Upping the Appeal of Countertop Composting

Composting is great, but can the bin look a little better?

By Kristin Belz January 29, 2012


A 1940s vintage West Bend Penguin Hot and Cold Server would be a great keeper of compost on the counter – before it gets to the official City of Portland beige plastic (under sink?) bin.

We’re doing it: we’re adapting to tossing it all into the kitchen compost pail. “Include the food,” as the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability smartly puts it. Will do; we’re all for it. But the beige compost bins they gave us all, gratis, are…well…I suppose looks aren’t everything.

But really: can there be a countertop composting option that is attractive and even cute, or classy – or at least not boringly beige plastic? The city’s bin is great for under the sink or on the floor. Perhaps a two-pronged approach is best: beige bin down low, outta sight, ready for plate scraping clean-up, but during the cooking process, a countertop-worthy pail that you can easily drop your scraps into?

There are many options for compost bins that can sit on the countertop without wrecking the look of your kitchen. One solution is the little ceramic mini-trashcan, in white. Not bad looking, and yet – they are shaped like trashcans. Is there something more appetizing?

I vote for cookie jars and ice buckets. They are made to be on tables and countertops, not in mudrooms or under sinks. They have lids, and in the case of ice buckets, insulation. Some of them even look really cool.

Use your imagination and follow your taste (so to speak) when choosing a cookie jar for composting. Mine is yellow ceramic with a bright green and blue ‘60s-style flower. Just make sure the kids know which is for compost and which is for cookies. (Or mix it up and fill a jar with Christina Tosi’s Compost Cookies).

A swankier solution is the ice bucket, with its allusion to cocktail culture and sophistication. One friend suggests the “penguin” style chrome-plated ice bucket popular in the 1940s ‘til the ‘70s or so. They can be found on e-bay (or grandma’s attic if you’re lucky), and were manufactured by the West Bend Aluminum Company of West Bend, Wisconsin, starting in about 1941. With their rotund shape and Bakelite or wood curving handles, they had a vaguely penguin-profile that matched the incised penguins parading in a row around the top of the bucket.

It turns out the small Wisconsin town of West Bend was a center of aluminum cookware manufacturing through much of the 20th century. Regal Ware was the other big cookware company back in the manufacturing golden age. Now the town boasts the Regal Ware/West Bend Museum, which includes in its collection the Penguin Hot and Cold Server. Brooklyn cocktail blogger Robert Simonson has a good history of the penguin bucket and the West Bend Aluminum company that made it; Kathy Flanigan writes up the Museum for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

All in all, the Penguin ice bucket is a swanky mid-century design that would be a swell-looking holder of 2012’s squash skins and apple cores. Beige under the sink, Penguin proudly on the counter. It’s all good.

More info on Penguin Hot and Cold Servers: when I checked online, e-bay had several ($10-$24), as did Tipp-eclectics Unique Antiques & Collectibles ($22).

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