The theme for World Environment Day this year was air pollution. A HUGE subject that gets way too little attention. Which is really a pity. Maybe that will change now?
There are so many aspects of it that it’s hard to know where to start. But one central part of the problem, in Myanmar and neighbouring countries, is the terrible damage caused by burning leaves. Especially when they are burnt together with plastic.
The air smells terrible, people are choking on their way to work, children are coughing during their lessons. People get sick and, actually, we have no idea about the long-term health consequences.
The smoky air of Inya Lake
At Inya Lake, where our team spent some time recently talking to restaurant owners and others in the tourism industry, there are other consequences too. Smoke and smell and toxic air hardly go hand-in-hand with attracting tourists.
They want help from us to find new ways of working with dry leaves. Part of the issue is that people just don’t know what the alternatives are. Are there any?
Of course there are! Dry leaves are a fabulous base for any form of compost. Plants love to grow in them. They are a valuable part of the carbon cycle. And they should be used.
We made this short film for them that they showed on World Environment Day – and others have been spreading it further, which we’re happy to hear. The message is there are ways to use dry leaves in a simple way that can be handled on any street corner, suburban block, in any hotel garden or urban park.
It’s not hard — the issue, as always, is knowledge and methods.
These are things we know about at Bokashi Myanmar, after all it’s our work. We collect huge amounts of dry leaves every dry season to use in our composting process, and we have developed a few different ways of using them on different scales. Part of what we do is run training courses to share this knowledge (if you’d like to come to our bokashi yard with your team and learn, please contact us)
Making compost from dry leaves
Our basic method of dealing with leaves and food waste on a larger scale is our bokashi compost stacks, you can read more about how to make them here. But we’ve also made leaf gardens as shown in the film using stacked bricks and a lot of leaves. Plants love to grow in these, and they are very quick and easy to build. All you need is leaves!
Another solution, that we have yet to document, is the triple cube: basically a set of three compost cubes made from shipping pallets in the same style as we do in the bigger yard. Cube #1 is used to store leaves throughout the season. Cube #2 is used to make bokashi compost as described in the previous link. Cube #3 is used to make a second round of bokashi compost while the first is maturing. And so it goes on. Simple and effective, and not big on space. Try it! Or come to our yard and we will show you.
Why do people go on burning leaves?
Tradition, mainly — and lack of alternatives. There is some misunderstanding that the CO2 generated from burning leaves is good for trees, after all they breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. Not correct, obviously, but a persisting fallacy.
Sweeping up plastic into the leaf pile is a convenient way of cleaning, and speeds up the combustion process. But it makes the already unhealthy air downright toxic. Plastic should obviously be separated, even if it’s an inconvenient work, and sent to landfill. Leaves should be composted and returned to the soil.
Many landfills won’t receive garden waste including leaves, and that is understandable given that most are facing capacity issues. But leaves left lying around on the street are likely to become homes for snakes and scorpions and that is not a good option. Dry leaves in dry season won’t break down on their own and it’s hard to compost them. But by keeping them wet (as in our brick garden above), nature will do most of the work. And by adding food waste in the form of bokashi, you not only help them break down quickly, you get an incredible space efficient and nutrient-dense form of compost. The best there is, actually. Just made from what you have lying around. Trash.
We are more and more convinced our mantra of “organic waste is not trash” is like a beacon for the future. It’s really needed to make this change, and set a new course for the future. The current course really doesn’t hold. Time to think new and start to get this right.
/Jenny and the Bokashi Myanmar team
Waste, according to the UN.
Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and fine particulate matter like black carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of waste is openly burned. The problem is most severe in urbanizing regions and developing countries. Open burning of agricultural and municipal waste is practiced in 166 out of 193 countries.
Improving the collection, separation, and disposal of solid waste reduces the amount of waste that is burned or landfilled. Separating organic waste and turning it into compost or bioenergy improves soil fertility and provides an alternative energy source. Reducing the estimated one-third of all food that is lost or wasted can also improve air quality.
