Wondering how to compost food scraps? Should you make your own compost bin, use a tumbler, or subscribe to a composting service? I’ve tried all three ways. Learn the pros and cons of each below, plus why composting is worth the effort.
Composting squeezes the last bit of value out of your food, turning kitchen scraps into rich soil. Use it to enhance your garden or send your scraps off to help others.
Composting reduces your environmental impact too. According to the Composting Council, 37% of human-generated methane comes from food waste breaking down anaerobically in landfills. But compost your food scraps aerobically above the ground, where they get fresh air, and very little or no methane is produced. (Fun way to remember the difference: aerobics classes are taught above ground and are good for you.)
Composting lets you leave room in the landfill for stuff that needs to go there. The EPA says we could compost about 30% of what we throw away. If enough people compost, your community may be able to put off the headache and expense of looking for a new landfill.
Option 1: Homemade Wire Compost Bin
This is the cheapest, easiest method. Form a section of welded fence wire into a column three to four feet wide. Use a wire cutter to a 12-foot section of fencing. Wrap the horizontal wires that stick out on each end to the other edge of the fence section, like gripping fingers.
Cost: You can make four wire compost containers for about $12.50 each if you start with a 50-foot roll of fence wire. You may be able to get a section of fence wire on sale or for free. You can also make a compost bin from pallets, which you can often get for free.
- The wire is very durable. My wire bins are still going strong after 15 years.
- After a bin is mostly full, you can plant vegetables or flowers on them while the compost continues to mature. In the picture above on the right, I’ve planted basil in old rice bags filled with potting soil. The big squash plant is a volunteer. On the left, the same pile now has a volunteer mustard plant.
- Planting flowers and vegetables in your bin can make it attractive as well as useful. You could even tuck small plants into the sides. Think living wall. Some years I surround a container or two with dried lily stalks, so it’s pretty even after frost.
- A DIY wire compost bin is a flexible, easy option. You can add more containers or move them around with little effort. You don’t need to turn the compost. Just be patient and make sure to add the right mix of brown and green material (see Learn More below).
- The critters can get to whatever you are composting. I quit composting food scraps in these bins when they started attracting mice and raccoons. A friend found a snake in her compost bin, but she was composting egg shells.
- The bin may not go with your garden theme. It can look a little ragged at times. Mine were hidden in a wooded section of the yard until a former neighbor cut down several trees.
Option 2: Compost Tumbler
Fortunately, my friends Elise and David gave me their compost tumbler when they decided to go with option 3 (wait for it!). I keep it next to the driveway behind the low brick wall that hides the trash cans.
Cost: around $150 for a dual-bin model. You might be able to find a used one on Craigslist or a similar site.
- The critters can’t get in.
- A dual composter lets you add new material on one side while the other side matures. If you don’t get a two-compartment composter, you’ll need two composters.
- It holds an amazing amount of scraps, which mostly break down after just a day or two in the bin. I put in over a gallon of food scraps in a week, yet only empty out a bin every four or five months.
- Tumbling the compost is easy and makes the compost mature faster.
- It has a very slight, earthy aroma if you keep a good balance of green (food scraps and coffee grounds) to brown (tea leaves and bags, newspaper, dry leaves, pine straw). I compost my Independent Weekly every week, all my tea leaves, and sometimes a handful of pine straw.
- It’s easy to empty. Just turn the compost tumbler so that the opening is pointed down. Catch the compost in a container underneath.
- It’s more expensive than a DIY-compost bin.
- It’s not very attractive. Because it tumbles, it’s hard to decorate.
- It holds a lot of food scraps but doesn’t have the capacity for my garden waste too.
Option 3: Composting Service
I signed up to try Compost Now, a composting service currently operating in Raleigh, Asheville, and Atlanta. They give you a sturdy black bin for your food scraps. Set the bin out for the collector on the scheduled day. A Compost Now rep will swap your full container for a clean, empty one.
Cost: $29 a month for pickup every week. Save with bi-weekly pickup at $19 a month or double up with two weekly bins for $35 a month. To find a similar service in your area and check the prices, visit Find a Composter.
- This is the easiest solution of all, no harder than setting out your regular trash. Let Compost Now worry about critters, smells, turning the compost pile, and more.
- Compost Now makes composting possible for people who don’t have a garden or don’t want to compost themselves for whatever reason. They also collect organic waste from restaurants and businesses.
- You can “earn dirt” — finished compost — for your garden or to donate it to community gardens.
- I found the bin to be a bit hard to open. It was easiest to collect all the scraps before and after a meal and add them all at once.
- You have to remember to set the bin out to be picked up.
- The bin takes up space, probably in your kitchen. You could keep it in a garage or utility room, but then you might use it less.
- Cooking for two, I filled up a container in a week. I cook a lot, but I also try to minimize food waste before the composting stage.
- The greenhouse gas savings vary based on how much the collector has to drive to get to your bucket. The savings will be higher in areas where densely populated areas where more people participate.
- At about $350 a year for the popular one-bucket-a-week option, it’s an expensive way to compost. I wish there were a free or inexpensive way to drop off scraps at farmers’ markets or other community hubs. Good for San Francisco for offering curbside organics pickup since 2009, which diverts about 220,000 tons of food and yard waste a year.