Knowing, living, and being with bokashi
In this chapter, I will look at bokashi composting – an emerging waste practice which takes into consideration our co-constitutive relationship with microbes. Bokashi composting could be described as a ‘probiotic’ waste treatment method in that it works against the modern ‘antibiotic’ logics of purity and control. While modern waste practices have tried to get rid of waste as efficiently as possible – or even deny it altogether – a probiotic waste practice accepts waste as an intrinsic, and even essential, part of the maintenance of life. I explore the ontoethicopolitical implications of bokashi composting on waste relations.
How to live with surplus matter?
Think of ordinary everyday objects such as nappies, Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic spoons or oranges. Objects such as these often turn to waste as soon as they have served their purpose, and once waste, what is left of them is moved out of sight as efficiently as possible. Until recently, most of these heterogeneous waste materials would have been removed by dumping them into landfills or, at best, burning them in incinerators. These industrial waste management solutions have, as Gay Hawkins (2006: 16) has aptly noted, been marked by an ethos of ‘distance, disposability, and denial’.
Indeed, practices of eliminating waste by burying surplus matter in the ground, fuming it into the air and even recycling can be interpreted as attempts to deny accountability for the specific material consequences that the modern lifestyle produces. The engineering of landfills, which, according to a World Bank report (Kaza et al. 2018), is still the globally prevalent means of managing waste, has been concerned with ‘making sure that waste does not leak’ (Hird 2012: 458). However, the trouble with waste is that it always leaks: it neither vanishes in the air nor stays put in the landfills. Once in the ground, the unstable mixture of heterogeneous materials becomes part of the production and consumption economy of bacteria, which ‘relentlessly metabolise discarded objects into leachate, which in turn percolates into soil and groundwater, where it moves into and through plants, trees, animals, fungi, insects and the atmosphere’ (Hird 2012: 457). In the logics of industrial waste management, the threatening microbial liveliness of waste matter has thus been treated as something to fight against and to keep under control as effectively as possible.
As alternative human-microbe relations are currently being developed in myriads of lay and professional practices from health care to gastronomy, alternative approaches to waste management have also become subject to experimentation. In this chapter, I explore one example of an emerging alternative waste treatment practice, which embraces the microbial liveliness of waste instead of rejecting it: the bokashi method. In an attempt to take responsibility for the waste matter produced in the midst of everyday life, the method works against the modern ethos of ‘distance, disposability, and denial’.
The originally East Asian tradition of treating organic waste by fermenting it and using the ferment as a soil amendment has come to be globally known by its Japanese name bokashi (Christel 2017: 2).1 During the last decade, this alternative method of composting has expanded to the global North and has quickly transformed from a technique experimented with by a few dedicated enthusiasts to a fairly common alternative to traditional hot composting. In European countries, bokashi is mainly practised in private homes, although the method can also be applied on an industrial scale.
The bokashi method has been surrounded by bold claims for its effectiveness and benefits as a soil fertiliser. Although bokashi practitioners report positive experiences and the hype runs high, scientific research proving these claims is still scarce (see Christel 2017). However, I am neither qualified nor interested in proving the microbiological effectiveness of the method scientifically. For me, as a sociologist and waste ethnographer, the bokashi practice opens up an experimental contact zone (Alaimo 2010) which allows for the exploration and imagining of new forms of living with waste. As Sebastian Abrahamsson and Filippo Bertoni (2014: 126) put it, ‘composting shifts what togetherness might come to be’.
Karen Barad (2007), among other feminist theorists, pushes for ontoethicopolitical thinking, stating that our knowing practices, our ways of being in the world and our ethical orientation are all entangled and invoked in practical action (Shotwell 2016). Following this line of thought, the practical making of bokashi can be seen as affecting the practitioner’s knowing relations and thus having implications for our ways of being and living in the world. Therefore, in the pages to come I will seek to answer the following question: how does practising bokashi affect knowing (epistemologies), living (ethics/politics) and being (ontologies) together with waste?
