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How to Turn a Garbage Can Into a Compost Bin

Shauna strives to help the environment by utilizing green methods, rather than chemicals, in the home and the landscape.

My homemade compost bin on its perch.

My homemade compost bin on its perch.

Composting on a Tight Budget

As a single mom of a (driving!) teenage son, as you may guess, I live on a tight budget. I also try to live as green as possible. I've always been interested in composting, but couldn't afford to buy a compost bin—commercially available compost bins cost upwards of $100, and I don't own power tools or the engineering prowess to build one myself

Did this leave me between a rock and a hard place? Absolutely not! Where there's a will (and some imagination), there's a way! I discovered a way to build my own compost bin for dirt cheap. Pun intended!

All you need is a plastic garbage can with a lid and a pointy poker tool. I used a wood file with a pointy tip (looks like an ice pick). I picked up a 32-gallon plastic garbage can on sale for $9.99. It has a locking lid and wheels, which makes it easy to maneuver. Once the compost is ready, simply wheel the can to the area in which you are planting. No need for a wheelbarrow! Pretty slick, huh?

I poked holes in the can for ventilation.

I poked holes in the can for ventilation.

How to Make a Compost Bin From a Plastic Garbage Can

To make your compost bin, simply follow these directions.

  1. Take your poker tool and bore several holes, about 5–6" apart, down the length of the can and around the perimeter, from beneath the lid area to just before the base. The holes are necessary for ventilation, which allows air to move through the can, adding oxygen to the ingredients you'll incorporate in order to create your compost pile. The brand I purchased had little circular "stamps" imprinted at about the intervals I needed to make holes, so I took advantage of the pattern.
  2. Once you've made your holes, you'll need to place the can above ground level so as to facilitate airflow. I placed mine on two layers of stone landscape border sections I wasn't using. Cinder blocks work just as well, if available.
  3. Next, you want to layer brown material (newspaper, cardboard, coffee filters, and junk mail) with green material (grass clippings, leaves, weeds, fruit and vegetable discards, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc.—no meat or bones!).
  4. Wet the mixture just enough to resemble the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Moisture is necessary to promote decomposition.
  5. Mix well. I used a plastic-coated stake folded in half. Worked wonders! You'll want to mix it up at least once a week and after each addition of material.
  6. Another necessary ingredient is cow or horse manure. If you don't have cows or horses and don't know a cowboy, adding a bit of commercially available (through your local garden center) manure will work just as well.

Note: Never add domestic pet manure, as it can contain parasites. Manure is integral to the addition of nitrogen, which "heats" the mixture and further promotes decomposition and the introduction of "good" bacteria necessary to create nutrient-rich compost.

Here's what mine looked like with just brown and green material—no manure yet!

Here's what mine looked like with just brown and green material—no manure yet!

How to Cheaply Insulate Your Compost Bin

While this method takes about six months to produce ready-for-the-garden compost, I found placing a couple of old bathroom-sized rugs on top of the lid helped build and maintain heat inside the can. Once the heat and humidity of summer set in, I removed the rugs and let Mother Nature do the rest.

All in all, it cost me $9.99, a little bit of elbow grease, and patience to make my own compost bin!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Shauna L Bowling


Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on October 27, 2016:

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Glad you found this helpful, Peg. I used to have a friend who would bring me horse manure for my bin. We no longer work together, so I just buy Black Cow and use that.

A local organic store near me told me that chicken poop is actually better for the compost bin. I bought some at one time, but it's too expensive for the quantity I received. If you've read any of Bill's (billybuc) hubs on urban farming, you know he swears by chicken poop.

If you don't have access to chicken poop, use the Black Cow. You might also try Craig's List to see if any farmers near by will let you have some cow or horse manure for free.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 27, 2016:

Well, I went out and bought the commercial kind for a lot more than your investment. I never regretted having a composter, though, because it not only makes great soil to use in the garden, it reduces the amount of garbage and the odor that comes from fruit peelings, egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags and etc. in the trash. Keeps my dogs from raiding the trash, too.

Next time, I'll try your idea with the rolling plastic bin. Mine is quite similar to that, only cost more. I have my own drill so I'll use that when it comes time to bore the holes. Thanks for all the great information. Now, I need to find some cow manure for mine, which it's lacking.

Pinned this to my crafty ideas board.

Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on October 06, 2015:

You're welcome, Rebecca. It takes a bit of elbow grease, but it's cheap and it works.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on October 05, 2015:

Thanks. I need to do this. Good directions, too.

Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on September 03, 2015:

Thank you, Nadine. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money to have an organic garden. All it takes is a little imagination and some elbow grease.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on September 02, 2015:

Great tips for people with a small garden or patio!

Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on December 20, 2013:

Awesome, Martie!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on December 20, 2013:

I am saving this hub of yours in my personal library, Shauna. Going to make my own compost maker asap :)

Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on September 28, 2013:

And now you know how, Crafty! I swear I think I should be sending you a dividend check for checking out my little corner of HP. I'm so tickled that you are going thru my articles!

Happy composting my crafty friend!

CraftytotheCore on September 28, 2013:

What a great idea! We do think alike Brave, we did the same thing here! LOL The town was offering compost bins at a whopping savings of just $60. I thought to myself, ok, well we have some very nice underused garbage cans out back, let me put my crafting skills to use.

Shauna L Bowling (author) from Central Florida on December 03, 2011:

Definitely try it! It works! It does, however take a while for the mixture to become usable compost. I started my garbage can composter about mid-February of this year. Make sure you stir it up at least once a week and make sure it's moist, but not wet, especially after each addition. Hint: once you reach a substantial level of materials, stop adding so the mix can begin the decomposition process without having to start over. You can always start another composter, or bag your ingredients for future use, when this batch has been depleted.

I stirred mine up today (December 3rd) and was delighted to see earthworms in the mix! They will finish the job for me.

Your comments to all my gardening posts has prompted me to post more! I actually began with HubPages as a "green tips" poster. I've since ventured into posting my poetry and short stories. It's nice to know the information I've offered has proven beneficial. I have many, many more green tips to post, all of which are geared towards saving the environment and keeping the "green" in your wallet. Being a single mom and homeowner equals things you need and/or want with money you don't have!

Thanx for bringing me back to my original intent!

mljdgulley354 on December 03, 2011:

What a great idea. I have been wanting a composter too but we live on a very limited income so it has been just a wish. I will try this idea out.

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