Helping the planet by switching to bokashi

Man emptying food into a bokashi bin

My parents and I were discussing the fact that their local council doesn’t yet operate a separate food waste collection.

My mum said it wasn’t a huge deal for them because they didn’t have any food waste anyway.

 I queried this; they must have food waste.  She maintained that they didn’t.

Tea bag pie

I said I wondered if they ate eggshell sandwiches, or tea bag pie, or perhaps apple core crumble. She said she wondered if I was being sarcastic.

Of course, they didn’t eat those things, she said, but that wasn’t waste ‘because you couldn’t eat it anyway’. It became clear that the word ‘waste’ meant different things to each of us.  

‘Our generation sees waste as something you scrape off your plate,’ Mum said. ‘So it’s the result of not planning properly and cooking too much or putting too much on your plate.’

My parents’ generation of ‘war babies’ equate the word waste with wastefulness. They see waste as a verb – ‘to waste something’, with all its shameful implications.

Wasting food

This might go some way towards explaining the confusion that arose some years ago when research was being done to establish what residents’ attitudes would be if their local council offered voluntary food waste collections. Researchers found that many people said they wouldn’t use a food waste collection because they had no food waste. This didn’t stack up as it didn’t equate to the amount of food waste that the councils had to dispose of. Perhaps these respondents were people of my parents’ generation who thought that if they weren’t ‘wasting’ food they had no food waste.

After our discussion, Mum started thinking about everything she threw in the bin. She realised that she created large amounts of peelings because she makes fresh soup every day.

The next time I visited, she said that because they didn’t yet have any information about when their council would start food waste collections, it had been preying on her mind that every scrap in their bin went to landfill.

But they also felt ‘too old at our age’ (81 and 84) to start stirring compost.

Starting with the belief that you’re never too old to save the earth, I came up with a solution – Team Bokashi. It would work like this:

  • A bokashi bin indoor composter would fit neatly on their worktop, or under the sink, and they could scrape all their food waste into it.
  • By adding bokashi spray to each input of food waste, natural beneficial microbes are introduced which accelerate the fermentation process. (Bokashi is Japanese for ‘fermented organic matter’).
  • Because the waste ferments anaerobically (without air), there are no flies or smells. Even last summer’s heatwave never caused any problems with our own Maze bokashi bin, which carried on fermenting cleanly and odourlessly in our sweltering kitchen.
  • Once the 14L bin is full, it is left sealed shut for two to three weeks while the contents are left to ferment. Then the contents would normally be added to a garden composter, where it acts as an accelerator, or buried in the garden to break down and become soil-building compost. But I don’t see my dad at 84 being keen to go round digging holes in his garden, so I said I would take the bin and add its contents to our own Green Johanna or Compost Tumbler and hand it back to them. Using two bins on rotation should do the job.

In a way, it’s our own version of what the ShareWaste app does – connecting people who would like to recycle their food scraps with other people who are already composting.

 I did secretly wonder if my mum’s bloodhound nose might detect any odours that I’d been blissfully unaware of, but she was more than happy to try it.

My dad came on board when I explained that the liquid you drain every few days from the tap at the bottom of the bin is a great organic drain cleaner that controls smells and prevents algae build-up.  You can also dilute it for use as plant feed, but it looked like the plants would have to go hungry. My dad has always had a thing about blocked drains. I think it’s a man thing. Using the bokashi drain cleaner might save them a small fortune on whatever gunk he normally chucks down the plughole, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the water system too.

I gave them the bokashi bin and the user manual and left them to it. Would they become Bokashi fans or might it be too much change too soon?

My parents have their own way of doing things and the bokashi trial didn’t work out exactly as I had imagined. At first Mum argued that there was no space on the kitchen worktop (what with her soup maker, bread maker, food processor, electric potato Masha etc) for the bokashi bucket so it was given a home on the patio table outside. After a few weeks, however, she did rearrange her worktop space to accommodate the bokashi bin and the sky didn’t fall in.

At the end of the first week, I asked tentatively if there’d been any problems.  ‘Yes,’ said Mum. ‘The writing in the manual’s too small. How can anyone be expected to read that?’ (Point taken. We have since enlarged the print size.)

