Compost solution for apartment living: Bokashi

Most people could reduce their landfill loads by half to three-quarters, just by taking up the compost habit.

What we send to the landfill is not necessarily waste, yet it is unnecessarily wasted. And why waste something as useful as organic matter by tossing it all away?

Composting reduces greenhouse gases

Keeping my food scraps out of the landfill prevents the release of methane, and allows me to put the nutrients (and carbon) back into the soil. Did you know that Canadian landfills produce a quarter of the country’s methane emissions? And did you also know that our current food systems rely heavily on fossil fuels? It takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food the way we’re doing things these days. That’s nuts.

It’s simple to compost in an apartment using the Bokashi method.

So now you’re convinced you want to start composting, but you’re living in an apartment and don’t know where to start. Probably because many of us associate composting with a yard or a garden. The great news for you is that it’s also surprisingly easy to do in an apartment. You don’t need worms, and you (sort of) don’t need an outdoor space – more on that later.

bokashi_inside

A Japanese method, Bokashi ‘pickles’ food scraps using a live bacterial culture. The bacteria breaks the scraps down into a digested pre-compost, which can be buried in a garden or a compost pile or left for months in its container until it can be given away.

It also overcomes some of the drawbacks of worm farms, which seem to be commonly recommended for apartment dwellers. Worm farms produce better fertilizer, but with Bokashi there is no pressure to ‘keep things alive’, which helps overcome the fear of Doing It Wrong that prevents many of us from starting in the first place.

Bokashi also takes a wider variety of food scraps, including cooked scraps, bones, dairy and citrus, which is extremely helpful if you are not only trying to compost properly yourself, but also train your housemates to do the same.

Why try Bokashi composting:

  • it takes almost any kind of food scraps
  • it’s done a sealed container and won’t attract bugs
  • there is little maintenance required – you can leave it full for months if you want
  • you don’t need worms
  • the bin can be kept inside

Getting started with Bokashi composting.

Step one – the inputs

The Bokashi bucket
A Bokashi bucket has an internal strainer and a tap at the bottom, both of which keep the goods dry and compressed to let the special anaerobic (yes, anaerobic) process happen. These are widely available online (now that you know to look). In spite of the relatively small size, one 19L bucket takes up to a month to fill up in my household of two adults.

I’ve tried Bokashi before with a simpler vessel – a bucket with a lid, but no tap – and missed out on some of the benefits. It was too awkward to drain, so I didn’t, and the contents became too wet and heavy to easily deal with. I’ll be honest – that effort did smell a bit.

The bacteria
The only other input for Bokashi is the bacterial inoculant, which often comes in bran or sawdust form. I sprinkle this on the scraps. My $10 bag will likely last me 3-6 months. I used to buy this from my favourite shop in Vancouver, The Soap Dispensary. In Sydney, I either order online and buy a few bags at a time, or in one of the shops I know that sells it.

You don’t actually need the bran. The scraps will start to ferment on their own, however, if the bin starts to smell, the bran and/or ensuring it’s drained, are two ways to troubleshoot.

Your food scraps
To use, just add your food scraps and sprinkle some Bokashi bran on top each time. You can add cooked or raw food scraps, citrus, dairy, etc. Your bokashi bin might just eat better than you if you are feeding it all this good stuff! Obviously food waste sucks, so don’t compost perfectly delicious leftovers, but what I’m trying to say is that Bokashi isn’t finicky and accepts these categories of foodstuffs.  You can add bones and meat as well, though I’d suggest avoiding large bones.

Step two – finding ways to give it away.

kale_garden

Assuming your apartment lifestyle allows you at most a small balcony garden, you’ll need to figure out where to give away the bulk of your Bokashi bin contents. You might keep some of the final output, but more likely you’ll be creating more soil enriching awesomeness than you can use. Here are some ideas for places to use your compost:

Feed the juice to your houseplants // The scraps drain excess liquid as they break down and produce a juice that I feed to my plants as fertilizer. I drain the juice from the bucket, dilute it, and feed my plants. If you make too much liquid (usually when the bucket is more than half full) the excess can safely go down the drain. If you don’t have houseplants, I suggest getting some.