Last week we took part in the Food & Hotel Myanmar expo in Yangon, a huge event with hundreds of chefs vying to be the best. The hotels, restaurants and resorts of Myanmar were gathered in the huge venue to soak up the inspiration — get new ideas and make new contacts.
Watching these chefs at work was amazing! 400 of them were competing in the 6th Myanmar Culinary Arts Competition, producing some spectacular dishes. But not only did we get to watch, we were invited to take part and support them.
Our Bokashi Myanmar team was there from early in the morning to late in the evening doing what we do best – collecting food waste. We put one of our trademark blue barrels at every work station, and trained the chefs how to put all their scraps into the barrel. Maung Nan, Inda and Aye Aye from our team kept the process running smoothly, coaching them, checking the barrels, adding bran.
And in the case of Aye Aye, sampling everything that was on offer!
It worked surprisingly well! We provided plastic rubbish bags for plastic and other rubbish, but in a competition like this there are huge amounts of food waste (the best part of a ton over three days, 46 barrels). And ALL of the food waste ended up in our bokashi barrels.
The chefs were amazed, and surprisingly supportive. We were worried we would be getting in their way, adding to their workload and complicating things. But quite the opposite, in fact.
Apparently this is a world first. We got some excellent feedback after the event from Tony Khoo, Chief Judge at the event on behalf of the World Chefs Association. Immediately afterwards he wrote:
I have not seen in any salon culinary competition which I have judged around the world where there is a waste organic blue bin for competitors to throw away their trimming waste and this will be turned into recycle food fertilizer organic waste.
How we will commercialise this vision and get the hotels of Myanmar to support it is another story. Collecting food waste bokashi-style is not the least complicated, but it can’t be done for free (transport! handling!). Currently, food waste collection in Yangon is more or less invisible: hotels, restaurants, companies of all sorts, simply throw out their rubbish, YCDC collects it, it disappears.
But even if the real cost is hidden from the books, it is very real in daily life. All waste from YCDC is trucked to one of the landfills around the city and dumped. No sorting, no methane management, no modern handling at all.
This is how you build a methane bomb. And occasionally it ignites.
Untreated organic waste decomposes badly. It doesn’t make soil, it does not make compost, it becomes a toxic mess that creates the worst possible greenhouse gases. This is because the immense piles of it prevent it from decomposing in a healthy way.
The anaerobic decomposition creates methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. The gas builds up deep down in the landfill mountain, so that if a fire starts it is enormously difficult to put out.
Fires like this are obviously terrible for the environment. They are also devastating for the people of Yangon, and every other city in the country that burns their waste intentionally or otherwise. These fires cause health issues that can’t be repaired.
Zero food waste
So how can the hotels of Myanmar help?
Hotels produce huge amounts of food waste — a five-star hotel with three or four restaurants will generate five to eight tons per month. TONS PER MONTH.
And at the moment, all of it will end up at landfill. Where it will rot and smell, but even worse produce methane that damages the atmosphere and causes people to be sick.
No single hotel can of course save the world, but every one of us has a part to play. We can stop food waste at source by finding smarter ways to use it in the kitchen. We can see to it that the food waste is diverted from landfill and is instead made into valuable soil.
Doing this – making fertile soil from food waste – completes the circle beautifully. It means that old food is used to form the base for growing healthy new food. Totally circular. And logical.
So how can we make this work?
Food waste can be collected, in Yangon at least, by our bokashi team. We have a program for this (our Hotel Food Waste Service, see below) which makes it convenient and affordable. All food waste collected in this way becomes healthy, fertile compost that is returned to organic farms and gardens in the city. We train your staff in the segregation process but we then take care of the rest.
We can also train hotel staff to process the hotel’s own food waste using our bokashi process for speedy urban compost. We run regular training sessions for this in our bokashi yard in North Dagon. This is actually the better alternative for hotels and restaurants with their own gardens, as it cuts out the transportation and helps you revitalise your own gardens.
