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Aug 3, 2020

Fermenting Your Food Waste

By Nadine Zylberberg

Los Angeles Bokashi Club
Los Angeles Bokashi Club

Tired of waiting for municipal composting to kick into gear in your city? Bokashi composting allows you to compost food scraps at home.

Where to begin

The Bokashi process was inspired by farming methods in Korea, but both the term and the practice come from Japan. Combined with the discovery of essential microorganisms (EM) by Dr. Teruo Higa in the 1980s, it has become a unique and innovative process you can replicate at home with the right simple equipment. Dr. Higa found that a combination of about 80 microorganisms could help decompose organic matter. He invented and marketed EM-Bokashi, which has since become a popular method for composting food waste.

Bokashi means “fermented organic matter” and involves layering food scraps — not just produce, but meat and dairy as well — in a special bucket with a tight lid and spigot (to drain liquids). You’ll also have to procure what’s known as Bokashi bran, a mix of wheat germ, molasses, and effective microorganisms. The wheat and molasses feed the microorganisms.

What comes out of the spigot is dubbed “Bokashi tea,” a nutritious liquid that can be used as plant fertilizer around your home. The solid material produced can be added to a vermicomposting bin or to your garden.

Bokashi for the community

One local Los Angeles organization is making it easy for residents to adopt this method at home. Hiro’s Bokashi Club, sponsored by Sustainable Little Tokyo, started “as a result of an LA City grant that encouraged neighborhoods 1) to become more familiar with the food waste problems and 2) to implement measures to reduce the amount of food waste ending up in landfills,” said Amy Honjiyo, the club’s coordinator. Because of the community’s interest and support following that initial project, they decided to continue bi-monthly workshops, where participants would make their own Bokashi.

Once stay-at-home orders went into effect, volunteers (and Amy) would make the bran themselves, host a Zoom workshop for participants, and then allow them to pick up their Bokashi orders. “Our workshop now presents food waste recycling as a third choice in food waste reduction,” Amy added. The better alternatives remain to reduce and reuse.

“Personally, I would like to have all of Little Tokyo—residents, businesses, organizations, and visitors—recycling their food waste using bokashi.”

-Amy Honjiyo

Hiro’s Bokashi Club is named after Hiroyuki “Bokashi Man” Takeuchi, a friend and mentor to those in the group. According to Amy, “Takeuchi san lived a healthy, engaging life and advocated for bokashi ‘composting’ with the same vigor and enthusiasm.” Amy first met Takeuchi san as she was researching Bokashi for the LA City grant. As a member of a Soto Zen Temple, which embodies ‘mottainai’ practices that include food waste recycling, Amy became intrigued by the Bokashi process. A fellow member of the temple suggested she contact Takeuchi san, who studied with Dr. Higa. He immediately volunteered to help. (Takeuchi san passed away in 2019; the group continues to bear his name.)

Not your traditional composting

Bokashi is an anaerobic process, which means you’re actively depriving the materials of oxygen. (Traditional composting, conversely, is an aerobic process.) It also means there is no rotting and no methane gas emissions—making it easy to do in a small space. It’s also a quicker process: 6 weeks versus 3–5 months.

According to the Hiro’s Bokashi Club guide, all you need is two nesting containers (with a tight-fitting lid), food waste, and prepared bokashi. Theirs includes three strains of microorganisms: yeast, lactic acid-producing bacteria, and phototrophic bacteria.

And while it requires the right bin and the right bran, the Internet offers up myriad ways to make your own. (A quick Google search yields recipes of shredded newspaper, lawn scraps, or sawdust as a replacement for the bran.)

Image for post
Courtesy: Sustainable Little Tokyo (See full Zine here.)

In The New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi makes a case for DIYing the whole thing, using a large cardboard box, coco peat (from coconut husks), and kuntan (a Japanese rice husk ash). It’s a departure from traditional bokashi composting and is even more accessible. This box method doesn’t produce liquid (since the kuntan captures moisture) or the foul odors typical of traditional composting. The key to any which bokashi or bokashi-inspired method? To not let the compost breathe.

If any of these reasons resonate, maybe Bokashi is for you. Whether it’s with Hiro’s Bokashi Club or DIY, we can all seek out new ways to be more sustainable while the infrastructure catches up.

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