Electric Composters – An Eco Win or Unnecessary Appliance?

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Robert Pavlis

I became aware of the first electric composter a couple of years ago and now there are at least a dozen brands on the market. They are promoted as an eco-friendly way to deal with food scraps. Just put your waste in the device and it will compost the material in a few hours. The material is reduced in volume by 90% and is a perfect fertilizer for your houseplants and garden.

The first one I saw was a larger floor model that required the addition of coir, and some models suggest the addition of microbes to help with the composting process. Newer models are smaller in size and don’t require the addition of coir or microbes.

Right from the moment that I saw the first unit, I questioned the “composting” aspect. How can they compost so quickly when composting is a very slow process? My myth busting antennae went up.

Electric Composters - An Eco Win or Unnecessary Appliance?
Electric Composters – An Eco Win or Unnecessary Appliance? Showing Nagual composter.

What is an Electronic Composter?

You may not have heard the term before. This category of products is still trying to find its footing and final marketing labels. They are also called food recyclers, food processors, or food digestors. They all operate in a similar manor, with the exception of the above mentioned coir and microbes. Food scraps are placed in a bucket, the unit is closed and turned on. An automated cycle dries the material and “grinds” it. The time needed for this depends on how much you put in and how wet it is, but most units take 3 to 5 hours.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

At the end of the process you have something that is dry but still kind of resembles the food you put in. Some items turn into brown powder while others stay quite chunky and fibrous.

There is a bit of odor, but it is not unpleasant. Some units have charcoal filters that reduce the odor while it is exhausting the water vapor.

The buckets are quite small. The one I tried, had a 2 liter capacity (0.5 gal), but that’s a bit of an exaggeration since you can’t fill it to the top and most of the space is air. We produce very little kitchen waste, mostly orange rinds, banana peels, apple cores, some potato peelings and a couple of egg shells and we can fill it in 2-3 days.

Do Electronic Composters, Compost?

The answer is clear – NO!

Almost all the manufacturers of these units claim they make compost because that is a popular, eco-friendly way to handle food scraps. Any company making this claim is using false advertising to sell their product.

I found this comment, “The machine runs for 5-6 hours – yes, it’s a while, but you’re speeding up science, so let’s have some patience! ” The only science it is speeding up is the drying of food.

I contacted several manufacturers and asked them for proof that they compost. None had any. To be honest they didn’t really understand what composting is. The exception to the rule is the Vitamix FoodCycler who are more ethical. They made it clear they “don’t compost”. They reduce the volume of food waste and hope that their product diverts it from landfill.

Vitamix FoodCycler dehydrated food waste byproduct
Vitamix FoodCycler dehydrated food waste byproduct

FoodCycler also provided me with some analytical data for their end product that showed a total nitrogen level of 2.9% and a nitrate level of 0.005%. During composting, organic forms of nitrogen are converted to inorganic forms of nitrogen, mainly nitrate. These numbers confirm that composting has not yet started.

YouTube video

Running Temperature

These machines claim to run hot. The Nagual runs at 120 C ( 248 F) or is it 126 C – both values are given. When I open it during a process, it is not that hot, but it does have to be over 100 C to drive off the moisture. A hot compost pile is limited to 66 C (150 F) so that the microbes are not killed off. The steam plus high temperature will sterilize the food scraps.

Another reason why there is no composting!

Do Electronic Composters, Grind?

Many of the products claim to “grind” the food as it’s heated. The blades in the unit are not sharp nor is the space between the blades and the fixed bar, small enough to grind food. They rotate once per minute and at best this can be called agitation or mixing. This also becomes evident when you look at the results. The material is not finely ground and contains a lot of larger pieces. Don’t believe some of the picture shown by the manufacturers. 

Dehydrated kitchen waste: claimed by marketing (left side) vs actual found in my tests (right side)
Dehydrated kitchen waste: claimed by marketing (left side) vs actual found in my tests (right side)

Do Electronic Composters Produce Fertilizer?