Data and methods
At the time of writing this chapter, I have been conducting multisensory ethnographic research among bokashi communities for more than three years. I have welcomed bokashi into my everyday life by learning to make my own DIY bokashi buckets and I have started to ferment leftover food produced by my family. Over the years, I have browsed through dozens of blogs, guides and commercial pages dedicated to bokashi. I have joined bokashi-related groups on social media and taken part in the lively discussion in those groups. I have visited the homes of Finnish bokashi practitioners, encountered their bokashi buckets and familiarised myself with their bokashi-making practices, and I have had countless conversations with fellow bokashi practitioners. Thus, I am not merely a participant observer of bokashi practices, I am a co-experimenter (see Gomart and Hennion 1999).
As a co-experimenting ethnographer, I consider myself as one node in the lively bokashi community and take part in its constitution through my own actions, experiences, thoughts and feelings. Taking part in and following the discussions on social media2 have been just as important parts of my fieldwork as face-to-face encounters with fellow bokashers or the experimentation with my own bokashi. Each of these doings opens up a different aspect of knowing, living and being with bokashi, and together they weave the messy field of my ethnographic work.
As an attempt to make sense of myriad aspects of practising bokashi, I have kept several fieldwork diaries: 1) In the bokashi diary, a book located in my kitchen cupboard, I have jotted down entries describing my own bokashi experiences in my kitchen and garden, 2) in the digital fieldwork diary located on the hard drive of my laptop, I have collected notes from the discussions on social media dedicated to bokashi.3 In addition, 3) I have made walk-along visits to bokashi-practising households, which I have recorded with a voice recorder4 and complemented with written ethnographic observations. This chapter largely draws from diaries 1 and 2.
Inspired by the sensory ethnographic approach (Pink 2015), I have paid attention to the multisensory, embodied nature of knowing, living and being with bokashi. Drawing from the multispecies approach (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), I have tuned myself into the variety of more-than-human relations, asking how assemblages and alliances are formed in bokashi practice and what kinds of forms they take.5 The following story is weaved together from my co-experimental ethnographic insights. I start with a brief introduction to the bokashi method and continue with the sensory and relational story of knowing, living and being with bokashi.
Bokashi as a method
At its most basic level, bokashi is a method of fermenting organic materials with a microbial inoculant (Christel 2017). Culturing and utilising naturally occurring microorganisms has been an essential part of ancient farming traditions in Korea and other parts of Asia (see Park and DuPonte 2008). In his popular book entitled Bokashi Composting. Scraps to Soil in Weeks, Adam Footer (2014) points out that modern-day bokashi is a result of this ancient farming philosophy merging with relatively recent scientific research.
The isolation and culturing of particular strands of bacteria that are most commonly used in modern bokashi practice was originally conducted by Teruo Higa in Japan in the 1980s. The story of his discovery – a narrative not unlike that of Isaac Newton and the apple – is repeated on numerous webpages and in countless guides dedicated to bokashi around the world (see Footer 2014). Since then, Higa’s company has been developing this specific mixture of ‘beneficial microorganisms’ for commercial purposes. In addition to bokashi products manufactured under this license, there are also other competing products on the market.6
The promise of bokashi is that it is a simple, efficient, and relatively inexpensive method of treating organic waste. It allows the processing of virtually all types of kitchen leftovers to form fertile soil in just a few weeks. The Beginner’s Guide to Bokashi (hereafter referred to as ‘BAO’, after its Finnish name), co-written by Finnish bokashi pioneers, crystallises the process in one paragraph:
This might feel strange at first, but is quite simple after all. Throw organic waste in the bucket, add some bran on top of it, and close the lid. When the bucket is full, let it stay sealed for two weeks, after that it’s ready to be incorporated in the soil. The waste then turns into soil in two weeks. It’s Bokashi!
BAO further praises bokashi for being ‘easy, fun, cheap, odourless, and useful’. To do bokashi composting, one does not need to own a garden: it is possible to do it on a balcony, in the kitchen or in the bathroom. Because the process can be conducted indoors, even in small apartments, it is rapidly gaining popularity among urban dwellers.
