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MAKE: Trash Can Composter

By MAKE Magazine, March 30, 2013  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by MAKE Magazine

MAKE magazine brings the do-it-yourself mindset to all the exciting projects in your life and helps you make the most of technology at home and away from home. Projects in the magazine range from old-school balsa wood and tissue-paper airplanes to what to do to keep aging high-tech gadgets alive to building autonomous robots from junk.

In this post, MAKE contributor Thomas Arey shares how to make a composter from a trash can.

I like to pick things out of trash cans and reuse castaway items. Here, I repurpose the trash can itself to facilitate recycling organic waste into beneficial compost.

Commercial composting canisters can be costly, but they’re simply a place to allow natural microbial processes to convert waste matter into a dark, fresh-smelling soil. Commercial versions allow air and some water to get in, and sometimes a way to mix.

Most home trash cans fail when part of the bottom wears away, leaving a hole. Such a trash can is perfect for this project, since we’re just going to add more holes anyway.

MAKE composter

Step 1: Clean the trash can

  • Scrub the trash can thoroughly inside and out to ensure that no inorganic waste remains. If you’re squeamish about this, buy a new one.
  • It’s helpful but not necessary to have a lid. If the original lid has gone missing, I’ll leave it to you to come up with another solution.

Step 2: Drill air holes

Use a drill with a 1" spade bit to make air holes. Space the holes about 3" to 4" apart over all sides of the trash can. Drill plenty of holes, but don’t compromise the structural integrity of the trash can. Avoid the corners to maintain the trash can’s strength. Drill holes on the bottom to help with drainage.

MAKE composter

Step 3: Start Composting

Theories about composting are as numerous as the holes you have drilled. General rules:

  • Keep the compost material damp, not wet.
  • Mix brown material (such as leaves) in with green material (such as grass clippings).
  • Use uncooked food scraps; no meat.
  • Don’t allow pet waste or anything treated with pesticides into your composter.
  • Turn the compost material regularly. If your can has a tight-fitting lid, you can lay it on its side and roll it around on the ground.

MAKE composter

TIP: Nothing goes to waste in this project! The 1" cutouts made by the spade bit can be used as insulating washers in other projects.

Have you made your own composter? Share in the comments!

(Images: MAKE magazine)




