How to Make a Compost Bin Using a Plastic Storage Container

Overhead view of fruit and vegetable scraps in a white enamel container, ready to go in the compost.

Jenny Dettrick / Getty Images

Good-quality compost is sometimes called "garden gold," and it can feel like you're spending actual gold if you purchase a commercial compost bin in which to make that compost. You can easily spend $100 or more on a top-end composter, even though all really just a container to hold leaves and other plant materials until they decompose naturally. For this reason, many gardeners create their own methods for holding compost, which can mean building your own compost bin out of leftover lumber or repurposing an existing container. For example, if you don't have much space to compost, or want to start composting on a small scale before committing to a full-size bin, consider making a compost bin from a plastic storage container. This is an easy project that will give you finished compost within a short period.

make a quick compost bin
The Spruce, 2018 

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: About 30 minutes to build
  • Total Time: On average, plant refuse and kitchen scraps will turn into compost within about 3 months
  • Material Cost: 18-gallon plastic bins cost about $15 to $25

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Plastic storage bin, 18 gallons or larger
  • Drill and sharp drill bits

Materials

  • Kitchen scraps, yard waste, or shredded newspaper to fill the bin
  • Wire mesh, if you are drilling large holes

Instructions

  1. Obtain a Plastic Bin

    Plastic storage bins are available just about everywhere, and most of us have at least one in our basement or garage. The bigger the storage bin is, the better, but it should be no smaller than 18 gallons and must have a lid. If you can obtain a second lid, this can work well to catch the liquid that leaches out of the bin. This nutrient-filled liquid can be used as a fertilizer "tea."

  2. Prepare the Bin

    You need to have air circulating around your compost to help it decompose faster. To provide this in a plastic bin, you will have to drill holes in the bin. It doesn't matter what size drill bit you use, as long as you drill plenty of holes. Space them 1 to 2 inches apart, on all sides, the bottom, and the lid of the container. If you use a large spade bit or hole saw, you may want to line the interior of the bin with wire mesh or hardware cloth to keep rodents out.

  3. Position the Bin

    Because this bin is so small, it will fit just about anywhere. If you are a yardless gardener, it can be placed on a patio, porch, or balcony. If you have plenty of space, consider putting it outside the kitchen door so that you can easily compost kitchen scraps, or near your vegetable garden so that you can toss weeds or trimmings into it. It can also go inside a garage or storage shed if you'd rather not look at the composter.

  4. Fill the Bin

    Anything you would throw in a normal compost pile, you can throw into your storage container composter: leaves, weeds, fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and grass clippings all work well. Anything you add to your composter should be chopped fairly small so that it will break down quicker in the small space. Fruit and vegetable trimmings can be chopped small with a knife, or run through a blender or food processor to break them down. Chop leaves by running a lawnmower over them a few times. Crush eggshells finely so they will break down faster.

  5. Maintain the Bin

    Every day or so, aerate the bin by giving it a quick shake. If the contents of the bin are staying very wet or if they are smelly, you'll need to add some shredded fall leaves, shredded newspaper, or sawdust to the bin. These will dry it out and help restore the ratio of greens to browns that make compost develop more quickly. If the contents are very dry, use a spray bottle to moisten the contents, or add plenty of moisture-rich items such as fruits or veggies that are past their prime.

  6. Harvest and Use the Compost

    The easiest way to harvest the finished compost from your bin is to run it all through a simple compost sifter so that the large pieces are kept out of the finished compost. Commercial compost sifters are available, or you can create a makeshift sifter using a piece of wire hardware fabric with a 1/4-inch grid. Anything that still needs to decompose can go back into the bin, and the dark, crumbly finished compost can either be stored in a bucket or bin for later use or immediately used in the garden. This compost is also wonderful to use as a component of the potting soil mix using in container plantings.

  7. A plastic storage bin composter can be used year-round and is a convenient solution for those of us who don't have space for a large pile. Some gardeners in cold climates even move the composter indoors to a utility area and continue composting through the winter.

Tips for Composting With a Plastic Storage Bin

  • Build this project outside; the drilling step creates quite a mess.
  • Compost naturally generates heat. If your compost feels warm, this is a good sign that the composting is occurring efficiently. If the material in your bin is cool to the touch, it is probably too dry and requires a bit more moisture. Adding green materials can improve the moisture content; or, you can add a small amount of water and thoroughly mix the compost to blend it in.
  • The composting process can be sped along if you add a handful of nitrogen fertilizer or commercial compost starter.
  • Many kitchen scraps can be added to the compost, but don't compost meat, bones, cheese, or other animal-based scraps. These can develop pathogens as they decompose in a compost bin. And never add solid waste from dogs and other pets.
  • To turn the compost easily, give the bin a shake every few days. Turning the compost in this way blends in air and distributes the moisture, creating a perfect environment for the materials to decompose.