Sep 26

How to Waste Time, Money, and Resources Building a Compost Tumbler, or a Lesson in Simplicity

compost-tumblerThe giant, blue abomination to the left has been the monkey on my back for the past 5 months of Frugally Green.  I first got the idea to start this website after deciding to build a compost tumbler to reduce our kitchen and garden waste.  It was going to be awesome.  The only problem was that I wasn’t really interested in food or gardening, but I sure was interested in a hands-on project.  So, I found a way to make the whole idea more exciting by making it more complex than it ever needed to be.

The beginnings of a frugally green failure

I scoured the internet for the most interesting composter designs, I sat down and drew up my super-awesome-and-improved plan in AutoCAD, making a detailed materials list and then headed to the hardware store to pick up the materials.

I came home and set to work, taking pictures at every step.  I just knew that millions of people were going to want to know how to build this thing and have the most fun of their lives spinning their rotten food around. It was going to be a how-to of the century.

5 months later, I have yet to write a single word or share a single picture of this contraption.  Why? Because I never should have built it in the first place.

Sure, I do use it every day.  Yes, it does work (as far as I can tell).  But, the truth is, there is nothing frugal or green about this thing beside the fact that it is, indeed, a compost bin.  It’s a giant, plastic barrel that carried soy sauce half-way around the world propped up by an unnecessary chunk of metal that’s supported by more wood than needed to remain sturdy. Failure!

I took on this project for all the wrong reasons.  At the time, I didn’t actually care about the function of the composter, I just wanted a green project to busy myself with and I wanted to flex my mental muscle and do something complex.  As a result, I ended up with a less than perfectly functional product that used a ton more material and cost more money than what was ever necessary to get the job done.

The awakening

If I had actually cared about compost at the time, I would have done a little research and found out that turning it is not very important.  I would have also learned a number of other things about it that would have influenced my design to a simpler and more effective result.

What I failed to realize while dreaming up this contraption was that anyone can take a simple idea and make it complicated.  Real innovation occurs by taking something complicated and making it simple.

So here’s my new how-to article for building a truly frugally green compost bin:

  • Step 1: Make a pile.

Yep, that’s it.  That is all you really need to make good, useful compost.  You don’t even have to spend a dime.  Don’t feel guilty that your composter isn’t as nice as your neighbor’s (if your neighbor even has one). Just revel in the fact that it works just as well.

If, you have pets or nocturnal visitors that will make a mess of your compost pile, we can add just 3 more steps to solve that problem as well:

  • Step 1: Screw a few scraps of dimensional lumber together to make a box.
  • Step 2: Find a piece of scrap plywood and mount it to the top with a couple hinges.  Add a latch to the front if you have raccoons with he-man strength.
  • Step 3 (Optional): Paint the entire assembly to satisfy your aesthetic needs.
  • Step 4: Fill with compostable materials.

Now, we’ve added 300% more complication to the process and if I were one of those sleazy marketers, I’d substitute the word ‘complication’ for something sexier and make it sound like the greatest thing since tumbled compost, but I won’t, and composting really is as simple as making a pile.

There is nothing fancy required.  I wish I’d realized that before I spent a whole weekend driving around town buying all these things I didn’t need.

The real lesson learned

There seems to be a common perception these days that the more complicated an idea or product is, the better it must be because it’s had more thought and effort invested in it.  This is patently false.  The best ideas in life are almost always the most simple.  Think back to the most enjoyable, memorable, or even productive times in your life.  Were you doing something complicated or something relatively simple?

Many times we overcomplicate things because we want to impress others or feel like we have to prove to ourselves that we can do something we’re not sure we’re capable of. Testing your limits is the fastest way to grow, but don’t take the wrong approach.  If you really want to stand out and prove something to yourself, take your most complicated ideas and simplify them.  Anyone can do the opposite.


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  1. Susie

    I LIKE your compost contraption. It might not have been frugal or totally green but hey, it works. When people start their efforts to go green they have to start somewhere. So, don’t consider it a failure, just a lesson learned.

  2. Michael Thomas

    Nothing like a mother to offer up sound advice. It certainly was a lesson learned, and a good one at that.