The end product from the FoodCycler had an NPK of 2.9-0.2-0.6 (made from food scraps) but this depends a lot on the material being processed. It has a higher level of nitrogen compared to P and K. It also had sodium levels between 0.2 and 0.5%. Processed food and canned food tends to add high levels of sodium, which can be toxic to plants.

The NPK from an industrial electronic composter at the Leiden University Medical Centre kitchen was 2.7-0.7-1.0. Sodium levels were 1% and the pH was 4.3.

Industrial electronic composter from Oklin
Industrial electronic composter from Oklin

Electronic composters produce dry food scraps. Until this material starts to decompose, most of the nutrients are not available for plants. Most manufactures of these products show how easy it is to take the dry material from their unit and apply it to potted plants, but I would not do that.

A study done by Vitamix had this to say, “We recommend delaying planting following application of the dehydrated food waste byproduct to soils to allow sufficient time for decomposition to take place, in order to ensure that germination is not inhibited by the decomposition.”

The term, “dehydrated food waste byproduct” seems like a good description of the material produced by these units. I would not call it fertilizer, but gardeners use the term in a very general way to refer to anything that releases plant nutrients. Is an apple fertilizer? If you believe it is, than a dried apple is also fertilizer.

YouTube video

Eco-benefits of Electronic Composters

What can you do with food scraps?

You can compost them yourself and that is probably the best option. This can be either an outdoor compost system, vermicomposting, or even bokashi composting.

Another option is to send it to a municipal composting facility. This is also a good option especially if you don’t have a garden.

You can send it to landfill (ie throw it in the regular garbage). This is the worst option because organic matter in landfill can’t decompose anaerobically, and therefore produces methane gas, which is 25 times worse than CO2 for global warming.

Use an electronic composter. This is only eco-friendly if you don’t send the food waste to landfill because reducing its volume by drying does not reduce the amount of methane it produces in landfill.

Weight and Volume Reduction

The marketing material for this product makes a big deal about reducing weight and volume by 90%. My testing has shown that volume reduction is more like 75%, but that is not really the important point.

The food waste is reduced by weight and volume due to a loss of water. All of the organic matter that was there at the beginning, is still there at the end of the process.

In landfill, a whole apples produces just as much methane as a completely dried apple. Granted, a dried apples takes up less space for shipping to landfill.

The reduction in weight and volume is only a benefit if you are going to store the material. It does NOT help the environment, as is suggested by marketing material for these devices.

Personal Experience

A new company in this market space, Nagualep, sent me an electric composter for evaluation on my YouTube channel. This system seems to be well built, works quite well and is quiet. You could easily work beside it and not find it distracting. It lists for $700 but is available for $300 as an introduction to the North American market and has been selling well in Asia. It takes about 3.5 hours for a batch.

The manufacturer claims that “it is 100 times faster than traditional composting”. Well ….. yes it is much faster, but it does not compost anything.

How Should Dehydrated Food Waste Be Used?

It can be composted, added to a vermicompost bin, used as a mulch in the garden or added directly to soil. If you burry it, don’t plant seeds or seedlings above it right away. Allow a month or two for the composting to start.

I would not mix it into the soil used for potted plants in case the material robs nitrogen from the soil during composting. Using it as a mulch on top of the pots should be all right.

Another good way to use the material is in a Soil Factory, which I have discussed for Bokashi.

Are Electronic Composters Eco-friendly?

These units use about 1 kWh per cycle so the energy use is fairly small, but it is another product that needs hydro.

The unit also has to be made, packaged, and shipped around – that is never eco-friendly. Several of the brands suggest regular (every 6 months) replacement of expensive charcoal filters – more eco-waste.

To answer the eco-friendly question we have to compare options. We all make food waste, so what is the most eco-friendly option for dealing with it.

To be quite honest the best thing you can do is create less waste. I have looked at data that shows people create a huge amount of food waste. My wife and I almost never throw out left overs. Fruit and vegetables rarely go bad because we don’t buy an excess amount. Before you do anything else, produce less waste.