Although there are industrially produced bokashi containers on the market, it is also possible to assemble an airtight DIY bokashi bucket out of two plastic buckets (see Footer 2014 for instructions). The actual bokashi process begins by collecting food leftovers in the bucket. The kitchen waste produced during the day is finely chopped and collected into a bowl. Approximately once a day, the bokashi bucket is unsealed, the food scraps are layered in the bucket, compressed tightly and sprinkled with a handful of bokashi bran.
The bran is any grain-like substance inoculated with the vital ingredient that gives the bokashi method its distinctive character: the mixture of microorganisms that work together ‘so that each organism causes benefit, not harm, to the other organisms in the consortium’ (Footer 2014: 33). At a minimum, this consortium consists of various types of yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and – most importantly – the photosynthetic purple non-sulphur-bacteria, which allow the other microbes in the mixture to coexist. The bran can be purchased ready-made, but some practitioners even go as far as experimenting with culturing indigenous microbe consortia at home. There has been some discussion on the possibilities of using kombucha or sauerkraut as a bokashi starter, for example, although there seems to be a widely shared consensus that it would then no longer be bokashi.7 However, it is worth noting that this kind of strict policy is likely to be the result of protecting commercial interests.
The procedure of chopping the leftovers and layering them in the bucket with bokashi bran is repeated daily until the bucket is full. When the bucket is full of tightly pressed food leftovers, the lid is sealed, and the bucket is set aside to acidify for at least two weeks.
One of the important products of the bokashi process is the leachate which has to be regularly drained off from the bucket. This microbe-rich and very acidic liquid is affectionately called ‘tea’, ‘wee’ or ‘juice’ among the bokashi practitioners. The golden brown, sour-smelling liquid is mostly used (diluted 1:100) as a fertiliser both indoors and in the garden. The undiluted liquid can also be poured down the drain to prevent blockages through the activity of the beneficial microorganisms that feed on the excess organic matter in the pipes.
After two weeks of fermentation, the ‘pre-compost’ is ready, and the container can be unsealed. In order to incorporate the fermented matter into the soil, it then has to be introduced to the aerobic microbes of the soil. As the fermented pre-compost is still juridically defined as waste – the Finnish Waste Act prohibits burying waste in the ground – it cannot be directly mixed with soil in the ground. In Finland, the ferment is typically mixed with ‘weak soil’ in a ‘soil factory’, which is made from a strong, rodent-proof plastic container. Soil factories are often placed indoors so as not to attract rodents and to prevent them from freezing during the winter season. After being kept in the soil factory for two weeks, the fermented substance will have metamorphosed into sour-smelling, humus-like matter. The product, bokashi soil, is very acidic and rich in microbes and thus it is advisable to let it settle for a few days or to mix it with less nutritious soil before utilising in gardening (see Footer 2014).
Although traditional bokashi methods – if defined loosely as a method of utilising fermented waste matter as a soil amendment – vary greatly from continent to continent (Christel 2017), the modern, urban version of bokashi is being practised in a surprisingly identical manner across the global North. The technical instructions similar to those described above can be found in various guides, blogs and discussion groups around the world. This is the kind of knowledge that the novice is equipped with when beginning their own bokashi making. These guidelines offer ‘aseptic knowledge’ which is cut off from the ‘fleshy and dirty world of practices’ (Abrahamsson and Bertoni 2014: 145).
Knowing with bokashi
Although the instructions offered above already contain plenty of detailed experiential knowledge that has been cumulated over time, making bokashi will gradually generate more personal and involved forms of knowing: embodied and visceral forms that result from becoming attuned to one’s own bokashi community. To follow what is going on in the bokashi bucket, one has to engage with it in a very physical way.
Although sight is often considered the most important sensory modality for knowledge production in the modern world (see Pink 2012), it is probably the least useful sense for knowing what is going on in the bokashi bucket. Instead, smell and touch are the essential sensory modalities in bokashi making. Multisensory evaluation becomes a necessary skill for observing the wellbeing of the bokashi substance and moderating the progression of the fermentation process.
