The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 21, 2008

Update 2 – Urban Composting

Inspired by Life Less Plastic’s excellent Step By Step Composting Guide and info about her Compost Tumbler, and also after many questions from readers about my experiences composting with my Urban Compost Tumbler, I thought I’d post a quick update.

Back in August I wrote a detailed post about the various composting options for someone in an urban environment without access to a yard: Compost Tumbler: a solution to the potting soil problem? So I won’t rehash every option and the reasons why I chose a compost tumbler instead of worms or bokashi. But I will reiterate that I ultimately chose the Urban Compost Tumbler over other tumblers because it is made from 100% recycled plastic rather than new plastic. And I had heard about rust issues with metal compost tumblers.

I’ve now been using this one for over 7 months, and I’ve found it’s not as wonderful as I’d hoped. It’s a little over half full now, and because of the shape and the way it tumbles end over end, it has become extremely heavy and difficult to flip. I can no longer do it myself, and I assure you, I have really, really tried. Fortunately, I live with a very strong Michael. But if I lived alone, I’d have to stop using it.

Another issue is the importance of making sure to have enough brown material in there. My experience has been that with a traditional composter that sits on the ground, making sure the green/brown/water mix is perfect isn’t as important as with a tumbler where the materials are sealed in and don’t have access to elements and helpful critters like worms. Let me give you an example.

Before we bought the Urban Compost Tumbler, we had a traditional plastic composter (non-tumbling) on our roof. We managed to do that by putting down a sheet of black plastic and then a wooden pallet that the composter sat on. The composter had a bottom with holes in it so air could get through from the bottom. And it had some tiny holes in the top so rain could get in. For the first couple of months, I was diligent about adding the proper amounts of greens (food scraps & plant clippings) and browns (mostly shredded newspaper) and water. But I never turned the compost. And then over time, I became less diligent about the ratio of greens to browns, and when winter came, I gave up altogether and just let it sit.

When I opened it up in the Spring, I was surprised to find beautiful, sweet-smelling soil that was full of fat earth worms. They must have gotten in when I added some dry leaves from the sidewalk. The compost was beautiful. So why did we give up this system and opt for the tumbler? Because I was worried about the roof. As I’ve said before, we are renters. And I was worried about what was happening to the roof under the wet plastic. It was yucky under there. And I thought having a system where the composter doesn’t touch the roof would be better for us.

But you can’t accidentally get fat juicy earthworms in a compost tumbler. If you do, they’ll die from the tumbling. And you don’t get natural air flow, which is the reason you have to tumble it to begin with. So my compost is not developing as beautifully as I would have liked. Right now, I’ve stopped adding green material and am only adding shredded newspaper because the compost had started to smell bad, an indication of too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Fortunately, we have a “green bin” system in Oakland, and our food and yard waste are picked up curbside and taken to a commercial composting facility. So I’m not wasting my food scraps. I’m putting them in the green bin and sending them away instead of using them myself right now.

My recommendation is that if you have a patch of ground where you could put a traditional composter, you should go that route before considering a tumbler. It’s easier AND those composters cost a lot less. I don’t have that option.

If I were more diligent about composting, I’d probably get a worm bin. But I’m not, and I just don’t want to have to worry about letting worms die. Worms, unlike kitties, don’t pounce on you and bit your nose and cry to let you know they’re hungry. Also, I don’t have any shaded place to put it, so they’d probably fry in the summertime.

I still wouldn’t buy a composter made from virgin plastic. So at this point, I’m not sure what I would try if I weren’t using this one. Overall, it’s fine for someone who is strong or who lives with someone who is strong and willing to turn it periodically. I’ll write another update when I finally take the compost out and show you the finished product.

Next week: more updates on shampoo bars and soap and plastic-free deodorant. Stay tuned.

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3 years ago

I realize I’m chiming in really late, but would it protect your roof if you raised your old-style composter so there’s airflow and drainage underneath? Would milk crates (I see some in your picture) support the weight?

Thanks for your post. I’m just starting to research composting and I wouldn’t have thought of the issue of strength needed to turn the composter!

5 years ago

I just saw a video online for using a terracotta pot covered with a metal lid. Layer the green and brown materials and stir every few days. Simple and no plastic, but not sure if it works.