The second best thing you can do is compost, even if this means sending it to a municipal composting facility.

Is an electronic composter eco-friendly?

Here are my issues with it.

  1. It is expensive to buy.
  2. It takes up way too much room on a counter top.
  3. Making it, running it and disposing of it at the end of its life are not very eco-friendly.
  4. What are you going to do with the dehydrated food waste? If it is sent to landfill you have accomplished nothing for the environment. In fact, you have made it worse. If you add it to the garden, compost bin, or send it for municipal composting – you could have done that without an electronic composter.

I can think of only one scenario where an electronic composter is eco-friendly. If you don’t compost and you don’t have access to municipal composting, then an electronic composter makes sense provided you collect the dehydrated waste and give it to someone who can use it. Even spreading it in the woods is better than sending it to landfill, but that really should not be done.

This device may also be appealing to people who live in cold climates where they can’t compost in winter. You can use it in winter to dry the food scraps, store them dry and then compost them in summer. A more eco-friendly solution to this problem is a pail in the garage to collect the material in winter. Mine sits in an unheated sun room.

If I have missed an eco-friendly way to use the device, please describe it in the comments below.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

61 thoughts on “Electric Composters – An Eco Win or Unnecessary Appliance?”

  1. Currently in the UK, they give us free compostable bags for food waste

    I’m currently :
    Lining a small food waste bin with the compostable bag

    Putting food into there

    Once done, I’m putting it in our brown bin which takes food and garden waste. If the council ever gets rid of the free compostable bags, I may well go for the electric solution and then take that waste to my brown bin for food and garden waste, assuming that the price of electric composers comes down to under £100

    Otherwise, the compostable bags are cheaper to buy. I do also have some solar energy too, so I’ve got that to help me

    Reply
  2. Interesting article. It confirmed my skepticism regarding these products and their claims. Wasn’t quite sure what the products were actually doing to the food scraps but I was pretty sure no actual composting was involved. Now I know.

    Reply
  3. I was given one of these and, as a senior who cannot turn compost, I’ve found it useful. Now that I already have it, I can’t undo the environmental impact of its manufacture. But I’m interested in the comments above from those discussing alternative uses (such as making dog food or granola or possibly MREs) and would like to see you do an article considering these possibilities.

    Reply
  4. I am trying to figure out a composting system for my small apartment. I live in a northern climate and have no balcony, so it needs to be able to be indoors. I am converting my dining room into a hydroponic vertical garden and also seeing if I can grow root vegetables indoors year round in soil bags. I am trying to figure out what to do with the parts of the plants I don’t eat since there is no easily accessible municipal compost, and I’d like to generate compost for the soil based crops. I was considering an electric composter and found this article in my research, and now I am reconsidering as it seems expensive to dehydrate and mix food scraps.

    The other option I was considering is a countertop vermicomposter, but I am worried about smells and flies. Any suggestions?

    Reply
  5. Chemically defined, you can’t turn something organic to inorganic. Inorganic-the branch of chemistry concerned with the elements and all their compounds except those containing carbon. organic-noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon. dictionary.com

    Reply
    • Not sure what point you are making.

      “you can’t turn something organic to inorganic” is not true. You can turn protein into compounds including nitrate in for example composting. The protein is organic and the nitrate is inorganic.

      Reply
        • Wired review – “Lomi is a toaster-sized device”. I guess they never looked at the device – it is bigger than 3 toasters.

          They also say, “This tasty brew is quickly turned into a nutritious mix by fermentation. It is similar to the Bokashi process, which uses bacteria to break down food waste”. I don’t think the Reencle does fermentation. Bokashi is a fermentation process that takes more than a month and at the end of that cycle – food has not broken down. An orange is still an orange.

          The Wired review is terrible and basically just a click bait post. They want you to click on the link and order so they get a commission.

          I have had discussions with Reencle – they have no data to show their product composts and since their cycle is so short I am sure it doesn’t. When they say things like “Reencle takes from 2 hours to 24 hours to
          breakdown most of the food items.” on their web site – they are lying. They have never tested their products for composting.

