix, and sprinkle some water on top. 
  • Cover with a wet cloth and let rest for 1–2 days. 
  • Puree the papaya and mix with 1 liter of water. 
  • Add to the enricher mix.
  • Done!

Sawdust can be found at any wood shop and they will be happy to give it away for free (or very cheap). Coir dust and cow dung are easily available in 5 or 10 liter bags at all plant shops and nurseries. I usually get enough for a year and stockpile it. One batch of enricher lasts me up to four months. For easy access, I keep some enricher on my balcony next to my composting tower in an earthen storage pot from Pakdone (pot 4—see Figure 1), and store the balance in an IKEA Sortera recycling bin.

Figure 1. Image: author

Time to compost 

Now that we are equipped with the right food waste, enricher, and equipment, it’s time to compost!

  1. Line the bottom of pots 1 and 2 with one to two layers of newspaper. Stack them on top of pot 3. Pot 3 has a steel mesh gate, which you will use to access your finished compost. (See figure 1) 
  2. Empty food waste collected the previous day into pot 1.
  3. Use the scoop to completely cover the food waste with enricher.
  4. Repeat steps 2–3 daily until pot 1 is full. This takes about three weeks. Once a week, use the fork to turn over the contents. You will notice the bottom layers becoming warm and turning into mush. The pot feels like a mini-oven after a week!
  5. When pot 1 is full, swap it out for pot 2. Repeat steps 2–3 daily until pot 2 is also full.
  6. Remove both full pots from the stack and empty pot 1 into the pot at the bottom of the stack—pot 3. If anything hasn’t broken down completely (mango seeds, corn cobs), you can pick it out and toss it into pot 2. If the mixture seems too dry, add up to one liter of water and mix it up. Your first round of compost is READY! The gate in pot 3 gives you access to as much compost as you need.
  7. Restack the pots with the now empty pot 1 on top, ready to receive new food waste.

You are now in a virtuous composting loop. Enjoy!

Good to know 

Time taken for composting varies depending upon what waste you throw in, its size, and the environment around your tower. The tower thrives on a covered, ventilated balcony with indirect sunlight and no exposure to rain. Smaller food pieces break down faster. Acidic foods hinder the breakdown process (e.g. passion fruit peels, lemon, orange). It’s good to have some half broken down food in your final compost—it breaks down in the plant soil releasing nutrients slowly. Adding two handfuls of compost to each houseplant every month works well. Not enough plants? Share your compost with your neighbors, friends, and for condo plants. 

Image: author

All the creepy crawlies

I didn’t realize that composting at home was an act of opening a door to nature. Bugs, ants, black soldier flies, and worms started making regular appearances. Next, the sparrows and geckos appeared to feast on them. At first, they freaked us out! Now my little boys pick up the stray, wriggly worms and drop them into a plant. We learnt to see them as a part of the ecosystem. Too many worms tell me that moisture levels are too high in the mix, so I avoid putting wet waste, add more enricher, or place the tower in direct sunlight for a few days. The geckos and sparrows help us take care of the dead worms and flies. It’s nature’s way. 

Why do it?

For something that happens ‘naturally’, composting on your balcony can feel like a lot of work. I don’t compost to save the world. I do it because it feels good. The smell of fragrant wet earth at the end of each cycle. The satisfaction of creating fertile soil. The joy of sharing it with my friends and neighbors. The gift of new friendships I’ve made in the process. 

In a small yet concrete way, composting connects me to my environment—the earth, its creatures, the people. It makes the hard work worth it. I hope you will let nature in, too. 

Cover image from Canva.

About the Author

Megha has been at home in Bangkok since 2013 along with her husband, two boys, and a green(ish) thumb. You can reach her at contactmeghajindal@gmail.com


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