How to choose the right compost bin

Wednesday, 9 May 2012  |  HOTBIN Composting

You can compost for free by piling your garden and food waste up in a corner, however the paid for options do offer significant benefits. So how do you decide whether to pay 20, 60, 185 or even 900 pounds (yes really!) for a compost bin? You 'justify' the cash by convincing yourself of the 'value'.

We show you how to do this by checking the composting features meet your needs at a price you can afford.

Sounds like hard work - why not just go online, look for a 5 star ratings and best price - job done. Most of the online reviews look like this: 'arrived/did not arrive' on time (score 1-5), it was 'easy/hard' to set up (score 1-5). I'd let you know how it works! The all important bit are missing and few people return 12 months later to let you know if it worked and how well.

We can summarise the process of how do choose the 'right compost bin’ or the 'best compost bin' for you into seven steps:

Step 1 - WHY
Define your composting goals

Step 2- WHERE
Review your available space and site for the compost bin

Step 3 - WHAT & WHEN
How much garden and food waste you produce and when

Step 4 – EFFORT
How much time and effort you are willing to invest on composting

Step 5 – HOW
Consider which compost method (eg hot, cold, digesters, vermicompost) and which bin features are essential and which are nice to have (eg low odour, no rats, no flies, will take all food waste, kills weed seeds, kills pathogens)?

Step 6 – CHECK
Build a compost bin feature check list

Step 7 – MATCH
Which compost bin will deliver the best price/performance

Before we go any further, let's consider your time and effort to read this article. You might have the time and interest in composting to fully research the topic - if so read the detail below, but many will just want a 'fast track' to help them make a quick decision with a degree of confidence that they are choosing a one that will work.

Reading between the lines - how to spot the vendor marketing hype (that’is the polite term!).

  • Seek user recommendations - ignore the bin ‘arrived/did not arrive’ on time, ‘easy/hard’ to assemble. Search for in depth reviews where people state: it delivered great compost, it works per instructions, I got great compost out, best compost bin ever used.
  • Validate vendor promises (eg compost in 7-days). Look for detailed scientific study from reputable independent organisation to support the claim - if none, walk away.
  • Check vendor expertise - does the website just regurgitate the same old ‘list of things to compost' that relates only to cold composting or a more detailed list comparing hot versus cold and offering hundreds of composting Q&A details?
  • Look for vendors with expertise in composting science & engineering - All composting obeys the same laws of nature like cooling rates, rates/speed of biochemical reactions. You the consumer should not need to know about the science and engineering of composting, but we believe your compost bin vendor does.

For those who want to look into the detail, here is a little more depth around the seven steps to help you choose a compost bin

Step 1 - Consider your composting goals:

  • Do you want to make lots of rich/great compost for your garden that will improve its fertility and lessen/reduce your use of fertiliser and maybe even peat?
  • Do you just want to keep the garden tidy?
  • Do you want to make a more positive contribution to the environment by recycling all your food waste so your local council no longer has to collect and transport it to landfill or a central AD/IVC reprocessing plant?
  • Are you just fed up with allocating more and more of your flower or vegetable patch to overflowing compost bins that never seem to do anything?
  • What are your goals on sustainability, organic gardening, good use of limited resources.

Step 2 - Review your available space and location for the compost bin:

  • Some compost bins are limited in location (eg keep it in a sunny spot, or the opposite ‘keep it in the shade’, ‘only use on soil’, ‘do not use on clay soil’. You may have very little choice (eg it needs to go on the concrete by the garage). Your location may limit your compost bin choice.
  • You might have a small garden and no space for a large compost bin, conversely you might have very large garden and taking 3 metre square for a traditional 3-bay New Zealand compost bin system might pose no issues.
  • Do you want to the compost bin close to the kitchen so you can pop out easily in the rain to empty your food caddy?

Step 3 - Review the volume of garden and food waste you produce

  • Are you just going to compost seasonal garden waste (summer/autumn)?
  • Do you want to compost grass cuttings (spring, summer, autumn)
  • Do you want to compost food waste – produced all year round – ie compost through winter
  • How much of each type of waste do you have?

In my experience, very few composters accurately know how many litres (or Kgs) of waste they produce. Very few have any real desire to record and measure it either.

Choosing the right compost bin size is also further complicated as compost bins can (given the right conditions to achieve ‘hot composting’) compost 32 times faster than a competitor bin that only facilitates ‘cold composting. So 20 litres of waste a week in one bin would rapidly break down within a week, but in another bin build up over time and need a 600 litre bin.

Step 4 – Consider if you want to ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ compost?

The major benefits of ‘hot’ composting over ‘cold’ composting are:

  • Hot composting will destroy weed seeds – saving you time and effort in future
  • Hot composting will destroy dangerous bacteria so you can compost all food waste
  • Hot composting requires far less space to compost the same amount of waste
  • Hot composting requires dramatically less time (eg 30 days vs 360 days)
  • Hot composting works all year round (cold heaps all but stop in winter, temperatures of 0-5°c)

Find out more by reading our post on Hot versus Cold Composting.

Step 5 – Consider how much time and effort you are willing to spend on composting

This is hard – everyone tends to answer - ‘none / minimal’. The more a vendor knows this is critical to your choice, the more pressure to use the term ‘easy’ and the bigger the potential expectation gap and likely hood of user disappointment. There is always some effort (eg collecting food, turning, mixing, shredding). In our experience, things can be made very easy by habitually following simple method-steps. But investing the time to form habits can be challenging – especially at the start when people perceive the habits are taking more time not saving time.

So, now you have a clear picture of what you want. Next, how do you check and match the compost bin against your composting objectives?

Step 6 – Build a compost bin feature list

Build a feature list, locate the top 10 commercial bins, score each feature, eliminate those compost bins that do not fit your needs to produce a short list; then weight/score the remaining compost bins to find the best match.

Step 7 – Assess which compost bin will deliver the best price/performance

Rate (Score) the competence of each compost bin against each feature, ie establish the performance and derive and overall value for money score - the million dollar question!

Commercial product managers do this kind of work as their day job – but it is likely very few gardeners or food waste recyclers have the time or inclination to do this.

If you have both; follow this link to the ‘compost bin competitive evaluation sheet’. You will find 12 widely available compost bins types and brands professionally analysed. You can play around with the scores and weighting to see which you think is best.

I said in the introduction, you can compost for nothing (£0s) by just piling stuff up in an open heap. To justify the cash outlay you have to generate 'value' and you do this by checking the compost bin features deliver against your composting objectives at a price you can afford.

We hope the above tips combined with the tools in the links will help you create 'value' and help you decide which compost is right for you.