Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Compostable Bucket

The more I talk to people about bokashi, the more I realize that cost isn’t the only barrier. The idea of actually having to handle things after they’ve been thrown away can be a deal-breaker. You can’t ask my mother to drain garbage juice—and as she’s neither a gardener nor a composter, nor even the owner of a septic system, there’s no point in talking about the benefits of bokashi juice, it’s still garbage juice* to her. And bokashi? Well, yeah, that’d be pickled garbage.

(No offense to my mother, she’s just a convenient example. Who hasn’t actually referred to my pet project that way. Of course, neither has she adopted a bucket of her very own.)

What, I thought, if you didn’t have to handle it?

Despite this post’s heading, technically this techique uses a compostable bin liner rather than a bucket per se, though the exterior container’s purpose is largely aesthetic and can be omitted if desired. Not the greenest bokashi option, but possibly more acceptable, more adoptable, than some. It’s one less chore: a sufficiently heavy compostable bin liner plus some absorbent material means no bokashi juice to be emptied every few days, while offering all the rest of bokashi’s benefits. Or maybe two fewer chores: no bucket to empty or clean.

Early in my bokashi bucket fermenting, I tried using newspaper liners, but that was not a success—while no smell escaped the airtight container, without a drain the very bottom got too wet, resulting in off odors within the bucket and especially during emptying. While several homebrew bokashiers have reported success using newspaper in the bottom of the bucket, I found that the bottom of the container stank though the bucket maintained a healthy fermentation. No odor during, but emptying? Yecch.

But if you’re not planning on emptying it...

An inch of shredded newspaper in the bottom of a heavy cardboard container works quite well. So, for that matter, will napkins torn and placed in the bottom of a take-out coffee cup, if you’re only fermenting small volumes. Any of the various inoculation methods can be used, though you have to use a spray bottle for application, as opposed to pouring in any quantity of fluid. It’s not the most scalable of alternatives, since the cardboard is weakened during the filling process, but I figure this is likeliest to appeal to folks who’re only generating small quantities of fermentables. (No data concerning this, but it seems reasonable.)

The container must be compostable—really compostable, not the “with suitable facilities” dodge some of the newer reusable disposables claim—free of any chemicals you don’t want in your finished product, and sturdy enough to maintain integrity even exposed to moisture. I’ve been using oatmeal canisters, as they’re easily obtainable and fit in the cute little foot-pedal trash can I bought for the purpose. Again, not the greenest option [resource-use analysts recommend recycling rather than composting for paper and cardboard products that can be easily recycled in a given area], but now that I know this works, I’ll be looking for alternative containers. Because this is the only bokashi practice I’ve yet found that might, just possibly, be acceptable to the non-gardening, non-composting, greener-by-philosophy-than-in-practice folks who aren’t interested in buckets with spigots that have to be tapped every few days.

The cardboard I’ve been using is heavy enough to last through a gradual filling and the requisite curing period, though it shouldn’t be left sit for much longer, and can simply be deposited whole into a bag of leaves or composting planter, or buried if that’s your preference, or pre-composted and fed to worms; performance will be slower than uncontained bokashi, and bits of the container will remain after the bokashi’d matter has largely been broken down. (Ice cream containers seemed logical, but there’s that chemical issue. Cereal boxes are too thin, even layered and with newspaper sandwiched within. Molded paper shipping containers?)

It’s not entirely hands-free—there’s the daily addition of EM, and mashing is recommended if not absolutely necessary—and a disposable container equals an increased cost, but so long as you take some care to drain excess liquid from fermentables before adding to the unit, and to balance wetter fermentables with a bit more shredded paper or EM bokashi bran, there’s no odor, no trouble with insects, no failures, no mess.

Hey, it could even be argued it saves water, as there’s no rinsing of the bucket, or flushing drains after pouring bokashi juice down them...at least, assuming you were disposing of the container anyway. (Now there’s some math I won’t be doing: does burying a cardboard canister use more resources than landfilling a plastic garbage bag?) But, really, the main reason for this is to address people’s discomfort. And to limit the changes of habit required.

From recent experience I can say that it’s a whole lot easier to convince folks to use a dedicated trash can and “garbage canisters” than a standard model bokashi bucket

* not to be confused with garbage enzyme, about which I know pretty much nothing. Yet.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Year of Bokashi

It’s been a year, or a bit more, since that first bucket. Am I glad I decided to try bokashi? Absolutely. Shall I continue into the second year? You bet, and quite probably beyond. Am I satisfied it’s the answer to my particular needs?

Well...yes and no.

