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.

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