Cheap, Eco

Confessions of an Amateur Dumpster Diver: Compost Tumbler

I’ve been composting in my apartment for about six years now, but one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that my partner and I had the chance to get to know our neighbors, participate in a community garden, and use the outdoor space attached to our apartment building. I had been thinking about building and/or getting a composter for the building for some time and finally received approval from the head of the building, which subsequently engaged a multi-month search on Craigslist and other used-inventory sites. Fortunately, a few weeks later a 37-gallon tumbling composter popped up on Craigslist a few neighborhoods over for $40. These type of composters typically retail for $80-150, so this was quite a steal. Nevertheless, these babies are designed to take food waste input from 1-2 families, maximum, so we knew we would need more capacity to serve the number of people in our building interested in composting. Ideally, my partner and I wanted to build an open air compost pit as it would have a greater capacity than the pre-fabricated tumblers. However, there was concern from our neighbors about the, shall we say, “eyesore factor,” which is why a pre-made and contained tumbling composter fit our needs well. We kept our ears and eyes peeled for a similar tumbler to pop up on Craigslist, OfferUp, or Next Door, but knew it would probably take some time. Little did we know life had other plans for us…

Every so often a neighboring building rents out a full-sized construction dumpster for the weekend, opens up one of the side walls, and invites residents to throw out bulk trash. It’s an amazing opportunity to find all kinds of things – I once found almost an entire kitchen’s worth of appliances, all in their original boxes, some of which didn’t even look like they had been used. A few months ago I asked my partner, B, if we could take a walk over to the dumpster before it was pulled away the next morning. He agreed but we were delayed in heading out until after the sun went down. To help our search we brought our handy head lamps (what kind of dumpster divers would we be if we had one of our hands occupied with a flashlight?)

As I mentioned, the dumpster is a full-sized dumpster and it’s open on one side, meaning that, especially when it’s empty, it’s at almost ground-level and very easy to step up into it. (Remember people, it’s usually just furniture items or sealed bags that are thrown in and, at this point, the dumpster was mostly empty… not as gross as it sounds). I stepped in first and started searching around for anything good when I heard my partner let out a loud gasp from behind me. I immediately froze. My mind flew to dumpster rats – there was probably a rat in the dumpster with me and it was about to run over my feet. Still frozen and dreading the answer, I managed to eek out a question. “What?”

“Look,” he said in awe. My gaze followed his outstretched arm to find something much less terrifying than a rat. Beheld in front of us, surrounded by some garbage bags but very accessible, was a tumbling composter. We stood stupified for a few minutes.

“There must be something wrong with it,” I finally spoke. “Who would throw out a perfectly good composter?”

We walked around a few bags over to the composter, which was sitting on the dumpster’s floor. I fully expected the plastic container to be cracked or to have a hole in it, or for the turning mechanism to not work. But it was immaculate (for a dumpster composter, that is). Yes, it had some leaves and other soily material in it, but people, it’s a composter. In actuality, having a bit of previous compost material would speed up the process of our own composting. We happily carried it the few blocks back to our home and set it up next to the other composter. Later that night I looked up the make and model to get its sizing – it was actually larger than the one we purchased, clocking in at 43 gallons – which more than doubled our capacity to a total of 80 gallons! Even better: each of the tumblers are split into two sections – one to fill with compost and the other to let the compost sit and break down. The tumbler we pulled from the dumpster is actually a bit more user-friendly in that there is a door for each of the two sides, rather than a singular door for both sides, as our first composter has.

Our compost tumbler pulled from the dumpster.

My partner and I marvelled again and again over why someone would throw out such a large and expensive item that could easily be resold for at least half its resale value in a very compost-friendly city. The only idea that seemed to stick was that perhaps its previous owners recently moved into the building only to discover that there was no common outdoor space, in which case they tossed it?

In full disclosure, the compost tumbler is not 100% perfect. When the tumbling chambers are full with food and garden scraps the plastic sides bulge a bit and some compost gets stuck in the space where the plastic panels overlap, but that’s honestly quite a minor issue in my book and nothing that affects its usage at all. All in all, with each of the two composters retailing around $100 we saved at least $160 and now have 80 gallons worth of compost space for our community garden!

On the left: $40 from Craigslist. On the right: free from a dumpster

2 thoughts on “Confessions of an Amateur Dumpster Diver: Compost Tumbler”

  1. Nice finds! And that is so nice that members of your community are getting together to compost and garden.

    I’ve been looking into composting as we work to start our home garden. It’s a bit overwhelming, but would help us work towards our goals of being a little more sustainable and growing our own organic food. Will have to check out the local listings (and bulk pick ups) to see if I could score a deal and give it a go!


    1. Thank you! A new home garden is exciting for your family. Best of luck; I’m not-so-secretly pining away for a space that’s bigger than 3′ x 3′ for my veggies!
      I hope the secondhand market turns up something for you soon – Craigslist saved searches are my best friend.


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