We’re talking to a lot of hotels around the country – the interest is strong, no doubt about that. But the subject is relatively new, and there hasn’t previously been a practical solution to the enormous dilemma of organic waste. Food waste has not been high enough up on the agenda.
But now it is sailing up the list. And from our side, we are determined to offer a solution that can work for as many hotels as possible, wherever they may be in the country.
Huge problems like this aren’t solved overnight. But everything begins with a solution on one hand, and a will to change on the other.
And that’s what we are hoping will make all the difference in Myanmar. This madness has got to stop.
Every day it gets clearer to us just how important that is. The streets and backyards of Yangon are filled with trash. And the tragedy is that it’s the same story every you look. In cities, towns and villages in Myanmar, and in many other parts of Asia.
We’ve gotta do something about it.
Here. Now. Fast.
Lots of people are talking about plastic. We’re drowning in it, and we can no longer ignore it.
Here in Yangon we’re seeing a lot of good initiatives on many fronts — Thant Myanmar is working with awareness and education, Trash Hero and Clean Green Yangon are two of many spirited groups working with cleanups, organisations like Conyat Create are working to create the conversation that for too long we’ve not been having, companies like RecyGlo are getting involved on a commercial scale with recycling.
But it’s all about plastic (apart from RecyGlo who are working on many fronts).
And plastic, although it’s probably the most disgusting part of the waste stream, is just part of the story.
More to the story
Our story here at Bokashi Myanmar is ORGANIC WASTE. The soft, wet stuff that comes in some way from plants and food. Stuff that can perfectly well be returned to the soil, returned to nature, because that’s where it came from in the first place.
Organic waste is perfect for recycling!
It’s not complicated like plastic, that has to be sorted into many different categories before it can be recycled in the most effective way. It’s not complicated like metal, glass, batteries, electronics, building materials, that all have to be sorted and moved on to a responsible processing plant for rational and clean recycling.
Organic waste is easy.
Everything goes back to the soil. No sorting needed, no special knowledge or technology, or advanced processing plants.
The trick is to just give it back to the soil.
But NO ONE is doing this! And you can only imagine how sad this makes us. Because the soil is screaming out to be fed and we are wasting the seemingly endless supply of “soil food” that we could be feeding it with.
Two-thirds of the waste that goes to landfill in Yangon is organic. The other one-third is non-organic, the fractions like plastic, glass, metal and so on. That’s TONS** of organic waste that ends up on the tip every day.
Another huge amount, we have no idea how much, just lies and rots at the roadside or ends up in the nearest river.
Which, even if it disappears, is absolutely not recycling.
All of this organic waste should be used for feeding the soil.
We can do that by making compost, by fermenting and digging it down into the soil, by making organic fertilisers or liquid nutrients.
There are various options, but they are different versions of the same basic equation: what comes from the soil should go back to the soil.
So. Why has this not been done before? Why is it not being done now?
(**2,000-3,000 tons per day, in Yangon alone)
Organic waste is “too difficult”
We’ve spoken to a lot of people about this.
The general conclusion is A. that it’s too hard, and B. that no one knows how to do it.
And making matters worse, people generally don’t see the difference between the two basic forms of waste: organic and non-organic. The first step in this process will always be to separate the two. Because the recycling approach is totally different.
We’re not interested in sorting out the issues related to recycling plastic, glass and metal — we’ll leave that to the many experts in the field. For us it’s way too complicated anyhow.
But we are good at recycling organic waste. In fact, we think it’s quite straightforward from a practical point of view. Logistics and education are another story, but actually making a great organic fertiliser or super healthy soil is, for us no big deal. It’s what we do.
And we really want to get the whole Myanmar involved in this part of the waste puzzle. Because it’s something we can do on every street corner, balcony, back yard, urban farm, or even “real” farm.
Bokashi is hardly rocket science, anyone can recycle organic waste using this method, but it needs to start happening in real life.