One of the most frequently mentioned reasons for starting to make bokashi is the process’ relative lack of odour. However, in the end, bokashi is anything but odourless. Instead, the practitioner is introduced to a whole spectrum of odours, most of which are not exactly unpleasant but perhaps rather peculiar. The practitioner learns to attend to the wellbeing of her bokashi by observing the scent of the substance. The ‘bouquet’ of each bokashi batch is unique. The characteristic odour of a successful fermentation is acidic with hints of the leftovers that are being processed. If the contents of the bokashi bucket smell foul and putrid, something has gone wrong in the process.
The odour of bokashi is one of the most popular topics of discussion on social media among the digital bokashi community. The members of the groups often share pictures of each leachate batch and compare the hue, viscosity and odour of the liquid. For instance, the sour, lemony odours of the bokashi juice are described as so pleasant that one would almost like to taste the liquid: ‘It makes my mouth water’ (BG).
Indeed, the diversity of scents becomes one of the most appealing features of the method:
The special bonus is the adorable scent when opening the Bokashi container + in the leachate. The fragrance from the container reminds of the previously savoured treats – sometimes fresh lemon 🍋 and sometimes sweet strawberry 🍓 (BG).
However, the olfactory engagement with bokashi is not always pleasant. A slightly less enthusiastic member of the bokashi group calls for ‘bokashi-realistic’ accounts of the process to accompany the ‘rose-tinted images’ such as the one quoted above. Describing vividly how handling the fully fermented bokashi batch makes her eyebrows furrow, she insists that, to her, bokashi stinks like nothing she has encountered before.
Over time, the practitioner learns to tell by the smell whether the body of the fermenting matter is too protein-rich, too dry or too moist, whether the container has not been airtight or whether pathogens have spoiled the process. Most often, the spoiled bokashi batches smell like cow or pig manure or baby vomit. For instance, in August 2018, a new member enquired of the bokashi group why his soil factory was rotting and stank like cow manure. His question resulted in dozens of answers. The moderator told him to ask himself the following questions:
If the Bokashi matter itself stinks, you should ask yourself, have you added enough bran in relation to the bio waste? Have you put too much onions, cabbage, or coffee grounds in the bucket? How often have you been adding stuff in the bucket? Is the container airtight? Has the bucket been too close to the radiator, is it too warm? If you think these questions through, you should find the cause of the smell (BG).
In autumn 2018, I personally experienced a series of failures with my bokashi process: the product in my soil factory had developed a strong smell that reminded me of pig manure, and the stench in our garage was almost insufferable. By browsing the discussion in a bokashi group I learnt that my fermenting container had probably not been airtight, which had created suitable conditions for unwelcome microbiological processes. In addition to that, the mixture of ‘weak soil’ and fermented matter in my soil factory was very likely to have been too moist. To get rid of the smelly batch without upsetting my next-door neighbours, I had to sneak out in the middle of the night and bury the whole batch in the woods close by (because, as the bokashi crowd assured me, ‘the earth doesn’t mind the smell’). Afterwards, a smell of, frankly, shit lingered in the neighbourhood for days. Even our wheelbarrow stank for several days after I had used it for the operation.
In addition to the sense of smell, touch is also actively utilised in the process of monitoring the wellbeing of bokashi. Tactile feeling of bokashi is also likely to arouse similar mixed feelings of affection, curiosity and repulsion. A pioneering Finnish bokashi blogger, Takalaiska, describes how her eagerness to engage with the process of fermentation forces her to take a peek in her soil factory and feel the soil with her bare hands. She cannot help herself, even though she knows that it disrupts the decomposition process:
Maybe I’ll go and have a peek in the soil factory tomorrow. Just to get into the vibe. By the previous experience, I would expect the temperature to have reached lukewarmth. (Yeah, I’ll just boldly stick in my bare hand to feel the temperature… even though I am slightly repulsed;)) (Takalaiska).
As Takalaiska gropes the pulp in the bucket with her bare hands, she engages in intimate contact with the living matter in the middle of its transformation process. Feeling the rising temperature is a means of knowing that although nothing has visibly changed, a great deal is happening.
