The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 6, 2007

Compost Tumbler: a solution to the potting soil problem?

Good lord, what is that Death Star looking thing on your roof, Beth?

No Worries. It’s my new Urban compost tumbler and tea catcher [2019 Update: It looks like this compost tumbler is no longer manufactured.  Try here for other recycled CompoTumblers.] ready to devour food, garden, and some paper waste and deliver rich, fragrant compost… in 2-6 months, depending on how diligent I am in feeding it.

But it’s made of (gasp) plastic!

That’s right. 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. The only part that is not recycled is the tea catcher, and I’m having a few regrets about ordering that part. Seems like I maybe could have figured out another way to catch the compost leachate without buying a brand new piece of plastic. Well, live and learn.

So, how does it work?

Glad you asked! Simply add your “green” (fresh leaves, grass, food scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, anything wet and pungent) and “brown” (dry leaves, grass, shredded paper & cardboard) waste, close the lid, spin the compost tumbler a few times to mix it all up, and leave it alone until you have more to add. That’s it. Over time, the materials will decompose into fresh dirt that no longer resembles (or smells) like the original ingredients. I know this because we had a different composter a few years ago, and after neglecting it all winter, we opened it up in the spring to find gorgeous, sweet-smelling soil.

So why aren’t you using that one?

Well, the thing is, we don’t actually have a yard, only a roof deck. The composter we had was meant to sit on the ground. Instead, I had it on a wooden palette on top of a black plastic sheet. Still, the deck underneath got pretty gross. I didn’t think it was the best idea, especially since as renters, we didn’t actually own the deck we were grossifying. So I traded the composter for a worm bin, but I never found time to purchase the worms to go in it and worried that if I did purchase the worms, they’d die from neglect. Composters, on the other hand, love neglect. Hence, my decision to re-Freecycle the worm bin and spring for the compost tumbler, which will never touch the deck.

Why did you buy that one?

Boy, I stayed up several nights in a row researching which compost tumbler to buy. I’ll list for you the ones I considered, the pros and cons, and the reason I chose the Urban Compost Tumbler.

compostumbler_backporch1) Back Porch ComposTumbler:

  • Materials: Drum made from new polyethylene; frame made of polyester powder coated steel tubing.
  • Tumbling method: Drum spins on metal frame, turned by a metal crank.
  • Mobility: wheels attached to frame so tumbler can easily be moved.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: attractive green drum with black frame. Blends in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: Several reviewers reported that the door doesn’t stay closed properly when the unit is fairly full, and therefore turning the tumbler becomes a problem. I also read one report of the metal crank breaking off, and a few reports of rusting of the metal frame.
  • Bottom Line: I didn’t want new plastic, especially with a door that might not shut, a crank that might break, and a frame that could rust. Also, I wanted a way to catch the leachate, which is good fertilizer for plants.

compostumbler_other2) Other larger ComposTumblers:

  • Materials: Galvanized metal drum and tubular steel frame.
  • Tumbling method: Drum spins on metal frame, turned by a metal crank.
  • Mobility: None.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: attractive green drum with black frame. Blends in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: Rust seemed to be the biggest problem with these all-metal units. Many people reported rust.
  • Bottom Line: Didn’t want to deal with possible rust problems. Preferred not to purchase all new materials. Also, I wanted a way to catch the leachate.

envirocycle3) Envirocycle Composter/ Composteamaker:

  • Materials: This is interesting. The company’s web site does not specify what materials it is made of. Online merchants vary in their descriptions. says it is 50% recycled plastic. says it is made from recycled plastic, but doesn’t say what percentage.
  • Tumbling method: Push the drum itself over the wheels in the base to roll it.
  • Mobility: Drum rolls off the base and onto the ground, where it can be rolled anywhere you want.
  • Tea catcher: Included in the base. Leachate drains through holes in the drum into the base where it is collected.
  • Appearance: Green plastic drum and base. Could blend in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: I’ve read reports that if the compost gets too wet, it leaks through the vents in the drum so that rolling it becomes a messy, stinky process. Also, when the drum gets too heavy, it becomes difficult to roll.
  • Bottom Line: Afraid of stinky, messy drum that I wouldn’t want to touch. Also, this unit is only partially recycled, if that.

tumbling_compost_mixer4) Tumbling Compost Mixer with steel frame or Compost Mixer with plastic base:

  • Materials: 100% recycled plastic with optional steel frame.
  • Tumbling method: Either turn it end over end on its steel frame or roll it on its plastic base with your feet.
  • Mobility: With the steel frame, it is stationary. With the plastic base, it can be rolled off the base onto the ground and rolled around the yard.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: Black Death Star look, one that only its mother could love.
  • Reported Problems: Haven’t read of any problems.
  • Bottom Line: A good one except that I really wanted a way to catch the leachate to feed my plants.

