Before and after Bokashi

The results of Bokashi composting are a thing of beauty. Dirty, microbial beauty. 

Learning about Bokashi composting was one of the turning points in my life. Overstatement? I don’t think so.

Bokashi composting has enabled me, apartment renter that I am, to easily reduce my waste by 80%, without having a garden or yard of my own.

Nothing else will have as large an impact on my efforts to live low waste as this. It’s also freed me from the idea that I urgently need my own yard to be able to compost.

Like most young people living in pricey cities (oh heeyy there Vancouver and Sydney), owning a detached home within, say, a two hour commute of my work in the city remains a dream unrealized. It’s not that I need a detached home per se. It’s that they usually come with the space to be able to compost and grow food.

When I lived in rentals with yards I would buy those big black composters – the kind subsidized by the city – and use them. I’d always associated composting with yards and big black containers.

Years later and back to apartment living, but still in my pre-Bokashi days, I had a small container and would frequently and furtively drop the scraps into my neighbours’ green bins. Vancouver had started food scraps pickup, but only for detached homes. A great initiative but it still left a gap for people like me. I could sneak around, but it was high maintenance to have to empty it all the time. If I didn’t take it out often enough, it would lead to smells, bugs and rightly so, accusatory glances from roommates.

Enter the Bokashi method.

Bokashi: the ideal compost for an apartment?

Bokashi gave me a level of control over my compost that nothing else can match. I could collect and hang on to scraps indefinitely if necessary, indoors, and in a way that didn’t smell or attract flies, and drop it off when convenient for me. I haven’t looked back.

Bokashi compost before and after:

Bokash compost before
Before: the scraps still look recognizable.
Bokash compost after
After: 2-3 weeks later, the worms are diggin’ it.

 

Bokashi helps me reduce my waste, obviously, but it also empowers me to be okay with where I am in life right now, which is in a small apartment with a small balcony. I can decide when to empty it, and that makes it a whole lot more doable.

Read my post all about Bokashi composting in an apartment to get started. See a roundup of my compost posts here.

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

What is bokashi?

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.

Bokashi overcomes some of the drawbacks of worm farms, which are commonly recommended for apartment dwellers. 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’re not only trying to compost properly yourself, but also train family or housemates to do the same.

Reasons bokashi is great for apartment living:

  • 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 the full bokashi bucket for months if you want
  • the bin can be kept indoors
  • it requires less frequent emptying because one bucket can collect massive amounts of scraps. In spite of the relatively small size, one 19L bucket can take 6 – 8 weeks to fill up in my household of two adults.

Getting started with bokashi composting.

Step one: set up your bin

A bokashi bucket has an internal strainer and a tap at the bottom, both of which are designed to keep the contents dry and compressed, two conditions we want with bokashi. The buckets are widely available online (now that you know to look) and in health food stores.

Early attempts at bokashi fermentation with a simpler vessel – a bucket with a lid, but no tap – didn’t work well for me. It was too awkward to drain, so I didn’t, and the contents became too wet and very heavy to transport. I’ll be honest – that effort did smell a bit.

To encourage fermentation, you can add bacterial inoculant, sometimes called Effective micro-organisms (or EM). This comes in bran or spray form. I sprinkle this on the scraps once in a while. A $10 bag lasts me 3-6 months. In Sydney, I either order online and buy a few bags at a time, or in one of the shops 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. If you mostly add cooked food, dairy or meat, you’ll need EM more than if you have a high proportion of raw scraps. UPDATE: I haven’t bought bran in several years and my bokashi works fine without it.

 

Step two: day-to-day use

 
To use your bokashi system, just add your food scraps and sprinkle some bokashi bran on top each time, or every other time (or don’t). You can add cooked or raw food scraps, citrus, dairy, bones, etc. Your bokashi bin might just eat better than you if you are feeding it all this good stuff! Obviously don’t compost perfectly delicious leftovers, but know that Bokashi isn’t finicky and accepts these things when you drag something forgotten out of the back of the fridge.

What I suggest to anyone starting with bokashi is to collect scraps on the counter in a small vessel, and empty once daily into the boksahi bin. If you’re using bran, you can sprinkle on just the once a day. You want to keep the bin sealed and the contents compacted.

When the bin is starting to fill, start to drain on occasion using the tap. This keeps the smell at bay and creates room into the bin for more scraps. White mould is a great sign.

Step three: dispose of your bokashi

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.

Bokashi is not quite compost, even after fermentation. It needs to be buried into soil or incorporated into an active compost pile. I’ve used both methods, and the mixture transforms into soil remarkably quickly. If you bury, the trick is to mix the bokashi with soil so that there is some soil in contact with the fermented food scraps. Then cover with 3 – 6 inches of soil to prevent the scent from bothering anyone (disposal is the only time I find bokashi to be a bit smelly). If you put in a traditional compost heap, plan to mix it in well, and cover with some browns (such as leaves or cardboard).

Here are some ideas for how to dispose of your bokashi bin contents:

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. UPDATE: I have tried this and found the scraps break down very quickly. However, ensure you have at least three inches of soil to cover the mixture, or you may attract soldier flies. Soldier flies are beneficial insects and they won’t invade your kitchen like houseflies, but some people may be offended by them.

Feed into a worm farm. It’s possible to feed your worms the fermented bokashi. In practice, I haven’t yet done this, as I could see it being a little messy, and I feed my worms the scraps they enjoy directly.  I know that worms eat bokashi because they devour the scraps that I bury in my small garden bed.

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. For a while I was burying my bokashi into my sister in law’s garden bed. She needed the extra organic matter and was happy to accept my bokashi.

Drop into a community garden’s compost pile. If you can’t find a willing recipient in your own immediate circles, try visiting a community garden. Community gardens will usually have one or more compost piles or bins. You don’t usually have to join a garden – just show up for a working bee. Each community garden will have a different policy on bokashi.

Use a council food scraps collection programs. Some savvy councils offer food scraps collection using the green bin or a separate food scraps bin. If they don’t yet offer it, let them know you are interested and would use the service if provided.

Join a compost exchange network. I started a compost exchange group where neighbours can swap their scraps with others nearby. UPDATE: there is now an app called Share Waste that lets you find locals with drop spots. The app works anywhere in the world, so sign up as a giver or receiver of compost and let’s help grow the movement.

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.