Can You Use a Trash Can for Compost?

When I started composting for the first time, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that I had to put food waste into some substantial non-biodegradable container and then add the right amount of brown material to the green material. After a few months, I would be rewarded with rich compost.

All I had to put my kitchen scraps in was an old plastic trash can, and I wasn’t able to build a compost pile or use the yard for large composting operations. Garbage cans were all I had to start the composting process with my meager offering of coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and yard trimmings. But did it work?

Can Trash Cans Be Used for Compost?

Trash cans make a great small home or apartment compost pile. These bins can hold a good amount of green material and have tight-fitting lids to keep the compost moist. Trash cans can keep food scraps from being stolen from an outdoor compost pile, and plastic bins can easily be modified with drainage holes to remove excess moisture.

I have successfully used trash cans and other plastic and metal trash bins to generate excellent compost material. Metal garbage bins are extremely useful in areas with large hungry scavengers like raccoons and wild dogs and can withstand many years of use. Because trash cans are so versatile and easy to find anywhere in the world, lots of different trash can composting methods have been discovered to help you process all organic waste.

Why Do Trash Cans Make Good Compost Bins?

Trash cans are easy to get ahold of, and most of us have a few sitting around doing nothing. Trash cans handle the wear and tear well and can be moved either by self-affixed wheels or a simple dolly method. They can be drilled and modified in various ways to produce optimal results for compost and can be buried or raised up. Check out the main reasons trash cans make good compost bins:

Readily Available and Affordable

It is really easy to source free and used trash cans. Hardware stores and surplus stores often have very cheap large bins with wheels and tight-fitting lids. Old metal trash cans can be found at yard and farm sales and usually can be had for very cheap. Simple plastic trash cans can be found at any home store and are great for collecting vegetable scraps while collecting composting material.

Strong and Resilient

During the decomposition process, a compost bin will need to be mixed up. This process can put tremendous strain on flimsy containers and cause the bins to smash. Trash cans made for municipal collection are strong and can handle getting slammed against a big truck. Turning compost with a shovel should not be too much for these receptacles to handle.

Easy to Relocate

These bins are perfect for storing organic matter and moving around. With built-in wheels or a simple dolly system, trash cans can be maneuvered all over to collect yard trimmings, animal waste, and any other organic matter you have lying around. Wheels also allow trash bins to be moved to areas with better air circulation or inside when the temperatures drop, ensuring the composting process continues all year long.

Easy to Modify

Most garbage cans would make lousy compost piles if they were not adjusted and enhanced in various ways. Some materials are strong but not easy to add to or modify, while others are easy to puncture but can’t stand up to continuous use. Trash cans can be drilled and manipulated to make airflow, moisture, and temperature conditions just right.

Air holes and water drains are the most common garbage can adjustments, with reinforcement of lids and other vulnerable parts also being a standard augmentation.

Fits into Urban Landscape

Not everyone has the luxury of a yard where a compost pile can be inconspicuously placed. The very nature of a composter can attract pests and produce odors, so for urban dwellers, it can be hard to solve this problem. Garbage cans are common in urban and suburban landscapes and can be seamlessly blended into the surroundings.

A garbage bin containing compost can be much better concealed than a large heap of leaves, kitchen waste, and organic material and may be the perfect solution to the urban composter dilemma.

How To Make a Compost Bin from a Trash Can?

While it might seem as simple as throwing kitchen waste and water into a trash can composter and waiting for finished compost, it isn’t. Turning an ordinary trash can into a well-function composting machine is not easy and takes multiple steps. Some tools will be needed, and depending on what is laying around your home, a few things may need to be purchased.

But with a little hard work and creativity, any trash bin can turn out grade-A compost.

StepTools and MaterialsPurpose
Assessing the BinTrash Bin plastic or metalTo see if the trash can will work for composting
Drainage HolesDrill, 1/2 inch Drill bit, damp clothHoles on the bottom prevent moisture build-up and anaerobic conditions
Air HolesDrill, 2-3 inch hole saw, damp cloth, adhesive, screen or meshAllows air to flow through the bin and oxygenate the microbes in the soil. Prevents pests and unwanted insects from getting in the bin
Securing the LidLatch and fastener, bungee cordsTo make sure the lid is not knocked off during relocation or by hungry animals
Mobility AssistanceDolly, fasteners, ropes, bungees, wheel mountsMake sure the existing wheels can handle the extra use or add wheels to aid in mobility
Composter PlacementShovel, pick, cinder blocks, bricks, woodRaise up or lower the trash bin depending on chosen composting methods

Assessing the Bin

Not every bin will make a good composter. Some cans are too old, too weak, or just ill-fitted for the task. A good garbage can for compost should be intact and solid. All the components, like lids and wheels, should be sturdy or easily fixable. No large cracks that could burst in fluctuations of heat and cold should be visible.

