Can You Compost in a Trash Can

trash can composting

Yes, you “can”… in a trash can…

I know… corny joke!

But seriously, composting in a trash can is an easy way to make compost without complicated equipment. All you need is a garbage can and something to make holes.

But even with something as mundane as a trash can, you have a variety of choices available to you.

In this article, I’ll explain some of your options for composting this way and some fundamental tips about how it should be done… Properly!

Trash Can Composting

Garbage can composting has several advantages. 

For a start it’s cheap!

If you don’t have a spare trash container, they are inexpensive and easy to get hold of.

The “can” creates a contained space for your compost. In this respect, it works similarly to commercial compost bins, keeping everything neatly in place while offering some protection from pests and rodents.

Moisture and heat are better regulated in a container than in a simple open compost heap.

And garbage cans have a small footprint, so they’re ideal for small spaces. 

Perhaps the biggest drawback with composting like this is the small size restriction of garbage bins. 

Composting indeed tends to work better when you have a large mass of organic matter. For example, a typical trash can is about 32 gallons, whereas compost bins potentially contain 200 to 300 gallons. But even small volumes of organic materials can be composted if the system is set up correctly.

Overall, trash can composting is a popular method, and if you manage the process correctly, it works!

Can I use a garbage bin for composting?

Yes, a garbage bin can be used for making compost, provided that you make a few modifications to help the composting process become more efficient. This generally includes making holes for aeration and drainage.

This uncomplicated adaptation makes trash cans simple and easy to set up as composters. You only need to add some holes to help airflow and moisture control.

By making holes in the base of the trash, can you achieve a couple of valuable things:

  • Drainage
  • Access to beneficial worms and microbes

You need to allow liquids to permeate the compost and drain out of the bottom. If you don’t do this, you risk creating an environment that is too wet. 

This isn’t good for “aerobic,” oxygen-loving bacteria, the most effective decomposition type.

With this trash container method, it’s pretty common for the compost in the bottom of the bin to go “anaerobic” (lacking oxygen). Not only is this much less efficient for making compost, but it can also produce very unpleasant odors! So make sure you add plenty of holes in the can base to avoid this kind of problem.

The other bonus outcome from adding holes in the bottom is the access provided for worms, bacteria, and other critters. 

If you place your trash can on the soil, worms and other soil life will be attracted to the organic waste and kitchen scraps inside the bin. These are very beneficial to the composting process.

The sides of the trash can also need to be perforated to create ventilation holes.

This provides oxygen for your composting materials. Without oxygen, aerobic compost microbes cannot survive.

So, simply by piercing a few holes in the bottom and sides of a trash can, you create a helpful environment for composting your yard trimmings and kitchen scraps.

How to compost in a trash can

To compost effectively in a garbage can, you need to consider a few essential factors, such as the ingredients you use and the way you adjust the compost mixture. You should also think about the best location for your bin.

What Ingredients for Trash Can Compost?

Compost materials are generally classed into two categories known as “green” or “brown.” If you’re new to composting, this can be confusing. But in general terms, the green matter is moister such as grass clippings or fruit and vegetable scraps. On the other hand, Brown material is dryer, like twigs, dead leaves, or shredded cardboard.

For the best results, try mixing green and brown organic materials. Add these in layers as you fill the bin, and mix them up slightly. Don’t worry too much about the quantities. A good ratio would be something like roughly 50% of each.

You can also throw in a handful of old soil for extra benefits. This can be useful when you add fresh materials because it contributes helpful bacteria and microbes to get the process going.

How to Manage a Trash Can Composter

This mixture needs to be turned from time to time if you want to ensure the best conditions for decomposition. 

As the organic matter breaks down, it tends to collapse in on itself, which pushes out the air from the ingredients. But oxygen is an important component in composting. 

The best way to reintroduce some air is to stir it up!

You can either poke it with a stick or use a specialized compost aerator like this one (Amazon).

You should also keep an eye on moisture levels since decomposition will slow down if the compost is too dry

Tip: look under the lid of your compost bin when you inspect the contents. If you can see condensation on the underside of the lid, your compost is moist. If not, add a bit of water.

Location of your Garbage Bin Compost

Something to keep in mind is where to place your trash bin composter. As they fill up, they become pretty heavy, especially if the contents are wet. Choose a location where it doesn’t need to be regularly moved.

That being said, a trash bin is much smaller than a traditional compost bin. So when your compost is ready to use, you can move it to the location where it’s needed using a simple hand dolly.

An even better idea is to leave it right next to your garden bed, where you can use it directly on plants.

Another consideration for trash bin locations is to choose somewhere with plenty of sunlight. The bin will absorb solar energy, and the heat will improve the composting process.

