How To Start A Compost Bin In The City (With Little Money)

Today thousands of bloggers are writing posts on their sites trying to raise awareness on environmental issues. More and more people everyday are growing in their concern for our daily impact on the environment. I’ve written a lot about this, and will continue to do so, not because I am some specialist or know much about the issues but because it is something that is close to my heart and I want to learn more. I want to leave a beautiful world for our children. There are all kinds of things we can do to help take care of the planet, from walking and riding bikes instead of driving, to being more aware of (and cutting down on) the plastic packages the stuff we purchase comes in. But one really fun thing you can do is start a garden and a compost. Whether you live in rural America or a 1-bedroom apartment in a huge city like LA (that’s us) there’s almost always a little space for a garden and compost bin.

I thought I’d give some pointers on how we got our compost bin started while living in a small apartment in the city. When we were in England this summer I was blown away by all the people who have gardens and compost even though they didn’t necessarily live in rural Ohio and have the luxury of space (plus it looked fun). So Emily and I decided that when we got home we’d start trying to have our own little “urban garden.” I hope to write about the ins and outs of the actual garden at a later point.

Starting a compost bin is super easy and doesn’t require much money at all but some may wonder why compost? I guess there are two reasons we do it: it helps to cut down on our garbage for the week and we will have rich soil to plant veggies with when spring roles around. Did you know that somewhere around 40% of our garbage could actually be composted? Instead of sending that to the landfills and all the energy consumed in the process why not toss it into your compost bin?

How to Build a Compost Bin (in the city) With Almost No Money.

compost bin with pitch fork

First, you need to get a bin of some sort. You can use anything that will be durable, keep things in (or out), and is easy to drag and move around. We ended up getting a 20 gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck at our local hardware store for around $9! I kept looking at tons of websites trying to find something to compost in and the only bins I could find cost close to $80, no thanks. The one thing a lot of compost bins have that this Rubbermaid doesn’t have is a little drawer in the bottom so you can easily pull the soil out when it’s done. Well, if you so choose to do that when it’s ready just cut a little flap in to the bottom and pull it out that way. I am just going to use a shovel and pull it out from the top.

Second, You need to prep your bin. You want to put your bin in a place where it can get some sun (if at all possible), the heat from the sun helps to move the process along (of course you don’t want it to get too hot either because that could be bad). You will also want to poke some holes into the can. I just used a Swiss Army knife and made little triangles in the plastic, small enough that air can get in but flies can’t. Finally, dump a little dirt in the bottom. We bought some top soil for our gardening project which works great for this. You want to have an equal amount of dirt and garbage when you first start to keep everything balanced. If your compost gets too wet it won’t break down and it will start to smell pretty bad. You can also add rotting leaves, worms and other soil animals like grubs etc, to help with the decomposing though I didn’t do this.

Third, start adding stuff to your bin. When we first started I would go to throw something away and then wonder if it could be composted, I was really surprised at all the things you can compost! I found this great list on planttea.com that tells of all the things you can compost, which was really helpful for starting out. I’ve never done a compost before so I didn’t really know what was okay and what was not. I just bookmarked that site, and whenever I wonder about something I open that page and hit the search button, sure enough you can compost beard hairs! Basically, you don’t want to throw meat or white bread in your bin or you will get some unwanted visitors. Also, remember anything you throw into your bin needs to completely decompose, so if you can smash, chop or slice whatever it is first to make it smaller that will help in the process.

Fourth, as you add stuff to your bin you need to do a few things. First, you might find that you’ll want to keep a box or something by the sink for all your scraps, egg shells, etc. We have an already-used 32oz plastic yogurt container being recycled as a scrap holder. Second, keep everything balanced in the bin by adding a little dirt or shredded newspaper whenever you add a good heap of kitchen scraps, this helps to keep things damp but not too wet. The Third thing you need to do is turn it. I have a pitchfork that helps me stir and move things around in there. The other thing I do is roll the can around and shake it to get things moving. This will help keep air circulating through the compost. Also, you should notice that your compost has a sweet dirt-like aroma to it, if it starts to stink you need to troubleshoot the problem. When ours started smelling bad it was because I had been adding too much food and not enough dirt and paper.

composting

Fifth, after your can gets to be about 3/4 of the way full leave it alone for about 3-6 weeks while it finishes breaking down. This is when you may want to get a second can so you can start the process over again. We’ve been composting for 2.5 months now and ours is not even halfway full so it does take a little while. So now is the perfect time to start if you want to have great compost for planting in the spring.

