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Negative experience with compost tumbler

 
MJ Solaro
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Location: Bellevue, WA
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My friend Beth recently posted on her fabulous blog that she had a less-than-ideal experience with her plastic compost tumbler. My question to those of you expert-composters here is what she could have done, if anything to improve the experience she had. Or perhaps her experience is exactly right, and worm-based composting is the way to go?

An excerpt from her article which you can read in full here:

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.
 
paul wheaton
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I have the big metal one.  My one complaint about it is that I don't think it is big enough for proper composting.

But if you had something that size that you would try to roll around on the ground - yes, I could see that being a huge hassle.

 
Leah Sattler
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I have known several people who attempted to use the plastic composters. Neither one had satisfactory results. It seems that on this one we can't improve upon nature.  The shade of a large decidous tree and direct contact with the ground makes for the best most reliable compost for me. I use old pallets arranged in a square with one slightly off the ground. when I have material for composting it just get tossed in the top. At the bottom is beautiful "black Gold" for my plants enjoyment. 
 
John Meshna
Posts: 111
Location: Vermont
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  You can get good compost from tumblers but you have to work at it.  Turning them too much keeps them from composting and turning them too little leaves you with a big bucket of garbage instead of compost. 
  Here at Dirt Works we sell a very good compost accelerator product that adds digestive enzymes and bacteria to the mix to help things along.  We sell composters too.
  Tumblers are a compromise to be sure.  For those of us who are lucky enough to have large back yards or acreage the best compost is made in piles or bunkers made with pallets, bales of old hay or stray or just a nice big pile you can turn with a tractor.
  Urban and suburban environments are special places that need different solutions. 
Compost piles in places like that can attract rodents, large and small and that can lead to feuds with the neighbors and sometimes danger to children and the most vulnerable of us, so tumblers are here to keep the process safe and under control and sometimes to keep the neighbors happy.  They do require more work and initial expense to set up but they can work.  I usually recommend that people buy two composters of they can afford it.  That way you don't just keep piling fresh garbage on top of your compost.  You can let one sit a little while as you start another batch.

Remember too that every situation and even batches of compost can be different so timing the turns and placement of the composter to maximize conditions for proper heat or cooling is important.
 
                                      
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so if i have a couple homemade garbage can "composters" and they seem to smell absolutelu disgusting, is there help yet? can i add a product or should i bagthe wholeexperiment?
will itever become the good stuff?
 
paul wheaton
master steward
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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If it stinks, you need more carbons. 

I try to keep a bucket of high quality sawdust nearby.  And some straw.  If there is any smell, then I add a little of one or the other.

 
John Meshna
Posts: 111
Location: Vermont
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If you're composting in a static situation like that you have to turn the product from time to time or else it will be come nothing more than an old fashioned garbage pail.  Oh how I don't yearn for the good old days...

Knowing when to turn it and when to leave it alone is key.  that is is usually determined by temperature.  You'll need a compost thermometer to be exacting about it.  Compost needs oxygen and when it has oxygen in it it doesn't stink and the temperature stays around 140 to 120 degrees all by it's lonesome.  After a turn you'll see the temperature start to come up and when it uses up all the oxygen you'll see the temperature start declining.  Once you get below around 90 degrees you'll need to turn it again.  You'll know it's done when you can no longer see the temperature come up after turning it.  The compost will look like mostly dirt or dark wood chips by then with the occasional egg shell in it perhaps.
You need space in the product too so you need to add leaves, straw and debris like that, that leaves air pockets in it.  Wet garbage doesn't compost that well all by itself because it's to dense.

There are some auger type tools to turn compost and if you can't find one a 5 fork long handled hay fork will work fairly well.
If you still have trouble getting the stuff to compost there are compost accelerator products like what we sell that add beneficial bacteria to the mix to speed up the process.
 
Leah Sattler
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grassygirl wrote:
so if i have a couple homemade garbage can "composters" and they seem to smell absolutelu disgusting, is there help yet? can i add a product or should i bagthe wholeexperiment?
will itever become the good stuff?


have you tossed some dirt in there to innoculate it? 
 