No blocked drains

Dad expressed disappointment that he wasn’t getting the promised bokashi drain cleaner. I explained it was quite normal to go a week at first without liquid while the process got going. Then he forgot to check for a few days and ended up with a jugful of the stuff. He was highly delighted. I could tell no drains were going to get the chance to get blocked around these parts.

Bokashi ‘tea’ drain cleaner

My parents reported that after a few early instances of forgetting they had a new food waste bin, they quickly got the bokashi habit. It was now unthinkable for them to throw food waste in the normal kitchen bin, as they had done for the past 80 years. I think this is a common feeling when you really become aware of what happens to what you throw away. You realise there is no Away.

We have had our bokashi bins for a while, but it was only when I was transporting my parents’ bins back and forth in my car that I came to appreciate how portable they are.  The cube-type shape makes them sturdy and the three locking clips mean they don’t spill. And as for the effectiveness of fermented bokashi mixture as a compost accelerator – wow, our compost bins love it!

Bokashi convert

Mum is now a complete bokashi convert. She says she feels ‘empowered’ by being useful. It’s been six months now and I can tell there’s no turning back.

‘We all have to do something about the climate emergency,’ she says, ‘and this isn’t a lot to ask, especially when you consider the upsides.

‘I feel it’s given me a project. I do feel guilty when I think of all those years of throwing food in the bin to go to landfill but at least we’ve stopped doing that now.’

Mum’s use of the word ‘project’ struck a chord. A few years ago when a housing association introduced composting using Green Johannas at flats complexes, staff found that residents felt better physically and mentally as a result. Like Mum, they felt useful and part of something bigger.  

All that remained was to take a photo using Mum as a model for this blog, showing ‘People in their Eighties getting the Bokashi bug’

But when I turned up to take her photo, Mum had just been to the dentist’s and was looking very elegantly groomed and made-up – and not a day over 60.

I was dismayed. ‘You’re going to ruin my photo, you don’t look old.’

‘Really?’ she said, delighted. ‘You’d better use your dad then.’

Julie Halford

Dad does his bit – the bokashi way

10 effortless tips to reduce kitchen waste

Tomorrow (July 2nd) marks the start of Net Zero Week and you could be forgiven for wondering, but not daring to ask, what exactly net zero means.

In a nutshell, it’s the world’s answer to stopping the climate crisis. Waste prevention plays a major role, with the goal being to send nothing to landfill, incinerators or the ocean.

What better way to set about achieving this aim in ordinary, everyday life than by sharing ideas and tips on how to prevent waste?  

There are so many excellent books, blogs and websites on this topic it can be difficult to know where to start.  Fortunately, I’m addicted to tips; I never met a tip I didn’t like, except maybe the one about overcoming arachnophobia by getting matey with spiders.

A more eco-friendly home

My new favourite ‘tip-tionary’ is Green Living Made Easy by former Great British Bake Off winner turned best-selling author Nancy Birtwhistle. This book, and its predecessor Clean and Green: 101 Hints and Tips for a More Eco-Friendly Home, are packed with super simple ideas that make you wonder why you never thought of them yourself.

Nancy was inspired to find a new, greener way of living following a family discussion about climate change when she looked around the table at the innocent, gleeful faces of her young grandchildren and wondered what lay in store for them.

In the first chapter Nancy makes a good point about the difficulty of visualising the reality behind the many statistics that are thrown at us on green issues:

‘I read that a staggering 6.6m tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK every year. I find figures and statistics like this difficult to absorb, preferring to deal with my own food waste at a micro level and instead concentrating simply on my own fridge.’

I think most of us can identify with this sentiment. If the climate crisis is caused by the actions of individuals multiplied by millions, it makes sense that the answer, in part, also comes in the form of individual actions.

Nancy describes the way she used to dispose of waste as ‘robotic’. I can’t think of a better word to describe the unconscious way we create waste – until the moment we wake up to the consequences of our actions and realise we can do better, often with very little effort.

When you consider that these micro changes save you money too, it’s a no-brainer.

Here are 10 of Nancy’s simplest kitchen waste saving tips.

