Composting was never difficult in the States. The university where I lived and worked had three composting sites: a small one outside my apartment complex, a medium-sized vermicompost pile outside of the greenhouse where I worked, and a gigantic pile where we regularly dug large holes during the summer months to pour in rotting produce salvaged from the farmers’ market. Each week, I would collect a large bowl worth of banana peels, carrot ends, onion skins, and other food scraps to bury in one of the piles on campus. Composting was part of my job and homelife, and I loved it.
Before reading Eliot Coleman’s book Four Season Harvest, composting was another way in which I could do my part to help the earth, a way to actively love my neighbor. It was fun to turn the piles and marvel at the black crumbly soil that stood in place of the rotting produce that had been buried there a year before. After reading the book’s chapter on composting however, I began to feel a deep reverence for the practice. In quoting poets, Coleman somehow transcendentalizes composting, elevating the process to encompass life itself:
Gardeners are not alone in their reverence for compost. Poets have found it equally inspiring. Andrew Hudgins, in a poem titled “Compost: An Ode,” refers to the role of the compost heap in uniting life and death: “a leisurely collapsing of the thing into its possibilities.” John Updike reminds us that since “all process is reprocessing,” the forest can consume its fallen trees and “the woodchuck corpse vanish to leave a poem.” Walt Whitman marvels at how composting allows the earth to grow “such sweet things out of such corruptions.”
When we arrived in Korea, we realized that composting would be a challenge. The quick industrialization of Korea left little space for compost piles in the cities, where high rises take precedence. In place of the convenient compost piles we were accustomed to, we were informed that we needed to purchase small pink plastic bags for our food waste so that it could be separated from other trash during garbage collection. We were told that Korea used a portion of this waste to make food for farm animals and to make fertilizers. We had our doubts and concerns.
For one, the meat and dairy products are not separated from the other food waste. If this is used to make food for farm animals, then pigs and cows are inevitably consuming their own meat – a recipe for disease that we do not support in the States, either. Secondly, because of a lack of enforced regulation as to what can be put in the pink bags, any sort of contaminated food or pesticide-ridden produce can make its way into the animals or the “fertilizer.” Although some disease can be removed by composting with high temperatures, we are not sure how Korea’s large-scale composting system is regulated, and where the fertilizer is used. We do know, however, that much of the waste water from large-scale “composting” is flushed into the ocean. Ocean pollution should never be an outcome of composting. Finally, we discovered that leftover food in general is, at times, dumped into the ocean.
The bottom line: when something that is supposed to be done on a small, community-scale is broaden to a much larger initiative, sometimes many values and benefits slip through the cracks, creating larger problems. That is not to say that Korea’s trash disposal system is all bad – in fact, I applaud the country’s commitment to recycling and their research in engineering biogas, although this has proved seemingly fruitless thus far.
So how does one dispose of their food waste responsibly while living in a tiny apartment?
Many apartment dwellers would love to compost, but believe that they must wait until they own a home with lots of backyard space. But why should homeowners have all the fun? While I do dream of one day going to my future home’s backdoor and adding the day’s kitchen scraps to my backyard compost pile, apartment renters can have the same satisfaction that comes from composting, regardless of space or land privileges, and free of worry concerning unpleasant odors.
The answer is bokashi, an anaerobic Japanese composting technique that requires little effort and is inexpensive. Back home, my greenhouse colleagues and I did a couple of experiments with bokashi, but I never gave it a second thought given the blessing of convenient access to composting sites. The best thing about bokashi composting is the little time it takes for your food waste to breakdown.
Here’s how to practice bokashi composting in your apartment:
Purchase your bokashi bran – a wheat that has been inoculated with helpful microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast (this is a dry mixture). The bran is relatively inexpensive, and most bolkashi sites offer free shipping within the U.S. A word on ordering from bokashi sites: don’t be led to purchase composting “sets,” as they typically overcharge for several unnecessary plastic containers. We picked up the container we use for bokashi for $6.
Choose an air-tight, plastic container that will be used only for your bokashi composting, with a way to remove unnecessary liquid. This keeps your compost healthy and makes it easy to collect your compost tea – more about this later. Although most bokashi sites sell special bokashi “bins” with spigots to drain your container of unnecessary liquid, you could find your own for much cheaper, or even use a large salad spinner with a well-fitted lid. We use a container that has a slightly smaller colander compartment inside. The size of your container depends on you, and your space limitations. I don’t recommend a bucket larger than 5 gallons, however, as the food waste could get heavy and difficult to move and maintain.
