Do plastic compost bins leach toxins?

  • By: composthq
  • Date: August 17, 2022
  • Time to read: 9 min.

Introduction

If you are getting interested in composting and making your food and garden waste into something useful, you might be wondering about the importance of the container that you make your compost in.

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of plastics, and you may be wondering “do plastic compost bins leach toxins?”

It is possible that your compost bin will leach toxins into the soil, although it is not yet known for sure whether or not most bins do.

However, evidence is increasingly indicating that plastics do leach toxins, and the more exposure to sun and rain that they have, the more likely they are to start breaking down and leaching chemicals into the soil.

It’s no surprise if this horrifies you; many people use compost to grow food in, and deliberately do so to try and avoid the chemicals and toxins associated with commercially grown food.

Let’s look at the potential issues in more detail, and explore what you should do to avoid them.

plastic compost bin in a garden

Do Plastic Compost Bins Leach Toxins?

It is important to note that so far, no major studies indicate that plastic compost bins are responsible for releasing toxins into the nearby environment, including the compost that is being created inside them.

However, it has taken a long time for us to become aware of the toxins associated with many kinds of plastic, and often, the impact has been overlooked or has not shown up quickly.

It’s a good idea to remember that the long term effects of plastic may not be known simply because we have not yet had time to observe how plastics behave.

The leaching of toxins might take years to develop, and few – if any – studies have explored this yet. Until more research has been done, the possibility of toxins being leached from plastic compost bins should not be ignored.

It seems that there is an increasing amount of evidence that plastics that we thought should be inert are not, and this may prove the case with compost bins.

What Makes Plastic Compost Bins More Likely To Leach Toxins?

You may be wondering if there is much chance of your compost bin leaching toxins, and what could lead to it doing so.

While we can only speculate at present, there are a few factors that mean the plastic is more likely to break down and start leaching toxins into the soil.

Exposure To Heat

Many plastics are vulnerable to damage by heating, and if you are composting properly, your compost is likely to get surprisingly hot at times.

This is because the bacteria that are responsible for turning the waste into compost produce heat, and this is trapped by the waste material, causing temperatures to rise.

Most plastics start to break down and leach toxins when they are exposed to heat, because they weren’t designed to be heated.

Think about what happens when you put an unsuitable plastic in the microwave; it warps and half melts.

While your compost won’t be reaching this kind of temperature, the heat involved in the composting process could damage the plastic over time, and may make it more likely to leach chemicals into the soil.

sunlight shining through trees and grass

Exposure To Sunlight

Next, the exposure to sunlight could be problematic. Sunlight destroys many kinds of plastics, and while your compost bin should be built to withstand the sunlight well, it is unlikely to be impervious to the rays.

You may find that eventually, the plastic turns brittle and starts to break down. However, long before this happens, the structure of the plastic might be compromised.

This could cause damage, and the damage may lead to toxins being spread into the soil.

Exposure To Rain

Likewise, the exposure to rain, frost, and other elemental stressors may reduce the compost bin’s integrity and result in the leaching of toxins.

As the plastic gets stressed, beaten down, soaked, and generally weathered by the challenges of the outdoors, it may start to disintegrate.

While plastic never really disappears, it does break into increasingly small pieces, and this could easily occur if your compost bin is subjected to too much extreme weather.

It is likely that it would take a long time for the rain and the wind to break down a compost bin in any significant way, since the bins are designed to withstand the weather, but it is still worth bearing this factor in mind.

If you can protect your bin by shading it from the sun and protecting it from strong winds and heavy rains, you may reduce the chances of it leaching toxins into the soil, but there is no guarantee of this.

man holding a garden spade full of compost from a bin

Should I Be Worried About Using My Compost?

So, if it is quite likely that your compost bin is able to leach chemicals into the soil, you might then be wondering how much you need to worry about using the compost. Is it safe?

Firstly, it’s important to reiterate that there are currently few studies that suggest toxins even leach from bins. However, if you are concerned, think about what you are going to be using the compost for.

If you plan to grow your flowers and non-edibles in it, you should not have any problem. If instead you plan to grow fruits and vegetables in it, you may wish to be a little more cautious.

Because you will be consuming something that has been absorbing nutrients from the compost that also (potentially) contains toxins, you might be consuming trace contaminants from the compost.

It is highly unlikely that you need to worry about these trace amounts. Even if the toxins are present in your compost bin and they can be transferred to your food as a result of using the compost, they are not going to hurt you.

In general, you need to consume significant quantities of a toxin before it will do you any harm.