In another blog post, Takalaiska further discusses the aversion often connected to tactile handling of leftovers usually considered waste:
What is in it, that the very moment you categorize a foliage of a vegetable or a forgotten avocado as waste, it turns disgusting?? So disgusting that you don’t want to touch it anymore – just to get rid of it as quickly as possible. That it, to get it out of sight. As quickly as possible. Without effort (Takalaiska).
As is the case with any other waste treatment practice, the bokashi practice, too, is associated with affects such as repulsion and disgust. The experience of commitment and responsibility, as well as feelings of curiosity and satisfaction, works to overcome the unpleasant affects that emerge from different stages of the process (see Kinnunen 2017). The most devoted practitioners even overcome their aversion and pick ‘food’ for their bokashi bucket from the community bio waste container.
Bokashi tickles all the senses – it takes up space both visually and multi-dimensionally, it feels, smells and even tastes, and the sensations are not always pleasant. However, for the bokashi practitioner, these peculiar and sometimes unpleasant multisensory experiences are not something to turn away from, but they are rather considered as a form of communication: important messages that need to be taken seriously. Sometimes the bad smell is described humorously as a bucket’s ‘stinking objection’ to possible mistreatment.
Nevertheless, most of the time the sensual correspondence with bokashi is a satisfying experience.
Indeed, for many, the multisensory encounter with the fermenting matter provides pleasure in itself:
Simplicity, fastness and that lovely, almost physical pleasure you get when you dip your hands in the Bokashi soil after two weeks of decomposing. It’s better than chocolate 😍 🤗 😅 (BG).
The group member quoted above justifies her motivation for making bokashi with very practical reasons but also with the sensual satisfaction that the engagement gives her.
The mode of knowing that emerges in and through the bokashi practice is the result of becoming attuned to the materials in all their liveliness. The human practitioner who engages in sensory correspondence with bokashi sensitises herself to their subtle means of ‘communicating’ through the consistency, temperature, colour or odour of the substance, or the smell and the viscosity of the liquid the process produces.
The liveliness of bokashi entails the practitioner’s living in a state of constant vigilance and requires constant tuning and tinkering. The wellbeing of bokashi is monitored multisensorially and the practitioner learns through trial and error about the conditions in which her own bokashi can flourish. Over time, the practitioner learns to consider the specific, situated conditions of her bokashi – the symbiotic consortium of microorganisms in her bucket, the quality of kitchen waste in each batch, the humidity of the matter, seasonal temperature variations and so on – and to make adjustments accordingly.
Gradually, the multisensory monitoring of and laborious tinkering with bokashi become mundane, embodied skills, which one performs almost unconsciously. The practitioner no longer feels the urge to check every detail from an online peer group, or publicly celebrate every lovely, scented batch of bokashi liquid. At that point, living with bokashi has become an integral part of everyday life.
Living with bokashi
Unlike litter bins or even traditional hot composts, the bokashi buckets are not hidden from sight in cupboards or backyards. Although the fermentation buckets (especially the DIY ones) are often considered eyesores, they are nevertheless commonly placed in plain sight in order to ensure easy access in the flow of everyday life. Bokashi practitioners who make bokashi in small apartments report keeping their bokashi buckets and soil factories in kitchens, wardrobes, balconies and bathrooms, and even in the living room behind the sofa! At least for the keenest bokashi practitioners, the lived-in space thus becomes very physically cohabited with bokashi (Kinnunen 2017).
What kind of a cohabitant is bokashi, then? Bokashi, as a cohabitant, is often compared to a pet or a baby: a family member that must be nurtured and fed (and that wees, too). Bokashi is often associated with its container, the bucket. After all, there can be no bokashi without the container. The bucket is thus not a passive container for the matter inside but an active part of the bokashi community in itself. The bucket is animate and unstable in a myriad of ways: its plastic walls are porous and become frail over time, the spigot may leak and the lid may not be airtight. The bucket requires as much care as the matter inside. The liveliness of the bokashi bucket is often emphasised by giving it funny and affectionate nicknames, such as ‘Pikachu’, ‘Bokahontas’, or ‘Bämpäri’ (a combination of the Finnish word for bucket, ämpäri, and bokashi), and even by drawing eyes or a face on the side of the bucket.