I love bokashi for its ease of use, for its capacity to handle things I never thought of as compostable before, for its versatility, and most of all for its speed to completion—without recourse to machines or manual chopping, I can have usable planting media, composts, and fertilizers in less than a month, or invest a bit more time though no more effort to create incredibly lush microbe-rich vermicompost and compost-amended potting mixes.

But it’s still not perfect. For me, I mean. Bokashi can’t be used straight out of the bucket, it has to be composted or otherwise finished first. And have I mentioned that I’m lazy?

The apartment now has a full-sized compost bin—installed very shortly after I started this project, in fact—and while that approximately 30 gallon unit is not sufficient to handle all the yard and kitchen waste the tenants generate, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with bokashi bucket fermentation had it been around before. For all that bokashi is far preferable (more convienient, more controllable, requiring far less carbon-rich matter or other resources, and processing many more items than traditional aerobic compost), the apartment bin has one unanswerable advantage: it’s free.

The compost bin is outdoors and out of the way, and can be neglected without concern for odor, also pluses to my point of view. And it’s somehow less personal than bokashi. Easier to share.

Okay, so I’m strange, but I’ve discovered that I’m not really comfortable with the idea of my neighbors knowing, in intimate detail, just what it is I discard. Trash bags are sealed, so fairly private even when sharing wheelie bins. But the contents of a bokashi bucket are largely unchanged in appearance after fermentation—so anyone who cares to look down, when adding their own ferment to a communal post-bucket container, can see exactly what I’ve fermented. (To the extent it isn’t covered or diced into anonymity, at least.) Creeps me out. Nor do I want to know what the neighbors dispose of. Somehow, the compost bin’s more limited contents seem less...telling.

(Don’t ask about the recycling wheelie. I try not to think about it, or to look when adding my own recyclables. It’s none of my business, thanks just the same.)

So even if I could figure out how to keep Black Soldier Flies out of a converted wheelie bin, I wouldn’t be all that comfortable with an apartment Great Big Bokashi Bin [which is in the archives somewhere]. Maybe something in a compactor? Hmm...

No, sorry, this post was about last year, not future projects. So where was I? Oh, yes: the ROI of bokashi.

Over this past year I generated more compost and refreshed more planter mixes than I’d really thought possible, not to mention sowed and reaped a great deal of produce for very little money and not all that much work. Far more than I managed when I last had an in-ground garden and associated traditional aerobic compost bin, even given the disadvantages of growing produce in planters and our drought.

Not to mention EM’s other uses, in the garden and beyond. So, yes, lots of benefits, and well worth the minimal expense (a dollar a week or less, if I’m considering only bokashi and not the varied and sundry tangential experiments) and minimal effort of draining the bucket every couple of days, emptying a bucket every couple of weeks, mixing a quart of AEM now and then, and making EM bokashi bran (or “bran”).

But there’s that one great big issue still to resolve: What happens after the bucket. I spent a fair amount of time, this past year, in reading about, thinking about, and testing other people’s solutions and my own adjustments to same. And I found a few solutions that do work for me—and, presumably, for others in similar situations. That is, for those of us so land-deprived we haven’t even a hole in the ground. But for all I have options, I’m still looking for The One.

My perfect post-bucket solution would be 1) Indoors. 2) In the same bokashi bucket. 3) Fast. 4) As nearly hands-free as can be. 5) Free, or at least very cheap.

Vermicomposting can be done indoors, but the standard model isn’t feasible for me, given my small living space and the way I feel about wriggly things; I’ll probably try another escape-proof unit this winter, maybe an indoor planter tower or something, but for now, the worms are outdoor-only. Planter finishing can be done indoors (though I’d advise a garage instead of a kitchen, especially if you’re cutting your curing time short) but it takes a fair bit of space, effort, and other resources. Next?

I’ve been playing with bokashi fermentation in disposable containers [upcoming post, and I’ll try to get it up this week; with fermentation and composting in the same reusable bucket; with adding composting worms to a bokashi bucket after a pre-composting stage; etc. But while I’ve had some successes, I’m not altogether thrilled with any of these.

Speed, bokashi has down. Add cured bokashi to what trad-composters call a brown material and stand back! A bucket of dried leaves plus one of bokashi becomes compost very quickly, faster with a bit of turning, but if you prefer the hands-off model, mixing in some dirt and adding a soil blanket—using good garden soil—is almost as fast as the recommended burial that isn’t an option for the groundless apartment gardener that I am. Outdoors, at least. That good garden soil has too many wriggly or crawling things for me to want it inside, you see, as do swept-up leaves.

If I had the space and the funds, a compost tumbler/turner would be my next garden purchase. Imagine how quickly, how completely, that mix would convert! But that’s hardly an indoor solution. So I’m still thinking, still reading, still testing.

At least it keeps me from being bored. And the garden’s growing.