Last February, I posted about our experiment with Bokashi composting, an indoor system that allows one to compost meat and dairy (all the things you can’t put in your regular compost), by layering it with a cocktail of microbes that breaks it down using fermentation. After each meal, I would scrape our plates into the Bokashi bin under our sink and sprinkle the bran on top. In normal Bokashi practice, the idea is to let the bin ferment for a couple of weeks after it is full and then bury it in the ground to complete the compost process. Of course, that second part was going to be a challenge for us since – like most of Manhattan – the ground around our building is covered with concrete. I was pretty sure that digging unauthorized holes in Central Park would come to no good end for me, but I had read that at a certain point the fermented bokashi could be added to a compost tumbler. So, I thought I would give it a try. If it worked, it would mean that we could successfully compost ALL of our food waste, not just the raw fruits and veggies.
The beginning was easy enough: I went along, scraping my plates and building a history of our dining habits, layer by layer. It was easy to incorporate into our post-dining clean-up routine and the bin didn’t really smell – except like Bokashi. It took about 2 weeks to fill the bin and by the end of February, I sealed it with the intention of opening it in 2 weeks and adding it to our tumbler. However, right around the 2 week mark all hell broke loose in our house when my husband became suddenly and seriously very ill, and the Bokashi bin under the sink was completely forgotten for several weeks. As the air began to clear around mid-late April, the bin came back into focus. Sealed on February 23rd, it was supposed to sit for two weeks, but here it had been 2 months. What do I do? On the one hand, it hadn’t started to smell. It just sat there, minding its own business under our sink. On the other hand, I was terrified to open it. What if the layers inside had remade themselves into some kind of unholy creature that was just waiting to be unleashed. Maybe there were directions that said, let your Bokashi sit for two weeks, but under no circumstances let it go longer. I checked, there weren’t. Still, I had no desire to open that bin and kept putting it off.
A week went by, then another. Soon it was May. I had a dilemma on my hands. I suppose I could have just thrown the entire thing away in the garbage, bin and all, but that would basically be the antithesis of what composting is all about, and I would feel like a giant loser. I started this project and I needed the cojones to finish it. I psyched myself up until I was ready to get it done, strategically picking a day when our building manager -who often helps me maintain our building’s communal tumbler – wasn’t around to witness what might happen. I admit, I felt sort of bad: after all, I was taking a risk by adding something into our bin that was unusual, but in the interest of “science” I decided it was worth it. After a fair amount of trepidation, I opened it up. It was a decidedly undramatic experience. Nothing crawled out. No vapor arose that knocked me unconscious. There was the bin, smelling like the bokashi bran, with some white fuzz on top.
Having done some research, I knew that a nice white, fluffy mold was a good sign – it was the other colors you wanted to avoid. So far, so good. I removed the plastic and looked around. It looked more compact, but it wasn’t as if it had all broken down. I decided that, as it didn’t smell, I would take the risk and dump it in the bin – where else was i going to put it? I tried lifting it – it was extremely heavy! I was reluctant to find someone to help me because I didn’t want to admit what I was doing, so I gathered my strength and heaved the mass into the tumbler where it slid out in one solid, bucket shaped lump. Like an aspic. It was fascinating, as if we had preserved the contents of our dinner scraps in amber. All the layers were there, the spaghetti, the lamb bones, but compressed and clearly breaking down. I added a fair amount of Bokashi bran and browns, closed the bin and gave it a couple spins.
I kept a close eye on the bin over the next few days, always worried something terrible was going to happen. The white mold continued in the bin for a week or so, but then it dissipated and the compost reverted to normal. Phew!
In general, I would say this experiment was a success. But I haven’t started a new Bokashi bin just yet. Here are my concerns: if we were to do this full-scale, we would be emptying a large amount of food-scraps into our bin every couple of weeks, and I think it would overwhelm the balance. I also wonder if the extra fermenting time the food had in the bin helped smooth the transition into the tumbler. With only two weeks in the bin, would it take more time in the tumbler to break down? There are still a number of questions to answer in order to decide whether or not to commit to a home Bokashi program or to subscribe to Vokashi, a service that will pick up your bin and bury it for you. At $40/month, it isn’t cheap, but then again, neither is throwing away your food scraps in the long run.
Over the next few months, I will have a chance to explore all of this because I am taking part in New York City’s Master Composter Training Program. Yep, I’m going to be a Master Composter! Jealous? Thought so. We had our first session this week and it was fun to meet all of the other composting nerds from around the city who, like me, are intrigued with how the city might radically change the way it handles food waste. Although I have been composting for several years, there is still so much I don’t know about the science behind and I am looking forward to filling in the gaps. Bokashi is on the syllabus, so I will hold off on making any decisions until I learn more. Stay tuned!