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The A to Z of Bokashi - the Japanese approach to composting

Climate Action Newcastle member Mark Warner describes what it’s like using the Bokashi system. It worked for him - and the planet!

Composting comes in many forms - many people know about compost bins, but far fewer have encountered the use of the Bokashi system. About a year ago I decided to give it a go to see if me, my wife and two kids could jump the final hurdle in our battle against food waste.

Before Bokashi

We used to have the typical kitchen set-up - a big bin with black bin liners for general non-recyclable waste and food, then a separate box/bag for recyclables. For several years, I tried to work out a better solution, both environmentally and practically, for our non-recyclable waste. The problem with the big bin system was, when food waste was added, more often than not, it got too smelly before it was even full (especially in warmer months). It became a battle of wills whether to empty it half full (wasting the capacity of the bin liner, plus the money from buying more black bags) or whether to let it fill up as the food slowly rots, waking up in the morning to that cloud of rotten veg smell (as my eldest, aged 8, would say - smells like someone has done a massive fart in here dad, was it you?) ...

For me, the whole waste disposal system never worked.

It always annoyed my ‘design solution’ brain and I wanted something better – practicality-wise, cost-wise and for the planet – in order to reduce the use of plastic bin liners and the methane from landfill.

Some solutions we tried

  • Re-using single use carrier bags from supermarkets - cheap but didn’t store much, sometimes had holes in so they would leak, more regular visits to wheelie bin - still plastic!

  • Cheaper thinner bin liners - less plastic overall, a bit smaller, but tended to be weak/split, still got to keep buying them.

  • Cardboard boxes - didn’t always have one around, no good for food waste as gets soggy etc.

  • Recycled black bags - lots are poor quality, too thin, too big overall, a lot of wasted capacity emptying half full, still got to keep buying them.

  • Biodegradable bin liners - different levels of ‘biodegradable’, pointless if still using with a green wheelie bin going to landfill, some only biodegrade in commercial composters anyway (need lots of heat), a lot more expensive.

  • Emptying all waste directly into the wheelie bin, cutting out the need for any ‘bin bag’ in between - cheap, no need for any bags, it separated the food waste from other non-recyclables so solved one bit of the problem with bins smelling, still needed a container to collect bits of food waste in the kitchen first - this would still need emptying daily to stop it going smelly and then just passed the smell to the wheelie bin, nearly the perfect solution.

How I discovered Bokashi

It was the getting lost down the rabbit hole of biodegradable bin liners then direct waste to the wheelie bin that led me to Bokashi. Researching what ‘biodegradable’ actually is and how it works (or, more often, doesn’t work in real life) led me to go right back to ‘the problem’: mixing food waste with non-recyclables and all of this going off to landfill. I found shocking statistics about the length of time it takes for food to decompose in landfill when it’s surrounded by a plastic bag (whether it’s recycled, biodegradable etc.) and other non-decomposing items, so removing the bin liners altogether was one part of the solution. However, that still doesn’t help that much, because the food gets trapped and this is what leads to all the leaking methane. Added to this is the cost of transporting all this waste to landfill too - a part of the equation often overlooked.

I’ve always had a background knowledge of composting, as my mum did it a bit when I was growing up. However, I thought it needed a garden, a space for a big compost bin and a lot of time and dedication to keep it working, not to mention it being limited in what waste it could use. My research on what biodegradable actually means and how it works, along with collecting our food waste in a little pot, reminded me of composting as a potential solution. I began scouring websites and ‘digging around’ to see if anything had changed in 20-odd years. Was there new technology that could help? Something I didn’t know about that could help people living in apartments, flats or smaller houses with just a back yard? Something that was able to cope with ‘real life’ food waste too, not just vegetable scrapings, but the half-eaten sausage the kids leave behind or the bone from a chicken drumstick?

Lo and behold, there was this perfect solution – it really seemed far too good to be true. It was called Bokashi.

