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Small Changes In Small Spaces

Updated on July 22, 2014

Going Green While Living In An Apartment

I live in a small apartment and earn just a modest living. Lately I've been feeling concerned about the amount of trash I produce and my rising energy bills. I believe in clean living for the sake of the environment and for its health benefits.

But every time I start looking at things to do differently I become overwhelmed with conflicting information and massive changes.

Whenever I read about it I feel guilt and shame and I don't like feeling those things!

I decided that I can green my life in a few small ways and maybe later it will grow to more, but it will help to just make a start and every little bit counts.

{Image: Fiona Bradley,licensed under Attribution License. }

Small Changes I Can Make In An Apartment

Here are the changes that I am implementing with my small space and limited budget.

  1. Start a compost
  2. Start a container garden
  3. Use a drying rack
  4. Make household cleaners
  5. Use reusable grocery bags

Step One

Start a Compost

What I learned first is that I need to add equal amounts of "green" and "brown" items. Green items are kitchen waste like moist vegetable matter (such as when I forget that I have tomatoes in the back of the fridge!) and brown matter is yard waste. Since I don't have a yard, it's a good thing that I'm starting a little garden as well. They say that covering a green layer with a brown layer (which tends to be dryer) can help discourage flies, etc.

I was surprised to learn that one can also add dryer lint and hair (pet or human) to the compost. Apparently this helps keep air circulating in it. Though some sites say to avoid cooked food, this one says leftovers are okay to go in as long as they don't contain meat, cheese, or oils.


Also, the brown layer can include things like newspaper and cardboard like the center of a toilet paper roll or a cardboard egg container. {Source:}

The other thing I learned is that compost needs to be turned, either by buying a container that has a rotating barrel, or by using a rake or some other tool to move things around once a month. They also need heat, so some exposure to sun is important.

The compost should be ready to use in two to six months.

{Image: Mike Lieberman,licensed under Attribution License. }

Chai with Lakshmi - How to Compost

I LOVE this woman's use of three separate pots stacked. That way you always have space at the top to work with and the lower composting is just doing its thing.

What Can't Be Composted?

I've never been clear on what elements of kitchen waste can be put in a compost and which can't. Here are the things I've been told cannot be used in compost.

Unfortunately, baked goods can't go in the compost. So much for the pancakes that I screwed up this morning!

  • Oils or fats
  • Bread or pasta products
  • Plants that have any disease or infection
  • Milk products
  • Animal waste (so no kitty litter or dog poop, which is too bad because I have a dog and would love to "recycle" that. But they say there is a lot of potential for disease in their waste)
  • Glossy paper like magazines or wrapping paper
  • Ivy or kudzu may grow in the compost instead of decompose
  • Cooked foods such as rice
  • Sawdust if you don't know the wood it came from was unprocessed
  • Walnuts contain a chemical that can be dangerous for the other materials
  • Human products that contain waste or blood

Small steps make a difference!

Step Two

Start a Container Garden

I have a small balcony, though I'm not sure how much light it really gets. I think I will start out with things like potatoes and lettuce, which I believe need less light than some other plants.

There's also the hanging tomato topsy turvy that I've seen on my neighbors' balconies. They actually make one for strawberries too. Can't wait to try that!

I've even found a kit for growing mushrooms indoors.

{Image: Brianna Privett,licensed under Attribution License. }

From what I understand, the topsy turvy planters do not come with the seeds (or plants), so those have to be purchased separately. I've heard rumors that strawberry plants are tricky and need to be bought when they are already mature, not grown from seeds, but I'll need to do more research on that!

(see how to make your own strawberry planter against a wall:

But for real classic container gardening

You grow small plants in pots around your balcony. I'm thinking of some window boxes for herbs and some terra cotta planters with vegetables, as well as hanging tomatoes and strawberries and a barrel for potatoes. Also some pots for lettuce and maybe peas. OOOoo, and bell peppers.

Probably overly ambitious, but that's what I'm known for!

{Image:, licensed under Attribution License. }

Chai with Lakshmi has another great video

This one gives great detail on how much compost v.s. soil to put in and how to add drainage material to your pots.


  • 3 -4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp mineral oil
  • 1 pint water
  • 1 tsp biodegradable dish soap


  1. Mince the garlic and mix with the oil. Let sit overnight, then strain the garlic chunks out. Add the oil to water and then the dish soap. Spray on plants. It can make plant leaves burn, though, so avoid doing this on very sunny days.
  2. {Source:}
Cast your vote for Organic Pesticide

Some Interesting Ideas for Vertical Space - (Though I personally want more practical, i.e. edible, plants!)

Self Watering

I keep hearing this phrase, "self watering systems" as I research. So what is it? It's a way for water to get to plants with maximum efficiency, I believe. Here is a video about that.

