I’ll have to begin with the bad news: if you fail to take your compost out, eventually, there will be odors. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
Fundamentally, we’re talking about the process of decay by which food scraps become nourishment for future cycles of growth. It’s all good, but you’ll notice there’s goo in good…
Biology gets sticky and stinky. Mathematicians know it.
Having accepted that taking out the compost is at least as important as removing household trash, here are my simple ideas for a less messy, less smelly, less likely to leak composting experience.
- an 8-10 quart food storage container with tight fitting lid
- 4 gallon compostable liners for the kitchen compost pail
- a household paper shredder
- scrap paper and cardboard shipping boxes destined for recycling
- 13 gallon compostable liners for the curbside bin
In my area, we can sign up for commercial compost collection. It is not a municipal service, but a private company has come to an arrangement with our city that results in a small subsidy of their fee for residents who participate, reducing a wasteful biodegradable burden on the landfill and providing less work to the also private trash haulers.
Given my husband’s aversion to composting for ourselves in the yard due to a local rat problem in our former suburban home, I jumped at the chance when this service arrived in our community.
Commercial or industrial composting is a little bit different from home composting. You can safely deposit more items headed for the higher heat, industrial composting process, including meat and dairy scraps, and greasy pizza box cardboard.
Finally, a decent way to rid oneself of the physical evidence of a weekly junk food splurge. Greasy paper—like pizza boxes and some takeout food sacks—should not be mixed in with clean paper for recycling. The grease can render an entire batch of paper unsuitable for re-use! If you don’t have access to composting, those greasy pizza boxes must be disposed of in the garbage.
Some “environmentally friendly” packaging used for takeout calls itself compostable while it only truly meets that definition in commercial facilities.
Any advice I offer is geared toward those with access to commercial compost collection as that’s the arena where all of my experience has taken place. Take the time to heed any guidance offered by your local composting service so you understand exactly what you can and can’t put in the bin to meet their requirements.
Our curbside bin is the size of a standard kitchen trash container: 13 gallons. I’m saved from agonizing questions about “to line the bin or not to line the bin” by a mandate from our service provider: we are required to use compostable bags or paper to encapsulate our compostable contributions. It makes emptying the bins much easier for the guy driving the truck.
It’s just as well; I’d never want to clean a large bin that held rotting vegetable matter without a liner.
Aside from my obvious advice to other lazy people to line the curbside collection bin (I use UNNI brand 13 gallon bags), I offer the following tricks.
Food storage containers for dishwash-able countertop collection
You don’t have to buy a specialty compost bucket, in fact, I’d recommend that you do not. Charcoal filters in the lid are fine, but you don’t need one if you empty the bucket regularly.
Storing your compost bucket in the fridge would also allow you to wait at least a week before taking anything out to the curb. My college housemate’s grandma kept all of her kitchen trash in the refrigerator as a way to deter ants!
I am lazy; this is not the advice of a neurotic neat freak!
Our pail is emptied about twice per week on average, and it only rarely gets my attention with its smell. That happens much more frequently in hot summer weather in our sunny, SE facing kitchen. I have a sensitive sniffer and would definitely notice offensive odors.
FYI: We program our thermostat to daytime temps of around 66° F in the winter and 78° F in the summer.
One reason the compost pail doesn’t reek is routine use of a tight-fitting lid. The lid is often left off or still in the dishwasher on the first day with a new liner in the clean pail, but it is employed more often as the bucket fills with refuse.
I use a Snapware 40 cup container with a lid that clicks on tightly. It’s the lightly frosted plastic container with a blue gasket seal on the lid on the right in the photo. I think these have been discontinued—damn you, Snapware!—but the Rubbermaid Commercial* 8 quart square food storage container photo, left is a similar size and readily available. 40 cups = 10 quarts = 2.5 gallons ≅ 9.5 L
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that the Rubbermaid Commercial container lid is very difficult for me to press fully into place without assistance due to the arthritis in my hands. Readers with similar issues should consider alternatives with snap on lids such as products made by Lock & Lock. I can easily seal my SnapWare bin shut, on my own, even on a bad day.
Here’s a photo of the 6 qt version of the Rubbermaid product with lid—sold separately—in place.
The key factor that improves my life about the kitchen compost “bucket” is that the entire object can be safely washed in the dishwasher. Remember, we’re talking about a pail full of rotting food. It’ll eventually get slimy, sticky, and just generally foul in there, though hopefully not before you’ve carried out the pail. Even with a liner, some moisture or maybe a few crumbs is likely to escape into the container itself.
Our compost container gets washed as often as it is emptied, typically, twice per week.
I’m on the record with the fact that the dishwasher is my most beloved household appliance. The one time I remodeled a kitchen, I bought a top of the line Miele dishwasher, and a very modest electric range from Sears. My priorities may differ from yours, but I’ll never try to obscure them!