I still spent a good few weeks researching in my spare time; I watched videos on the Wiggly Wigglers website about how it works and watched YouTubers reviewing it. I still didn’t properly trust it - if it was this good, why wasn’t everyone using it? Why weren’t local authorities dishing out advice about this or even giving out Bokashi bins? The only way to know for sure was to give it a try.

What is Bokashi?

When I first found Bokashi, I have to admit I was quite confused. I thought it was something magical to do with the caddy bin that you collect your food waste in, but the real magic is in the ‘bran’ that you use to sprinkle over the food waste. The bran itself just acts as a medium to carry the good bacteria that breaks down all the food waste through fermentation. Essentially, it’s a pickling process, which prevents the release of harmful gases from the food breaking down and can then go on to be used directly in a garden, planters or in a more traditional compost bin.

How do you do it?

I’ll keep it simple, because it really is simple:

  1. Get a suitable Bokashi caddy - one that is completely air tight and has a drainage tap. I bought a duo pack from Wiggly Wigglers for £75 (see below for why you might buy two).

  2. Throw all your food waste in - literally everything: dairy, meat, fish, bones, vegetables.

  3. Sprinkle a little bit of your Bokashi bran over the food, just a thin smattering is fine.

  4. Tamp down the food - the idea is to remove as much air as possible, and put the lid on, making sure it’s fully sealed.

  5. Keep adding food. For every 3-4cm of food waste, add a generous sprinkle of bran.

  6. Drain the caddy every once in a while. I attempt to drain mine about once a week. Sometimes a lot comes out, sometimes a dribble.

  7. Use the ‘pickle juice’ or 'tea' that is produced. I pour mine down my drains (it’s fantastic for keeping them running clear and free from smells) or you can dilute it with water 1:100 to use as a fertilizer for house or garden plants as it's full of good stuff.

  8. When the bin is completely full (mine takes about 2-3 months usually) you then leave it to fully ‘pickle’ over 2-3 weeks before being able to ‘use’ it (see the 'post-bokashi' section below)

Real Life Practicalities

Since living with our Bokashi bin for almost a year as a family, here are some of the real life practicalities we’ve encountered that might help with a decision about if it’s right for you to try.

Reducing Food Waste First - I would say the first thing to consider before even entering the world of composting or Bokashi is to try to address the root of the problem first - food waste. Get it reduced down to as little as possible first. About four years ago, we switched our sporadic and chaotic weekly/fortnightly food shop with loosely planned meals to a meal box solution. We’ve used Hello Fresh and Gousto intermittently ever since and would never go back. These are boxes that provide all the ingredients and recipe cards for meals that you pick in exact amounts. There is no food waste, just the packaging - which admittedly is an issue but is probably a separate blog/discussion on the pros and cons and things we’ve learnt about this way of shopping and eating. The main thing is: This system dramatically reduced our food waste and it works well for our busy lives. There are lots of other ways – pre-planned meals, batch cooking and freezing, sharing leftovers or things about to go out of date using apps like Olio etc. I’m sure CAN will explore this hot topic in detail in the future.

Storing the bin - The caddies from Wiggly Wigglers aren’t huge, but they’re not exactly small to be considered ‘counter-top’. We mostly keep ours on the kitchen worktop by the sink because we’ve rarely had visitors (due to lockdowns) and it’s most practical there, but it’s definitely not discreet, so we put it into a cupboard on occasions if we want it out the way. Because we don’t have a lot of day-to-day waste, we decided to still use an old 1kg peanut butter pot for collecting bits over a couple of days, i.e. tea bags, bits of leftover food from the kids, and then I empty that pot into the Bokashi caddy all at once, as opposed to opening the air tight seal all the time for every tea bag used etc.

Using two bins - when the bin gets full, you have to leave it to fully pickle for 2-3 weeks, so to avoid having to then switch back to the old way of disposal, it’s more practical to have a second, empty bin ready to replace while one is pickling. If you really have very little waste and an efficient system for using the pickled waste straight away, you could probably get away with just one bin.