So how does my Urban Compost Tumblercompare to the four mentioned above?

  • Materials: 100% post-consumer recycled plastic drum and frame. Optional tea catcher, as far as I know, is not made from recycled plastic. It could be, but the company’s web site does not state that it is.
  • Tumbling method: Turn it end over end on its frame.
  • Mobility: Stationary.
  • Tea catcher: Optional.
  • Appearance: Black Death Star look. Not beautiful, but functional.
  • Reported Problems: Some reviews have said that getting the compost out is not as easy as shown in the photos. We’ll see if that’s true. Also, one review said that when the composter gets full, it can be mishapen and harder to get the lid on. However, the unit came with instructions for how to get the lid on in that case.
  • Bottom Line: I bought it because it’s 100% recycled, there’s a way to catch the leachate, and there are no metal parts that can rust. Since it will be on my deck, I don’t need it to be mobile. And I would rather have a narrow frame than a flat base sitting on the deck. It seems like the right choice for us, given the options available. (Note: there are a few others, but the features are pretty similar to the ones I listed above.)

compostumbler-packaging-p1020901Finally, let’s talk packaging. The Urban Compost Tumbler was delivered in 3 boxes: 2 great big ones containing the drum and base and a smaller one containing the tea catcher. Except for a cardboard ring to hold the drum in place, the big boxes had no additional packaging and were sealed up with paper tape! The smaller box was stuffed with newspaper, as opposed to styrofoam or plastic. There was some plastic inside besides the tea catcher itself: a plastic bag containing the smaller hardware parts and a small plastic clamshell containing one of the parts. Oddly, this box was sealed with plastic tape.

Bottom Line: Investing in this composter will allow us to recycle our organic waste in a way that is responsible and will provide nutrients for the plants in my garden. Mixing the compost with dirt from the side of the house, I’m hoping to provide potting soil for the garden that doesn’t come in a plastic bag. And catching the leachate, I’m hoping to provide my own fertilizer that I don’t have to buy from the store.

And finally, for those who don’t want to compost, Terracycle makes organic fertilizers and even potting soil that is packaged in recycled soda bottles and milk jugs.

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4 years ago

Where do I buy this Urban Compost Tumbler?

annemarie latimer
13 years ago

My husband doesn’t want to compost because he is afraid it will bring too many wild animals to our home in the woods. Please convince him!

Chef Vanda
13 years ago

Great post! Every week, I buy lots of organic fruits and vegetables, wash them carefully and then I prepare them for cooking. I pull off the ugly leaves, I remove the flesh from the rind, I cut off the ends, I remove the outer layers, etc. I use only the most tender and tastiest parts of the vegetables for my clients.

This leaves a large pile of organic kitchen scraps that is perfect for composting, I’ve been saying I need to compost, for a long time. This year, I’ve joined a CSA with Sang Lee Farms and I expect to get large quantities of fruits and vegetables that will create piles of kitchen scraps for composting. Well this year, I’ve taken another step to be greener by purchasing a composter and setting it up behind my shed.
Thanks for making it look so easy.
Chef Vanda
The Organic Personal Chef

13 years ago

Thanks for your reviews! I have been doing research myself. I like the compost tea attachment. Can you describe (or post a photo) of how it attaches to the tumbler? I wonder if I can just drill a hole and stick a spout in it (like the ones at the bottom of ice chests). Can you use the compost tea straight from the collector and as the compost is in the making? Or do you have to wait for when the compost is mature?

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Jackie, that is a good question. Most compost bins and water collection bins are made from polypropylene (#5 plastic) which supposedly is one of the safer plastics. But as we know, it’s impossible to know if any plastic is truly safe.

Our composter is made from plastic, and our green bin (which is where we can put our compost if we didn’t have our own composter) is made from plastic too. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a perfect answer in this case. At least with composting, we are keeping methane-producing materials out of landfills and saving a whole lot of plastic bags!

I just wrote about the plastic trash bag issue today, as a matter of fact.

