How Compost Bins Work and How to Use Them

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Composting Systems, Plus Keeping Rats Out

tumbler compost bin

The Spruce / David Beaulieu

Most compost bins are designed to hasten the decomposition of organic matter through proper aeration and moisture retention. With the proper combination of air and moisture, ideal conditions are produced for the activity of aerobic organisms responsible for the high temperatures that transform the organic materials into compost.

What Is a Compost Bin?

A compost bin is a container into which you place organic waste to turn into compost over time. Some bins are continuous, meaning you can keep adding waste to them, while others create batches of compost with a set mix of ingredients you add all at once.

The same process will eventually take place over time in a compost "pile" or "heap," even without any housing. However, with a bin, you can speed up decomposition. Depending on the style of compost bin you choose, bins can also have the advantage of making it harder for rats to get at your compost. This is true of the tumbler type, for example.


Click Play to Learn Everything You Should Know About Compost Bins

You can get store-bought or use a homemade compost bin. Possible materials for creating a compost bin (whether in combination or stand-alone) include:

  • Lumber
  • Branches harvested from the woods
  • Stone
  • Cinder blocks
  • Wire fencing
  • Plastic
  • Ceramic

If you're building one out of lumber and will be using the compost in a vegetable garden, don't use pressure-treated lumber: It isn't safe.

compost bin made from plastic buckets
Compost bin made from plastic buckets The Spruce / Candace Madonna

Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Composting Systems

"Aerobic" pertains to an organism that needs atmospheric oxygen to thrive. In landscaping and gardening, it's used in making compost; you'll hear the terminology, "aerobic composting." Well-designed aerobic compost bins that are well maintained promote an environment in which such aerobic microorganisms thrive. That's what most gardeners strive for, although a smaller number opt for the opposite approach, which is anaerobic composting.

Aerobic organisms are an important ingredient in good compost; without them, the material in a compost bin will not "cook" properly. If you have ever stuck your hand into a compost bin and found it hot, then that means aerobic organisms were present in sufficient numbers in that pile. That's why part of a good aerobic design is making sure that your compost bin "breathes."

The process of aerobic composting entails applying the correct mix of organic materials (yard waste and kitchen scraps), applying the right amount of water, and turning the pile occasionally with a pitchfork. The right combination of these elements will put aerobic microorganisms to work for you, breaking down the organic materials in the pile.

"Anaerobic," by contrast, pertains to organisms, such as bacteria, that can live in the absence of atmospheric oxygen. "Anaerobic composting" is terminology often used to refer to the results of the activity of such organisms living in a compost bin and influencing the quality of its decomposition; it also refers to the conditions under which such organisms thrive in the bin. Bokashi composting uses fermentation, an anaerobic process to break down materials.

Aerobic compost piles are turned frequently to avoid compaction, to keep oxygen flowing freely through the pile, and to keep out anaerobic organisms. Your goal is to get the organic matter in them to heat up. By contrast, under anaerobic conditions, your goal is for fermentation to take place.

Anaerobic composting is less labor-intensive (because there's no turning of the pile), but it produces an offensive smell. This could get you into trouble with the neighbors if you garden in an urban or suburban environment. In turn, properly maintained aerobic compost bins don't stink.

What Attracts Rats to a Yard

Some properties are susceptible to rat invasions. You'll want to keep these and similar critters away, as rats can carry diseases. Where you live will determine what type of rat you must worry about. In cold climates, the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) is king. In warm climates, you have to worry about house rats (R. rattus).

The compost bin may not be the only rat magnet on your property. Look at some other things in your landscaping that can attract these rodent pests, so that you can take action. As an example, let's consider a landscape in the southwestern United States, where house rats can be a problem. Having any of the following in your yard could trigger an invasion of house rats for you:

  • Palm trees
  • Yucca plants
  • Tall ornamental grasses
  • Honeysuckle vine
  • Italian cypress trees
  • Bougainvillea vines
  • Thick ground covers
  • Shrubs with dense foliage that provides cover, such as oleander bushes
  • Bird food
  • Cat food
  • Dog food
  • Dog feces
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Lumber piles
  • Brush piles
  • Storage boxes

So clean up storage areas, food and waste, and any piles you have around the yard as part of your annual maintenance. And if you have one of these plants in your landscaping and suspect it's attracting house rats, then, short of removing the plants, you should at least keep them well-trimmed. Make sure you prune shrubs at the right time, though. Pruning at the wrong time (especially in the case of flowering shrubs) is a fine way to mess up your landscaping.

You can also set out traps to catch the rats. But if you have children and/or pets that go outside, always be careful when using traps or poisons.

extensive shrubbery around a compost bin
The Spruce / Kara Riley

How to Keep Rats Out of Your Compost Bin

Finally, let's focus on the compost bin itself, which can be a target for rats for shelter, as well as for food. If your compost bin is drawing rats, it may be that you're not following accepted best practices for making compost. For example, suburban homeowners shouldn't be including meat in the kitchen scraps that they're putting in the compost pile: It attracts rats. And if you suspect a rat infestation, even fruit and vegetable scraps should be turned under (rather than leaving them exposed on top of your compost bin, giving rodents easy access to them).

A compost bin that's well designed and well run will break down organic matter such as fruits and vegetables pretty quickly, giving rats less of an opportunity to exploit the situation. The best compost piles, furthermore, are very hot in their centers (ideally between 135°F and 160°F); this heat would probably discourage rats from entering. One factor in getting a compost heap to heat up this much is keeping it moist, and this moisture, too, will cut down on rat invasions (rats seeking shelter would prefer some nice, dry compost).

There's one other measure you can take to keep rats out of compost bins, and that is to block their access:

For example, some types of compost bins can be closed up more tightly than others, making them cleaner. If you have a rat problem, you should probably seek out this kind of compost bin and remember to batten down the hatches whenever you're not present. Alternatively, you could rig up some sort of fencing that would envelop the compost bin. But there are two things to keep in mind here:

  • House rats can slip through relatively small holes in the fencing. You'll need to use a wire mesh with holes that are less than 1/2 inch big.
  • Your mesh fencing must be placed underneath bins that have no bottoms, otherwise, the rats will just tunnel under.
keeping the compost bin lid tightly shut helps prevent rat break-ins
The Spruce / Kara Riley
Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Ecology and Transmission. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019.

  4. Compost Fundamentals, Compost Needs. Washington State University, Whatcom County Extension.

  5. Rodent Exclusion Methods. USDA National Institute if Food and Agriculture, 2019.