Pail liners encapsulate the yuck but biodegrade in time
Having found a machine washable, sturdy container with a lid, the next obvious step to less sticky composting is lining the pail with a sturdy—yet fully compostable—layer between the bin and the glop you throw inside.
Paper grocery bags will work, but they will quickly tear or disintegrate with the moisture typical of food scraps. Paper works best if you empty your bucket often, at least once per day, and/or if the items you’re composting are relatively dry and solid.
If you still subscribe to a daily paper, newsprint is another economical material with which to encapsulate what’s in your bin. You’ll need to be at least a little clever with some origami type folding to use newspaper, however, and the moisture issue still applies.
If you’re willing to throw money at the problem, commercial compostable bin liners are the easiest, most effective choice. They look like plastic bags, but they’re made of food starch and will eventually fully biodegrade in a healthy compost pile.
The most important discovery I’ve made about pail liners is that a 4 gallon compostable bag (again, I like UNNI) is so much more appropriately sized to my household’s use than the 2.6 or 3 gallon bags commonly available at my local stores. You can fill up the bag, yet still have enough of a flap left at the top to tie it closed to contain odors and keep the curbside bin clean.
Remember that we have a larger household—4 adults and 2 teens—where three people worked/studied from home even before the pandemic. It is probable that we do more cooking from scratch than average Americans. In my experience, more cooking leads to more compostable waste.
My first purchase at a local store of pail liners was an exercise in frustration. The thin bags would tear, sometimes before I’d removed them from their box. The slightly-too-small size would slip down below the top level of the food scraps within leaving me no choice but to touch yesterday’s chicken bones while removing the sack from the pail.
I’ve learned two very important facts about these hygiene-improving compost helpers since then:
- Compost bin liners have a definitive—and relatively short—shelf life; because they are meant to biodegrade easily, they can’t be kept in a warehouse gathering dust for too long. Typically, you should use them within 12 months of purchase, but you might need to use them up sooner if they were old by the time you got them. Buy your liners from a place that rotates its stock often!
- Local stores will usually carry just one size of compost pail liner. That may not be the size you need. Research available sizes online, and either buy them direct, or call around to find the correct product locally. Worst case scenario: downsize your bin if you can only find small liners where you prefer to shop.
In a typical week, we† carry the compost out twice, plus there’s whatever my in-laws add from their own kitchen downstairs. We’ll call their contribution one more similarly sized bag. Three times 4 gallon bags (3 × 4 gallons = 12 gallons ) makes a reasonable effort toward filling a 13 gallon can.
And then there are those pizza boxes. Maybe I shouldn’t confess that there are about five of those going out with the compost every week…
Prepare for the occasional leak in a liner
Even with a liner in the pail, there could be an occasional leak. Or, if your kids fling their fruits with great force, the bag might slip down into the container, allowing some of the material inside to leak or soil the bucket.
Washing my compost container is easy, of course, but I take one extra precaution. I lay a square of cardboard—always readily at hand due to the steady stream of packages being received by the household—in the bottom of the pail.
Because the liners usually hold, I might re-use this same square for weeks at a time. If a particular load of compost is very wet and condensation forms in the bucket, the square helps the bag hold its integrity, and that bit of cardboard becomes the first layer inside the next liner after we empty the pail.
It’s hard to overstate the value of adding something absorbent both inside and outside a compostable compost bucket liner!
Prevent those leaks with paper shreds which also add beneficial “browns” to the mix
If you are a home composter, you probably already know that a balanced blend of “green” and “brown” material is required if you want your scraps to break down completely and result in the valuable “black gold” soil your garden desires. Those of us making use of a commercial compost pick up service are often less well versed in these details since the provider takes care of this mixing at its distant site.
Allow me to make a little sense of this Earth-toned rainbow of green, brown, black, and gold!
“Browns” are required for healthy composting, yet not all “browns” are actually brown in color.
The distinction is actually between materials high in nitrogen vs. those low in nitrogen. Natural plant materials show this status by their color: green leaves have high levels, but brown sticks and hay are low in the nutrient. Shredded office paper and junk mail, though often white, are “brown” in compost lingo. Here’s a useful article for those who want more details.
Now that we’ve established that paper can be a beneficial addition to a productive compost pile, here’s how I help myself and hopefully my hauler. After washing my emptied pail, putting a square of cardboard in the bottom in case of leaks, and adding a compostable liner bag to the bucket, I throw a handful of shredded paper inside the liner before adding any food scraps.
I often place a square of cardboard cut from a shipping box at the bottom of each liner, too, as mentioned in the previous section about leaks.
The shreds absorb excess moisture from sloppy fruit peelings and wet tea bags. This gives the liner bag a better chance of maintaining its structural integrity until after it has been picked up by my compost service. Eventually, those little bits of paper break down in the natural process of decay and help balance the nitrogen from our food scraps.