However, the essence of bokashi lies in the unstable and lively substance inside the bucket. Experimenting with bokashi makes one aware of the huge yet invisible crowd of creatures that are necessary for successful composting, but which are difficult to identify because of their miniscule size: microbes. In addition to attending to their bokashi buckets as cohabitants, bokashi practitioners also tend to describe the microbes in the bokashi bran and the fermented substance as friendly creatures in need of care: ‘these “microbial-labourers” are crucial for the soil to develop. And they need to be fed and caressed, just as any other living creatures’ (BG).
As the above quotes reveal, the presence of microorganisms in bokashi is oftentimes conceptualised as ‘work’. The bokashi process is conceptualised as a symbiotic collaboration between different agents of varying sizes, which includes humans as well as bacteria, fungi and yeasts. From the point of view of bokashi practitioners, their bokashi bucket and contents is a meshwork of all sorts of materials, including a huge number of invisible microorganisms whose wellbeing they are responsible for and yet can never have full control over. The bokashi blogger Takalaiska has illustrated the fermentation process as a metaphorical ‘microbe-party’, in which the human practitioner works as the party organiser. If too many gate crashers (pathogens) enter the party, the ‘own gang’ (the beneficial microbes) has to be called in to calm the situation. However, the bokashi party has a high tolerance for intruders. It has been often emphasised that the success of fermentation is not so much a question of the exact combination or ratio of microorganisms but rather their high degree of diversity. In the bokashi process, a myriad of different microbes work together as a heterogeneous group, supporting and feeding off each other. As long as no single species of microbe becomes too dominant, the group itself is much stronger and more adaptable (Footer 2014).
Nevertheless, symbiotic collaboration does not mean unconditional openness to any agents; collectives are always formed and sustained by keeping something out (Latour 2005), which requires constant work.8 As Abrahamsson and Bertoni (2014) note in their ethnographic study on vermicomposting, the composting container is simultaneously an apparatus for both separation and togetherness. Bokashi containers are necessary apparatuses for transforming the human practitioner, the organic waste matter and the mixture of ‘beneficial microbes’ into a heterogeneous collaborating collective, but at the same time, they are designed to keep out other elements, such as oxygen, that are considered harmful to the success of the process. The bokashi practice is about creating specific togetherness by bringing certain active elements together and eliminating others at different stages of the process.
In the bokashi-related discussion groups, there is an ongoing discussion of the materials that have to be kept out of the bokashi bucket. Often, people start by putting everything in the bucket but become pickier as their skills and understanding of the method develop. One of the pioneering bokashers describes her transformation from enthusiastic novice to selective expert:
When I started making bokashi, my goal was – to get a lot of soil. But lately, I have begun to consider more about the quality of the soil. Everything decomposes (luckily!) but do I want to grow vegetables for my family in soil that has been made out of moulded waste? Bad meat? Bokashi is what you put in your bucket… (BG).
What I myself have learned so far, through my own experiences and those of my peers, is that bokashi prefers carbohydrates and has difficulty metabolising large proportions of protein such as meat. One learns to welcome some unappealing elements, for instance white yeasts or spongy, yellowish slime mould, as ‘friendly visitors’, while avoiding others, like hairy, blue mould. Also, certain insects are considered welcome ‘co-workers’ in the soil, while others are considered harmful. For example, a common nuisance in soil factories are sciarid flies whose larvae feed on the roots of plants, which is why they are often removed with fly traps. Some practitioners, like the one quoted above, note that they have become cautious about what kind of food they consume, so as to make sure that their bokashi gets the best nutrition possible. Moreover, quite a number of practitioners have stopped eating imported fruits and vegetables because of the pesticides and other plant protection product residues that the peels may contain.9
As illustrated above, despite the celebration of microbial liveliness and symbiotic interdependency, living with bokashi is far from unconditional. It rejects, among other things, oxygen, pathogens, certain (but not all) insects, rodents and toxins. Shotwell (2016) has aptly noted that while the emerging probiotic practices embrace the ideals of messiness and interdependency, a new form of exclusive purity has been created: a wish to disassociate oneself from ‘toxicity’. She reminds us that this form of non-toxic purity is possible only for the privileged few: those who have the means to choose, for instance, the air they breathe, the ground they live on and from, and the food they consume (Shotwell 2014). Given the commercial aspect of bokashi, one cannot help but wonder whether this new ‘probiotic’ form of purity is really available only to those who can afford to buy the inoculated bran, and further still, have enough spare time to spend on caring for waste.
