How to Start Bokashi Composting in Your Apartment

When I initially heard about apartment composting, I thought it must smell gross – not just for anyone living there, but those living around you too. Surely putting the compost out on a balcony will drift around the rest of the apartment?

But when I read about bokashi composting, I realized I was wrong.

Composting doesn’t have to smell bad, and you can even do it without a balcony or windowsill garden container. You can compost conveniently with bokashi, with containers designed to keep in the smell.

Bokashi composting is definitely worth looking into, so here’s a guide on how to get started!

What is bokashi composting?

Bokashi composting, also known as fermented composting or bokashi fermentation, is an alternative to traditional composting. Instead of decomposing organic matter, bacteria ferment the matter.

Bokashi doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases, so all carbon, nutrients, and energy are transferred to the soil. This is because it’s fermented rather than composted.

You may hear people describe the final product of bokashi “precompost”, which is the final fermented product because it isn’t suitable to be used as compost. Instead, it needs to be composted more, but the fermentation process helps speed the composting process up.

Thought to have originated in Korea, bokashi was developed commercially in the 1980s in Japan with the use of “Effective Microorganisms”.

How bokashi composting works

Bokashi is an anaerobic process, meaning it doesn’t use oxygen, unlike composting that requires oxygen to decompose matter. Burying organic matter and compacting it with dirt is a natural form of anaerobic process, which allows microorganisms to break down the organic matter and release nutrients into the soil.

The modern form of bokashi composting relies on the use of bokashi bran, which contains the microbes needed to ferment food waste, and bokashi bins.

Bokashi bran is microbe-enhanced wheat bran that acts as an accelerant.

Like composting, layering is an important part of bokashi, as you need to add the bran on top of each layer of food waste.

It works in three main steps:

  1. Put food waste in the bokashi bin,
  2. Sprinkle bran on top,
  3. And then close the bin and wait.

It produces a runoff byproduct known as “bokashi tea” and the final fermented product that should be buried in the dirt of your garden, allotment, potted plant, or in a compost heap.

How long does bokashi composting take?

It takes around 2 weeks for the compost to ferment. In colder areas or climates it may take 3 weeks or more.

When buried in soil, it takes approximately 4 more weeks for the bokashi precompost to compost.

Why is it good for apartments?

Bokashi composting is ideal for people without a garden, because it only takes up a small amount of space. Think of it like an extra bin – while there’s more work to do in draining and burying the bokashi, you’ll be disposing of the same amount of food waste.

This can also cut down on how quickly your ordinary bin fills up!

Bokashi is also quicker than ordinary compost. It requires some small maintenance tasks every few days, but in 2-4 weeks you’ll be ready to bury the fermented waste.

How often you need to empty the bin also depends on how much food waste you’re generating. You might find that it encourages you to cut down on waste and eat more leftovers.

Pros & Cons of bokashi composting for an apartment

Pros

Cons

  • Bokashi containers are small and can be kept under your kitchen sink or any other cupboard out of the way.
  • Any organic matter from the kitchen can be used in bokashi, including dairy and meat scraps, reducing food waste further.
  • The fermentation process only takes a few weeks.
  • It’s cheap, especially compared to vermicomposting.
  • The bokashi tea byproduct can fertilize plants directly.
  • Once fermented, the end product can be buried in plant pots, gardens, or allotments to feed your plants.
  • It doesn’t smell as much as traditional composting.
  • You can even add it to worm farms or vermicomposting bins.
  • By teaming up with a community garden or green-thumbed friend, you can provide them with the finished product while disposing of food waste in an eco-friendly way.
  • Unlike compost, bokashi fermented material cannot be used as a mulch, so it has to be buried or added to compost to complete its breakdown.
  • Bokashi composting requires an airtight bucket or bin, and often needs a means of draining the bokashi tea.
  • Bokashi tea needs to be drained at least every 3 days.
  • Bokashi precompost can’t be added to plants directly because it is too acidic.

Step-by-step guide for how to start bokashi composting

There are four basic steps to bokashi composting.

Step 1: Buy bokashi equipment

You can’t start without the right equipment. The basic required equipment for bokashi composting are:

  • Bokashi container (preferably two)
  • Bokashi bran (usually sold by the kilo)
  • Drainage tray or cup

That’s it!

The final thing you need will be produced right in your kitchen – the food waste.