Kelda Miller
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to the original post:

I think the 'green cone' (or 'food digester'method would work well. It's so urban in that it decomposes scraps to practically nothing. the downside is that you don't get finished compost.

here's more http://gardening.wsu.edu/stewardship/compost/kitchen/grncone/greencon.htm

I would try throwing some worms in the tumbler too, they'll be plenty annoyed by the occasional tumbling, but I don't think that would be so bad. Worms in the soil deal with disturbance too, and it's not like the compost tumbler is like a clothes dryer or something, it's just a few flips every so often right?
The worms getting too hot definitely is an issue. They'll try to escape. A way to shade it would indeed be nice for them over the summer.

About the other post, the garbage cans: I don't like composting in garbage cans. It's hard to turn/keep balanced. And the finished product is just Baked, rock hard and not good from the heat/sun. Wooden boxes breathe so much better.

To all icky composting situations: yes keep it balanced. But if you don't have time just yet, just pouring coffee grounds over the whole thing is a great quick fix until can be fully remedied. Immediately it smells good and the worms are happy.
 
Suzy Bean
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This composter looks pretty good to me although I haven't used it--just watched the little video: http://www.naturemill.com/video_histChan.html
 
John Polk
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That thing looks like something an apartment dweller in mid-town Manhattan might use.
virtually useless to anybody with even a small home garden. Just MHO.
 
Matthew Fallon
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John Polk wrote:
That thing looks like something an apartment dweller in mid-town Manhattan might use.
virtually useless to anybody with even a small home garden. Just MHO.


thats exactly who its for.
i know someone with that thing, they said they were disappointed with it.
i tried to act surprised. then recommended making a worm bin.

i have 2 of the "urban tumblers" i think it's called. they are too small to work quickly, i get worms in there all the time,and things sprouting.dont turn it every day, more like once a week seemed enough..once the worm bins are built these things are going up on Craigslist ~ they work ok but slow and need some babying .
 
Karl Teceno
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Location: Portland Maine
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Has anyone ever tried this one? http://eartheasy.com/jora-jk125-compost-tumbler#
It's made in Sweden (I think) and is heavily insulated. Supposed to continue composting even in the winter because the insulation saves the heat from the decomposition. Also you are supposed to be able to compost meat scraps, etc. because of the high heat.
What do you think?


Product Description
The Jora JK125 Composter lets you make perfect compost from your kitchen waste hygienically and quickly, with the minimum of fuss and mess. Due to it's insulation, the JK125 has a smaller capacity (33 gallons or 4.5 cubic feet), and as such it won't meet the needs for those people looking to compost all their yard clippings. This composter is ideal for rapid composting of kitchen scraps. It can set up to be free-standing or mounted on a wall.

Features & Benefits
Dual chamber lets you keep adding new materials in one bin while other matures
Holds 4.5 cubic feet (33 gallons) of compost
Fully-enclosed and highly pest resistant
Made of extremely durable (and attractive) powder-coated steel
Reduces or eliminates odors
Side vents provide aeration which speeds composting
Easy to rotate
Insulation:
The composting process generates heat, and the different micro-organisms start working at different temperatures. The insulation in the JK125 composter allows the temperature to rise higher than 160F (70C), resulting in the quickest and most efficient composting of your organic kitchen waste. At these temperatures the process is so rapid that fresh waste starts to break down before it has a chance to rot and attract vermin and flies. Because of its integral insulation, the JK125 Composter will continue working through winter, long after other composters have stopped completely.

The insulation is made from polyethylene, one of the most stable plastics known. Polyethylene is used for potable water tanks, and it’s also the plastic in grocery bags. There is no contamination from the insulation – it is absolutely non-toxic

Rotation is important because:
Fresh waste is brought into direct contact with decaying waste, increasing the efficiency of the process,
Air is allowed into the mixture, providing the oxygen that is vital for the process
The JK125 composter is constructed for ease and simplicity of rotation - it's simply turned by hand whenever waste is put in.
Rodent Proof:
The JK125 is sited off the ground so there is no possibility of rodents or other pests gaining access to the waste in the machine.