          Reply
    • I guess that makes crude oil organic then, as it’s loaded with carbon molecules & thus the fertilisers made from it are OK to use by ‘organic’ producers…

      Reply
        • Indeed I did & intentionally so.
          Thus highlighting the unscientific nonsense promoted by certain parts of the ‘organic culture’ movement.
          If ‘chemically defined’ is the accepted standard in regard to farming & horticulture, then we’re ALL in deep do-do…

          Reply
  6. Thank you Mr Pavlis – I was curious about the nutrient value and I really appreciate having a view of the true end product. Also enjoying the rest of your site! I been saving some cash and started researching these devices as an option for my father who, due to hardship and early-stage dementia had to move to a mobile home park where composts are prohibited. They have strict rules to discourage the bears, deer, wild turkeys that roam around there, never mind rodents. Dad misses gardening and composting but has just a miniscule patch of lawn now. He tried a worm bin but there were several factors preventing success and he became too stressed. There’s no garage or any other space to spare for storage. Hopefully he will be able to advocate for reconsideration on the rules but it sounds like a futile political battle with the people involved. As a part-time novice farmer & gardener I too wince a bit when I read the less-than-accurate/over-simplified marketing, but clearly the community and commenters here are not the target demographic of the products. I must say in regards to a couple comments it’s not helpful to judge or generalize. Besides folks that aren’t permitted to compost, let’s also consider: city dwellers sharing 400sq ft suites and don’t own vehicles; mobility-challenged individuals; work-places which would have countless limitations/factors depending on their operation. About 40% of my city’s residents live in apartment buildings which the govt does not collect green-waste from. ‘Food-waste guilt’ may be real for some, but couldn’t we choose the perspective that people are searching for an option because they at least acknowledge there is an issue to be solved? Shaming people into adopting our values is rarely effective and sounds as self-righteous as whom we are calling out. Can we just focus on straight education like the article achieves? Personally, I’d gladly take dry food flakes from friends if they had a unit like this. I don’t have a vehicle or a budget for deliveries so I appreciate any free organic matter I can get for the garden-from-rubble heap I’m trying to transform. If it was dry it would be more reasonable to pack it on the bus. People could also drop-off to community gardens – we have those in many neighbourhoods; closer than the municipal facilities. I still have research to do to determine if I’ll get one of these gimmicks, but I’ll surely pass on this article so people have a more realistic expectation of them.

    Reply
  7. NaguaLep is terrible mine ia vroken and in warranty can’t get customer service they even blocked me.from.contacting them. Dont waste your money it will break and they dont care

    Reply
  8. Hi! I was thinking about if the dried foodwaste could be used in substitution of sawdust or coconut fiber on a composting toilet. What do you think about it?
    Also what I’m realising is that most of the said composting toilets don’t produce compost either, as the composting process would take a lot longer than it takes to fill it’s storage unit. My understanding is that I could mix de dried foodwaste with human waste and storage it for as long as 6-8 months to compost. My main worries are that I would be doing all this inside an apartment.

    Reply
    • Why add sawdust? I suspect that you add it to 1) absorb moisture and 2) to balance the high nitrogen waste being added.

      If that is true- the dried kitchen scraps may do 1 but not 2.

      Reply
    • Thanks – this was very informative and I have decided not to get an electric composter. I will say I was mostly interested because of the messy smelly food waste canister that I have on my kitchen counter. Emptying it can be an unpleasant chore. This seemed a nifty alternative which produced odorless compost I could then spread in the yard. So it wasn’t virtue signaling, but addressing an esthetic issue. Looking at the ads for these things I don’t think
      I was alone in this. But finding out this doesn’t compost killed the idea. Thanks for saving $350 for me!

      Reply
  9. Thank you for confirming what my basic knowledge indicated. These devices simply don’t compost anything, and there are factories and mines and block chains needed to put one on your counter, as a delusional antidote for your food-waste guilt.

    Reply

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