Compost bin with wheelbarrow and basket full of compost material.

Which type of compost bin is right for you?

There’s a lot of choice when it comes to choosing a compost bin. But there’s no single bin which is right for everyone – it all depends on your needs, how much you want to compost and how fast you want to compost it.

So in this article we’re going to review some of the key factors you need to take into account before choosing a system, and then cover some of the most popular types of bins that fit in with different needs.

Let’s dive straight in…

Factors to consider when choosing a compost bin

Hot or cold composting?

Compost thermometer showing 66 degrees centigrade.
Hot composting can be fun!

Hot composting is fun. I personally love opening up my compost bin to be greeted by a release of warm steam, and sticking my thermometer in to see just how hot it has got since my last visit. It’s also quick and better for the environment than cold composting.

But there are some disadvantages. Unless you have an insulated bin or a large compost pile, it can be hard to get compost hot. If neither of those options sound right for you, it might be worthwhile exploring other composting systems such as digesters or fermenters, or being patient and choosing a cold composter.

Where are you composting?

Composting in your house is very different from composting in your kitchen! If composting inside, you might want to consider a compost bin which has a charcoal filter in order to minimise odours.

How much composting material do you have?

It’s absolutely key to consider how much material you are likely to have when choosing a compost system. After all, most compost systems will rapidly reduce the size of the waste you have, and if you don’t have much material, it can be hard to keep a large compost bin full.

At the same time, if you have a lot of material to compost, don’t expect a small system such as a Beehive composter, a worm bin or a Bokashi bin to deal with it.

Budget v. Effort

Some compost bins do a lot of the work for you. Slatted compost bins are a doddle to put together, while the hot bin creates hot compost without any mixing – but both cost money.

Alternatively, there are some great solutions which are either free or cheap, but require more work both in terms of building the compost bin and then turning the compost.

How long do you want it to last?

Plastic compost bins may not be the prettiest solutions, but they do tend to last for years. Wooden compost bins, on the other hand, can look rather sad after a couple of years, and if you don’t treat them may need replacing after 4-5 years.

What do you want to compost?

While every compost system can handle garden waste and veg. peelings, many are not designed for cooked waste. Even with a hot compost pile, it’s best to dig it into the compost in order to avoid attracting vermin – and even then, you can’t eliminate the risk of rats or mice.

To handle cooked waste, it’s best to use a fermenter such as a Bokashi bin or a system designed to handle cooked waste such as the HotBin or Green Johanna.

Types of Compost Bin

Digesters

Green Cone digester against a background of flowers.
Green Cone Digester. Image courtesy of Great Green Systems.

The term digesters are used to describe a range of types of bins and systems. For this article, we’re using the term to refer to bins which include a section underneath the ground.

With digesters such as The Green Cone, the base of the compost bin is dug into the ground, allowing the bacteria and worms inside the soil to “digest” compost material. The top of the digester is located above the soil, and uses the sun to heat up the bin. Some include a perforated base plate or mesh which allows access to worms but is not large enough for mice or rates.

Digesters may be more useful to people who simply want to get rid of kitchen waste without hassle rather than produce compost. While it should enrich the surrounding soil, it will only cover a relatively small area.The majority of the contents are released as water, and it doesn’t produce a lovely mound of compost to be spread over the garden.

Pros

  • Can take all kinds of food waste including cooked food
  • Designed to be pest proof
  • No need to worry about the carbon:nitrogen ratio

Cons

  • Requires some digging to get started
  • Doesn’t produce finished compost
  • Needs to be moved from time to time

Fermenters

Fermenters are an anaerobic (lit: ‘without air’) composting system – i.e. they do not require oxygen to compost. Instead, the work is done by anaerobic microorganisms.

The Bokashi bin is an anaerobic system which uses a combination of bacteria and fungi to ferment compost materials. The bacteria is contained in a special bran, which is added with food waste materials to the bin.

Each addition of waste needs to be compressed down as it is added to the bin in order to eliminate air pockets. The process produces a mild, fermented smell which most people find inoffensive.

While the Bokashi bin is a fun system, which can effectively handle cooked waste, the biggest drawback is that process does not produce finished compost.

Instead, after two weeks of digesting, the finished material still looks like food, and needs to be buried into the ground, or added to a hot composter, to finish the process.

Pros

  • Can handle cooked materials including raw meat, cooked food and dairy
  • Can be used in the house or kitchen

Cons

  • Doesn’t produce finished compost – the results have to buried
  • Bran needs to be bought seperately
  • Can’t handle large amounts of material

Also see: Bokashi Composting Myths by Garden Myths

Compost Tumblers

The idea behind the compost tumbler is simple. The microorganisms in compost require air to function, and one of the hardest parts of fast composting systems is regularly turning the compost over.

Compost tumblers solve this problem by making the aeration process easy – depending on the system, this can require a simple turn, or, with the CompoSphere, rolling it around your garden! In theory, the added oxygen should speed up the composting process.

Does it work? Which Gardening Magazine tested compost tumblers against a traditional garden heap. While the garden heap they used produced compost in ten weeks, the magazine found that tumblers could take a month longer to produce usable compost than a compost heap.