The minuscule amounts found in your compost bin, compost, and home-grown vegetables are negligible, and you probably get much higher doses of toxins from other aspects of your life.

However, you may also want to think about the potential leaking of toxins from an environmental perspective, as many people who go to the effort of composting also care very much about what happens to the environment.

Even if the trace chemicals are not strong enough to pose a threat to humans eating vegetables that have been grown near them, it’s possible for the chemicals to be an issue to the planet.

We already know that some of the toxins in plastic can be harmful to humans. It is easy to imagine just how harmful they could be to microorganisms and bacteria growing in the soil.

Concern for the environment and the little creatures living in and around your compost bin might prompt you to look for other solutions, even if you aren’t concerned for your own sake.

The critters near your compost bin are so much smaller that even a tiny amount of the toxin could be risky to them.

young women with hand on her cheek thinking

Can I Stop My Compost Bin From Leaching?

You probably cannot significantly reduce the amount of toxins leaching from your compost bin because the quantities are already so small, but taking good care of your compost bin will at least help to prolong its life and reduce the amount of plastic that gets chipped off and falls into the soil.

If possible, place your compost bin in a sheltered spot where it will not be exposed to heavy rain or wind, and where it is shaded from the direct sun.

Building a small, angled roof above it will help to shade it and allow the water to run off.

You can’t do anything much to solve the issue of internally generated heat.

You need your compost to operate at a high temperature in order to maximize its efficiency, so you can’t mitigate the problem with this heat potentially affecting the plastic. You will just have to not worry about this too much.

Are There Other Issues With Plastic Compost Bins?

Plastic is a problematic material for other reasons than just the potential chemical leaching. The biggest reason to move away from plastic compost bins is that plastic is a very problematic material.

On the whole, creating plastic involves the use of a non-renewable resource (oil) and plastic is very difficult to dispose of when it reaches the end of its useful life.

While some plastic can be recycled in some circumstances, many plastics cannot be recycled. Of those that can, only a few cycles can be done before the plastic becomes useless and therefore landfill waste.

While recycling is an important part of being kind to our planet, it is well known that it isn’t a viable long-term solution.

Many people are trying to reduce their dependence on plastic, especially in outdoor spaces. If you are looking at buying a new bin, you might want to consider a few alternatives to plastic.

What Can I Use Instead Of A Plastic Compost Bin?

There are a few viable options, although few feel as clean and neat as plastic bins, and many are considerably more expensive.

If you are looking for an alternative, however, consider a metal bin. Metal bins are inert, hard-wearing, and look great in the garden.

You do need to make sure that the drainage holes are good enough to prevent the contents from getting soggy, but otherwise, a metal compost bin can be a great option.

Another alternative is to use two pallets. If you screw them to a wall or fence, with the compost piled up between them, they should serve as a viable alternative to the plastic bins.

However, you may wish to build a floor and a roof or partial roof to reduce the amount of rain that pours down on the compost, or it may wash it into the soil.

You can also purchase wooden compost bins, some of which are very beautiful, while others are simply functional. Try a few options and see which works best for you.

You might find that having an open compost heap, as in the pallet idea, is a better option, but it is a good idea to have some kind of container, as this keeps everything neat and makes it easy to turn the compost when necessary.

plastic compost bin with door open showing compost items

Should I Get Rid Of My Plastic Compost Bin?

So, if you already have a plastic compost bin, where does that leave you? Should you keep your bin? Should you throw it away and replace it? What is the best course of action?

You will have to assess the situation and decide how concerned you are about the potential for toxins to leach out of the bin.

If it is going to be a point of concern for you on a daily basis and you find yourself worrying about it a lot, it may be best to find another composting option, for your peace of mind if nothing else.

On the whole, it is better to use what you have – even if it isn’t an ideal resource – rather than to buy something new.

However, if your compost bin bothers you, consider selling or gifting it to someone else, and getting a metal bin or finding another setup that works for you.

While you may want to reduce your plastic use, the compost bin already exists, and there is no point putting it into a landfill site and replacing it with an “eco” option unless there is something wrong with it. This is not an environmentally friendly move.

Many people want to reduce their dependency on plastic, especially outdoors, but a plastic compost bin that is in good condition and not visibly shedding plastics probably shouldn’t be thrown away.

Summary

Plastic compost bins might theoretically leach toxins.

It is unlikely that they will do in significant enough quantities to pose a risk to humans, but the idea might make you uncomfortable, and it could be harmful to the environment.

If you are shopping around for a new compost bin, consider choosing a different material, such as wood or metal.

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