You might benefit from a few other tools, such as a potato masher to compact the food waste and a spoon for your bran to avoid contaminating your other utensils.

You can buy starter kits from brands such as Bokashi Living (Canada/US), WigglyWigglers (UK), Skaza Bokashi Organko (EU), ZingBokashi (New Zealand), and Treecelet (EU).

If you don’t opt for a starter kit, you’ll need to find a bokashi brand you like and purchase one or two bokashi bins or buckets. Two containers is ideal because during the fermentation process one bin will be sealed shut and cannot be added to. You can swap containers as needed.

For bran, make sure you get genuine bokashi bran – not just any bran will do. Bokashi bran contains effective microorganisms that enable the food waste to be fermented. Without bran, it will just rot.

Once you have your bokashi container, find a place for it to sit – somewhere in the kitchen is ideal – and store your bran and any other tools nearby.

You could put it under your kitchen sink or in a cupboard, or right by your ordinary bin. As long as it’s out of direct sunlight and stays around room temperature, any place can be a good place.

It’s especially important to keep your bokashi bran out of direct sunlight and at room temperature, as heat and sunlight can kill the microbes and make the bran ineffective.

Step 2: Layer food waste with bokashi bran

Next, whenever you have food waste, add it into the bokashi container and sprinkle some bokashi bran over the top.

Brands differ on how much should be used, but generally, at least a tablespoon should be used. Always check your bran packaging for instructions and tips.

Chopping up your food waste will help it ferment better and use up less space.

When you add food waste, it’s best to press the waste down firmly to compact it. This helps push air out of the waste, creating the best anaerobic environment, and ensures you’re making the most of your container’s space. A potato masher, plate, or hand will do.

Continue adding food waste and sprinkling bran on top until the container is full. This typically takes two weeks, but it depends on how much food waste you generate.

Photo by Richard Rinaldo/Shutterstock.com

Make sure you don’t add any liquids or moldy food to your bokashi bin. This will generate too much bokashi tea or contribute to rotten food, impeding the fermentation process.

Other than liquids or rotten food, any other food waste can be added to your container.

Sources differ on whether you can add bones to your bokashi bin.

Yuzu Magazine and Bokashi Living both encourage adding bones to bokashi for pre-processing. Bokashi World finds that while big bones don’t disappear in the fermentation process, they become brittle enough to easily crush them and add them to the soil.

You should drain the container regularly while filling up your bin, using a cup or tray to collect the bokashi tea, which can be diluted with water and fed to your plants straight away. The nutrients present in the tea will help your plants. Some people have even used bokashi tea to clean their drains!

Always ensure the lid is closed tight to stop air from getting into the container.

Step 3: Seal for fermentation

Once full, add your final layer of bokashi bran and seal the lid. It will take at least two weeks for the fermentation process to complete. This is why everybody recommends buying two bokashi containers, so you can swap them around as needed.

Make sure to drain the container of bokashi tea at least every 3 days. Bokashi tea will continue to accumulate in the container even while you’re not adding to it.

You can tell that the waste is done by the pickly smell, and there may occasionally be white fluffy mold. If you see green and blue mold and smell something putrid, something has gone wrong.

Step 4: Bury the fermented waste

Finally, once the bin has fully fermented, you can bury the waste, also known as “precompost”.

You can bury it in the garden, plant pots, garden beds, allotments, or compost piles, or even give it to a community garden or friend.

It’s important that you don’t bury the precompost under or close to the roots of a plant, as the acidity of the fermented waste can damage or kill plants. Instead, a fallow spot in a garden or a pot that you intend to add a plant to later is ideal.

If you’re producing a lot of food waste, you might find yourself generating more precompost than you can use for yourself.

It may be best to link up with a local community garden, plant nursery, school garden, or allotments to provide them with your precompost for their compost heaps. This ensures that you have somewhere to offload your excess precompost.

Alternatively, ask your friends if they need any for their own gardens.

An even better way to provide precompost to others is to find or set up a compost exchange. If you can’t find a compost exchange in your area, setting up a group on social media for your area is the first step. You can reach out to gardeners, farmers, and others, providing them with precompost for free and encouraging others to consider bokashi.

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in an apartment is the restricted space, so knowing you have somewhere and someone to take your excess bokashi precompost is important. Especially as you continue to make more!

Buried precompost takes around 3-5 weeks to be ready to feed plants. You can either plant on top of the spot or scoop it out of your plant pot and transfer it to a different pot.