13 years ago

I am building my own tumbler but am worried about the material I choose for the bin. I was going to use an old plastic drum – like the ones used for marking territiories in lakes – but will the material leech toxins into the compost? Please let me know if you have any suggestions…thanks

15 years ago

Hi, It looks like the “tea catcher” is really a tub used for changing the oil in an automobile. I have the very same thing in the garage. It can be purchased at Checkers or Autozone for about $7.00. It’s listed at the catalog for over $30. Good post though!

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi. I’m planning to post an assessment of the Urban Compost Tumbler and my experience with it to date in a new post this week. Stay tuned before rushing out to buy one.

15 years ago

I am thinking of buying this composter, and I wanted to know if you are happy with it, after having it for a while?

Also, if you are adding food scraps everyday, do you have to separate the not completely composted food scraps from the already composted material?

15 years ago

When you say add shredded paper is this just paper from a regular paper shredder or do you need to extra shred that? I’m worried about only having mostly kitchen stuff as well. The guy that mows our yard has a mulcher thing that puts the clippings back on the grass. I’m going to try to con my neighbor into letting me have some of his bags of grass once he starts mowing. Do I just let those dry out for a few weeks to count as ‘brown’?

I’m glad I found your blog. You have complied by far the best pro/con list of compost tumblers I’ve found. I think I’ve decided to buy a UCT instead of the one from compostumbler b/c of you. As far as the spout for the tea goes, is it mostly just being new plastic that you don’t like or have you found that it doesn’t really work? If I have to construct something for myself… well I won’t ever get around to it.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Cristyb. It’s a good point. The web site says that the plastic is “food grade.” Not all plastic has been found to leach toxins. I wish they would specifiy exactly what kind of plastic it is. It feels to me like polypropylene, (#5) which has not been found to leach anything.

Also, at this point I’m only growing non-food plants, so I’m not as worried about the plastic leaching.

Of more concern to me is all the plastic that goes into the compost made from the green waste that we send to our commercial composting facilities. We are allowed to put any type of food-contaminated paper into our green bins, including milk cartons, ice cream carton, paper plates, paper cups, etc. ALL of those things are coated with plastic. So rather than simply being held inside a plastic container, the compost is actually full of plastic itself. Then, vineyards and other food growers buy the compost from these facilities and use it on their crops. That is even scarier to me than what’s going on out on my deck, where I don’t put any type of plastic into the compost itself.

15 years ago

I worry about the recycled plastic leaching toxins into the compost which is then used in the garden which is then turned into food. Can’t be good! It would seem that if toxins leach from virgin plastic then those same toxins would have just an easy (possibly easier) time leaching when recycled. Any insight?

Beth Terry
16 years ago

Hi Sam. It sounds like you probably don’t have enough carbon in there. I would add more shredded paper or other dry stuff.

We really did just leave our previous composter alone all winter and had beautiful compost in the spring. It wasn’t a tumbler. But so far, the Urban Compost Tumbler we are using is working just fine. The decomposing material really just smells like dirt.

Oh, you also might want to add some actual dirt to it. Dirt can act like a “starter” for the compost.

And do you get dry leaves blowing on the sidewalk at all? Even though I don’t have a yard, I do have trees near the house and I sometimes bag up the dry leaves that fall on the sidewalk and add them.

16 years ago

I bought a Tumbling Compost Mixer this summer, filled it with kitchen scraps and shredded paper, and so far…nothing but soggy, vile-smelling glop that drips all over my shoes every time I turn it. Maybe it needs more carbon? Maybe it needs more air?

If you have any advice as a fellow composter without a real yard (ie., no access to tons of dry leaves for carbon), I would love to hear it! What percentages of different materials do you put in? Do you do it in batches like they say to, or do you just keep adding? Do you really just leave it alone all winter and end up with good compost in the spring??

terrible person
16 years ago

Is it possible that having a big barrel of food scraps on our back deck will attract bears? That would be SO COOL!

terrible person
16 years ago

I think it looks like one of those Civil War mortars. We can use it to fire huge recyclable shells at evil plastic producers!

By the way, I don’t know if anyone else has taken Beth’s recommendation of stainless steel Klean Kanteens as an alternative to BPA-leaching plastic water bottles, but I just got one last night, and – I am not kidding — from the first drink, I could taste the difference. And I have, like, very little sense of taste. I am really amazed. You will be, too.

Stretch Mark Mama
16 years ago

Keep us posted on the ins and outs of your tumbler! Composting is probably my next ‘big thing’, and it is a new area for me.