Compost Smells Bad: How To Fix Bad Smelling Compost

by johnah on November 2, 2020

Compost Smells Bad: How To Fix Bad Smelling Compost

What Is Compost?

Compost is organic material that decomposes into a fine, black powder. When it comes out of the ground or pile, it looks like dirt but not quite so bad. You can’t see the dust when you look at it directly, but you will notice its presence if you breathe in the air around it.

It’s important to note that there are different types of compost. There are two main kinds: natural and man-made.

Natural compost is made from plants and animals living together naturally in nature. Man-made compost consists of materials such as wood chips, newspaper, paper products, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and other nonliving objects that have been mixed with soil or water to make them less fertile for plant life.

Man-made compost is often used to fertilize crops, which are grown for food. Natural compost is usually left outside where it breaks down naturally over time.

Man-made compost may be kept inside a house or yard because it helps keep the environment clean and reduces pollution. However, many people don’t want their homes or yards contaminated with man-made waste. They would rather leave their man-made compost outdoors, under trees or in backyards instead of putting it in a landfill.

How Does Compost Smell?

The smell of compost depends on the materials that are used to make it. Ideally, it has no smell at all. However, it may produce a certain scent if it’s been sitting in an outdoor pile for several months or years. When natural compost is made up of animal waste, spoiled food and other biodegradable materials, it will likely have a foul odor.

The smell of man-made compost is often less offensive than that of natural compost. This type of waste, such as wood chips, newspaper and paper towels, doesn’t usually produce a bad odor.

The smell of man-made compost may be unnoticeable if it’s kept inside a bucket or trash can with a lid on it. The smell might also be tolerable if the man-made compost is spread out over a large area.

Why Is There A Smell?

If the odor of compost is unpleasant, you can do something about it. For example, you can move the bucket or pile to a different location. You can also mix some soil or grass clippings with the waste to decrease the foul smell. If the odor is unbearable, you can also spray a little bit of water on the pile so that the smell will decrease.

How To Get Rid Of The Smell?

You can cover up the smell of decomposing waste with other scents. If you’re using natural materials to make your compost, try adding some lavender or rose petals to the pile. Alternatively, you can mix in some coffee grounds, green tea leaves or orange peels for a fresher scent. You can also place a few slices of apple, potato or carrot at the bottom of the container every time you add more material to it.

Man-made materials usually have no smell when they’re new. However, the trash can still give off a scent if you don’t wash it out every now and then.

You should also let the sun hit the container for a while to dry it out. Moisture is one of the main reasons why garbage cans and plastic trash bags can develop an odor. If your container has a bad smell, you should open a window or turn on an electric fan to keep the air circulating. This will prevent the smell from building up.

If there’s still a persistent odor coming from your compost, you may want to get a different container. Some materials, such as eggs and meat, can produce a bad smell no matter what you do.

You can also add a cup of baking soda at the bottom of your container to absorb some of the odor. You can also place activated charcoal, which you can buy at a pet store, at the bottom of your container.

Why Does Compost Smell So Bad?

If you’re using natural materials to make your compost, the odor may become stronger if it’s not kept in a tightly closed container. The scent will usually go away as the waste continues to break down.

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You can also spread out your pile to speed up the composting process. The more air that can reach the mixture, the quicker it will get rid of the smell.

You can turn the pile or use a pitchfork to aerate it. You should do this every one to two weeks.

If the smell is too much for you, try putting your pile in the basement or some other enclosed area that doesn’t have any other opening. Make sure that the door to this room can be tightly closed.

You should also make sure that there are some air holes in the walls or roof of this room so that gases can escape.

It can take months for the smell to go away, but if you’re on a tight budget, this is one of the ways that you can get rid of kitchen waste without spending any money.

What Do I Need?

-Old wooden or plastic tray, metal trash can, or cardboard box

-Rain garden plants such as creeping thyme, creeping juniper, wildflowers, or violets

-Activated charcoal (optional)


-Lid for the container


-Baking soda

-Planting container

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-Spray bottle (optional)


Trash can or dumpster: These will only work if they’re completely sealed and you have no access to the outside. You need to cut holes in the sides and place your garden inside.