Liquids - Bokashi doesn’t like liquids. Just think, would you put liquids in a normal bin? I recently found out that one of my friends pours leftover gravy into his bin. I didn’t even know this was a thing. My mum always told us to chuck liquids down the toilet, not even the kitchen sink, but anyway … not in the Bokashi!

The smell - When the lid is on and sealed, there is no smell. When it starts to fill up and the process is in full swing, it does smell when you remove the lid to add food or use the drain tap. It’s not an awful smell but it really depends on your nose and preferences. My wife doesn’t really take to the smell and my eldest son always comments when I’ve opened it, too. I think they’d prefer it not to be in the kitchen, but I remind them that the old bin always smelled way worse, especially when nobody bothered to empty it! And the smell from opening the lid only lasts for a short time. When it comes to emptying the bin and cleaning it out, this definitely needs to be done outside as it can be really quite strong, but it's not a rotten or foul smell.

As the Wiggly Wigglers video guide describes, if you like your house to be always smelling of roses or some other fragrance and you’re not OK with anything other than ‘clean’ smells then I would say Bokashi either isn’t for you or you would have to seriously consider where you could store the bin and if it would be practical.

Bones - Bokashi can cope with bones but it won’t break them down, so it’s worth considering what you intend to use your post bokashi waste for. If you’re wanting to add it to your garden, you may not want to have bones in it.

Holidays - We’ve never been away for longer than a few days since having the Bokashi because of Covid etc. but from my understanding, it’s a very happy system dealing with whatever it’s fed, so if it’s not fed anything for a while, it will just happily sit there waiting. Having the juice in the bin doesn’t cause any harm to the process and you could just drain it before you left, then again when you return.

Post-Bokashi waste and what to do with it - After the bin is full and has pickled for a couple of weeks, you can use the waste. It makes a really good fertiliser and can be added to a garden straight away (usually recommended to be buried under some soil just because it looks pretty grim), it looks exactly the same as all the food waste you put in really. Alternatively, you can add it to a traditional compost bin; the fermentation process has already happened, it will compost just fine and actually works as a great kick starter. When the air gets to it, it will break down within a couple weeks. Keep in mind, though, it still isn’t going to produce a wonderful earthy, grainy beautiful compost - you still need worms for this!

If, like me, you are hesitant because you only have a flat or a back yard, you have a number of options for the waste:

  • Share with someone who has a garden/allotment,

  • Use a compost bin as I describe below, even if you only have a yard (I’ve since checked and some people just use a large plastic storage box as a sort of soil heap – it’s doesn’t need to be a traditional compost bin as the bokashi doesn’t need the heat etc to break down), or

  • As a last resort you can dispose of it in your general waste – you’ve still done your bit to remove the dangerous co2 and methane from the landfill decomposition as the good bacteria has broken down the bad stuff and it removes nearly all the liquid from the food too.

  • While Newcastle City Council don’t do food bin collections, we are looking into whether you can put your Bokashi waste in a garden waste bin which is available for kerbside collection. Look out for a blog update to see what we find out, or if you know that this would be acceptable, please do let us know.

As for me, I emailed Wiggly Wigglers for some advice who were a massive help. I never realised I could have a normal compost bin on concrete. It just needed to be on a soily base, and may need worms adding artificially if they don’t naturally find their way there. Usually, where there’s food to break down, they will find their way and stay. They recommended adding some soil on top of the Bokashi whenever I emptied it, just to allow it to mix up, and to add some cardboard/dry material too so that’s where I’m at now. We have a compost bin, I have a full Bokashi bin that’s due to go in there and this will be my first load using that method. I will have to report back on my findings!

If you’re interested in trying it out, these are some of the suppliers and feel free to get in touch, I would be happy to answer any questions about it. - have discounts for certain postcodes

Wiggly Wigglers

Before getting started with your Bokashi or if you are still a bit unsure about it, I really recommend the Wiggly Wigglers video guides that do a wonderful job of talking through how it all works:

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