What can be composted?
The JK125 composter will accept all organic waste generated by a regular household:

Raw and cooked food scraps - vegetable, meat or fish
Cardboard, e.g. egg trays
Garden waste (except hard, woody stems and branches)
In fact, anything biodegradable - even some pet waste, e.g. your rabbit or hamster bedding, but we don't recommend dog waste. Of course, if you add too much yard waste you will run out of room for your household compost scraps.

It will take about 6 to 8 weeks for each chamber from starting to fill to production of compost - so once both chambers are in operation you should be emptying one chamber every 3-4 weeks or so.

Construction
Exterior: powder-coated steel panels and galvanized steel legs (rust proof)

Clips and screws are stainless steel

Insulation: HDPE (will not leach)

Dual compartments:

The JK125 is divided into two compartments. One is being filled while the compost in the other matures. Once the compartment being filled can take no more, the mature compost is emptied from the other compartment, and the cycle begins again.

Installation
If you decide to hang it on a wall, you are responsible for determining if the wall is strong enough to handle the weight. Because of this risk, we recommend mounting it on the ground instead.

Warranty
1 Year Manufacturer's Warranty

Sustainability
This product reduces landfill waste and produces nutrient rich soil for gardening
100% Satisfaction Guarantee
We want you to be completely satisfied with every purchase you make. If you are in any way dissatisfied with a product you ordered, we'll exchange it, replace it or refund your money within 60 days of purchase. Simply email us the problem, and we'll take care of you. Certain products have extended warranties (up to 50 years!) that are listed on the particular product page. Please call us at 1-888-451-6752 if you need further clarification.
jora-jk125-compost-tumbler-eartheasy.jpg
[Thumbnail for jora-jk125-compost-tumbler-eartheasy.jpg]
 
Matthew Fallon
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i think it would still suffer from the same shortfalls the others do. it is not enough mass to get a good quick thermogenic process going,insulated or not. im sure it works eventually just like mine do eventually,maybe a bit quicker than my non-insulated ones in colder weather. i definitely do not think its worth spending $300 USD on !!!

that same 300 bucks will get you 30lbs or so (30,000 or so)  worms,which can eat  nearly their own weight in a day its said,under ideal conditions.  they also double in population in a few months.
check out vermicomposting.com for soem great designs of DIY worm bins .
 
John Polk
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I totally agree!  For a small scale operation, vermi-composting  is the most bang-for-the-buck.
 
Karl Teceno
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I already have several worm bins. I have for five or six years. But what about meat scraps, bone, etc. ? I have never put them in either my worm bins or my conventional compost pile.
 
John Polk
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Meat, bones, and dairy are not good for worms, but there is nothing wrong with them for a compost pile.
 
Jan Sebastian Dunkelheit
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I had a tumbler but it was a waste of money. Now I have two piles with wire fence. Much more effective. Less work. All perfect.
 
George Lee
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Dunkelheit wrote:
I had a tumbler but it was a waste of money. Now I have two piles with wire fence. Much more effective. Less work. All perfect.
I'm with this rationale. I'd never have a tumbler, because I like my compost to be on broken up dirt, or grass, as the elements will begin interacting over time.
 
kane Abbott
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAB3KP0KLj4
Note Paul explains towards the end of this composting video , how this method can be applied to the home garden, it explains the wire mesh technique thoroughly.
The wire mesh system or lasagne style seems to be the most commonly used practices for quality small scale production of compost... i hope this video helps, all the ingredients can be substituted  for what material you have , but its in important the ratios and technique stays the same.
Composting is an art, it takes a few goes to get it right but its very rewarding , so don't give up on a negative experience.
 