If you have any questions or advice please add them below. I’ve received some help from Beastly neighbors: All About Wild Thing In the City, or Why Earwigs Make Good Mothers.

Composting bookmark.

NOTE: Since the first experiment with this, I’ve learned it is really important to have some holes in the bottom of the bin so that water can drain out. This will help in keeping it drier.

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Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

36 thoughts on “How To Start A Compost Bin In The City (With Little Money)”

  1. ######## IS DIRT NECESSARY??? ############

    this is a nice blog. it will help quite a bit.

    a question though.. I have plenty of access to leaves and newspaper, but not a lot of dirt. i live in the city center and i don’t think people would like me stealing their dirt.

    so i guess what i am asking is if it will be ok just to use a lot of leaves and newspaper, or is it essential that my compost bin contains a fair amount of dirt?

    thanks for any advice you can throw at me- i appreciate it!
    -matt

  2. hi matt – yeah – I wouldn’t encouraging stealing, even if it’s just dirt! But I don’t see why you would need dirt, the main point is to keep it from getting too moist. The leaves and newspaper should do just fine.

  3. If you’re just getting started – a little dirt goes a long way to provide your compost with bugs, bacteria and other nutrients to start the break down process…

  4. Hey, I followed your steps and just started my compost bin! I'm really stoked thanks so much I know it will turn out great. =]

  5. I live in Ohio. Is it going to be a problem for me to try and do this with our cold winters? Should I bring the bin in the garage in the winter? Will that even work?

  6. Thank you for this helpful post. I am starting my compost today and you guys have motivated me to get started right away..Adachi DaDa

  7. Great post! I already have a garbage bin and am ready to start thanks to you! It is always great to find a budget friendly way to save the earth!

  8. Awesome post! I'm in a townhome and wasn't sure there'd be enough to warrant composting, but if you can do it in an apartment, then I should have no problem. Thanks for the post!

  9. I"m about to start mine in a few minutes. I'm drilling holes in it since I'm a kluts and don't think I should handle a knife. LOL! Did you have any trouble with Roaches? One of my friends had a problem with hers where she went to tip it over to stir it around and the roaches came out dancing….PS…I HATE roaches…

    1. No I didn't have problems with roaches but the second year I did this I got maggots! Equally gross. I would recommend having holes on the bottom for water to drain, not having the holes be too big so big things can't crawl in, and keeping your compost on the medium dry side of things rather than too wet, it's the wet that attracts.

      Good luck!

  10. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  11. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  12. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  13. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  14. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  15. Hey all, while I still encourage you compost and think the bin approach is a great way to do it I wanted to say that this past year my wife got me a soilsaver composter http://bit.ly/qFeLn from the city of Pasadena for $40 (which is much cheaper than you can find it online for). Check with your city and see if they have a similar deal, I absolutely love my new composter and find it holds a lot more scraps and composts faster.

  16. Pasadena, TX? How or where would you go to as far as the city to find a deal like this? Thanks for all the great info

  17. I am just now looking into starting a compost bin and it' s already May… is there any point this late in the year? I also don't know if I'll be staying in my apartment past this fall so would I just be wasting my time? I'll be starting some container gardens hopefully in the next few weeks, so I know I'll have to just buy compost from someone else in the meantime…

    1. Yeah, it takes a good 4 or 5 months to really have good results. But you could look into a wormery (worms in a bin under your sink). That's a great apartment option for composting, goes faster, and it's mobile.

  18. Thanks! We're just starting composting and realize we have to "retrain" our minds (threw banana peels in the trash this morning and had to dig them out to put in the composter)! Need to develop a new awareness!

  19. What's wrong with flies getting in? I've seen pics of compost bins that sort of look like small fenced yards and I imagine those get flies, so why is it an issue? Please tell me before I set out my new (homemade) bin because it has quarter-sized holes!

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