5 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

I just looked at it more closely. Yes, they are big pots, but he does describe using a series of 4 pots, so that by the time you’re filling the fourth, the first one is done. And it’s not a video – just a blog pot.
Sorry, up too late last night researching balcony composting ideas. Here’s the link:

Beth Terry
5 years ago
Reply to  pdioq

That is so interesting. Thank you!

8 years ago

I’ve been composting since my mother taught me – over 50 years ago. I long ago gave up on tumblers for the same reasons you mention. I do have several plastic composters, but I bought them probably 15 years ago before I knew better. Because of the wildlife around here, I have to put my food scraps in them. However, leaves and yard clippings go into round circles I’ve easily made out of metal fencing. Works like a charm. Thanks for your blog. I’m a major fan and am now working to get some single-use shopping bag laws passed where I live.

Beth Terry
13 years ago

For those who don’t speak Italian (like me) I entered Mazza’s comment into iGoogle and came up with this translation. I don’t know how accurate it is.

“There are appliances that reduce waste by 90% wet separating water from the remaining 10% is solid and the dried powder was immediately a very good fertilizer for plants.”

Mazza Sebastiano
13 years ago

ci sono elettrodomestici che riducono il rifiuto umido del 90% separando l’acqua del solido il restante 10% polvere essiccata ed subito un buonissimo concime per le piante.

Azura Skye
14 years ago

Hey there, hope you don't mind that I post this here… I haven't read the rest of your blog so I don't know if you've found a solution yet.
But I made myself a wormery, and thought you might like to know how I made it, because if you have a drill you could turn your tumbler into one?
If this isn't detailled enough I can post pics for you.

(from my blog)

My wormery was made using a standard kitchen bin, with a sliding lid. I drilled holes in two rows around the top, 4inches and 6inches down from the top, about an inch apart. At the bottom, about 4inched from the base, I drilled a single row of holes. They are about the thickness of a pencil.

At the base in the middle of the bin, I drilled a hole the size of a wine cork which is left open to the juice can flow out into a receptacle underneath it – so you must place the bin on bricks to raise it off the ground.

Inside I poured gravel to the depth of 2inches, then covered with some plastic which is pierced or ripped. This discourages the worms from going into the gravel and fall out the bottom, but allows the liquid to seep through. Then I placed a thick layer of wet newspaper strips. (not soaking wet, but very damp) – this is where the worms will snuggle and sleep :)

Then it's time to get worms. I have a compost heap outside, so I dug in there and found plenty of Tiger worms – which are special compost worms that are thin, red and have stripes, or ribs around their bodies when stretched out. I not only picked the worms, I gathered the compost as well. Into the bin this goes.

The bin was quite full at this point, and I thought by the time I empty the food scraps in there – it will be full! But I haven't emptied the compost in the two weeks so they must be digesting the food pretty fast because there's still room for loads more compost – which raw folks produce plenty of :)

What you can put in there is – any veg and fruit scraps – apart from Citrus fruit.

Egg shells need to be crushed before putting it in.
No dairy, meat, cheese – nothing from animals

Kim from Milwaukee
15 years ago

What about the recycled wine barrel composter on It looks like you just roll it on the wheels underneath. Has anyone tried it?? If I were to purchase a composter, that’s the one I’d use. I started with a used plastic trash can that I just drilled holes into, and that works great. My city also sells composters, so I purchased a couple, but they’re not the tumbling kind. I’ve read that you really don’t have to turn it, it will turn into compost in about a year. Less work which this lazy person loves!!!

15 years ago

Use used buckets and they won’t be virgin plastic. Use a pile turner and aerator ($20.00) if you can’t turn by hand.
It takes about 3 months to get good soil from scratch. Throw in old already composted stuff to go faster.

15 years ago

UUGGHH… I too was seconds away from purchasing the UCT but now I won’t. It’s back to the researching phase and it’s 3am and I’ve been up all night trying to find a good one. Has anyone heard of or tried the Triple-Chambered Earthmaker Composter found at Gardner’s Supply Company? I think I’m leaning towards that one.

15 years ago

I’ve been composting with worms for about a year now. In Chicago, it’s good they can stay indoors because they would either fry or freeze outside. Just FYI, food is far less of an issue for worms than moisture. We’ve been away for a month at a time and they did fine with someone just watering them once a week. Yes, they are living, but they are hardy.