Being with bokashi
Participating in the travels of microbial communities from food to waste to soil reveals that microbial liveliness does not stay in the bucket: ‘we breathe and eat microbes’ (BG). I have often been told that making bokashi has made practitioners ‘aware of the micro-level life in the soil’. As one bokashi group member formulates it, making bokashi has made her understand that soil is not dead matter which can be purchased in bags. Another Finnish bokashi pioneer states that, for her, making bokashi has brought ‘dead soil’ to life: ‘my relationship with soil has definitely changed. Formerly, there was just “soil”. Now the soil is the awesome world of microbes full of micro life’ (a Finnish bokashi pioneer, e-mail interview).
In contrast to healthy living soil, the commercial soil products sold in any supermarket or hardware store are often referred to as ‘sterilised’, ‘dead’, or even ‘killed’ soil. Bokashi practitioners that I have interviewed often emphasise that they are more devoted to ‘growing soil’ than to ‘growing food’. As one of my interviewees explains:
My harvest is not very large, but I get satisfaction from knowing that I feed the worms and microorganisms in the soil. That I can provide nourishment for soil biota. Thus, through bokashi I take care of the land and the soil.
This co-constitutive human-soil relation is highlighted via a biblical proverb emphasising the earthly origin of living beings: ‘we literally come from the earth’ (BG). Some members in the group even joke that they want their bodies to be bokashi composted when they die.
By making the practitioners aware of the microbial abundance of the world, practising bokashi works towards an ontological objective: it brings forth perception of the world as a constantly changing microbial ecosystem. Instead of stressing the separateness of human beings, bokashi practitioners see themselves as co-constitutive participants in this vibrant ecology. The barriers between bokashi and human bodies are further reduced through reminders that the human body is constituted mostly of bacteria: ‘most part of us human creatures consist of bacteria. They keep us standing’ (BG). This statement transforms the ontological mode of being with bokashi from being with microbes into being microbes.
The ontoethicopolitics of bokashi?
In this concluding section, I return to the question of the ontoethicopolitics of bokashi that I posed in the beginning of this chapter. I propose that despite being a relatively marginal method practised in the privacy of homes, bokashi may have wider political implications, as it crafts new imaginaries for knowing, living and being with waste.
In what follows, I will discuss the possibilities that bokashi opens up for challenging waste relations based on the axiom of ‘distance, disposability and denial’, and maintain that making bokashi may nourish and alter prevalent waste imaginaries in at least four ways.
First, the celebration of the microbial collaboration within bokashi practice enhances cultural imaginaries of the world as a living, symbiotic organism rather than consisting of stable, inert stuff.
Second, bokashi practice makes practitioners aware of the porous intercorporeality of their bodies, other-than-human bodies and lived spaces. If every household hosts a unique community of microbes, then co-habiting the lived space with bokashi alters this ecosystem by enriching the microbial liveliness of the lived-in environments as well as the guts of its inhabitants. Bokashi is thus underpinned by the idea that there are no strict boundaries between kinds and species, and that everything is connected and interdependent. Human bodies cannot be truly separated from, say, our waste heaps.
Third, bokashi practice operates on the logic of harm reduction rather than on the logic of elimination. Bokashi is not reducible to ecstatic coexistence with the microbial world but rather calls for a commitment to live with the particular tensions arising in the process. As the feminist fermentation artist Lauren Fournier (2020: 106) argues, fermentation as a political act shakes up tendencies toward all-or-nothing thinking and shifts the discourse from ‘healing’ towards considering individual and collective action in terms of harm reduction. Instead of perpetuating fantasies of total purity, the bokashi practitioner acknowledges her responsibility for what kind of waste is produced and what happens to it. To be able to live with one’s waste as best as one can may necessitate adjusting one’s lifestyle so that it generates different waste matters. Moreover, being affectively and physically involved in the transformation of matter turns the ethical responsibility towards waste into committed and constant tinkering rather than just dutiful following of rules and regulations.
