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.

12 thoughts on “Compost solution for apartment living: Bokashi

  1. Hi Liz,
    If you couldn’t find anywhere to put the Bokashi bin contents do you know if emptying the full Bokashi bucket into your normal rubbish bin would help reduce CO2 emissions in landfill by inoculating the waste around it?
    Best regards.
    Lorne

    1. Hi Lorne,

      That’s a really interesting question and one I hear asked often. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t reduce CO2 since the conditions in landfill are different to that in a commercial composting facility. This is why organics rot in landfill and generate methane. The other point I’d make here is that even in a healthy compost bin, contaminants like plastic and even so called eco-plastic barely break down in tests that I’ve heard of or tried myself.

      Cheers and happy composting.
      Liz

  2. Just came across your blog while searching Google … I’m also from Vancouver and now in Sydney! We have a large patio garden (but in a townhouse-type apt), so while there’s room for a bit of soil it’s not a lot of space. I just started bokashi-ing 4 months ago – it’s gone well. Except I’ve been dumping my full Bokashi bins in a large plastic bin from Bunnings, which i thought was sealed tightly. It’s not as tight as I’d hoped, and in the final stages of it sitting outside (mixed with soil) it appears to have attracted a bit of flies. I dug a large hole and dumped the contents (after 3 months) in the ground. It has broken down nicely – looks entirely like dirt. But it’s drawing a crowd of flies during the day, when the sun is out! What gives? Do you have any suggestions? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hello to a fellow Vancouverite!

      Before my tips, I should mention there are different kinds of flies. Black soldier flies (larger size and longer wings) are actually excellent ‘pests’ because they help with the composting process and don’t invade the house like houseflies. If you have black soldier flies, their presence will deter the other kind of flies, the dreaded houseflies. That said, I know that any flies are iffy when neighbours are close by, so I do have some tips. I’ve been through exactly the same experience as you.

      Before burying, make sure to drain the juice, which is the major source of smell, and what I think attracts pests. This would be especially true in a box where the juice won’t be able to seep away to deeper ground. Then, when you dig the whole, allow for 3 – 6 inches of soil to cover. I think the way I learned it was 6 inches. In the winter I’m laissez faire, but in the summer I make sure there is lots of soil coverage. The time I used a soil box and attracted the soldier flies (the good ones, but still flies), I’d used barely enough soil to cover. I also sometimes cover with pieces of cardboard and a hessian sack on top of the soil layer (If you don’t like the look, you can layer them lower down and use soil overtop. These will break down in the garden and the worms that live in my bed eventually eat them. Allpress and many other roasters will give hessian sacks away free or Reverse Garbage sells them for a gold coin. When you bury, you also want to churn or mix the bokashi contents into the soil before you cover with more pure soil. If you do that, the bokashi disappears in just weeks (in my case, doing a similar process).

      I’m not too sure why your patch is attracting flies after the compost process is complete, but it probably means the soil is full of life. If it were me, I’d use some other soil from a different part of the planter and mix it up to dilute all that goodness. When I started burying in my back planter, I had dirt, not soil, and now it’s incredible to see how much biological activity there is. I buried a pair of denim shorts and the microbes and worms ate them in no time!

      Sounds like you have the right approach. I hope some of these tips help you get the most out of your bokashi system : )

  3. Thanks for writing this article.
    I’ve just returned back to Melbourne after 1.5 years living in Canada. I was impressed by the waste management of BC and like the fact that composting was nationwide. We Aussies have much to catch up. It was so convenient having curbside/council compost service.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. I left Vancouver just as the region was implementing widespread composting, and coming to Sydney felt like a step backwards. Thankfully even in the last couple of years I’ve seen dramatic infrastructure improvements from the state government to expand problem waste collection, and more action from local government to bring in kerbside food scraps collection. I’m feeling optimistic 🙂

  4. Thank you for the article! I want to start composting and after much research, the bokashi method seems like the best way. I just had the revelation to compost now (which is at the end of September) and am wondering if I would be able to store the compost (and how I would do it) during the winter. I also have plants and assume that I can use some of the compost for planting new ones but I live in a house with many people (I am one of 5 daughters) and the only reason I am concerned about starting to compost is the amount of excess compost I will have. In the summer, I should be able to use this but the winter will be hard and I want to help reduce my carbon footprint.

    Thank you and I hope to receive a reply soon!

    1. Hi Elise,

      Well done you. Keep in mind that with bokashi you don’t end up with compost. You get a sort of pre compost, which needs to be buried or added to a hot pile to break down into something you can add to plants.

      Do you have access to some green space where you could start an outdoor compost or bury it? Or do you have anyone with a yard and compost where you could periodically drop off.

      For such a big household, you will probably create lots of scraps. I am from a big family too 🙂 Bokashi night be more tricky to manage as the buckets are on the smaller side.

      Liz

  5. Hello Liz, Great blog thank you! I live in an apartment and have some small garden beds around but not big enough to bury my production of bokashi! I am interested in the soil factory option, and wondered what size of box would be needed for this? I have also been wondering about setting up large wooden garden boxes along the side of my parking space, and was thinking that burying bokashi in soil in these before the start of winter might mean I have great fertile beds in the spring for planting? What do you think?

    1. Hi Katy, I think you could definitely manage with your idea of using beds along the side of your parking space. I’ve used relatively small ‘soil factories’ in the past (an IKEA Sortera bin). I currently bury a 20L bin into my back raised garden bed area every month or two and it’s surprisingly quick to decompose, aided by the worms that find their way in. Make sure the bokashi is mixed with some of the soil, not just sitting in a clump and buried. Would love to hear how you go.

  6. Hi Liz this is truly helpful. I’ve been experimenting ways to recycle my food waste as our council does not offer it in our area. I’ve tried wormbins but are too sensitive, so basically I failed. I live in central London tower block without access to garden or soil of any kind. I’m intrigued by your soil factory and have some questions. Firstly, when you empty the contents of the bokashi bin into the ‘soil box’ and cover with 3 inches of soil, do you put a lid on or just open as it is? and how often do you stir? Thank you very much. Hope to hear from you soon.

    1. Hi Chezka,

      Since writing this I’ve come across a very intriguing indoor compost method explained here by Hiroko Tabuchi in the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/19/burst/compost-box-indoors-coronavirus.html I haven’t tried it myself but perhaps it could work for you?

      I think the soil box with bokashi could be a bit much for indoors, but I could be wrong. I had my experimental soil box in an IKEA sortera box with the hinged lid. Not airtight and as it was stored outdoors it attracted some soldier flies (which do not bother people like house flies). My process was to add the bokashi, mix it with some of the soil and then cover. I didn’t stir any more after that. If you’ll be attempting this indoors, I would suggest starting with a small bokashi bin that you limit to raw veg and fruit and avoiding things like cooked food scraps.

      Good luck and would love to hear how you go.

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