Before getting worms (e.g. red wigglers), one should consider the local ecology where you live. Worms are already in many urban environments, but they are not native and can be very destructive in some places. And they WILL get out. :-)

Brave New Leaf
15 years ago

Great tip. I’ve been thinking about getting into composting myself, and this was the one I was leaning towards. You’ve saved me. But now I need to find something that *will* work…

15 years ago

I was looking at those tumbling composters but after hearing your problems with them I think I will stick to my traditional ones!

15 years ago

Hi! Thanks for the review. I’m looking to start a compost this summer, and this is helpful. Thank you.

15 years ago

Also I toss everything in there (leaves, paper, veggie and fruit scraps). If the worms don’t break it down in three months then I know that its not biodegradable (per my definition). So its a good way to test company claims on which packaging is biodegradable)

15 years ago

I got this composter that doesn’t require a strong person in order to be useable. It has trays that stacked on top of one another and there is a little tap to drain out the worm tea. Its also constructed out of 100% recycled materials and the box it came in was used as the initial bedding. I have no problems with smell either and if the compost gets too acidy (seen by white worms) I add some garden lime which unfortunately comes in a plastic bag. You can decide how heavy you want each layer to be, so it makes lifting it easy.

I like this composter because the worms determine when a layer is ready to use (everyone moves upstairs to the fresh food)

Grad Green
15 years ago

Thanks for the update. I am going to start worm composting (as soon as I get the worms!) and have been worried that I hadn’t picked the right system. But judging from your experience, I probably have, since I don’t think I would be able to keep up the correct ratio of brown and green materials. I have lots of wet food waste and not much dry, so I guess worms are the way to go. Hope it works out well.

The Biscuit Queen
15 years ago

When you make compost, you need to have a certain ratio of dry to wet ingredients. Dry would include dry grass, hay, straw,dry leaves, shredded paper,wood shavings, etc. Note that the woodier the material the higher cellulose content which means the longer it takes to compost it. Green material, or wet ingredients would be your food scraps, fresh grass and green leaf clippings, etc. You want about a 60% moisture content.

You also have to look at carbon to nitrogen ratios. Generally speaking your wet ingredients will have far more N than C, and dry ingredients will be mainly carbon.

Out of my soil text:
A sample ratio for a 60% moisture rate and 30:1 C:N would be:

~100lbs grass, (71% moisture, 45% Cand 2.4% N)
~130 lbs dry leaves (35% moisture, 50% C and .75% N)
~80 lbs food scraps (80% moisture, 42% C, 5% N)

That said, leaves are not the best material to use in compost unless they are shredded-they tend to mat together and block oxygen flow through the pile.

You see that you need a great deal more leaves and grass than you do food scraps. Unfortunately, most people who have apartments generate mostly food scraps and very little carbon material.

I would seriously look around for someone who has land or a small farm who can use those scraps. Many people who raise poultry or pigs would use kitchen compost. You may be able to get a group of people willing to compost together with someone who has land, or find a person raising animals who can use those foodscraps. Of if you can find a source of carbon material, such as landscapers, who would be willing to give you the yard waste-just make sure they are organic otherwise you end up with chemicals.

Another option would be to do vermiculture. You can set up a worm bin under your sink or out on the porch, and feed them compost materials. They will turn over more nitrogen based materials faster than a compost system. You can buy 500 red worms for under $20and use a plastic storage bin with air holes. You could also built it out of wood if you wanted to avoid the plastic.Fill he bin up with shredded paper or soil which has been dampened, add worms, and start adding scraps to the top. I would also chop up the kitchen scraps finely to help the worms along.


15 years ago

I just bought my second compost bin. We have known rat neighbors so I bought the Cascadia because that was recommended to be critter proof. After almost two years, I haven’t seen any signs of rats or other varmits trying to get in. There were some wasps last summer but that’s a different story. Oh and according to the website, the cascadia is made of recycled plastic also.

I decided to get the second bin because I have the room and because my first bin was never finishing because I was always adding more too it. I tried to rescue some finished compost from the bottom of the barrel last spring but it just wasn’t working for me. I’m hoping the second bin will be the solution to my problem. One bin can cook while the other is collecting new material.

As for your bin… I’ve never used that type. Is it possible to turn the stuff inside by hand with a pitchfork or other long tool? Since you can’t rotate the entire bin alone, maybe that would help?

