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When Green Isn’t Necessarily Clean

August 19, 2010

Have you noticed that nowadays, no matter who you are entertaining, one of your guests will inevitably ask, “Where is your compost bin?”

A nod toward the wastebasket or the kitchen sink waste disposer is no longer an acceptable response. 

“What?  You don’t compost?” 

This question is asked in the same way that one asks, “Oh, so you never bathe?”

So my wife and I decided to find out what this whole composting business is all about.  Short answer:  It’s complicated and there are lots of options.

A worm farm was out of the question.  You basically feed your garbage to the worms.  Apparently the worms interact with (i.e., eat) the garbage and produce something called “casts” (i.e., worm shit).  The advertisements show people running their hands through this stuff like it’s black gold or something.  No comment.

Not only that, a long time ago I saw this movie in which lightning strikes a worm farm and turns the worms into ravening man eaters.  It’s just not worth it.

A reasonable option appeared to be something called the Bokashi system.  It sounded promising.  It was invented in Japan for people who live in apartments and don’t have big back yards where they can have worm farms.  And let’s face it, the Japanese would never invent anything that wasn’t neat and clean and efficient.  How bad could it be?

But I’d forgotten that the Japanese are also the people who invented Godzilla and reality television.

Here’s how it works.  You get two buckets that fit inside each other.  One has holes in the bottom and a sealable lid.  The idea is that you put your food scraps in the bucket and the seal keeps all the smell and nastiness in.  You can put in anything you want.  And no worms are involved.

But that proves to be a mixed blessing.  Each time you dump something into the bucket, you sprinkle something called “Bokashi Zing Powder” over the scraps.  They don’t tell you what Bokashi powder is made of, and it’s probably just as well.  The “secret” ingredient is something called EM, which stands for “effective microorganisms.” 

It gets better.  EM is also known as a microbial innoculant.

I used to think worms were bad.  Now I have the Andromeda Strain incubating in the garage.

The idea is that after you fill the bucket, you let the EM go to work and ‘cure’ your food scraps for a couple of weeks.  You then bury what is left in the garden and in six weeks it turns into wonderful soil.  And you don’t have to do anything else.  The instructions assure you that if it smells bad you are doing something wrong. 

That’s a brilliant marketing idea.  And like a lot of marketing ideas, reality falls somewhere short of the claim.  I will admit that if you do it right, the system is largely odourless and relatively easy. 

But there is one very large but.

Remember those holes in the top bucket?  As result of the interaction of the food scraps with the Bokashi powder, and other natural processes I don’t want to know about (microbial innoculation, I guess), liquid condenses out of the mass in the bucket and drips through the holes into the bottom bucket.  The brochures and web site call this product “Bokashi Juice.”  In concentrated form it is one of the most powerful herbicides known to man.  Diluted 1 to 1000 it makes for an excellent fertilizer.  I can attest to the veracity of both claims.

Make no mistake.  Bokashi Juice is pure evil.  It looks like vomit and smells infinitely worse.  I have poured it on weed patches in the yard on a breezy day, come back hours later and the stench was still as strong as when I first poured it out.  Even the flies avoid it and the thought of getting some on me is now my number one primal fear. 

The other downside, minor in comparison, is the ritual burial process.  The stuff you bury, regardless of its original components, is a yellowish orange mass in which can be discerned the odd teabag, orange peel or eggshell.  It’s not appetizing, but nothing like the juice it produced.  And digging the holes is good exercise.


We’ve been doing it for quite a while now and it’s done wonders for our garden.  It’s greatly reduced the amount of garbage we throw out and prevents looks of horror from guests. 

But I keep worrying that the cops are going to think I’m a serial killer with all the freshly dug holes in the back yard!

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010 11:50 pm

    We don’t compost, but we (by law) have to separate our organic rubbish, which is them picked up and composted by the government. It’s a win win for us. No stinky vomit juice!

    On a side note, you will thrilled to know that Japanese have also invented many other amazing things like ‘the butter stick’ (similar to a glue stick, but with butter!) and the ‘personal rain saver’ which is an upside down umbrella with a tube and large jug attached. They are clearly the leaders in innovation.

  2. August 20, 2010 12:19 am

    I have a sister-in-law when visiting always asks if she should take our recycling home with her to the city. I’ve yet to ask her “Do you think you do recycling so much better than we do? or “Do you think we don’t recycle at all?” or is it we poor country folk just don’t get how things should be done properly in general and we need all the help we can get.

    I think I should be offended by her question but just let it pass as her usual odd behavior.

  3. August 20, 2010 2:06 am

    Sounds as if Bokashi Juice might be a deer repellent. I might be interested.
    We don’t compost; are we bad people?

    If we did, our yellow lab Dinah would find it and eat it.