The gases emitted by the decomposing waste will be trapped inside, so make sure there’s a good amount of plants to absorb them. If these aren’t available, don’t worry, you have other options.


Any container that is sealable and has a small opening will do. Containers like a small garbage can, an old dumb waiter, or even an ice chest can work.

You need to punch holes around the top of the container so that gas can escape. You can use a drill or sharpen a screwdriver to make the holes. If you want, you can also add a drip tray under the container to catch any liquid that escapes.

You can also use a cardboard box. If you do this, make sure the box has no creases as this can cause weak spots.

Tape up all of the box’s seams to keep it waterproof.

TIP: Save on pots and pans by using kitchen scrapers and other utensils as tools.


Some cities and towns may not allow you to have a garbage can or dumpster on your property. Others might not allow you to keep a garbage can that doesn’t have a front door (meaning it can be sealed).

It’s best if you check with your local trash collectors, city hall, or sanitation department first. You don’t want to get a large dumpster only to find out that you’re not allowed to have one!


The capacity of your container should be at least equal to the amount of waste you want to compost. If you’re just starting out, you can try using a smaller container as long as it has a lid.

Once the garbage is fully broken down, you can empty it into a larger container.

Make sure to use a container that is wider than it is tall. This will allow for better air flow which will help with the composting process.

The type of waste you put in the container can also affect the size. If you’re only using vegetable waste then you can get away with a smaller container, but if you’re throwing in paper and other types of trash then it might be best to use a larger container.


Now that you have your container, it’s time to fill it up. Make sure you put a lid on it so that no animals or insects can get in.

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If there are any holes in the container, cover them with wire mesh or aluminum foil.

Know Your Limits

Remember that your container is not an endless pit for your waste. Once it’s full, you need to empty it into a larger area and start again.

If you don’t, the smell and health risks will become unmanageable.

Every city has different rules about how often you need to empty your container. Once a week is common, but some areas do it differently.

Make sure you know the rules in your area before starting.

What Goes In?

You can put most types of kitchen waste in your composter. It’s easiest if they are cut up into small pieces, but this isn’t always necessary. The following is a list of the most common things that people use:

Fruit and vegetable peels and rinds

Egg shells

Coffee grounds

Tea bags

Paper towels (Don’t use colored or printed paper)

Towel scraps (Again, no printed or colored papers)

Wet wipes (Baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, etc)

Cereal and cracker boxes (Remove food from boxes before putting in container)

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Paper bags (Again, no printed or colored paper)


Cardboard (remove any plastic wrapping)

You can also use these items, but they should be shredded first:


Paper and cardboard boxes (Remove any plastic or wire)

Paper or cardboard cups or plates (If they have a plastic coating, remove it first)

Never use the following items in your composter:



Cat Litter

Meat or fish

Diseased plant refuse (If you have a diseased plant, throw it out with the regular trash)

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Chips or other super greasy food (The grease will prevent the composter from working properly)


Just like a regular dinner party, it’s considered good manners to keep your composter free of unpleasant surprises. There are a few things that you should avoid putting in your composter:

Grease or oil: This will prevent the aerobic bacteria from breaking down the material. Stick to small amounts of butter or margarine.

Diseased plants: If you have a diseased plant, throw it out with the regular trash.

Cat litter: Most cat litters are made with clay which can keep bacteria from breaking down the material.

Meat, fish, or dairy: These products can attract animals and are highly toxic to the bacteria.

Fruit pits, egg shells, or nut shells: These items are too dense and can keep air from reaching the center of the pile.

Chemicals of any kind: Chemicals aren’t good for the environment anyway!

Eggs in their shells: The shells prevent air from reaching the center of the pile.

Glass or plastic: These materials don’t break down in a short period of time.

Hot ashes: Hot ashes can keep the bacteria from breaking down the material.

