How to Compost in Less Than 500 Square Feet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fermentation is the next best thing.
By Fiona Zublin
Warning: The next paragraph contains maggots.
Here’s what happens in the summer in a south-facing apartment when you cook a lot: Your trash gets maggots. No amount of fly traps, vinegar and sitting on the floor breathing into a paper bag is going to fix it. You have food in your trash can, and then you have maggots, and because you live in an apartment building you can’t just burn down the house and start over like you would if you lived in a freestanding house in which you had seen a maggot. You just have to keep living in the house! But there is a way for people living in small garden-free spaces to turn their otherwise maggot-inducing waste into compost. Sort of.
The food is technically fermenting, not rotting, which is why it doesn’t smell.
Bokashi isn’t exactly composting. Rather, it’s a fermentation technique popular in Japan that’s now starting to gain traction throughout Europe and North America, in which your food is turned into pre-compost when you close it in an airtight bucket with specially prepared bokashi “bran” sprinkled liberally over it. Rather than an open-air compost pile that has to be turned, this requires just a little space in a cupboard for a medium-size bucket that you rarely open.
Bokashi and traditional composting work in approximately the same way, explains Nick Kiss, founder of Bokashi Living, one of many companies that have sprung up in recent years to sell bokashi supplies. “Any composting that we’re doing, whether it’s bokashi composting or backyard composting, is trying to create a home for microbes to thrive,” he explains. But while backyard composting requires a curated mix of food waste to keep the carbon and nitrogen ratios in sync, the specific bokashi microbes — which have been in use in Japan for decades — thrive on almost all types of food, including normal composting no-no’s like meat, and require an anaerobic environment.
Like an airtight bucket tucked away in a cupboard, for example. The food is technically fermenting, not rotting, which is why it doesn’t smell. To avoid taking off the lid too often, it’s recommended that you keep food waste in a smaller bucket, then transfer that to the main bucket when it fills up. Tamp down the fermenting waste, sprinkle it with bokashi bran (in which reside the bokashi microbes), put the lid back on and leave it. Spigots fitted to the bottom of commercially available bokashi buckets (which, on Bokashi Living, cost about $45 with a bag of the special bran) are used to drain off a vinegary liquid every few days, which is a pretty effective drain cleaner. As the weeks pass (from experience, one 4.2-gallon bucket fits about two months’ worth of food waste from two adults who cook and entertain a lot), the food breaks down, leaving room for more chicken bones, orange peels and dead flowers.
The problem here is that bokashi doesn’t actually create compost. To become compost, the fermented food has to be buried in dirt for a couple of weeks, and if you’re a city dweller, you may not have any dirt to bury it in. You can do this yourself in another bucket, but if that’s too many buckets you can, depending on your city, find a city program or community garden that will take your compost. Or you can do what you would have done anyway: Throw it away. The difference is you’ll be throwing away food waste once every two months rather than once a week, and you’ll (hopefully) never see a maggot again.