Collect your kitchen scraps and place them in your bokashi bucket, alternating layers of food waste and bokashi bran. You can add vegetable and fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, and paper products, as well as meat, dairy, breads and cooked food. Avoid food that contains lots of liquid – you may have to squeeze excess liquid off. Excess liquid can drown your microorganisms. Each time you place scraps in the bucket, sprinkle a small handful of bran on top. You don’t need much, just enough to barely cover it.
Each time you add to your bucket, press the scraps down firmly to press out extra liquid, release any oxygen in your mixture, and give you more space in your bucket to add scraps. If you just add to your bucket every few days, you will notice space gained by pressing down on your mixture – your bokashi has been hard at work to breakdown the food waste. Of course, if you add food nearly each day, your bucket will fill much more quickly.
The brown liquid that collects in the bottom compartment of the container is fine to stay there, as long as it remains separate from your food waste. When removing the liquid, don’t throw it away! What you have on your hands is a lovely plant food, created effortlessly. Dilute one ounce of the liquid into a gallon of water to use it as a compost tea.
When your bucket is full – leave a few inches of space from the top – put a larger handful of bran on top of the last scraps added and leave your bucket alone for about two weeks. Don’t open your bucket during this time. My husband and I keep two containers designated for bokashi, so when one is full, we can begin filling the next one while we wait. If after two weeks, the food is still somewhat intact, add a little more bran, put the lid back on and leave it alone for another week. Your food should be partially broken-down, and ready to be disposed of – more on that in a bit.
But what about the smell?
I can hear it now: I don’t want to open that bucket after a week! Can you imagine the foul odor?! Your compost bucket will not smell like rotting food, because it’s not rotting. Instead, bokashi ferments and breaks down the kitchen waste through yeast and helpful bacteria, yielding a pleasant yeasty-fermented scent, like baked bread mixed with pickles. In fact, if your bokashi compost does smell like it’s rotting, that is a sign that more bran is needed in your bucket.
Another sign that you need to use more bokashi is mold. White, fluffy mold (like dandelion seeds) is a sign that the microorganisms are actively breaking-down the food waste, but dark, chalky mold is a sign that you should dump the contents, start over, and maybe add a bit more bran next time.
As a precaution against mold, you should never put food that is already rotting or moldy in your bokashi bucket.
How should I dispose of my bokashi compost – I’m in an apartment, remember?
Glad you asked! Here are some things that you can do with your food waste once it has been partially broken-down with bokashi:
- Give the contents of your bokashi container to a friend with a compost pile. This may seem to be counter-productive: why not just give your friend all of your food waste in the first place? Most people do not want to store a stinky container with food waste in their apartment, much less drive it to their friend’s house every week with the container in tow. Plus, gardeners with smaller compost piles would not want them to become overloaded each week. With bokashi composting, you only need to worry about disposing of it as often as the size of your container demands. In my two-person household, I have to dispose of my container’s (it holds six liters) contents every 3-4 weeks. Also, with bolkashi you can add meat and dairy to your bucket, something that many gardeners cannot add to their traditional compost piles. Just make sure that your food waste has been well fermented before you add it to your friend’s compost. Bokashi compost can even be added to vermicompost piles (our worms in the States loved it).
- Don’t have gardening friends? Make calls to local farms – many would be happy for the donation!
- After allowing two or more weeks for your food waste to breakdown, take a small amount of the waste (it should be well broken-down for this) and add some soil to the mixture. Wait a few weeks until all of the food waste has vanished, leaving behind a rich, black dirt: potting soil for your houseplants!
- Bury it in small hole in a wooded area or an unused lot, as I do. Another two or three weeks in the ground and your food waste will be no more.
- As an absolute, final resort, there is always the trash bin. While I am not an advocate for this, at least the amount of food thrown away is being minimized through bokashi composting.
For fellow apartment dwellers without access to compost piles, I hope that you have found this post helpful and are encouraged to try this composting method. If you already practice bokashi composting, feel free to share your tips and suggestions in the comment section below.
We are doing the best we can when we are striving to do better.