  • 1. Thyme to save herbs

To double the life of shop-bought fresh herbs: dampen a double-thickness sheet of kitchen paper with cold water. Lay on it either parsley, coriander, dill, thyme, rosemary or mint after removing from the packet. Roll loosely so that all the sprigs are surrounded by a cold, damp blanket, then pop in an airtight box and keep in the fridge.

  • 2. Freeze cheese please

To avoid cheese becoming hard and dry: buy a large slab of cheese – cut the block into 100g pieces. Put one block back in the original pack to use this week, then put the remaining pieces in a container in the freezer. Then for the next few weeks you have cheese that can be grated or used once thawed in the fridge for an hour or so.

  • 3. Take stock of veggies

The best way to accumulate sufficient veggie bits for a stock is to keep a large plastic box or bag in the freezer and pop into it the ends of celery, parsley stalks, trimmings from onions, carrots, parsnips, pea pods, leeks and any other tasty veg. Once you have a large box or bagful, place in a large pan and simmer for half an hour or in a slow cooker for several hours. Strain, keep in the fridge for five days or freeze to be used later as a base for casseroles, soups, pie fillings and stews.

  • 4. Piece of cake

Use a roll of reusable baking parchment instead of new greaseproof paper every time you bake. Use the bases of your favourite cake tins as a template, then cut the reusable parchment to size. Wash between uses.

  • 5. Bag-tastic

 The plastic liners in cereal boxes can be used to separate almost anything and make a good alternative to cling film. If you unpeel the seams of the bag this can then be used for pastry rolling. They also make good bread bags and freezer bags, sandwich wraps and for using in lunch boxes and picnics.

  • 6. Don’t shell out on eggs

Many baking recipes call for only egg yolk or egg whites, leaving leftovers of both. Egg whites freeze beautifully (for up to a year) and thaw in a bowl at room temperature in an hour or so.

Egg yolks can be frozen but need a light sprinkle of salt or sugar to prevent them going rubbery. Nancy rarely freezes yolks, instead making a quick lemon curd using the yolks, sugar, butter, lemon juice and zest. Stir on a low heat for several minutes until the mix slowly thickens. Store in a clean jar in the fridge.

  • 7. Scrap happy

Packs of bacon can lead to waste if a couple of rashers are left in the packet to dry up and go off before you know it. Instead, keep a small box of cooked scraps in the freezer. Cook the random rashes until crispy. Break them up into small pieces and pop them in a box to save in the freezer. Use these scraps as a pizza topping, stirred into pasta or sprinkled over salads.

  • 8. Spice of life

Nancy buys ginger or lemongrass only once or twice a year, keeping them in a plastic box in the freezer. She breaks ginger root into chunks and grates both the skin and flesh from frozen, then puts the unused root back into the box for next time.

She also freezes chillies and uses them from frozen. With lemongrass – trim the root ends and leaves, then freeze and slice from frozen to use.

  • 9. The besto pesto

Did you know that nettles have more vitamins and nutrients than many other green veggies? The sting is destroyed by blanching. Wear rubber gloves to handle them. Bring a pan of water to the boil, then add the leaves. Have a bowl of cold water at the ready. Blanch the leaves in boiling water for 30 seconds then use tongs to remove them and plunge into cold water to halt the cooking process. Drain the leaves, dry on a clean cotton towel and squeeze as much water out as you can. Whizz in a blender with parmesan, garlic, nuts, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil. Freeze in an ice cube tray.

It’s a good idea to also freeze leftover shop-bought pesto in an ice cube tray, since it needs to be used within five days of opening.

  • 10. Chit chat

Save egg boxes for potato chitting (encouraging them to sprout). The cardboard moulds keep potatoes upright, the soft material doesn’t damage the shoots and the open design offers plenty of light.

Nancy says: ‘I understand where I have gone wrong over the past 50 years, but so few of us knew the impact we were having on our precious planet, its resources, wildlife, weather systems etc. There is no time to waste, so whatever your life is right now – one change, any change, will make a difference.’

So true. There’s no point crying over spilt milk or hard cheese.  We can’t change what we did in the past but we can change what we do from today.

So let’s save the earth – one fridge at a time.


Spare Parts