Make a soil box // I’m working towards making my own soil with a ‘soil factory’, in which case I’d be converting the Bokashi into soil right on my balcony. True to form, I am waiting until I find a suitable container that is pre-used and possibly discarded in a curbside cleanup. The gist of the process is to mix regular soil with the Bokashi, cover with a layer of soil to avoid attracting flies, and wait a few weeks for the compost to become rich soil.

Offer to friends or family with gardens // If you have a network of people with yards, gardens, or regular compost bins – and these are good people to have in your life – start by asking them if they want high quality organic matter for their compost bins. A great leading question if there ever was one.

Connect with a community garden // If you can’t find a willing recipient in your own immediate circles, try visiting a community garden. Community gardeners will often happily accept your compost, since buying good quality soil gets expensive, and compost is an essential input for an organic operation. You don’t usually have to join a garden – just show up for a working bee.

Take advantage of council pick or drop off // Some savvy councils offer food scraps collection using the green bin, or community drop spots. When I lived in Vancouver, I would drop off my compost at the nearby farmers market. Here in Sydney, I’m currently alternating between giving to a community garden, and to a friend with an outdoor compost pile and garden.

Join a compost exchange network // I haven’t found one on the usual social networks, so I’m working on building a compost exchange network where neighbours can swap their scraps with others nearby. If you live in Sydney and want to get involved, please contact me!

Composting is an easy way to do a lot of good for society.  

If the worst waste of materials in our society is perfectly edible food, then the second worse waste must be the organic matter and food scraps that could have been recycled into the soil.

When we talk about cutting greenhouse gases, politicians drag their feet and tell us it will be expensive and difficult. In fact though, simple technology like composting can radically reduce the loss of valuable resources, mitigate greenhouse gases, and reduce or eliminate the need for chemical inputs to our growing soil. Maybe they just don’t know any better. (Wouldn’t be the first time…)

If you’re not already composting, I encourage you to start now. You’ll soon marvel at how infrequently you’ll need to empty the trash bin, as well as how amazing it feels to contribute to restoring the soil. Even if you’re not totally sure where you can donate it when you start, you’ll problem solve where to put it as you go – that’s what I did.

Waste-free shopping in Sydney

Bulk refill Sydney

I now keep a page for waste-free shopping in the Sydney area. You’ll find it over here

When I first moved to Sydney from Vancouver, I felt lost without my carefully cultivated go-to shops for refill and bulk goods. Luckily, the trend for unpackaged foods is catching on, and if you live in Sydney, there are now a decent number of shops where you can refill your nuts, grains, seeds, beans, spices, baking supplies, superfoods and many other edibles. Don’t forget personal and home care products – many of the shops below cater to the Zero Waste lifestyle more fully by offering a small selection of packaging free cleaners, soaps and shampoos.

The Source Bulk Foods
Various locations around the Eastern Suburbs, Inner West and North Sydney, as well as many others across Australia
thesourcebulkfoods.com.au

The source
image source: Instagram

The Source Bulk Foods started in Byron Bay and has expanded to over 20 locations and counting. They offer 400 bulk reasons to visit, including food, home and laundry.


Naked Foods
Various locations in Eastern Suburbs and Inner West, the Sutherland shire, and Canberra.
nakedfoods.com.au

This fast growing chain began as a market stall and now offers four storefront locations in NSW and ACT + continuing market appearances.  In Sydney, try Bondi Junction, Newtown, or Cronulla.

You’ll find (most) staples, including basic and speciality flours, grains and cereals, dried fruit, spices nuts, snack foods, oils and vinegars as well as more obscure ingredients that are a challenge to find unpackaged. I’m talking hemp hearts, chia seeds, spices rice pasta, vegan chocolate, bee pollen, and ahem, maple syrup. Also try their unpackaged soaps for home, body and laundry.


Scoop Wholefoods
Bondi Beach, Mona Vale, and Mosman
scoopwholefoods.com.au

Scoop Wholefoods Bondi

Another bulk food chain. They really do focus on foods – the only personal care item I found at the new Bondi shop was epsom salts. The stores are well-organized, with plenty of ingredients to inspire.


Alfalfa house
113 Enmore Road Enmore, Newtown
www.alfalfahouse.org

Alfalfa House

This cozy co-op has been in existence longer than I have, and offers a small selection of personal care and household cleaners. This is where I first met and fell in love with the humble coconut husk dish scrubby.


