Reduce, reuse, recycle: It's a mantra for those seeking to shrink their consumption. And if you're already recycling, the next logical step may be composting your kitchen scraps and yard waste. Although it can be done in an open pile, a dedicated composter helps keep scraps neatly contained and away from pests. Many include features to speed the decomposition process.
Outdoor compost bins fall into two categories: stationary bins, which require you to mix the organic material with a rake or shovel; and tumblers, which you crank to rotate and mix compost. Compared to tumblers, stationary bins tend to hold more and cost less per cubic foot of capacity.
Among stationary compost bins, the three-chambered Exaco Earthmaker (*Est. $200) fares best in both user and professional reviews. Made of black molded plastic, it has three chambers that separate fresh kitchen scraps and yard waste from finished compost, eliminating the need for mixing. Many owners posting reviews to Amazon.com and Gardeners.com, the retail website for Gardeners Supply Co., praise the Earthmaker's large capacity, ease of assembly and lack of odor. Some complain, however, that it is difficult to move waste from one chamber to another, and some cite rodent incursion as a problem.
The Earthmaker performed well in a test of two popular composters conducted by Gaiam.com, although testers point out that it does not retain water well (which may be an issue in dry climates, because moisture is a key component in the decomposition process). Consequently, they conclude that it might work better for composting kitchen wastes than for drier, yard materials like leaves and twigs.
A less expensive outdoor compost bin is the Deluxe Pyramid Composter (*Est. $170) from Gardener's Supply Co. Made of recycled plastic, it has a hinged lid designed to admit just enough rainwater to keep the compost from drying out. The unit merits a mention at The-Organic-Gardener.com, and it earns good reviews on Gardeners.com and Epinions.com, with users praising its tidy appearance, capacity and quick compost processing. The most common complaint is that the bin is difficult to assemble.
Among tumbler compost bins, the Tumbleweed Compost Tumbler (*Est. $140) gets the most attention in reviews. Constructed of a plastic barrel mounted on a steel frame, it has a steel rod that passes through the center of the barrel to enable tumbling. In a product test by the National Home Gardening Club, more than two dozen club members evaluated the Tumbleweed compost bin on such factors as ease of use, design, durability and appearance, and they award it a near-perfect overall rating across all categories. The unit also gets an overall rating of 4 out of 5 on Amazon.com, with owners calling it well made, easy to assemble and effective in producing rich compost. Some owners, however, complain that the crank is hard to turn or report problems with rodents.
You might feel squeamish about adding worms to your compost piles, but vermicomposting has received significant media attention as a good eco-friendly option that speeds up the composting process and cuts down on odor. Of the vermicomposters we found, the Triformis Can-O-Worms (*Est. $120) receives the most positive reviews. This multi-level bin, made of recycled plastic, has a tap in the bottom for draining the liquid compost, known as "worm tea." It can be used indoors or outdoors, although it should be kept at moderate temperatures to keep the worms healthy.
There is an extra cost to purchase worms (*Est. $20 for 1,000), but because worms multiply, this is likely a one-time expense. There are more than 25 reviews at Amazon.com and about a dozen at Epinions.com, and most give the Can-O-Worms a 4- or 5-star rating. The bin's weak point appears to be the spigot at the bottom; some users say it's flimsy or messy to use.
If the idea of keeping creepy crawlers in your home gives you the creeps, the NatureMill Plus XE and the NatureMill Pro XE (*Est. $400) are well-reviewed indoor alternatives. Both are electrically powered machines that use sawdust and baking soda to produce compost, with the Pro model offering some extra features, such as a foot pedal and a security lock. Note that both NatureMill models are no longer in production, although they are still available online. NatureMill has introduced a new line of indoor composters, but none of them has garnered a significant number of user or professional reviews.
A less expensive product for indoor composting is the SCD Probiotics All Seasons Indoor Composter (*Est. $75), which uses a fermentation process to break down kitchen waste inside a plastic bucket. A reader on the Treehugger blog says the All Seasons Indoor Composter is "very easy and doesn't smell at all," although some users posting on Amazon.com complain of bad smells and say the unit is a hassle to use.
Finally, if you're in the market for a compost pail -- that is, a bucket for storing food scraps before you transfer them to an outdoor composter or an organic waste recycling container -- the KC 1000 Kitchen Compost Carrier (*Est. $20) earns high praise. The unit, which goes by the name Compost Bucket on Gaiam.com, is made from green plastic and holds 5.5 quarts of food scraps. An optional carbon filter to reduce odors (*Est. $4 for three) lasts about three months. Users posting to Gaiam.com website find this container sturdy, odor-free and easy to carry, although a couple warn of mold buildup and fruit flies if the pail is not emptied frequently. The KC2000 Kitchen Compost Carrier (*Est. $25) has all the same features as the KC1000 but holds up to 2.4 gallons of food scraps.
Those who want a more attractive compost receptacle might consider the Norpro Ceramic Compost Crock, which gets high scores for its appearance but draws complaints for its lid, which some say does not fit securely and lets in fruit flies. Norpro also makes a stainless-steel version (*Est. $50) that receives excellent reviews at Amazon.com, although some uses report fruit flies despite its more secure lid.
The best review of composters comes from Gaiam.com, which invited consumers to nominate their favorite models and conducted a "compost-off" between the top two. Results and analysis appear on a video on the website. We found helpful owner reviews on Amazon.com and Gardeners.com, and analyzed additional user input from Epinions.com. Writer Sara Schaefer Mu–oz gives a brief but informational analysis of composting products in The Wall Street Journal, while the U.K.'s Daily Mail offers a first-person account of vermicomposting. Finally, we found in-depth product reviews on gardening websites including The-Organic-Gardener.com, Treehugger.com, and The Green Guy (a blog).