Large toys or play equipment: These items can prevent the air from reaching the center of the pile.

Medicine or pharmaceuticals: These items can contaminate your soil.

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Pet waste: This can affect the quality of the soil where you grow your vegetables.

Diapers or soiled clothing: These items can contain disease or toxins.

If you have any questions about whether or not you should include a certain material, throw it out with your regular trash!


Since kids are always curious, it’s a good idea to teach them about what goes on inside the composter. This way when you explain why they can’t throw something in, they’ll understand.

Here are some ideas:

Hold an “egg hunt” using egg cartons. As kids find the eggs, have them help you put them in the composter.

Bring home “presents” from Grandma and see if they’ll fit in the composter.

Cut the bottoms out of milk cartons and turn them into “boats” or “cars.” Let your kids drive them through the composter.

Out of toilet paper?

Let your child tear up newspaper to cover his bottom.

Does your child like to paint?

Give them water colors and a few old pots from the backyard and let them have fun.

Does your child enjoy camping?

Let them put small bones in the composter and then explain that they’ll turn into dirt to grow trees in the future.

Does your child have a pet?

Teach them how to properly dispose of the waste.

Play “I Spy” by seeing how long it takes for something to disappear (a crayon, an orange peel, etc.)

Have your child find tiny objects in the backyard and put them in the composter. For example, look for acorns or pinecones.

Why Does It Smell?

Dark, watery, and has a bad odor?

It might be that your composter needs more air. Try these tips:

Turn the pile to allow more air in. You can use a fork or shovel, or just turn it with your hands.

Sprinkle wood ashes or dry dirt on top of the pile to absorb moisture.

Sprinkle coffee grounds on top of the pile to absorb odors.

Sprinkle grass clippings or dried leaves on top of the pile to absorb odors and add minerals back into the pile.

Turning your composter and sprinkling wood ashes over it each time you use it will help absorb odors.

Is It Working?

You just may not notice a change in your plants! Compost takes time. Be patient.

If you want to see results right away, try this experiment. Fill three pots with potting soil and add three items that are about the same size (such as three pennies).

Water each of the pots and keep them moist. Leave one pot as it is (with no compost) and put the other two in your composter for a couple of months.

Can you tell which is the treated soil?

Tips: Always turn the pile with a shovel or pitchfork to aerate it. (It’s okay to turn it with your hands sometimes, too!) Always add organic materials to the pile. Never add animal products or solids. Add shredded material (like leaves) in dry clumps, not soaked with water. Add water to the pile if it seems dry.


You have made great progress as a backyard composter! Remember, you are doing a great service for your community – turning waste into a valuable resource!

Now let’s talk about how to “garden without garbage.” Composting is just one way to have a zero-waste garden.

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Keep reading to learn other ways you can help the environment while you feed your family!

If you liked this project, you may also like Grow Your Own Groceries or Build a Recycled Raised Bed.

Sources & references used in this article:

Occupational hygiene in biowaste composting by OK Tolvanen, KI Hänninen… – Waste management …, 1998 –

Compost Tea by E Ingham – Part I. BioCycle, 1999 –

Measurement of biosolids compost odor emissions from a windrow, static pile, and biofilter by P Rosenfeld, M Grey – Water environment research, 2004 – Wiley Online Library

Composting processes by SP Mathur – Bioconversion of waste materials to industrial products, 1998 – Springer

A novel tool for estimating the odour emissions of composting plants in air pollution management by T Zarra, V Naddeo, V Belgiorno – Global Nest Journal, 2009 –

Aerobic decomposition of organic wastes 2. Value of compost as a fertilizer by ST Jakobsen – Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 1995 – Elsevier

Manure composting: A solution to dealing with stricter environment regulations by SJ Brown – … efficient agricultural production (REAP-Canada) QC …, 1995 –

Volatile organic acids in compost: production and odorant aspects by WF Brinton – Compost Science & Utilization, 1998 – Taylor & Francis



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