15 years ago

Another option for getting a more traditional bin without using up virgin plastic is to get one second hand. NYC is running a program now to encourage home composting where they offer residents used compost bins for $20. They also offer lessons in how to do it. I am still waiting for board approval to get one started for my building.

15 years ago

I bought a compost tumbler last year, thinking it would make things easier, but – as you say – it hasn’t. I then did some more research, and found that they are really designed to make compost in a short space of time with stuff that’s all been put in at the same time – in other words, if you have enough to fill it, put it in at once, keep turning it for three weeks and, hey presto, lovely compost! Ha! I just wish they’d all made that clearer when I was buying … so now I think we’ll use it for grass clippings and newspapers, and I’ll have to sort out something else for kitchen waste. Bok-whatever, I suppose, although I hate the idea of buying something specially to deal with rubbish … and you’ve inspired me to make sure that it’s not made of new plastic.


15 years ago

Thank you Beth for posting about compost today! Just this morning I was considering not using my compost tumbler any more because it’s so hard to turn and the compost is wet, gloppy stuff. But now I’ve investigated some links from your post, I reckon I can figure out how to save it.

Just wanted to add that another advantage of tumblers is that they are vermin-free. The on-ground compost piles and bins I’ve tried before have always featured a little mouse on top, munching away on some veggie scraps (and me screaming and running away).

15 years ago

PS. I am not sure if my URLs came out properly…the main one is I linked to you in the most recent albatross post and in the previous soil post. :-)

15 years ago

Thank you, this is a great post. We too are composting on our back patio, in a little tumbling bin home-made from a garbage can (unfortunately it’s a plastic garbage can, because we didn’t think we’d be able to punch holes in a metal one, and we were worried about rust). Your recycled plastic bin is a great idea.
I have a new blog on environmental issues called Wild Orchids for Trotsky (named for an essay by Richard Rorty). I’ve linked to your composting post at the resources section of my blog post on soil and the Gaia hypothesis (, and also to your blog in general as a resource on plastic-free living, in my post about Laysan albatrosses (

15 years ago

Hi Beth,

I have to agree with lifelessplastic. I don’t use newspaper but shredded leaves. They decompose so much faster. Are you keeping your compost damp enough?

I collect my leaves in the fall and put them in my garage. I don’t know if you have a basement or garage, but you could get old aluminium trash cans and put the leaves in there. Just make sure that you don’t collect the leaves when they are damp, and leave the lid slightly open so the leaves get some air.

There are bin systems for those who want to keep them outside but it is so windy where I live that I was afraid everything would blow away. (Check gardener supply)

Grass is considered green so don’t add that if you need brown. Coffee is “green” too although it is brown. (By the way, worms love coffee. I guess they are just like humans. They need their daily fix.)

I use a 6:1 ratio with leaves to greens.

You know you are a compost nut when you start eyeing other people’s leaves!

15 years ago

Hi Beth,

I’ve seen composters that are close-able barrels that you roll around on the ground. That sounds a lot easier thank cranking it to tumble. Perhaps yours could sit on the ground?

Good luck!

PS I accidentally killed my worms.

15 years ago

I wish the city of Hell-A just did city wide composting. Because I don’t have even a little balcony for my apt, and frankly probably not enough food scraps to fill much of a composter or give food to wormies. Also, I don’t have any plants that need soil. So not so much with the composting.

15 years ago

FPF, excellent post and thanks for the shout out.

I’ve been kind of obsessed with reading about composting lately, and I recently read in a few places that newspaper is not quite the ideal brown material and will decompose more slowly than other materials (and therefore contribute less to your green materials breaking down, I assume).

I kinda knew this before, but last week I decided to go out into my garden and gather up some leaves to add to my bin instead of newspaper. Ever since I did this my compost pile is super happy, and it has heated up a lot. Also the smell from the grapefruit I put in last month vanished pretty much right away, and now it’s starting to smell really earthy, which is awesome. Maybe if you can find a few bags of leaves or dried cut grass that would help your bin, too?

Anyways, I know what you mean about compost piles and worms being more ideal. It sounds like both of those systems kind of do the work for you and have a much smaller risk of smelling. If I ever own my own house and yard, I am definitely going to start an awesome pile system–maybe awesome three pile system. That would be cool. Until then, though, it’s a tumbler for me :)