    • August 20, 2010 9:47 am

      It could work on deer given that it seems to repel all other multicellular organisms.

      Know what you mean about Dinah–I learned the hard way that you have to bury the stuff nice and deep.

  4. August 20, 2010 5:56 am

    Unfortunately there is no recycling in our small town. We are working on it. As for the food scraps, after your description, I think I will just keep tossing them into the garbage. Hope I am not being a bad person. I think it will help break down other matter in the dump.

  5. August 20, 2010 9:32 am

    Hah! I have to say you can give me quite a chuckle. Thanks.

    That said, despite my keen olfactory sense this seems a good measure. It just seems so counter-intuitive to tie garbage up in a plastic bag, I feel like I’m making a hideous time capsule.

    • August 20, 2010 9:48 am

      Thanks! It is interesting to speculate about what a future archaeologist excavating a landfill would make of it.

  6. August 20, 2010 2:18 pm

    We composted when we had a garden. I never thought about it: just a box of compost. This must be what you mean by worm farm — there were lots of worms in it. It turns into very fertile earth after a while.

    This Bokashi Juice, however, is fascinating: You can it have the opposite effects in diluted and undiluted forms?

    • August 20, 2010 3:07 pm

      Yes, apparently most fertilizers in highly concentrated form are herbicides but diluted they have a balance of nitrogen, potassium, etc. that plants need.

  7. August 20, 2010 9:12 pm

    That is an amazing idea, I’ll have to try it when we move back to the states and actually have property. My banana trees back in Florida would love it.

  8. August 21, 2010 8:34 am

    My approach to composting where I used to live was very simple: Buy large green plastic compost bin (the green color means it’s environmentally good, of course). Put organic kitchen waste into it, plus grass clippings, in no particularly precise proportions. Decided against including raked-up leaves–too many of them. Waited about six months. It took a while, and at first I thought nothing would happen. Then–voila! A teeming haven for tiny creepy crawlies producing rich, dark brown organic soil.

    Things are kind of on hold at my current residence, for various reasons.

    • August 21, 2010 5:07 pm

      You are correct. Even green plastic is environmentally friendly. Were all the creepy crawlies tiny? I wouldnt’ want to attract wetas.

  9. August 21, 2010 11:51 am

    haha true, compost bins aren’t that “popular” anymore.

  10. August 21, 2010 4:39 pm

    I don’t get that question much in Brooklyn.

    However, I really found myself fascinated by this, as other than seeing that killer worm movie, it isn’t something I thought much about, but has been a topic elsewhere and it has come up in various other things I read. I was educated by this blog.

    • August 21, 2010 5:14 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I wonder if there will ever be a Scrappers episode on composting? That’s scarier than killer worms.

  11. August 25, 2010 3:38 am

    Ah! I totally miss government-funded compost pick-up. Once a week, the big ol’ smelly green bin got dumped courtesy of the Province of Nova Scotia! And now I’m living in a town where it’s still legal not to recycle. At all. My inner-environmentalist cries.

  12. August 25, 2010 1:32 pm

    We compost in the patient , labor-free manner that Jenny B. (above) describes. As long as you’re not in a hurry, it is all so easy. We’ve done it for years. No problems with R.O.U.S. yet, or even W.O.U.S.

    Digging holes in your backyard, though, has such wonderful “Rear Window” possibilities. I hope you dig at night, just to keep your neighbors wondering.

  13. August 25, 2010 4:12 pm

    Glad to hear you haven’t had any unwelcome guests. I think R.O.A.S. (A=any) would be a problem.

    As far as digging, yes, only at night and while wearing a hockey mask.

  14. October 5, 2010 9:28 am

    I admit that I compost and recycle. It’s not difficult but it can take some time “turning” the compost from time to time and adding water if it’s too dry. Ever since I began composting and recycling more efficiently, I’ve noticed that I throw out so much less trash. I have also noticed (in my cul-de-sac at least) that I roll the trash to the curb every two to three weeks while everyone else has full trashes weekly. What the hell are they throwing out?
    I don’t have anything against non composters/recyclers but it just seems a little wasteful.

    • October 5, 2010 6:02 pm

      Thanks for the comment–we had exactly the same experience. As I say, I might sound like I’m complaining but it’s really a good idea.

  15. October 6, 2010 1:26 am

    Tom, see how you’ve got us all cringing as we admit that we compost and apologizing for our recycling fetish?

  16. John Costigane permalink
    February 21, 2011 9:02 am

    Bokashi is ace. You do not have to bury it in the garden when you have a compost bin. Simple empty contents onto the composting mass and immediately cover with another layer of day-to-day food scraps.

    Last severe winter, the bokashi fungus was the first thing to appear (white circular mass) at the thaw in April, before disappearing.

    The only thing Japanese about bokashi is the word. It simply means 2 colours, and is a brand name.


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