  3. Andrea

    Thanks. You are really right. I spend a lot of time thinking how to build a compost bin and meanwhile I started a pile, then a second pile and the third one. I’m learning to be patient with the cold compost. I think is the most valuable lesson from Mother Nature. The very valuable process, take time.
    Green greetings from the moving south of the world, Chile.

  4. Leslie Scrimshaw

    What I find funny about compost tumblers is that they are supposed to make a pile easy to turn. The truth is that instead of turning a pile a small shovel full at a time – or not turning it at all – my preferred option – you end up having to physically turn the whole darn pile at once every other day. Some of the funniest youtube videos I’ve seen involve someone trying to turn one of those end over end tumblers when the darn thing is full.

  5. Schteveo

    IF you use discarded pallets for lumber, old swivels, brackets, hinges, just used hardware in general, and old skate board wheels or in line skate parts, etc, and a cheap plastic one time use barrel, it is “greener”, than this. Not to mention cheaper.

    Cold compost is a good, no brains, no strains idea. But I think the barrel idea is good, IF you are looking for faster composting. Instead of taking months, or two seasons to break down, it will break down your batch in just two weeks to a month. This is great if you have a bunch of brass clippings or leaves or garden leftovers and you want compost quickly.

  6. Schteveo

    Make the GRASS clippings. I’m not sure what BRASS would do for your compost pile / bin.

  7. haverwench

    We went for the 300 percent more complicated version when setting up our compost pile a couple of years back, building a bin out of discarded shipping pallets. The thing is, doing it this way has actually made our lives simpler in the long run, because instead of hiding the open compost pile in some unseen corner of the yard (and then having to trek out there every time we added to it), we were able to put the bin right outside the kitchen door. So now each time we prepare a meal, we just slip out the door, dump the scraps in the bin, and slip back in. And our next-door neighbor doesn’t complain about the bin the way he surely would about a big rotting pile of leaves and banana peels.

    I’d love to get hold of one of those soy-sauce vats for a rain barrel, though.

  8. haverwench

    Oops. Entered my website wrong the first time.

  9. Bob

    One of your problems is that you built a horizontal roller style. Think of a dryer or front-load washing machine. It has fins on the inside, this is to flip the contents as it rolls. Otherwise you roll the shell and the contents just sit in the bottom.

    A flip style one like the organic compost tumbler works much better, way more mixing, way easier. Much simpler mechanically, KISS design. Lots of different models use these mechanics, but I like this one the best.

    You can built it yourself with roughly the same material you used on your first try, just you built it differently.

  10. Urban Compost Tumbler

    A great design for making a compost tumbler. This will greatly speed up the composting process.

  11. Bankruptcy Ben

    Dude I admire your honesty. Thanks for the read I was going to do something similar but with a steel drum. currently i have a worm farm but you can’t put citrus or onion in there, I shall start the pile:)

  12. Daniel

    Don’t beat yourself up mate. Down under in Australia, everyone has compost tumblers for one main reason: flies. An exposed or even badly covered pile of compost will attract thousands of flies to your yard. Don’t know if this applies where you are!!

  13. Matt

    Destroying simpler decomposed piles is hard work too – especially when they are huge and far away from the garden!

    When one has been composting for years with limited space in a heavily wooded area close to a marshland and has made an enormous pile in the back for every season, the backyard has leaf/grass/whatever piles chest high, the soil recesses around them and they start to encroach on your frisbee space.

    I like the process optimization of the complicated system just for its increase turnaround time for smaller, more manageable piles.

  14. Evan

    Your being to hard on yourself. i’m sure you could sell your compost tumbler to somebody in a situation were a tumbler makes sense. its not my favorite method of composting either, but if you live in an apartment in the city it is a great alternative to sending your scraps to the dump. the city municipalities usually mix compost with all kinds of toxic chemicals, yuck. my biggest critisem of the compost tumbeler is its really too small to get good temperature going and is usually has poor ventilation. something of the scale you are doing is perfect for somebody living in the city or who is a neat freak. Composting is a lost art its all good

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