Pam says ...
What about chicken manure?
04/02/2013 3:12:06 PM CDT
Priscilla Walker says ...
I really like this composter idea and I am going to try it. My question is can you put fruit and vegetables peels in with other matter?
04/02/2013 3:15:52 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@PAM & @PRISCILLA - You can check out a previous compost post at https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/get-dirt-composting-home that goes in to further detail about what is recommended to put in your composter. The basics they state are "from coffee grounds to banana peels, the “in” list is long. It’s easier to tell you what to leave out of the bin: meat or bone pieces, pet waste, glossy paper, chemically treated wood, diseased plants (or those decimated by insects, which may stay in the stems) and coal or ash. Items to compost with care, and in smaller amounts: dairy and fats, which can go rancid, and highly acidic items such as pine straw, as they may cause imbalances in your compost."
04/02/2013 3:39:28 PM CDT
janetier says ...
great idea. Sharing with friends
04/02/2013 4:40:17 PM CDT
Nicole A. Winter says ...
From what I understand, no bodily waste whatsoever, be it animal or human... chicken poop would definitely be out. Fruits, (peels / cores,) are cool, but I have heard no onions or garlic, not sure why.
04/02/2013 8:59:45 PM CDT
christina says ...
earth day idea?
04/02/2013 11:02:47 PM CDT
Dorothy Goldsmith says ...
Thank you for this tip, air holing a trash bend, I am going to try this + will be adding a possible half or complete opening at the bottom to access the compost from the bottom just moving it to collect bet compost from the bottom.
04/03/2013 5:06:26 PM CDT
Heather says ...
I have built one after going to a class at the womans envionmental institute (wei) in Minnesota. YES all veggies can go in, all fruit (citrus fruit MIGHT bring fruit flies). I also bought a vermicomposter (worm farm) online and love it for the house. The little red wigglers eat pretty much all fruits and veggies and give me great soil in return - plus kids love being able to feed the worms and pick their "favorites" for fishing.
04/03/2013 5:43:41 PM CDT
SM Cooke says ...
Fifteen years ago I wanted a composter but didn't have the spare cash. I had two old plastic garbage cans with no wheels (therefore I could not use them in the yard). I decided I had nothing to lose if I put holes in the sides and bottom, filled halfway with leaf mulch, and added compostable material to them. I kept a yard fork nearby, turned them occasionally, let them "cook", and voila! Compost several weeks later! I used them alternately so one could "cook" while I filled the other. They are still going strong. It's not a lot but the compost is sweet and uses the materials I have on hand.
04/03/2013 6:29:20 PM CDT
Kevin says ...
Like this
04/03/2013 6:37:50 PM CDT
Kellie V says ...
This is an awesome idea. Thanks for sharing a great idea for recycling that old trash can that has a hole in the bottom and no lid....love it. I wil be implementing this DIY project.
04/03/2013 6:38:53 PM CDT
Jeff says ...
Chicken manure can be good for a compost bin because it has a lot of nitrogen which can help heat up your compost. But the downside is that the compost won't be usable on vegetables and such due to salmonella transmission concerns.
04/03/2013 6:39:35 PM CDT
MotherLodeBeth says ...
We have done a similar composter with a 30 gallon Rubbermaid can, and we buried it a food in the garden so the earth worms could get inside to digest the fruit, vegetable and other kitchen scraps we tossed in. We now have one of these cans in each side of the cottage in the garden area, so we dont have to haul yard waste all over the yard areas.And yes a lid is very good because it keeps the compost from get soggy when it rains or bake when its 100* here in the summer.
04/03/2013 6:48:58 PM CDT
Laurie says ...
I routinely put guinea pig waste in my compost (along with the newspaper and CareFresh paper bedding that I use in their cage), and I have read that rodent manure can even be put directly into the garden without composting. This is controversial, but I composted the PineFresh litter from the litter box of my former indoor cat. While cat poop can contain parasites, our cat had been treated and had been kept indoors, so I felt comfortable that it had no parasites - or at least no more than I would come into contact otherwise, in my not-totally-sanitary life!
04/03/2013 6:59:11 PM CDT
Julia says ...
I compost fruit and vegetable peelings, also shells from hard boiled eggs. Lint from the dryer can also be tossed in. Don't compost weeds or plant clippings that are diseased. I compost my "horticultural mistakes" so they serve a good purpose.
04/03/2013 7:24:37 PM CDT
Vince Kane says ...
I did this once, but made the mistake of using a galvanized metal can. It worked fine but rusted out very quickly so I don't recommend it.
04/03/2013 9:24:12 PM CDT
Barbara says ...
Does it matter that the plastic will be toxic, and all of this will leach into the compost, which will end up on the garden /?
04/03/2013 10:39:31 PM CDT
tad says ...
04/04/2013 1:02:34 AM CDT
clay adams says ...
That's a great idea!! As a matter of fact I have two of those roll around containers which one of those is used as a composter. The holes are a great idea!! Thanks!!
04/04/2013 2:22:50 AM CDT
B says ...
I like this idea, seems easy to do.but I am worried about attracting mice and flies and mold. Any thoughts?
04/04/2013 6:29:26 AM CDT
Cheri says ...
How do you keep rats out of your composter? Can you make the holes smaller?
04/04/2013 9:29:18 AM CDT
Debbie Deltoro says ...
fabulous! and one of those cans that the local companies will not dump. I have lots left over from before the city installed the large bins. I will be making one this weekend!
04/04/2013 11:37:27 AM CDT
Natalie, the Chickenblogger says ...
Good one! And I appreciate the added bonus: it's mobile! I could pull this around the yard, to the goat pen, the chicken coop, and back into the garden, again. Thank you! http://www.youngmakers.blogspot.com
04/04/2013 11:43:53 AM CDT
Lisa says ...
Briefly reading some of the comments: Chicken manure is a high quality fertilizer; you can use it in your compost pile since they don't ingest meat but be prepared for the odor! And unless you're going to heat treat it use that batch of compost only on ornamentals, not edibles. Flying insects may show up but if you keep the pile turned the new ingredients will be buried under the decomposing material. Have fun with it!
04/04/2013 6:45:43 PM CDT
Daisy says ...
I'm new to composting and made one of these last July. I havent been able to figure out how to get the compost out... Since I'm always adding to the top, the good stuff is at the bottom and when I turn it the new gets mixed in with the old...
04/04/2013 7:59:42 PM CDT