Helping the planet by switching to bokashi

The Great Green Team

30 September 2022

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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. We were always told, Waste not, want not.’

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.

‘You’re never too old to save the earth!’ I told them.

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 around 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 and hand it back to them. Using two bins on rotation should do the job.

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 won’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. My mum argued that there was no space on the kitchen worktop for the bin, what with her soup maker, bread maker, food processor and various other cookery paraphernalia.

And she didn’t want to put it under the sink because she liked the undersink space as it was. I get it. They’ve got their kitchen as they want it. So it came to pass that the bokashi bucket found a home on a small table outside on the patio. I expressed reservations about how this would work in winter but my parents were adamant it would be fine.   

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 gets going. Then he forgot to check for another week 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.

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. As they say, 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.

Bokashi convert

Mum is now a complete bokashi convert. She says she feels ‘empowered’ by being useful. In doing something for nature she feels part of nature itself. It’s been three months now and I can tell there’s no turning back.

‘We all have to do something,’ 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. Housing associations which introduced composting using Green Johannas at flats complexes 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 65.

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

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