Composting can be a drag. As earth-friendly as it sounds, it’s not simple, where throwing your food into a garbage can is. You need to work at it—make a neat garbage pile in your yard, rake it all the time to aerate and prevent stinky and dangerous mold growth, and deal with vermin who see your heap as an all-you-can-eat buffet. AND, you have to be incredibly selective about what you throw in there. No meat or fish, no dairy products. And, please, with our tiny Japanese living quarters, who can fathom it being practical? Those fancy electronic composters look amazing, but they are insanely expensive, and certainly doing no good for your carbon footprint. And then what are we supposed to do with the soil? When I first moved to Japan, as much as I wanted to commit myself to a zero-waste lifestyle, all of these problems seemed unsolvable, so I resigned myself to freezing my food garbage and tossing it with the burnable trash on trash day—something my family in Hawaii has done for a long time to prevent bugs and odors. But it was still such a waste! And my tiny freezer quickly became an unfriendly environment for ice cream storage.
This was until I discovered Bokashi. It is absolutely magical. It is compact, virtually odor-free, detracts vermin from coming near your home, it’s clean, cheap and practically effortless. And it makes plants grow like crazy. I hardly believed such a miraculous product could exist.
Bokashi was developed here in Japan and has blown up in the States and elsewhere over the last couple of years. It utilizes a “secret blend” of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria mixed with wheat germ to ferment food in a process the Western world calls “pickling.” This pickling smell is not attractive to pests, yet will not terrorize your apartment if maintained correctly. The fermentation happens in small buckets that are fitted with airlocks and spigots, so that the gases and fluids that occur from the fermentation process can be released simply and cleanly.
What it can compost
Bokashi is unique from other composting methods for many reasons, but the biggest difference is that with Bokashi, some of traditional composting’s taboo items can be broken down safely.
Do Bokashi: Fruits and veggies of all sorts; eggshells; small amounts of meat, cheese, newspaper and oil; meat bones cut into small pieces; hair (human or not); nail clippings; paper towels, napkins, and tissues; coffee grounds and filters; tea bags cut open; small pieces of untreated wood, like toothpicks
Don’t Bokashi: animal or human waste; large amounts of fatty or liquidy foods; food that has blue, green or black mold growing on it; all other types of paper; whole, wet tea bags
How it works
1. Get your Bokashi bucket (though I recommend getting 2) and a bag of inoculated grain (usually found under or beside the buckets—it’s pretty obvious which ones they are. See photo). Put the grain in a non-airtight storage container, like a plastic jar, so you don’t kill the aerobic bacteria. Also recommended is a plastic storage box with a lid for creating soil—this is called the “soil factory.” Keep it outside or on your balcony. All of these items are available at every Home Center Daiki, Co-op Days department store, and likely elsewhere.
2. Pour a small amount of grain onto the floor of the bucket.
3. Throw in your food scraps.
4. Sprinkle a little grain over your fresh food scraps; though throw in a little extra over thick scraps like citrus peels. A heaped tablespoon is usually enough for about 3 cups of scraps.
5. Close the lid tightly.
6. Repeat steps 3-5 with all of your food scraps.
7. At least twice a week, open the spigot and drain the “compost tea” liquid. It can be a bit smelly, so you can throw it out if you like, but it makes for a potent plant fertilizer, so get some window plants and throw it on ‘em!
8. Once your bucket is completely full and packed tightly with waste, keep it closed for at least two weeks and continue draining the tea. If you have a second bucket, use it to start over at step 1.
9. After two weeks, throw the Bokashi from the first bucket into the soil factory, mixing it with a few handfuls of dirt and dried leaves, and leave it alone. Pillbugs and beetles will find their way in there to help out. In a couple of months, you will have beautiful, nutrient rich soil!
To be REALLY zero-waste about it….
You can even make your OWN Bokashi inoculant!! The recipe is allegedly a trade secret, but word has spread. Here’s a recipe using newspaper, and here’s one using bran or sawdust. It’s not that hard, especially if you already make your own yogurt!
– Keeping the Bokashi mix dry is extremely important. If you want to throw in anything like tea or pumpkin innards, it’s good to give them time to dry out. A wet environment encourages the growth of black, blue, and green mold, which will ruin your Bokashi and make it stink to high heaven. Dry out your foods well ahead of time, and make sure to empty the compost tea frequently.
– A small window spice garden is really great for reducing plastic waste from wrappers and for improving air quality, but if you’re not into gardening but don’t want to waste the soil, consider giving it to a neighbor! It’s a great chance to get to know people in your neighborhood.
– On the other hand, if you are into gardening, and a simple window box won’t suffice, try applying for a plot in one of your city’s neighborhood gardens. The annual fee is usually 10,000 yen or less, and many have tool sheds (and some even have showers!) for you to use at your disposal. Click here for a list of all of the contacts for community gardens in Hyogo.
Win a Bokashi Bucket Contest: EXTENDED
In last month’s column, I encouraged readers to try going combini-free for a week, and email me about your experience. Results were…. less than enthusiastic. However, I think that after reading this month’s article, Bokashi may have sparked your interest, so the contest is being extended! Email me by February 28th with your combini-free story, and you will be entered in a chance to win a Bokashi setup kit—one Bokashi bucket and a bag of inoculated grain. Good luck and happy composting!