End of speech. How about our projects here in Yangon?
They’re going great!
We’ve had a busy few weeks starting up new projects and moving our existing ones forward. You can read more about our waste management project in the Ward 67 community and our partnership with recycling startup RecyGlo here, in our November update.
This month we have three exciting new stories to tell, and I want to tell you about a gourd.
First story: we are starting up a school garden project at Dulwich College, one of the leading international schools here in Yangon. A very cool project, as the students (the school has all ages) already have a nice kitchen garden.
But the soil? It’s good, but it’s all been brought in from outside and needs regular fertilising. Nothing circular about that.
Meanwhile, the school is working towards environmental certification in the form of a “Green Flag”. Recycling of dry fractions is underway and that leaves the wet. One of the teachers, Matt Grace, is now bringing bokashi into the school canteen.
All food scraps will go into the bokashi barrel from now on, the students will learn about how this works and why it is important, and then the different classes will add “their very own” bokashi fertiliser to their class garden beds.
So smart and inspiring. And there’s an educational angle at every turn. We’ll keep you updated how it goes! (And we have more international schools asking us to help them with this approach, makes us happy!)
U Thant House, an inspirational oasis
One of the most respected men in Myanmar history is U Thant. He was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, a complex period of nation-building in which he provided a strong and clear leadership worldwide.
His house, here in Yangon, has long been abandoned but is now being restored by a family trust into a museum and educational center: the values he most stood for are those at the core of this new museum project.
The garden is one and a half acres of calm and shady peace here in the middle of Yangon. Next step, now that the house is more or less renovated, is to restore the garden into a true Myanmar-style haven. With indigenous trees and plants, and a totally sustainable message running through every part of the garden.
Like everywhere else in Yangon, the soil in the garden is poor. Sandy, undernourished. Like most other parks and gardens, the garden waste has been sent off to landfill or left languishing in a corner.
Our job, which we volunteered for within 5 minutes of visiting the house, is to help restore the soil, and to add what we can to help bring the garden to life.
We started a few weeks ago, working with the garden team at U Thant House a day or two per week to get the ball rolling. Ultimately, we hope to be able to share the bokashi story there with visitors, show what we’re doing, talk about why this is a valuable part of the sustainability story, help them learn if they wish.
To start with, we structured up the compost yard. And had so much fun in the process! We now have a very space-effective garden compost going that will produce compost for the garden, based on our bokashi methods (there is a difference to traditional composting; it’s faster, easier and more nutrient-dense. And extremely compact).
Next step, starting this week, is to start collecting food waste from the nearby market and next door school, and start building soil for U Thant House’s new kitchen garden with that. As well as boosting the compost no end with this essentially free and very valuable addition of nutrients.
It’s a brilliant circular story, sustainability at best, so we will work with getting it right. May take a while, but this is a fast-moving team with a lot of passion, so I suspect it will go faster than any of us think.
New bokashi yard!
Our next exciting news from these past weeks is that we think we have a new bokashi yard! Super exciting! We’re doing the last negotiations, Myanmar style, at the moment and hopefully it will all be clear this week.
It’s close to our existing yard, totally overgrown, but is twice the size with no house. So we have lots of space to work and can start receiving organic waste from the local markets (we have two), start making bokashi, and gradually start producing some organic compost and fertiliser products for sale.
We’ll also receive the bokashi barrels collected by our partner RecyGlo from corporates and households, swapping their full barrels with clean empty ones ready to go back to their customers for another round of food waste.
Cross your fingers this goes well!
And we’ll tell you next time how it’s all shaping up.
6 kilo gourd
Oh, and the gourd story I promised?
The other day we harvested this beauty. 6.2 kilos (we had a guessing competition, Inda won). It is grown in bokashi and sand and nothing else.