Some books I bought - to help me get started

I purchased these books to learn more for learning about small space gardening. I read through the description and reviews of probably every book Amazon has on container gardening! And there are the ones I selected.

One thing the books can offer that YouTube videos don't, is information about crop rotation and planning of the garden.

Every little bit helps!

Step Three - Drying Rack

I am really lucky to live in an apartment with its own washer and dryer right in my kitchen! I love that and have been taking full advantage of having it. However, I know I could save some energy by drying or at least partially or sometimes drying things on drip-dry racks instead of in the dryer.

Would save me money on my energy bill too!

There's also a lot of different styles of rack for different sized spaces.

Tip: whenever possible, take a train (or even a car) before taking an airplane

Step Four

Making my own cleaners

I've heard that you can save money and be more green by making cleaning products at home. Here are some recipes I found for things that I never would have imagined you could make at home!

Dishwashing Liquid Soap

Once of the places I always feel guilty is buying plastic bottles of cleaners. For cleaning most things I use a mix of a little bit of white vinegar and a lot of water. If I need to scrub something, I use baking soda instead of Comet. But I've always wondered about dish soap and detergent. Here are some recipes for those...


  • bar of soap
  • unscented and without added chemicals
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice


  1. Shave the bar of soap (freezing it first may help) until you have 1/4 cups soap flakes. In a sturdy saucepan, mix 2 cups of water with the soap flakes and heat until the soap melts, but do not let it boil. Once the soap is completely melted, add the lemon juice. Let the mixture cool completely (8 to 12 hours) before putting into an old dishwashing liquid bottle.
  2. This liquid may not make suds the way you're used to, but it's still working!
  3. {Sources: &

Dishwasher Detergent

I've definitely got a lot of baking soda and I think I even have some citric acid from my attempts at cheese making, but I don't know what borax is or where to get it! I've heard it's easy enough to find, though.


  • 1 Cup Borax
  • 2 Cups Baking Soda
  • 1/2 Cup Citric Acid
  • 1/2 Cup Salt


  1. Pour all ingredients together into a glass jar with a lid. Shake everything until well combined and store with the lid on. Use 1 and 1/2 tablespoons per load and use white vinegar in the "rinse aid dispenser" area.
  2. {Source:, }

Powder Laundry Detergent

  • Unscented bar soap
  • 1 Cup Washing Soda (related to baking soda
  • 1 cup borax


  1. Flake the bar soap into fine flakes to fill 2 cups. (Find the washing soda in the laundry aisle and handle carefully). Mix everything well in an airtight container and use two tablespoons per load.
  2. {Source: }


While we're at it, why not shampoo?


  • 1 TBS baking soda
  • 1 Cup Water


  1. Mix together well and keep in sealed container. Shake very well before use each time. Use about two tablespoons of the mixture and massage into scalp then rinse out.

Start Today!

Step Five - Reusable Grocery Bags

Not only can you get reusable grocery bags, I've discovered you can even get reusable produce bags! So you don't need to use those little plastic bags to put apples in.

In trying to cut down on waste, I hate to buy the ground beef in Styrofoam containers with plastic wrap. Are there alternatives? Is there a good way to dispose of them? What do you do?

The Everything Manual

I might not be ready to go completely "homesteader" and live "off the grid" but this book has tons of ideas for things I can do in all areas of my little apartment.

The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series)
The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series)

After scouring Amazon, I decided on this book as the overview manual for everything. The table of contents is impressive! It gives overviews on the container gardening I want to start doing, as well as information on composting.

The part that really got me is that there is a section on preserving so I can learn how to garden and harvest in the summer and then store and use my food in the winter. I didn't grow up learning how to do that, so I'm excited for a book that will show me how from planting to preserving.

It even has sections on collecting rain water and then there's even some bits about making your own heat and electricity!


Tip: Cloth napkins don't take up much space in the laundry and are so much better than paper!

Other Small Changes I'm Planning

---> Use cloth instead of paper towels

---> Get a recycle bin to take my recycling to work

---> Use handkerchiefs instead of tissues

---> There's no reason to pay for bottled water! Get reusable water bottles.

Speaking of groceries... - What do you do about the Styrofoam containers that meat comes in?

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    • RuthMadison profile image

      RuthMadison 4 years ago

      @Judy Filarecki: Thank you for letting me know!

    • Judy Filarecki profile image

      Judy Filarecki 4 years ago from SW Arizona and Northern New York

      Interesting subject and had planned on watching the videos, but I can't gt any volume on them. On the first I left your Lens and went directly to Youtube where there was sound. you might want to look into this.

    • RuthMadison profile image

      RuthMadison 5 years ago

      @SteveKaye: Thanks! I hope I can make a little bit of positive change :)

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Excellent info. Thank you for publishing this lens. We need more people doing the things that you recommend. Wish you the best.