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.
What is a compost bin?
A compost bin is, at its simplest, a container designed to hold organic materials, such as food scraps and garden waste, and allow them to break down naturally into nutrient-rich compost.
The composting process usually requires oxygen, moisture, and the right balance of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, all of which can be achieved in a well-designed bin.
Factors to consider when choosing a compost bin
Hot or cold composting?
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 organic 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
The term ‘digesters’ refers to a variety 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.
Most of the contents are released as water, so it doesn’t produce compost that can be spread over the garden.
- Can take all kinds of food waste including cooked food
- Designed to be pest proof
- No need to worry about the carbon:nitrogen ratio
- Requires some digging to get started
- Doesn’t produce finished compost
- Needs to be moved from time to time
Unfortunately, options are very limited, and often available only in the UK. The Green Cone Food Waste Digester is a highly regarded digester.
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.
Although the Bokashi bin can effectively handle cooked waste, its biggest drawback is that the process doesn’t 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.
- Can handle cooked materials including meat and dairy
- Can be used in the house or kitchen
- Doesn’t produce finished compost – the results have to buried or used in a regular compost bin
- Bran needs to be bought seperately
- Can’t handle large amounts of material
Also see: Bokashi Composting Myths by Garden Myths
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.
Do they 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.
- Easy than traditional compost piles
- Sealed bin to deter vermin
- Most systems designed for all food waste
- When full, they can become difficult to turn
The Joraform JK270 Compost Tumbler (UK only) is a relatively new option which uses insulation to achieve hot composting temperatures.
In the US, check out the F2C tumbler which comes with dual chambers, sliding doors and a solid steel frame.
Wooden compost bins
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.
- Slatted bins are easy to put together
- Easy to move around
- 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
In the US, the Greenes Cedar Fence bin uses sustainable sourced red cedar to create an attractive compost bin. It’s can be constructed without tools, and is designed so you can easily add on new bins.
In the UK, the Lacewing Outdoor Wooden Compost Bin is pressure treated to avoid rot, and comes with a 15 year guarantee.
Insulated compost bins
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.
- Quick results
- Hot composting possible with smaller amounts
- Maintain heat in winter
- Can’t handle large amounts of garden waste
- Can be expensive
UK: I’ve been using the HotBin for several years now, and it’s been brilliant. It is starting to look worn now, possible due to high winds, but still does the job. Another good option (especially when used with the jacket) is the Green Johanna.
US: Options seemed more limited here. The only one I can see available is this insulated compost bin. Unfortunately, I know little about it, so do let me know if you have tried it!
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 for extracting 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.
- Cheap – and sometimes free!
- Light and easy to move around
- Some designs not vermin proof
- Can be difficult to get compost out from the hatch
UK: The VonHaus Compost Bin is made from recycled plastic, is sturdy and comes with inbuilt aeration. It is designed to allow rainwater to drip in, which could be a negative if too much water gets in and moisture levels get too high.
US: The Algreen Compost Bin is a sturdy compost bin made from recycled plastic, and is very long lasting.
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 fertilizer.
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.
Worm bins also produce worm leachate (commonly known as worm tea), which can be used as a fertilizer.
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.
- Some systems designed to exclude flies
- Can deal with cooked food
- Generally only designed to handle small amounts of materials
- Taps can get clogged
- Worms require care and attention
UK: Worm bins aren’t cheap! The vidaXL is one of the more budget friendly options, and comes with four trays. The idea here is the worms migrate upwards, allowing you easy access to the finished compost.
US: The Vermihut is also available in the UK, but it is much more reasonable priced in the US. In addition to the five tray system the VidaXL has, it comes with improved odour and moisture control.
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.
What to read next:
Plastic compost bins are generally less effective at keeping the warmth in compared to insulated bins. Insulated bins are designed to retain heat, which is essential for accelerating the decomposition process. Plastic bins can still retain some heat, but insulation helps to maintain a consistently warm environment for microorganisms to thrive, which speeds up the composting process.
Worm bins do require some care and attention, but they are generally low-maintenance. You need to ensure that the worms have a consistent supply of food and bedding, keep the bin moist but not too wet, and avoid overfeeding or allowing the bin to become too hot or too cold. However, once you establish a routine, worm bins can be relatively easy to manage.
It’s not just the size of the bin you need to think about, but how fast the bin processes it.
Bins with insulation and aeration compost organic material faster, allowing you to add more material.
Tumbling compost bins or large stationary bins with ample ventilation and easy access to turn the compost are good options for handling medium amounts of compost material.
Composting in open piles is a better option for very large amounts of organic material, but may require more frequent turning to aerate the compost and facilitate decomposition.
Wooden compost bins can be made vermin-proof with some modifications. Adding wire mesh or hardware cloth to the bottom and sides of the bin can prevent rodents and other animals from burrowing in. Additionally, keeping the compost pile hot and actively turning it can deter vermin by making the pile less hospitable.
See Rats In Your Compost? for more tips and advice.
This depends on the bin. If you have open compost bins, it’s usually easiest to turn the compost from one bin into another one.
Closed bins are more difficult, as you need to remove the compost and replace it. However, if the bin has good aeration and you add bulking material, you shouldn’t need to turn the contents.