Going green, green, greener in San Franscisco

Photo: www.apartmenttherapy.com

Strange that I just read a story about flower power in connection with San Francisco in the sixties. Now there’s a new kind of green peace happening on the streets there. Compost to the people. Or rather, people to the compost.

Breaking news that I picked up on Jonathan’s US food waste site is that once summer is over, San Fran residents will be required to sort their food waste. Bye-bye trash can, hello Bokashi bin.

The San Franscisco Chronicle writes that

Throwing orange peels, coffee grounds and grease-stained pizza boxes in the trash will be against the law in San Francisco, and could even lead to a fine.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Tuesday to approve Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal for the most comprehensive mandatory composting and recycling law in the country. It’s an aggressive push to cut greenhouse gas emissions and have the city sending nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

Needless to say some residents are up in arms. Rats. Smell. Too hard.

Let’s hope they find a good way of implementing the scheme so that more people than not come to see the joys of composting. No, composting is not perfect — it creates more greenhouse gases than we’d like to admit (which is why Bokashi is an ideal alternative). But the big breakthrough, the first step in a long journey, is to wake up to the enormous potential that food waste has as a resource. Sort it and SEE IT. If you have to look at how much food you’re throwing out you must surely start to see ways of cutting back on what gets tossed. If you start getting food out of landfill you start seeing how much less we could load the planet if we try. And if you start thinking about where the food waste came from in the first place you might start to understand the connection to our soil. Why what we eat comes from the soil and must ultimately return to the soil. Recycling of food is every bit as important as recycling of paper, glass, metal and all the other things we’re so good at.

And it doesn’t need to be a horrible process. Food recycling can be fun. Just add some imagination, maybe its not necessary to go down the whole council route. Maybe you can get it back into your own garden or at least a garden in a neighbourhood near you. There’s a real and rarely experienced joy waiting for you down the track: soil that’s looked after and fed well with what we can’t eat ourselves will pay us back with fantastic food that we might never have expected to be rewarded with.

Go on, give it a try all you San Fran residents! Show the world what a success it can be — show us the rewards, the joys and how it can really be done well! And good luck.

By the way, it seems like San Fran residents can go bucket in hand and pick up some real live compost made from their own food waste. Check apartmenttherapy.com!

PS Anyone wanting to find out why composting is good but actually not great should check out www.bokashicycle.com. A US site. Yes, they sell Bokashi bins but they also have a lot of excellent research documentation and reasoned argumentation why it is essential we get food waste down into the ground where it will become nature-saving carbon instead of the heady mix of methane and carbon dioxide which untamed compost generates.

9 thoughts on “Going green, green, greener in San Franscisco

  1. Jenny:

    You know I love your site. (Have to say, I’m glad _I_ don’t have to store my bokashi all winter long the way you do!) But I take issue with that line about compost producing more GHG than we wish to admit, because it’s not necessarily true. Or even, necessarily, untrue with bokashi.

    Production of methane [CH4] is dependent upon which microbial populations are best suited to the given enviornmental conditions. It is, one should note, an anaerobic process. A non-agitated pile isn’t “aerobic” any longer, no matter what you call it, and that’s the sort that generates those impressively disturbing amounts of that particular GHG. (Well, that and industrial composting, but that’s a different matter.)

    On the other hand… You know what happens if your trenched bokashi gets too wet soon after it’s been deeply buried? Methane. Not nearly as much as if landfilling, but I’ve yet to find any figures comparing potentials for trench-generation to the gas levels given off by a properly managed home Indore-style compost pile—it could be as high or even higher, for all I know, and though the soil will contain/dissipate/filter some, a percentage may well escape. Does that mean folks in swampy areas shouldn’t bokashi? Not if you ask me; I’d tell them to compost the stuff after the bucket-stage, as they’d have more control of moisture levels that way. -G-

    There’s no disputing that improperly managed composting can produce methane, but then, so can a pile of wet wood shavings! (Not to mention mammals, as they say, passing gas.) Before I’d buy the argument that composting, and particularly composting bokashi, had any significant detrimental effect, I’d need to see studies comparing _properly managed_ trad home piles and composting bokashi in small batches to the alternatives.

    Seems to me, the solution isn’t to condemn composting, but to do it right if doing it.* For the hot-composter crowd, frequent agitation can prevent anaerobic pockets, in which case methane isn’t an issue. My current practice is bokashi fermentation prior to aerobic composting; I haven’t yet found the figures or become invested enough to do the work myself, but I assume—at least until I see studies showing otherwise—that since fermentation helps to break down lignins and cellulose, composting with large proportions of bokashi even improperly would produce less methane than the equivalent trad composting, though since I still agitate it’s not an issue chez bucket anyway.

    Deep trenching might still be better if methane _in air_ is your only concern. But since you mentioned it…

    I compost much of my bokashi because compost is more versatile. I can use it for top-dressing or mulch, to make compost tea, or mix it with potting soil and use immediately, as opposed to waiting two weeks. (Fertilize a sad-looking guerilla garden or two, too. Shh!) But that’s not the only benefit: making compost from my bokashi and dried leaves, I sequester twice as much carbon as I would solely by trenching. Assuming I had a place to dig a trench in the soil, which I don’t.