Also, I never fear having my shredded financial documents decoded by clever sleuths with modern de-shredding software. I figure a decomposed shred is probably the hardest type to decipher by man or algorithm. It seems likely that one’s compost would be the last refuse bin riffled by snoops, after the recycling and then the trash.
I’m not paranoid enough to worry too much about spies going through my garbage, really!, and I receive most private documents electronically these days, like everybody else. Still, additional security being coupled with an environmental slam dunk while also making my lazy life easier… That is the kind of household solution I get excited about.
Carry out the bucket, not just a delicate degradable bag
If a responsible adult always carries your compost out, this final word of advice may not be necessary for you. For those of us enjoying the steady stream of surprises that come with parenthood, however, here’s one last tip:
Ensure any helper who takes out the compost carries the container—with lid latched in place—all the way to the great outdoors.
Biodegradable, compostable liner bags are a great help for maintaining a cleaner compost pail, but they are fundamentally fragile, delicate, and not designed for heavy lifting. Unless you want to clean up a stream of dribbled detritus from kitchen to curb, let the bin shoulder its burden instead of the liner. This is a mess best avoided rather than cleaned up after!
Let’s never talk about why I know this to be true.
To sum up all of my composting advice detailed above:
- Buy or re-purpose a dishwasher safe, lidded food storage container sized to hold half a week’s (if you plan to keep it out on the counter) or one week’s (if you will store it in the refrigerator) worth of food scraps for your family.
- Purchase compostable bin liners in the correct size to fit into the container you chose in step one, making sure there’s enough extra material to overhang its edges by a decent margin. If you can’t find the size you need locally, order them online or change containers to match the bags you’ve got.
- Always place a square of cardboard inside your compost container before lining the container with a bag, just in case your liner leaks.
- After lining your container, consider adding another square of cardboard inside for structure and absorbancy, and then add a handful of shredded scrap paper. Do this before you begin throwing food waste into the bin.
- When carrying out your compost, take the entire container from kitchen to curb. Keep the lid sealed on the container until you’re outside so leaks or torn bags don’t soil your floors en route.
- Even if you use compostable liners in your kitchen compost pail, consider larger liners for your curbside bin, or line that bin with newspaper or paper grocery sacks to further reduce necessary ongoing maintenance of the outdoor container.
Setting aside food waste for composting instead of burying it in a landfill inside of a plastic bag that might well outlast human civilization offers tremendous benefits, and it isn’t actually very difficult. Even I can do it! Our kitchen trash can doesn’t fill up anymore even by the end of the week or require emptying mid-week, and it never gets smelly. All the nutrients from our food waste go back to the soil to feed future generations.
If your town doesn’t offer curbside composting, ask your local government why not.
If, instead, you’ve hesitated to sign up for a new service, thinking it would be too much work, I hope my tips demonstrate how easily it can be managed. Dealing with the compost is definitely less effort than taking out the recycling according to our city’s dual stream system.
Note: If you’re wondering why, in the first photo, my compost pail was full of gummy bears, you will see evidence that I’m not being self-effacing or modest when I describe my lack of attention to housekeeping in general. Here’s the explanation: I am still, very gradually, getting rid of things that were in my house exclusively for my mother’s frequent visits.
When Mom was diagnosed with celiac disease, her factually inaccurate conclusion was that the only “real food” she could eat anymore was confectionary. It’s not as though these ancient gummy bears—Mom died in 2019—were rotting and stinking in my cluttered pantry, but seeing them there was a comfort to me until the pandemic’s grocery supply issues forced me to make room for more functional staples.
Don’t worry, though—I’ve still got her vitamins to remember her by on the shelf where we keep ours.
* Rubbermaid Commercial storage containers are usually sold separately from the lids. If you want a lid, make sure you are ordering both at the same time to avoid disappointment.
Contrary to popular opinion on Amazon, this is not stupid. I find that all of my Rubbermaid Commercial containers are constantly in use, yet a couple of lids seem to loaf around in my cupboard. Commercial kitchens probably experience the same thing, thus the separation for sales. Some stuff doesn’t require covering.
It isn’t wrong to sell containers and lids separately, as long as the buyer is made aware of exactly what is included in her purchase. Retail customer: pay attention!
† Admittedly, that’s the Royal We, because my husband almost always takes out the compost and I virtually never do. Considering he is a world-class scientist and I’m an underemployed housewife, please let’s all send him some love for doing his part to save the planet!
A teenager does sometimes help with this, but the one who doesn’t leave the house for school is not usually up in time to put the compost bin at the curb. I’d make a crack about “kids today,” but all the research suggests night owl teens are simply following nature’s design, so I won’t hold this one against the youth.