University of Sydney Food Co-op
Level 2 Wentworth Building, Corner of City Road and Butlin Avenue, Darlington
www.usydfoodcoop.org.au

I haven’t visited this co-op, but it sounds pretty perfect for those looking for organic and ethical foods, grains, spices and more in the Redfern area.


The Health Emporium
263-265 Bondi Road, Bondi
www.healthemporium.com.au

The Health Emporium is a health food store with a small, but good bulk section that focuses on mainstay nuts and grains. They have a small selection of soaps for home and laundry.


Energy Scoop
2/19  Victoria Avenue. Castle Hill, NSW
www.energyscoop.com.au

This place look awesome. They carry whole foods and the elusive bulk oils (jojoba, argan, rosehip, etc.).


Manly Food Co-op
21B Whistler Street, Manly
www.manlyfoodcoop.org

Picture a waste-free, bulk, not for profit supermarket in one of Sydney’s loveliest beach suburbs. It totally exists, it’s the Manly Co-op.


Sam the Butcher
129 Bondi Road Bondi, NSW, 2026
www.samthebutcher.com.au

Olive oil and preserved lemons on offer, as well as a range of biodynamic meats. Olive oil is refilled by volume (apparently this works out to the same as by weight), so just bring a container with one or the other listed.


Cha Cha Kombucha
Various markets (Bondi, Double Bay, EQ Village Markets)
www.facebook.com/CHACHAKombuchaSydney

You can return your Kombucha bottle for refill to their market stall, or refill around town at places like the Fruitologist on Bondi Road, where it flows from the tap. If you want to try making your own, $10 will get you your very own SCOBY (message Cha Cha a few days prior to arrange).


Perfect Potion
Various locations.
www.perfectpotion.com.au

Perfect Potion is a chain with a focus on aromatherapy. The goods are mostly packaged, but there is a small selection of body care ingredients like clays, cacao butter and beeswax that can be bought in your own container.


Dr. Earth
Various locations in Eastern Suburbs and Inner West.
www.drearth.com.au

While not necessarily a mecca of packaging-free goods, Dr. Earth is a place to find items like beeswax food covers and bamboo toothbrushes. Their Newtown store has a tiny bulk refill area for laundry powder if I recall correctly.


Toby and Rosie
Various Sydney markets
tobieandrosie.com.au

I met Toby at the Bondi Farmers Market, where he sells a variety of soaps (including shampoo bars), scrubs, and oils. He will refill essential oils upon request. Send him a note a few days prior to arrange with him. So far this is the only essential oil refill option I’ve found.


Flame Tree Co-op
1/374 Lawrence Hargrave Dr., Thirroul, NSW
flametreecoop.blogspot.com.au

You’ll find healthy, organic food with as little waste as possible at the Flame Tree Co-op. If you, like I did, stumble upon this place without your arsenal of refill containers – rejoice – for they have a pile of clean, donated jars to use, free of charge.

Bulk food, home and laundry supplies, as well as local food organic produce.


This not an exhaustive list, simply the places I know about. If you know of someplace good in Sydney, post in the comments below!


 

My perfectly imperfect reusable shopping bag.

I have a handful of reusable bags, but my most cherished is my large canvas tote bag.

It’s a little bulky by some standards, with its thick cotton construction, but it works perfectly for me. I can carry heavy things, sharp things, messy things and this bag doesn’t quit. A wash with the towels now and again keeps it looking tidy, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s a looker.

Now cotton has an extremely pretty poor supply chain, it’s true. Replacing all the plastic bags in the world with canvas 1:1 would be a poor solution. But that wouldn’t actually happen. I’ve used my canvas bag at least once a day, often twice a day for the past five years. That works out to around 2700 uses. Ergo, I have never thrown away my canvas bag.

The most important feature of my reusable bag is that it enables me to refuse single use plastics bags while shopping.

SRV_bag

A single use plastic bag and a durable reusable bag are barely even in the same category.

They have the same shape, and when reduced to a single transaction, may appear to accomplish the same thing (carrying goods) but after a few years of re-using my canvas bag, I realize they are not the same thing.

A single use disposable plastic bag is more akin to a fast food wrapper. Designed to be discarded.

Sure, single use plastic bags may be convenient on a basic, mindless level. But how sad that even though our society uses so many of them every day, they are essentially valueless. No one’s life is improved by the acquisition of yet another flimsy, noisy, soon-to-be-trash plastic bag.

