That time I started a compost exchange

I bang on a lot about compost because I want to make it the norm.

Composting isn’t just for people with gardens or yards, but for everyone – even those of us living in small apartments in big cities. 

Yet barriers remain.

Most people probably know that if you have a yard, to compost is pretty simple. Local councils often even offer training and discounts on equipment. Your scraps simply go from house to yard for recycling. Easy.

Ostensibly, these council offerings are meant to help apartment dwellers join the compost party too. And the collecting of scraps is pretty straightforward, even in an apartment. So far so good.

But ummmm, soooo, what are those of us who live in units to do with the compost after we’ve collected it?

We might not have or want a garden. We may simply want to compost food scraps because it’s the right thing to do; Organics recycling is this unicorn-like activity that manages to both reduce methane in landfill and also sequester carbon. 

For the solution-minded amongst us, the question becomes, how could we make it easier for people living in apartments to participate?

We have some choices here – we could ask our government to do it for us (and likely wait a while) or we could be resourceful and ask ourselves how we can do something about it today.

I’ve decided on the latter. My solution has been to start a compost exchange here in Sydney.

I might be glorifying it a bit, since for now it’s simply an open Facebook group, but it’s the first step in addressing what I think is a big problem / opportunity – unit dwellers shut out of organics recycling.

The goals of the compost exchange are to:

  • connect people who live in apartments, like me, with others who would accept their food scraps.
  • encourage acceptance of organics recycling as an essential part of modern urban living.
  • help make composting more accessible and less mysterious to all.
  • promote knowledge of alternative composting methods, like the Bokashi method.
  • spark conversation around the waste we make and the systems designed to manage them.
  • be a local, free, people-powered solution to the issue of soil degradation.
  • enable community interactions between a diverse group of people.
  • empower action on reducing our carbon footprints, today, without waiting for government to act for us.
  • act as a gateway drug to urban food growing.

If you’re in Sydney, will you join the group?

Another time, I will tell you the story of my first compost ‘transaction’.

What I compost using the Bokashi method

Apartment composting using the Bokashi method is flexible and convenient because it can handle a wider variety of food scraps than some other forms of compost.

Here are the basics materials that go into my Bokashi compost bin:  
  • fruit and vegetable scraps (seeds, skins, etc.), including citrus
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds
  • cooked food (such as the scraps from making broth)
  • meat and fish scraps (including smaller bones)
  • paper products (napkins, paper towels, newsprint, masking tape)
  • tea bags (except synthetic bags, which I avoid)
  • bread
  • dairy
  • flowers
  • Small pieces of wood, such as wooden skewers, and handles from bamboo toothbrushes.
What don’t I compost?
  • bio plastics. I avoid these wherever I can.
  • large bones

Bokashi vs worms

I choose the Bokashi method over a worm farm for a few reasons, but chiefly because it is simple to manage and explain to others, because it has fewer no-nos. Example: Worms apparently don’t like citrus or onions, of which I am a frequent eater. Interestingly though, when I bury my Bokashi at my sister-in-law’s place – citrus, onions and all – the worms get fully amongst it. Maybe no one told them? Have a peek at some before and after shots of the Bokashi compost method to see.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about why I choose the Bokashi method for composting in a small apartment, and what you’ll need to get started.

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

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.