Still, 14 weeks is still not bad for finished compost, and tumbling is certainly a lot easier than turning a heap.

Pros

  • Easy than traditional compost piles
  • Sealed bin to deter vermin
  • Most systems designed for all food waste

Cons

  • Expensive
  • When full, they can become difficult to turn

Wooden Compost Bins

One of my three Pallet Compost bins.
My overflowing pallet bin!

There are a number of options here. One option is to build your own bin. A pallet bin is easy, cheap to construct and is great for composting large amounts of material. You can also purchase slatted bins, which you can slot together in just a few minutes.

Many wooden bins have a reasonable size, which means, with the right composting materials, you should be able to achieve hot composting. They also look much more attractive than the plastic Dalek bins which you find in so many gardens.

On the negative side, the wood does slowly deteriorate over time. My neighbour’s had her for two years now, and the wood is starting to look sad. If you can find the time, painting or treating the wood will help it last longer. Many wooden compost bins also have holes in the side, and leakage can mean they get dry in warm conditions. Wooden compost bins also lack insulation, which means they are not great for smaller compost piles.

If aesthetics are important to you, one interesting option is the beehive composter. This look similar to the beehive which gives it its name, comes in a range of colours and are an attractive option for people with smaller amounts of material to compost. If you’re a DIY expert, you can even build your own following these instructions on Tilly’s Nest.

Pros:

  • Attractive.
  • Slatted bins are easy to put together.
  • Easy to move around.

Cons:

  • Lack effective insulation.
  • Slats in some designs meaning liquid drains from the compost, which can leave it dry
  • Unless treated, wood deteriorates.
  • Not usually vermin proof.

Insulated Compost Bins

Hot Bin in the winter sun.
Hot Bin secured with a strong rope to a pallet bin.

Insulated bins are a brilliant solution for people who want to compost quickly, but lack the quantity of material needed for large outdoor piles. They also make composting easier in winter. I’ve achieved hot compost with an insulated bin in just two days – in the middle of winter.

Insulated bins often use heat retaining materials such as Expanded Polypropylene to keep the bins warm. They can also come with built in thermometers, charcoal filters to minimise odour, air-vents and may be designed to encourage the airflow around the bin.

Do note, though, that with some designs you can’t turn the compost, and instead need to add a bulking agent to the compost materials in order to create Free Air Spaces. This can be expensive if you buy in small bags (a cheaper alternative is to buy wood chips in bulk and make your own), although on the positive side it helps add structure to the finished compost.

Pros:

  • Quick results
  • Hot composting possible with smaller amounts
  • Maintain heat in winter

Cons:

  • Can’t handle large amounts of garden waste
  • Can be expensive

Plastic Compost Bins

Two plastic compost bins.

Plastic compost bins such as Dalek Bins can be a cheap introduction to composting. (Indeed, some councils provide them for free.) These are often lightweight, meaning it’s easy to move them around the garden.

Some plastic bins have no base, so when you have finished composting you can simply lift them up, leaving you with a heap of finished compost ready for your garden. They may also have a hatch at the front to allow you to extract the finished compost.

However, being made from plastic, they don’t keep the warmth in as well as insulated bins, and they don’t have the volume to compensate. The lack of a base (in some designs) also means it is easy for rats and mice to get in, making them less suitable for cooked food than closed system.

Pros

  • Cheap – and sometimes free!
  • Light and easy to move around

Cons

  • Some designs not vermin proof
  • Can be difficult to get compost out from the hatch

Worm Bins

Worm bins seem to be all the rage nowadays, and they certainly come in all shapes and sizes. They’re also a lot of fun.

Some come as a single container with a tap at the bottom, which allows you to drain off the liquid that is produced and use it as a fertiliser. Others come with a stacking system – as the worms move up through the stacking system to feast on fresh material, you can remove the bottom stack and retrieve the compost. You don’t even have to have a bin – you can also get a worm sack, a woven breathable bag that allows air and liquids through but keeps out flies.

Worms bins also produce worm leachate (commonly known as worm tea), which can also be used as a fertiliser.

Worm bins are great for processing small amounts of food, but the system does take time, and you’re not going to make huge amounts of compost. The worm bins also do require some care and assistance.

Before buying a worm bin, it’s worth remembering there are thousands of worms in your gardens, and these include compost worms such as the red wriggler. These worms are good at getting everywhere, and if you leave your compost long enough they will get in there and seriously improve the quality of your compost – without needing any care and attention.

Pros

  • Fun!
  • Some systems designed to exclude flies
  • Can deal with cooked food

Cons

  • Generally only designed to handle small amounts of materials
  • Taps can get clogged
  • Worms require care and attention

Finally…

We’ve covered quite a few (but not all!) compost systems here. It can be quite a bit to take in, but remember that, whatever system you use, you can still enjoy the magic of turning waste products into beautiful compost that can enrich the earth.

So probably the most important factor to bear in mind is to choose a system which you can have fun with, and which will continue to encourage you to learn about the art and science of compost making.

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