They transition far too easily from bag to trash bin, or worse, beach. There is no consistent or ideal way to recycle them, and their flimsiness excuses them from any real expectation of reuse.

Plastic bags are also this perverse combination of fragility and indestructibility – only, they are so in the opposite way we actually need them to be. We’ve all felt the uneasiness of carrying a plastic bag that strains against its contents, threatening to bottom out. And when the time comes that we wish they would just go away and stop billowing out of our cupboards, they somehow inevitably escape and tumbleweed toward the waterways, for eternity, essentially.

My canvas reusable bag, on the other hand, is like a well-seasoned cast iron pan. I’m going to have it for a long time. I cherish it. I almost always carry it with me. It is a tool that helps me live a better life. It is invaluable. I am not trying to throw it away all the time.

There really is no perfect bag.

I’m open to the invention of a miraculous material that is lightweight, strong, and can be used once and responsibly discarded, with minimal environmental impact during resource harvesting, production and disposal, but I’m not holding my breath. Plastic isn’t it and neither is paper. Neither is bio plastic, for that matter.

So in the meantime, imperfect as it is, my cotton canvas bag is the best bag for me. I’ll use it over and over and over, and revel in its quiet strength.

If you’re using a bag that you don’t feel the need to throw away all the time, that’s really – if not a perfect solution – at least a great start. The key thing is to use a bag that you’d rather keep than toss.


 

You down with OPG? Why I break a trashy taboo.

Othe People's Garbage

“You’d better wash your hands after.”

My boyfriend has caught me acting trashy again.

I was snatching a wayward plastic cup from the sand after a surf. He, clearly, questioning our relationship.

He doesn’t love it when I touch Other People’s Garbage.

There is taboo attached to picking up someone else’s garbage. Oddly, more so than around the act of using a cup once and discarding it.

What I don’t bother explaining to him anymore, is that while this piece is someone else’s, it might as well be mine. I’ve made my share of trashy bits in my short life.

We’re all responsible when trash ends up on the beach.

It’d be easy to blame the volume of debris I find on run of the mill litterbugs or a handful of bad people. But there is too much of it. Gyres-full.

We’re all responsible.

Before it was trash and ewww, it was probably useful and convenient. It was a quick way to get a slushie without having to bring our own cup and reusable straw. An easy way to pack food to put in a pocket for a day on the slopes. A way to save time on cleanup after the party. Maybe it was your toothbrush.

toothbrush

Even if we don’t willfully throw things into the ocean, that’s somehow where a good proportion ends up.

It’s the flyaways that escape from the top of the overstuffed bin. It’s the random objects that fall out of car doors. The hat that blew into the ocean when the Southerly howled through. It’s the fin I snapped on a rock in Punta Mita and never could find. Anything in a storm drain’s path. So many ways. 

Much grosser things are in store for garbage that we don’t pick up.

Something else I think to say aloud, but don’t, is that touching Other People’s Garbage with my bare hands is probably slightly better than swimming through it face first, and far better than eventually eating it after it disintegrates, gets ingested by a fish, and swims through the food chain to end up on my dinner plate.

ocean trash
What’s for dinner?

Maybe worse – the fish doesn’t make it as far as my plate, because it died of starvation after feeding on bulky, yet nutritionally empty pieces of plastic.

Opting out of single use can feel like swimming upstream.

Our culture loves the convenience of ‘single use’, making it feel inconvenient to opt-out of this cycle. I know this because these days I try to live with the philosophy of Zero Waste.

This means I try to create as little unrecoverable waste as possible while living life normally in ever other way. I refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle and compost before I will resort to throwing something ‘away’.

I’m by no means always successful in avoiding the plastics, the packaging, and the unrecyclables. I have not achieved the elusive zero in Zero Waste.

Zero Waste is a practice, not a destination.

I recommit to it each day, and each time I go to the beach.

As part of my practice, I’ll keep picking up those reminders of my own trashy past – I’ll keep picking up Other People’s Garbage. Because whether or not it’s yours or mine or someone else’s, litter is an invaluable and tangible reminder that throwaway culture is a pile of rubbish.

As for my boyfriend? His protests are getting weaker all the time. And he wouldn’t tell you this himself, but I’ve seen him getting down with OPG.