Finally, a converted garbage can composter will probably attract flies, especially if you intend to add a lot of kitchen waste. Flies in your compost are not necessarily bad, but they will be a nuisance if you locate the bin too close to your home.

DIY trash can compost bin 

To build a DIY trash can compost bin, you will need a garbage can with a lid, a drill, and a drill bit. Choose a size of at least ¼ inch up to about ¾ inch for the holes.

diy trash can compost bin

Large holes could allow easy access to rodents, and small holes might become blocked.

Choose a dark-colored garbage can and the largest volume possible, like this 32-gallon model (Amazon). Don’t forget the lid!

The darker color will absorb more solar energy, and the bigger the volume of organic waste, the better.

How to turn a trash can into a compost bin

drill holes into a trash can
  1. Turn the bin upside down and drill holes into the base. You need plenty of drainages, so drill at least 20 to 30 holes.
  2. Drill another set of holes in the sides of the trash can. Place them at 4 to 6-inch intervals.
  3. You can add more holes in the sides near the bottom third. The bottom of the bin often turns anaerobic, and additional holes will help aeration.
  4. Some gardeners also add holes in the lid.
  5. Locate the bin in a spot with some sunlight to get the benefits of heat.
  6. Place it directly on the soil to let soil life get to the contents. Choose a well-drained spot to avoid water-logging.
  7. If you can’t place it on the soil, consider lifting it up on some wricks for better drainage and air circulation.

Tip: Make sure your drill bit is sharp, or use multi-material drill bits like these (Amazon)

Want to make your garbage can composter even more efficient? Use a plastic drain pipe as a ventilation stack. Drill holes in the tube all the way along, then place it in the center of the pile as you build up your compost materials. This will ensure the middle of your composting materials never lack oxygen!

Trash can compost questions:

Can you use a metal trash can for composting?

Metal trash containers are suitable for composting, provided they are made from galvanized metal. This will help prevent rust. Metal trash bins might also be more durable during the winter months than plastic garbage cans.

Composting in a plastic trash can?

Making a compost bin from a plastic trash can works well. Use a model with rigid plastic to avoid it splitting over time. Compost can become quite heavy, and the plastic container might rip after several manipulations, especially if it’s weakened by the drill holes needed for aeration.

Plastic also degrades with exposure to the elements. Keep in mind a black, or darker colored bin will absorb more heat energy from the sun.

Buried trash can compost 

A buried trash can compost system has some advantages over stand-alone garbage cans. They retain heat better, provide more access to beneficial microbes from the surrounding soil, and are better at keeping pests and vermin out of compost.

This underground system is built similarly to out-of-ground trash bin composters. You just need to add drainage holes in the base and the sides.

This time the holes only serve the purpose of draining excess moisture and allowing worms and bacteria easy access to the organic waste material inside.

For this reason, you only need to drill holes in the base and the bottom half of the bin. The top half of the trash bin will be left protruding out of the earth.

In this respect, buried trash can composters work the same way as a compost digester.

These tend to heat up more than a classic compost bin, partly because they are insulated by the earth around them and thanks to solar heat from the sun.

The biggest drawback is that the process is primarily anaerobic, implying certain disadvantages. The compost produced by this method takes longer to decompose, and the resulting compost is not entirely finished. In addition, it will need access to oxygen to become mature and ready for use. 

Anaerobic decomposition can become smelly. Use a location with good drainage or add some sand to the bottom layer to prevent organic matter from stagnating in liquid.

Also, you need to dig a hole to bury the bin! (Get someone with a solid back to help). 

This kind of sunken garbage can method is generally used as an easy way to compost kitchen scraps but probably isn’t suited to yard trimmings because of the small size.

Compost bin vs. trash can 

Compost bins and trash cans have a lot of similarities and a couple of significant differences.

Commercial compost bins are more sophisticated, ready-to-use systems which produce a larger amount of compost.

A trash can only composts small amounts of yard waste and takes some extra work to convert into a composter.

Nevertheless, a transformed trash can is an easy solution for recycling organic home waste and producing rich compost for your backyard and plants.

Related reading: how to compost in a bucket

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  1. I made the mistake of filling my trash can with compost and it has no holes so it’s filled with water. It also smells really bad now! Should I dump it all and start over? Or can I salvage what is in there already by adding holes? This is almost a years worth or compost in the can, so I would hate to waste it!

    1. Hi Laura
      You can salvage the compost by aerating it and allowing it to dry out a bit. Consider mixing in dry materials like shredded paper or leaves to help absorb moisture. Starting over isn’t necessary; with some modifications, you can still make good use of the compost you’ve already collected 🙂

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