Can You Compost in a Trash Can

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: September 8, 2023
  • Time to read: 9 min.

Composting has always been an eco-conscious individual’s ally in the quest for sustainability. By transforming organic waste into fertile, rich soil, composting not only reduces the load on landfills but also revitalizes gardens and supports the natural life cycle of organic materials. Yet, while most of us are aware of composting’s many benefits, the lack of space or resources can often pose challenges, especially for city dwellers or those without a yard. In these situations, one might wonder: Is it possible to utilize everyday items, like a regular trash can, to serve the purpose of a compost bin? As we journey through this article, we’ll explore the feasibility of such a method, offering both the advantages and the how-to for those seeking an unconventional but effective composting solution.

Can I use a garbage bin for composting?

When considering composting options, a conventional compost bin or pile might be the first image that springs to mind. However, many are exploring unconventional tools, like ordinary garbage bins, as potential composters. The good news? It’s entirely possible! With some slight adjustments and modifications, a typical trash can can transform into a functional composter. This approach can be particularly appealing to those on a budget, city residents with spatial constraints, or simply anyone keen on repurposing items they already possess. Dive in, and let’s uncover how your everyday garbage bin can join the ranks of eco-friendly composting solutions.

Advantages of Using a Trash Can for Composting

While using a trash can for composting might sound unconventional, it’s loaded with benefits that make it an appealing option for many:

  1. Space-Saving Brilliance: Especially in urban settings, where sprawling gardens or vast outdoor spaces are a rarity, a trash can provides a compact composting solution. Its vertical design takes up minimal ground space, making it perfect for balconies, patios, or tight yard corners.
  2. Financially Wise: Investing in specialized compost bins can sometimes put a dent in your wallet. By repurposing a trash can you already own or buying a basic one, you can save considerably. This cost-effectiveness ensures you can partake in eco-friendly practices without breaking the bank.
  3. Guard Against Pests: One common concern with composting is the attraction of pests and rodents. Thanks to their sturdy build and sealable lids, trash cans offer an inherent defense mechanism. They can effectively deter critters, ensuring your compost remains undisturbed.
  4. Ease of Relocation: Life is unpredictable, and there might come a time when you need to move your compost setup – maybe due to seasonal changes, or perhaps you’re shifting homes. Trash cans, especially those with handles, are surprisingly portable. They provide the flexibility to move your compost site as and when needed without much hassle.

Incorporating these advantages, it becomes evident that a trash can isn’t just a makeshift solution but a genuinely viable option for effective composting.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Composting in a Trash Can

Transitioning an ordinary trash can into a composting hub may sound daunting, but with a structured approach, it becomes a straightforward endeavor. Here’s a detailed breakdown of how to turn your garbage bin into a composting powerhouse:

  1. Choosing the Ideal Can:
    • Size: Aim for a can with a capacity of 30-50 gallons, which offers adequate space for layering and turning the compost.
    • Material: Opt for a durable, plastic or metal bin that can withstand external elements and the weight of compost materials.
  2. Ensuring Proper Aeration:
    • Drilling Holes: Use a drill to create holes, about 1-2 inches apart, on the sides, bottom, and lid of the can. These holes facilitate the entry of oxygen, which is essential for the decomposition process.
    • Positioning: Place the can on bricks or wooden slats. This elevation allows for better drainage and prevents the base from rotting.
  3. Strategic Placement:
    • Find a location that’s shaded or semi-shaded. This ensures the compost doesn’t dry out too quickly in intense sun or overheat, which can kill beneficial microbes.
    • Ensure the spot is accessible, as you’ll need to visit it regularly for maintenance.
  4. Mastering the Art of Layering:
    • Starting Right: Place a layer of twigs or coarse yard waste at the bottom for improved air circulation.
    • Balancing Act: Alternate between layers of green materials (nitrogen-rich, like veggie scraps or grass clippings) and brown materials (carbon-rich, like dry leaves or paper).
    • Optimal Thickness: Aim for layers between 2-4 inches to ensure balanced decomposition.
  5. Routine Maintenance:
    • Turning: Every week, or when you notice the center getting warm, mix the compost using a shovel, pitchfork, or stick. This introduces air, helping aerobic bacteria thrive and speeding up decomposition.
    • Moisture Check: The compost should feel like a wrung-out sponge — damp but not dripping. If it’s too dry, sprinkle some water; if too wet, add brown materials to balance it out.

By following these steps with attention to detail and consistency, your trash can will be well on its way to producing rich, nourishing compost for your garden or plants.

Potential Challenges and Remedies When Composting in a Trash Can

Using a trash can as a composter is undeniably resourceful, but it’s not without its potential pitfalls. Recognizing these challenges and arming yourself with effective solutions ensures a smoother composting journey:

  1. Limited Airflow:
    • Issue: Designed primarily for waste collection, trash cans might not offer the optimal airflow needed for composting.
    • Solution: Increase the number of aeration holes, ensuring they are spread evenly throughout the can. Regularly turn and fluff the compost to introduce fresh air and prevent compacting, which can stifle microbial activity.
  2. Moisture Control:
    • Issue: Without the specialized design of dedicated compost bins, trash cans can either retain too much moisture, leading to a soggy mess or allow rapid evaporation, resulting in overly dry compost.
    • Solution: Monitor the compost’s moisture levels frequently. If it feels overly wet, integrate more brown materials like dry leaves or cardboard, which will absorb excess moisture. On the flip side, if it’s too dry, lightly sprinkle water to reintroduce dampness. A lid or tarp can be used during heavy rains to shield the compost from getting drenched.
  3. Inconsistent Temperature:
    • Issue: Maintaining the ideal temperature is crucial for composting, as warmth accelerates the decomposition process. A trash can may not retain heat as efficiently as purpose-built composters.
    • Solution: Ensure a balanced mix of green and brown materials, which can help generate heat. If you live in cooler regions, you might consider insulating the trash can with materials like straw bales or positioning it in a spot that gets some morning sunlight. Regular turning can also introduce warmth and encourage microbial activity.

