Small Compost Bins

What are small compost bins?

Bins are a tidy way to compost outdoors. They keep materials compact and help maintain the damp, warm conditions needed for decomposition. Small compost bins are less than 16 ft3 in capacity. Most commercial plastic bins fall within this range.

For a quick introduction, watch our 1-minute videos:

«Choosing a Compost Bin in 60 Seconds»

«Backyard Composting in 60 Seconds»

«Winter Composting in 60 Seconds»

«Using Finished Compost in 60 Seconds»

  • Start by siting the bin on top of grass or soil. Ideally it should be in partial shade, but bins can also go in full sun or full shade if necessary. Try to put the bin somewhere that it is convenient to use.
  • Optional: Take a length of PVC plastic pipe about an inch shorter than the top of your bin and drill small holes down it on at least two sides. Place this vertically into the bin and add your materials around it. This pipe will let air get into the compost as it breaks down.
  • Add green material* (kitchen waste, green plants, or grass clippings) as it is available from your home and yard.
  • Balance each addition of green material* with a slightly larger amount of brown material** (dead leaves, dead plants, woodchips, or shredded paper products) at the same time. It is useful to keep two or three bags of dead leaves around for this purpose throughout the year.
  • Add a small scoop of soil or finished compost after adding greens and browns.
  • Add enough water to dampen the compost all the way through.
  • To maintain: Keep the compost damp by adding water when necessary. Stir the compost with a compost aerator or poke holes into it with a piece of rebar every week or so to keep air pockets open.

Depending on particle size and specific materials used, some compost should be finished after 3-6 months. Finished compost is dark brown and crumbly, and has a damp earth smell rather than a sour smell. It may still have bits of unprocessed brown material present; this can either be ignored or sieved out with wire mesh. Finished compost can be dug into soil, used as a top-dressing, raked onto a lawn, or used in a potting mix blend.

What composting style do they fit?

Small compost bins can run out of room if they are not kept quickly processing, so they work best for hands-on composters that are able to closely manage them and keep them processing quickly. Hands-on composters with large volumes of yard or garden waste may still find them too small.

What space does it need?

Small compost bins need an outdoor space on grass or soil. They work best in partial shade but can be placed in full shade or full sun if necessary.

How do they work?

Small compost bins are a form of aerated composting which relies on naturally-present decomposition microbes to digest organic waste and turn it into finished compost. These microbes require 5 things to function properly:

  • Green material* (this should be about 40% of the mix)
  • Brown material** (this should be about 60% of the mix)
  • Moisture
  • Oxygen (air)
  • A small amount of soil or finished compost

*Green materials are nitrogen-rich, fresh stuff such as green plants, grass clippings, and kitchen waste. Kitchen waste here includes vegetables and fruits, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, and grain-based products but excludes meat, bones, dairy, and grease.

**Brown materials are carbon-rich, weathered stuff such as dead leaves, dead plants, sticks, woodchips, and shredded paper products.

If the compost doesn't seem to be breaking down, check that it is still damp all the way through. Add water if necessary. If it is damp and still not breaking down, consider adding additional green materials* to the mix.

If the compost has a putrid smell, fluff it to add air and stir in additional brown materials.** Small amounts of soil can also be added.

Can you use it all year?

A small compost bin can be used all year. While decomposition will stop in winter, organic waste can still be added as long as there is room for it. Consider harvesting any finished compost from the bin in fall to make extra room. You may also want to site the bin close to your back door or next to a cleared pathway to make taking kitchen waste out more convenient in snow.

If your small bin runs out of room in the winter, you can place kitchen waste into paper bags or sheets of newspaper and store frozen outside until spring, when the contents of the bin should shrink and make more space. Alternatively you may consider adopting an indoor composting method during the winter such as bokashi bucketsvermicompostingcompost tubs, or a NatureMill electric composter

Testing them out:


Got more composting questions? Email the Composting Hotline at [email protected] or leave a message at (306) 931-3249.

Residents of Saskatoon can also use the hotline to request a free home visit from a Compost Coach. Our Coaches can provide composting advice, help you set up a new compost system, or troubleshoot and existing system. Visits typically take 15-45 minutes.