Bokashi composting troubleshooting

What to do if your bokashi compost has gone bad

If you find that your bokashi has grown green or blue mold, you should dispose of it and try to find what has gone wrong.

The smell won’t be pickly either, and may instead smell rotten.

The most common reasons bokashi goes bad are:

  • The lid wasn’t sealed properly
  • There’s a crack in the bokashi container
  • The drainage tap or spigot isn’t properly closed
  • You haven’t added enough bran between layers

There’s no such thing as too much bran, so if everything else looks fine try adding double the amount of bran.

What to do if the drainage tap is leaking

If you find that your bokashi bin’s tap or spigot is leaking, check first if it can be closed fully.

With some tap problems, you can push in the handle while tightening it and this can fix the problem.

The most common problem for leaking taps is the nut found behind the tap knob. By opening the knob fully, you can use your fingers or pliers to tighten it.

Sometimes, the rubber washers can be dislodged by over-tightening, in which case you’ll need to disassemble the spigot and reposition the washer.

Disassembling can also help if something is stuck in the spigot and preventing it from closing properly.

Bokashi composting tips

  • Rinsing your bin or bucket with water and pouring it onto soil can make use of the remnants of fermentation – you don’t need to bury this, and it acts much like bokashi tea.
  • Chopping up food waste and compacting it in the container is the best way to remove air, make the most of your container’s space, and aid the fermentation process.
  • There’s no such thing as too much bran, only as much as you can afford to use. Generally a tablespoon or two of bran will be fine per layer, but you can add more when adding high protein foods like cheese, eggs, meat, and fish.
  • If you have an allotment, bury your precompost in the areas you’ve harvested to replace nutrients and microbes removed during the growing and harvesting process.
  • Store your bokashi precompost in biodegradable bags or another container if you’re not able to bury it soon (especially in winter). This frees up your bin to continue fermenting your next lot of food waste.

What you can and can’t put in your bokashi compost

What you can put in your bokashi bin:

What to avoid adding to the bokashi bin:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Cooked or uncooked meat and fish
  • Dairy products like cheese
  • Eggs and eggshells
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves or paper tea bags
  • Bread, cake, and crackers
  • Vegetation like flowers and leaves
  • Small bits of wood, including toothpicks
  • Shellfish shells
  • Soup
  • Plastic (including plastic wrap)
  • Glass or synthetic materials
  • Chemicals

Where to buy bokashi bran

Ideally, you should buy bran from the same manufacturer as your bin as part of a starter kit, but after that, you can pick any brand of bokashi bran you like.

Local suppliers are your best option – contact plant nurseries and garden centers and ask if they supply bokashi bran.

While many may say no, expressing interest in it can encourage them to contact their suppliers and purchase stock.

Bokashi bran is typically sold by the kilo, which should last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on how much food waste you generate.

Photo by Andriana Syvanych/Shutterstock.com

Avoid bokashi bran that advertises itself as a fertilizer or compost, as these are unlikely to be effective brand.

You should also be careful of results in online marketplaces that include normal bran, such as wheat bran.

You can even make your own bokashi flakes if you have the time.

Using EM-1 (effective microorganisms), wheat bran, molasses, and water, you can mix the flakes in a container to create DIY bokashi bran.

The Compestess’ recipe instructs:

  • Dissolve one and a half tablespoons of molasses in water.
  • Add one and a half tablespoons of EM-1 to the mix.
  • Pour 3 pounds of wheat bran into the container.
  • Add two-thirds of the water mixture to the wheat bran and mix it together.
  • Squeeze the flakes together until it sticks together without dripping. If it crumbles, add the remaining water mixture, and if it’s too wet add more wheat bran.
  • Compress the flakes into a plastic bag or container, squeezing out as much air as you can.
  • Seal the flakes in an air-tight container (or twist or tie the bag closed).
  • Store the flakes in a warm, dark cupboard or cabinet for two weeks.
  • After two weeks, check if the flakes have a sweet, yeasty smell. White mold is fine, but if there is any other mold it should be tossed in the compost.
  • Dry out the flakes by spreading them in a thin layer in sunlight, then store it as you would ordinary bokashi bran.

The best bokashi products

Most bokashi brands sell what seems like identical products. They all focus on the same system and require very similar specifications.

Quality of material, the durability of the container, and quality of the spigot are what you need to keep in mind.