Fourth, bokashi-making emphasises the reciprocal nature of care. Practising bokashi successfully necessitates joining forces with microbial abundance working in the organic matter. Thus, the ‘waste’ that is enacted within bokashi practice is not dead and disgusting matter but lively, full of potential, and even capable of mutual collaboration. This involved and reciprocal form of waste care forms a stark contrast with the institutional waste management infrastructure that has been designed to separate consumer societies from their waste both physically and emotionally. As one of my interviewees stresses, bokashi is much more than just an inexpensive and efficient means of disposing of organic waste. For her, bokashi is about revitalising and nourishing the land through increasing its microbial diversity. Thus, rather than being understood in terms of waste management, bokashi can be embraced as a form of caring for and with waste.
These ontological and ethical imaginaries crafted in private waste practices may seem to have an idealistic flavour, which may make them appear too unrealistic to be scaled up to public policies. However, as this volume points out, making bokashi is not just a singular funky hobby but part of a larger ‘probiotic movement’. Waste relations enacted in bokashi practice are in line with the emerging model put forth in current lay and scientific practices, breaching the ‘boundaries between humans, animals, plants, fungi and their bacterial and archaeal familiars and unfamiliars’ (Paxson and Helmreich 2014: 166). Probiotic practices such as bokashi making alter the way we humans see ourselves and our place in the world, and how we can relate with the other-than-human world. In these probiotic practices lie the seeds for challenging the axiom of ‘distance, disposability and denial’: they point towards the insight that waste is inherent to life and cannot be fully eliminated.
Bokashi practice might even work towards a form of waste politics in which waste is not treated as a passive target of management practices but as an active participant in heterogenous webs of care. Might environmentally oriented waste politics be better off building on an ethos of living with waste rather than aspiring for a waste-free world through schemes like Zero Waste? This would require dropping the ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude and, instead striving towards a careful reduction of collective harm. It would mean acknowledging that there will be no definite formula for the best possible waste management, but rather, we would be required to move towards the practice of constant and laborious tinkering. It would also mean becoming aware of what kinds of waste are generated in societal practices, and a willingness to adjust these practices in order to generate waste materials that we will be able to live with.
1 Bokashi is a general term which refers to the practice and the process of making bokashi as well as to the fermented substance and the end product.
2 Referred to as BG (Bokashi Groups) throughout the rest of this article.
3 I have been most actively following the largest and oldest Finnish bokashi-related group. There are currently over 9,000 members in the group, and that number is increasing daily. The discussion on the platform is extremely active. I have permission from the group’s moderators to carry out research within the group. Although the rules of the group do not allow me to use direct quotes from the discussions, I have permission from one of the moderators to use excerpts from all her comments. I may also quote comments from the discussion threads that I have started specifically to be used in my research. However, following the general ethical guidelines of social scientific research, I will always anonymise the quotes.
4 Transcribed verbatim.
5 See also Ogden, Hall, and Tanita 2013; Abrahamsson and Bertoni 2014.
6 Christel 2017: 4. Although there are a number of bokashi-related businesses which have trademarked different derivatives of the term, I have no intention to promote any specific product. Thus, I use the term bokashi in a general sense and intentionally avoid mentioning any trademarked or commercialised brands in this text.
7 What makes bokashi has been a frequent topic of heated discussion in bokashi-related groups. Many influential practitioners, including the moderators of the discussion group, maintain that the lactic acid fermentation process utilising indigenous microbes instead of a laboratory produced microbial mixture should not be called bokashi.
8 Even the seeming amicability of the digital groups on social media requires constant effort from the moderators, who devote substantial time to keeping the discussions friendly and supportive.
9 Although there is also a widely-shared assumption among bokashers that the ‘toxins’ are destroyed by the ‘good’ bacteria in bokashi.
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