Finding the best composter on the market.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 9 2009 11:23 AM

Soil Yourself

The search for the best composter on the market.

I recently moved back to the United States after a long stint in Berlin, and I've been suffering the effects of Euro nostalgia ever since. I miss the 1-yard-tall Hefeweizens, the civilized city biking, and the oddball 1980s haircuts. But what I find myself pining away for most regularly is how Berliners handle garbage. That's right: garbage. In the German capital, sanitation goes far beyond the old trash-recycling binary—the city also collects organic matter (excluding meat) in "bio" bins and carts them away weekly for composting.

Although municipal authorities in San Francisco and Minnesota collect organic food waste, most U.S. cities recycle paper, plastic, glass, and metals, at most. I live in superliberal New Haven, Conn., where no politician would dare to cut city recycling, and even we don't compost. If I want to go greener in the United States, that effort will be strictly DIY.


I resent having to do on my own what any green-minded city should do for me. But this year, urbanites across the States are hitting the mud patch: Michelle Obama's mucking around her organic garden, and it's a big eat-at-home, grow-your-own year for budget-conscious entertainers. So I'm hopping on the bandwagon by shopping for a no-fuss, urban-friendly composter.

Let's first establish my nonexistent credentials: I've never composted before, and I don't garden. I have no yen for getting dirty and no real use for the nutrient-rich dirt that results from the composting process. My priority is to recycle food waste—that's all.

I'm not handy enough to make my own composter. I also ruled out open bins because they can attract rodents, pissing off your neighbors. Instead, I decided to focus on four smaller, ready-made composters, suitable for city dwellers with tiny backyards. Each composter could score a possible 35 points in the following categories:

Ease of use (10 points): The ideal composter should be easy to assemble and easy to maintain. It should also chomp a wide range of foodstuffs. (Not every model can handle meat, acidic foods, or pet waste.)

Greenness (5 points): Most people in the market for a composter are environmentally minded. So I subtracted points for composters produced from nonrecyclable materials or that arrived in lots of wasteful packaging.

Price (10 points): Why throw away money on pricey gadgets? A higher score in this category equals better value.

Yuck factor (10 points): Don't make me run my fingers through half-rotten food, murmuring praises to Gaia. I want a composter that keeps me far from Mother Nature's organic juices and smells.

The results, from trash to treasure: 

Green Johanna Hot Composter.

Green Johanna Hot Composter, $285 What a brilliant name. I can imagine a man tearing open his Green Johanna package, half-hoping a leggy, recycling-minded Swede would pop out and make a giggly, nude dash for the backyard. While this fantasy is, sadly, just that, the Green Johanna does live up to the "green" part of its name: It's made of 100 percent recycled plastic and is efficiently packaged.

Assembly is easy: Just remove the concentric rings from their package, then nail one to the next, working upward to build the Johanna's cylindrical body. There's a sort of cat door cut into its base (a hole with a plastic flap) where compost eventually spills out. Add the trash-can-like top, and your composter is complete.

The Green Johanna's biggest plus is its promiscuity: You can compost anything in there. Meat, bones, eggs, citrus, paper products, and bread plus fruits, vegetables, and coffee grounds. Just layer in carbon-rich "brown" material (sawdust, leaves, twigs) over every deposit of nitrogen-rich "greens" (kitchen scraps, cut grass, weeds).

One potential downside is that the Green Johanna is a one-chamber composter. This means you have to wait for the entire batch to break down before harvesting any dirt. If you're really eager to get compost, posthaste, a two-chamber model—which lets you harvest mature compost while adding fresh food scraps—might be better.  And despite its market-ready name, I can't help but think that the Green Johanna is just a big, overpriced trash can. Sure, its top locks nicely, fending off vermin, and the trapdoor fits snugly. But couldn't someone just slightly handier than I jury-rig a similar contraption with a can and a hacksaw?

Ease of use: 7
Greenness: 5
Price: 2
Yuck factor: 7
Total: 21 (out of 35)



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