The most eco-friendly bokashi brands

Bokashi has been steadily gaining popularity since the 1990s, and several brands have emerged as the most eco-friendly bokashi brands.

There are also numerous Amazon-only brands that are available in certain countries, whose quality and sustainability pledges vary.

My top three eco-friendly bokashi brands are Treecelt, Skaza, and ZingBokashi.

Treecelt

Treecelet is an EU brand founded in Slovenia by two brothers.

They work with non-profit organizations, support tree planting projects, and use recycled bio-plastic in their bokashi composter bin.

Skaza Bokashi Organko

Skaza’s Bokashi Organko models are all made from recycled plastics.

Their Bokashi Organko 2 Ocean model is even made from at least 30% recycled fishing nets, helping to prevent ocean pollution, and for every model sold they donate 2 euros to prevent ocean pollution.

ZingBokashi

ZingBokashi is based in New Zealand and is dedicated to sustainability. They’re endorsed by councils across New Zealand.

They only deliver products country-wide, but if you live in New Zealand this is the best company for you!

If they aren’t available in your country, try looking on Amazon or other online marketplaces for bokashi brands. The best brands will:

  • Have many positive (mid-to-high) reviews
  • Offer replacement parts if you need them (whether free or a small additional cost)
  • Have a website you can visit

How to use or dispose of your bokashi

How to use your bokashi precompost

Bokashi precompost should be buried in dirt or compost. The six best ways of burying precompost are:

  1. Dig out a trench in soil and add your precompost into the soil, mixing it well before covering it with 6 inches of soil.
  2. Dig small holes and bury the precompost in each, mixing and covering it as above.
  3. Bury the precompost in a compost heap, allowing it to compost.
  4. Make a soil factory by purchasing a large container to mix garden soil and precompost.
  5. Add small amounts of bokashi precompost to a wormery, allowing the worms to get used to its acidity before continuing to feed them bokashi.
  6. Donate the precompost to friends, community gardens, allotments, plant nurseries, school gardens, or anywhere else that might need compost.

Can you feed bokashi to worms?

Bokashi and vermiculture work very well together.

Vermiculture is a means of converting food waste into fertilizer, and bokashi precompost is no different.

The advantage of using both processes on your food waste is how long it takes worms to process the same amount of food waste, and allows them to eat organic matter they’d usually avoid.

While bokashi doesn’t produce actual compost, ready to use on your plants, wormeries do.

As the earthworms work through their wormery, they devour the organic waste left and produce worm castings, which make organic fertilizer.

Using bokashi and vermiculture together creates a closed-loop system, which is as zero waste as you can get.

The compost harvested from the wormery can feed your plants directly.

Do bokashi bins attract rats?

Rats aren’t typically attracted to fermented waste due to the pickling, though it is possible a particularly curious rat might dig into dirt and find the bokashi precompost.

It’s highly unlikely that a bokashi bin will attract any rats though. Thanks to their airtight lids, no odors will escape the container. This differs from traditional compost heaps, as the smell of composting can attract rats.

Is bokashi better than composting?

Because bokashi can be used with any food waste, including bones, it has a strong advantage over traditional composting, but it also needs to live alongside compost.

Reducing food waste is important, but being able to compost what you can’t use is far better for the environment. Some UK councils encourage and sponsor bokashi systems so people cut down on how much food waste makes its way to landfill.

In an apartment, bokashi precompost requires a space to finish the composting process, which is why I recommend reaching out to others in your area to find anywhere you can donate excess precompost.

Alternatives to bokashi composting in an apartment

Composting in apartments is difficult. The lack of space and garden makes it difficult to garden, and compost heaps aren’t always ideal on your balcony.

Worm bins are a popular way of indoor composting, as wormeries don’t have to take up too much space.

A 4-tray worm compost kit is a compact and portable option for when you don’t want it to take up too much space.

You will have to contend with fruit flies, but burying food waste under dry bedding or using a worm blanket over the wormery will help prevent them from laying eggs.

Donating your food waste is also possible – you can buy a container or bin to hold your food scraps and then find people to donate them to.

Farmers at farmer markets, allotments, community gardens, neighbors, and even businesses or municipal services might take in your food waste.

You should reach out and find at least a couple before you start storing food waste, so they don’t end up rotting in the meanwhile.

Apps like ShareWaste can also be utilized to help exchange food waste.

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