    Yikes! Sorry for the post-length-comment. I’ll go back to lurking now…


    *not saying you do. That site you linked, however, is written for an audience that does not include those of us who have no holes in the ground! Or whose holes are, for one reason or another, unsuited for burying bokashi.

  2. This is a point of correction regarding DSF’s comment about methane gas. The suggestion that Bokashi fermentation could produce methane is absolutely false.

    Methane gas is produced by microbes called methanogens and they do indeed produce the methane gas under anaerobic conditions. But only when the pH is near neutral (7.0).

    The methanogens can not survive in an anaerobic acidic environment. Bokashi fermentation is an acidic anaerobic process and methanogens can not survive when the pH drops below about 5.5. Bokashi fermentation with the production of acid during its process of decomposition takes the pH well down to 4.5, a 10 times more acidic level than can be tolerated by those methane bad actors.

    The carboxy acids formed during bokashi fermentation are then rapidly metabolized by soil microbes when the fermented product is put into the soil rendering the soil only slightly acidic. Usually this is near pH 6.5 which is ideal for plants. And in the process a great boost in soil microbe populations and diversity has occurred.

    It is unfortunate that many people who are accustomed to composting seem to think it is ok and non-polluting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even under the most stringent and perfect conditions massive amounts of water vapor and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Both of these are well known gases that heat up the atmosphere. It is well documented that carbon dioxide is produced in prodigious amounts during composting which is why the pile drops so greatly in carbon content and weight in the decomposition process.

    Composting is a man made process and never occurs naturally in nature. Try as you will, you will never find any nature process that continually turns and introduces air to get complete oxidation of a “piled” mass of organic matter except when man does it himself. The opposite is true………things get wet, matted down, and go anaerobic. Acidic fermentation requires a special group of microbes not commonly found together in nature. So bokashi fermentation is a special way of converting waste to valuable nutrients that then feed the soil microbes.

    Bokashi fermentation is the opposite of composting, retaining all the nutrients and returning it to the soil. There is no oxygen present, no heat produced, no smells and it is fast. There is no appreciable oxidation other than a very minor microbial respiration when the oxygen level introduced when the fermenter is opened and then closed.

    It is unfortunate that most officials that are involved in making decisions do not have sufficient scientific backgrounds to give the public better informed alternatives. Bokashi fermentation is by far the superior way of handling the food waste problem in both the residential and commercial sphere.

    Thank you Jenny for getting this discussion into the open forum The more people see the real issues with clarity, the better off we will be. And she is correct………it’s easy and fun to handle your own food waste knowing you are doing the right thing.

    1. San Francisco history: welcome to the site! And thanks for your encouraging words…
      DSF, Larry: Thanks for taking up this topic and airing it from all angles. I’d say we all have a way to travel on this one and it’s interesting to be able to work together the best we can to tell the story. I’m no scientist so I really appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share. The more people we can get on this Bokashi bandwagon the better, and getting our collective facts straight is part of the journey. The interest is certainly not going to get less!

  3. Interesting diskussion indeed. Even though I agree that bokashi implemented the right way really makes a difference to the better for our future. It is a complex topic and there is a lot of knowledge and infrastructure to develop. Ponder that people in a big area produce a lot of bokashi. If that bokashi ends up in a big pile and left to wind and weather…yes it wil start to rotten and give up its identity as bokashi. Dug down into the eaerth it boosts the microbial life there and dug in to the compost it boost the microbial diversity there. Big heaps of anything is unnatural even heaps of bokashi. What is so fantastic with it is the balanced cooperation betwen the different groups of microorganisms . Particularly the tricks played by the phototropic ones. They are the ones that really tackle lignin and even toxic poly cloride-benzo stuff. They are also in charge of snipping the carbondioxide out of the fermentation and thus making bokashi to a closed circle…
    Still it has to be implemented all the way back to the soils and thus qualify as the savior of our future..As a spin of ore synnergy effect the bokashi leakwater helps rising the standard of seewage waste water by 80-90% wich in itself is a miracle and a blessing to environment isn´t it

  4. Larry’s figures as regard pH do tally with those I’ve seen elsewhere as regards mature bokashi, but not all bokashi is mature bokashi. My earlier post really should have been clearer about that, and I do apologize for the misplaced modifier (as well as the length!). But just because some matter has been in the bokashi bucket does not mean it’s uniformly achieved that necessary pH–the process can be slowed by too-large pieces, too little pressing/too much air, an environment colder than the ones your retailer-of-choice used to figure the recommend curing period, etc. (Failed bokashi might best be considered as a separate issue.) And then there are the retailers who claim you can skip the curing period entirely so long as you’re trenching…

    Retailers, of necessity, try to keep the process simple; hence curing time rather than pH testing. But sometimes it helps to know the reasons behind the recommendations.



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