Bins that are black or dark in color will absorb more heat from the sun and aid in faster composting and better bacterial activity. Compost trash cans that are not suitable for the entire process can be used to hold carbon materials, which are light and dry, or be used for the kitchen compost bucket, which never gets too full.

Drainage Holes

Aerobic compost microbes break food waste down into a compost mixture and can only do their job if they are not submerged in water. Drainage holes give excess moisture a place to go where it will not cause odor and other compost issues. Adding holes to the bottom of the bin is the easiest way to accomplish this.

The holes on the bottoms of trash cans can also help beneficial organisms make their way into the compost to build up the microbes in your soil. Holes that are too big can drop material or allow pests to burrow into them. Make sure the holes drilled are 1/2 an inch or smaller.

Air Holes

Compost also needs a steady supply of oxygen to aerate and enhance the soil structure. If no fresh air gets into a compost bin, then the piles will develop anaerobic pockets that can stink horribly when turned. A lack of air also leads to moisture build-up on the inside walls of the trash cans.

Air holes should be larger than drain holes and located all over the sides of the bin. Using a 2-3 inch hole saw, you can make air holes on all sides in several places. The holes can invite pests in, so make sure to cover them tightly.

Old window screens or hardware mesh can be placed on the inside of the bins over the air holes. Once the screen is the right size, you can attach it to the bins with a hardware adhesive. Secured screens can keep insects and rodents from contaminating your compost piles.

Securing the Lid

Not all trash cans have a lid, and if they do, it is not necessarily attached. Compost bins need lids all the time to prevent loss of moisture and the addition of excess moisture and to prevent pests and wild animals from making a mess. Compost bins are usually outside all year round, and the lids need to be able to deal with it all.

Heavy plastic trash cans have heavy lids that should keep out most pests. Adding a bungee or attaching a latch and fastener can give you more peace of mind. If a large bin is pushed over, but you have latched it, no compost will spill out, and the pests may give up. Smaller, lighter trash cans will need the lid attached more securely to prevent forced entry.

Mobility Assistance

A trash can full of compost is heavy. The bigger the trash can, the heavier the compost. Before your compost bin is full of heavy soil, figure out if you will need to move it and, if so, how you will do it. Most large trash cans have strong wheels and can be rolled around, but the smaller round black ones do not usually have large wheels.

If you need to supe up your trash can to allow it to roll around the garden, a dolly and bungee cords might be the answer. Simply place the round trash can on an adequately sized dolly and attached it with bungees, ropes, chains, or any other cord-type materials you have. Once a compost bin is attached to a dolly, you can move it around the yard or even inside if you want to continue composting in the winter.

Composter Placement

The simplest option is to place a compost trash can directly on the ground nearest to where it will either be used (garden) or filled (kitchen). once it is there, you will have the issue of moving it, but that can be achieved with the wheel modification in the last step. There are some benefits to considering optional compost placement.

Flush on the Ground

Compost bins directly on the ground can have some advantages. Microorganisms and worms in the soil can make their way into the compost bins through the drain holes and speed up the composting process. The bin will also stay at a similar temperature to the ground, which can be an advantage in summer but a drawback in winter.

Compost bins flush to the ground may experience drainage issues if the ground is wet and the holes get clogged. Pests are more likely to interact with a trash bin touching the ground than one lifted off of it. Compost on the ground can lose moisture and heat to the ground below it.

Lifted off the Ground

Compost bins raised up on bricks or cinder blocks allow for increased airflow and drainage. The compost at the bottom of the bin is the oldest and usually holds the most moisture. It is easy for these zones to develop anaerobic areas that can stink and breed bad pests and bacteria.

Compost bins lifted off the ground will have fewer wet areas and can be controlled easier. The raised bins may be more easily knocked over than bins directly on the ground and can lead to messes that need immediate cleaning.

Partially Buried Below Ground

In areas with mild summers and cold winters, partially buried bins can be a good idea. If the wind chill is high, then burying a bin can help your compost to stay active all winter long. It takes a bit of extra work to bury a bin, so only do it if it is extremely important for your climate.