George Lee
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o2 is necessary, so any gimmick i see people trying to sell which limits airflow has me a lil wary.
O', the things that people buy...

 
                            
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tribalwind wrote:
i think it would still suffer from the same shortfalls the others do. it is not enough mass to get a good quick thermogenic process going,insulated or not. im sure it works eventually just like mine do eventually,maybe a bit quicker than my non-insulated ones in colder weather. i definitely do not think its worth spending $300 USD on !!!

that same 300 bucks will get you 30lbs or so (30,000 or so)  worms,which can eat  nearly their own weight in a day its said,under ideal conditions.  they also double in population in a few months.
check out vermicomposting.com for soem great designs of DIY worm bins .


We have 2 of these tumblers at school and have just started using them. I can say that after just 6kg of food waste and carbon source added to some horse droppings that after 5 days the temperature was 54 degrees centigrade. I think this will increase when it fills a bit more..

I was told by someone from the joraform company that coffee grounds could probably not be used as a carbon source instead of sawdust or wood pellets because it would not absorb enough moisture or provide enough carbon. They said they had not tested it which i found rather disappointing. Of course the grounds can be added and will compost very well so we do add a bit but not instead of sawdust which we luckily managed to source from a carpentry shop.

A new question i now have after using these rotating bins for a couple of weeks is whether there is anything we can do about the large number of maggots in the compost? The 50 degree plus heat is not killing them when we rotate the bins. Anyone know if there is a way to reduce them? it puts the students off wanting to put the food waste in them every few days..

I have been told to use diatomaceous earth - is this the best option? I hope I can buy it easily and that it is not un-environmentally friendly (through its extraction environmental damage and transport?)..

Thanks
D
 
                            
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I drilled a bunch of one-inch holes in the sides and bottom of a plastic garbage can that I have been using to compost my kitchen scraps and garden waste.  That seems to have solved the problems of air and worm access. 

I don't tumble it, however, because as someone else said, it gets too heavy.  Instead, I get in there with a garden fork, poked down the sides and lifted toward the middle. 

It's probably not the fastest compost or the best, but it seems to work.  (I live in the suburbs and don't have a place for a big pile.)
 
John Polk
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You ask about maggots not dieing at 50 degrees.  Celcius, or Farenheit?  Not that it matters, as that is way too cold to kill maggots (C or F).  It sounds like you do not have nearly enough carbon in your pile to create compost.  You are merely allowing garbage to rot!  Empty every pencil sharpener in the school into your "garbage pit", as that will add some carbon to your (nitrogen) food scraps.  For every cup of food scraps, you need about a cup of carbon, otherwise, you are just rotting garbage.
 
                                  
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i do not like them.  i've built my own.  the design was great.  it was highly functional and sturdy.  i was proud of the work, but just can't bring myself to like having to tumble.
 
                            
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post an image please
 
Richard Nurac
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I have been making compost for a number of years and I don't use any contraptions nor a frame. 

I build the heap on the ground and am able to achieve a fairly steep slope by pulling from the sides with a pitchfork (when I pull the pitchfork is pointed vertically to the ground) and I throw the removed ingredients onto the top.  Then, depending on the temperature, I may place a tarp over the top for a few days to allow the heat to build up.  If you are interested I give a full description at www.nutrac.info. under "growing organic" / "composting".
 
Willy Kerlang
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I bought one of these rotating recycled plastic tumblers a while ago myself, and I have to agree that it's kind of useless--for compost.  What it excels at is collecting compost tea.  I have the kind where you can collect it in the hollow base, and when you want some you just pour it off into a watering can.  I find this makes incredible fertilizer.  So, most of my composting is done the natural way, but in winter my scraps go into the tumbler and come spring I've got some beautiful tea ready to give my garden a boost.
 
George Lee
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30:1 is the ideal ratio. 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Straight up.
 
                    
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Compost tumblers like the Easy composter are ideal for residential properties http://www.compostbins.net.au/ However there are many poor quality bins on the market. Also stainless steel bins last longer that plastic ones.
 
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