Recognizing these challenges isn’t meant to deter you, but rather to prepare you. With these remedies in hand, you can confidently transform your trash can into an efficient composting hub.

Tips for Successful Trash Can Composting

Turning your trash can into a flourishing composting hub requires a blend of art, science, and a sprinkle of dedication. To ensure your composting journey is not just successful but also streamlined, here are some in-depth pointers to keep in mind:

  1. Achieving the Perfect Balance:
    • Importance: The decomposition process thrives when there’s an optimal mix of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials.
    • Tip: Maintain a general ratio of 2 parts brown to 1 part green. This balance ensures efficient microbial activity without unwanted odors or pests.
  2. Commit to Regular Aeration:
    • Importance: Oxygen is crucial for aerobic bacteria that break down compost materials.
    • Tip: Besides turning the compost, ensure that the aeration holes you drilled remain unblocked. Occasionally, fluff up the material with a garden fork or stick to introduce pockets of air.
  3. Observation is Key:
    • Importance: Successful composting often hinges on the composter’s ability to spot and react to signs of imbalance.
    • Tip: Keep a nose out for any unpleasant odors, a telltale sign of anaerobic activity, which suggests the compost needs more air. Also, observe the texture; it should be damp, resembling the moisture level of a wrung-out sponge.
  4. Optimize Decomposition with Size:
    • Importance: Smaller pieces decompose faster as they provide more surface area for microbes to work on.
    • Tip: Before adding materials to the trash can, chop or shred them. Use a garden shredder, pruning shears, or even kitchen scissors to break down garden waste, cardboard, and food scraps.
  5. Boosting the Microbial Community:
    • Importance: A thriving microbial community speeds up decomposition and enhances compost quality.
    • Tip: Occasionally, introduce mature compost or garden soil to your trash can composter. This inoculates your compost with a fresh batch of microbes. For faster results, consider adding compost worms; they’re nature’s top decomposers and will accelerate the breakdown of organic materials.

When armed with these insights, your trash can composting journey becomes a rewarding endeavor. It’s about nurturing, observing, and, at times, intervening, but the result – rich, black gold for your plants – is worth every bit of effort.

How to Recognize Ready-to-Use Compost

Achieving that finely decomposed mixture is the ultimate aim of composting. But when is compost truly ready for use? Compost maturity is not just about time elapsed; it’s a combination of various factors that indicate the end product’s stability and richness. Let’s dive into the signs and methods to determine if your trash can compost has reached its prime:

  1. Texture and Appearance:
    • Sign: Mature compost has a crumbly texture, similar to dark, rich garden soil. It no longer bears a resemblance to the original materials you put in but instead appears uniform.
    • Tip: Sift the compost through a garden sieve or mesh screen to remove any larger, undecomposed materials.
  2. Odor:
    • Sign: Well-decomposed compost should have an earthy, pleasant scent. If your compost smells foul or like rotting garbage, it means there’s an imbalance that needs to be addressed.
    • Tip: If the odor persists, consider turning the compost more frequently and ensuring the right balance of green to brown materials.
  3. Temperature:
    • Sign: During the active phase of composting, the pile’s center will be warm or even hot, thanks to microbial activity. However, once this activity subsides and composting nears completion, the temperature drops to that of the surrounding environment.
    • Tip: Using a compost thermometer can help you monitor these temperature shifts accurately.
  4. Shrinkage:
    • Sign: The volume of your compost pile will decrease significantly from the volume of the initial materials you put in. This shrinkage is due to the breakdown of organic materials and the release of water and carbon dioxide.
    • Tip: While shrinkage indicates good progress, it doesn’t always mean the compost is ready. It should be combined with other signs for accuracy.
  5. Plant Germination Test:
    • Sign: Immature compost can hinder plant growth due to the presence of unstable organic compounds.
    • Tip: To test maturity, place some compost in a pot and try growing a fast-germinating seed, like cress or lettuce. If the seedlings grow healthily, it’s a positive sign that your compost is mature and safe for use.

Once your compost showcases these attributes, it’s ready to enrich your garden beds, potted plants, or lawns. Remember, even if you notice a few undecomposed bits, it’s alright. These pieces can be screened out or even added as is, slowly releasing their nutrients as they continue to break down in the soil.


The journey of transforming an ordinary trash can into a thriving composter demonstrates the immense potential that lies in repurposing and reimagining everyday objects. In our rapidly urbanizing world, finding sustainable solutions in unlikely places is more crucial than ever. Trash can composting isn’t just about creating a rich, nourishing soil additive; it represents a broader narrative of resourcefulness, adaptability, and commitment to our environment.

Through the process, not only do we derive a valuable end product for our plants, but we also divert significant amounts of organic waste from landfills, cutting down methane emissions and reducing our carbon footprint. This method teaches us that with a bit of innovation, determination, and care, even the most unexpected tools can play a vital role in our pursuit of a greener tomorrow.

As you embark or continue on your composting adventure, remember that it’s not just the final compost that matters but the holistic experience of nurturing, learning, and giving back to the Earth. Whether you’re an urban gardener without much space, a sustainability enthusiast looking for budget-friendly methods, or simply someone keen on reducing waste, trash can composting offers a tangible, impactful way to contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world.

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