Our yard is a kind of desert, like many other houses in monsoon-drenched Yangon it has a half-meter thick layer of construction sand. Infertile and hard to grow anything in. But all the bokashi we have been digging down these last months, made from waste from the local market, has paid off. We’re harvesting these beauties every few days at the moment, and handing them out to the neighbours. Because there’s only so much gourd you can eat…
They taste great!
And, when you think about it, it’s kind of revolutionary. No fertiliser, no tricks. Just sand and bokashi. If we can do this, anyone can. Any old piece of land can be made fertile with the right approach.
Which means anyone can grow food anywhere. Even in an urban desert.
/The Bokashi Myanmar team
And! Super thanks to our colleagues at Bokashi Norway! They amazed us this year with a Christmas donation to our project that will be a huge help in renting our new yard and setting it up. We really appreciate the global teamwork, and all the heart that goes with it. Hugs to you all!
A lot of people are really upset about all the organic waste going to landfill here in Yangon.
Each time a council truck dumps its load of trash collected from the dumpsters of this megacity the stuff that pours out is predictable. One-third of the load is plastic and other non-degradable stuff. And the two-thirds is organic waste.
But organic waste should never be trash in the first place!
How come so much of it ends up at the tip?
We’ve spent the last three months working with this; our plan is to spend the next years changing the situation. Here, in Yangon, initially and later in the rest of Myanmar. To be honest, the whole of Asia is screaming out for a solution, but that’s more than we can get our head around just now.
We started Bokashi Myanmar this year with one big, wide vision. To stop organic waste going to landfill, or dumped in the river, or left to rot by the side of a road. And to start building healthy, fertile soil that can form the base for a whole new generation of urban gardening here in Yangon or any other city.
Our project started just under a year ago — with an idea, and a fledgling team. Bokashi is the name of the method we’re using: it’s a Japanese concept, based on fermentation, proven over several decades, and a damn fine way of making soil. It’s quick, and easy, and cheap, but the best part is that it gets carbon into the soil where it belongs, and out of the atmosphere, where it doesn’t.
How are we so sure about all this? With my team in Sweden, I have been working with bokashi for over a decade and it is a very, very good method. Just the piece of the puzzle we’ve been looking for globally in terms of sorting out waste management for the future. And regenerating soil carbon in the smartest possible way at street level.
So a year ago we started forming our team. I’ll tell you more about who we are later (or you can check some of our earlier posts), but there are five of us, two from Myanmar and three Europeans. At this stage. Pretty soon we’ll be growing our team, plenty of people would like to work with us it seems.
We spent a month in Myanmar earlier this year, all of us, researching the project and scoping out how to best do it. We met a LOT of people on all fronts — business, waste, community, NGO, recycling, householders — and it was totally obvious that we should take a deep breath, gather our courage, and make this project a reality.
In July this year, we started.
Monsoon season, obviously. The ultimate challenge in terms of making soil, starting a garden, organising anything. But we survived, and it was fine. Everything worked!
Our first step was to start a bokashi yard. A place we could have our headquarters, test all our ideas, create a demonstration site where we could show and tell and train. Produce the products we need, and start a rudimentary shop.
Clearly, with all the rain involved, we needed a roof over our heads too. Somewhere to duck in until the rain passed, organise our production and our paperwork, and have a beer after a long days work.
We found the perfect place — after some months of looking for something that would work at a price we could afford — in the northern outskirts of Yangon. North Dagon, Ward 45. It’s a normal house on a normal plot of land on a normal street in a suburban area. Close to the bus route but quiet as anything — birds and butterflies, nice neighbours and no cars. Ideal. We even have a bunch of wild cows that wander up and down the road foraging on the verges!
The garden was neat and nice — but basically just a yard full of sand with a few trees. The whole area used to be rice paddies once, which means it is submerged every monsoon. The problem is solved by those people that can afford it by filling their site with sand. So our yard is relatively well-drained (good!) but is basically a desert with almost a meter deep of sand (a challenge, to say the least).
The ultimate challenge for us and our ideas, actually, as we needed to prove — quickly — that we could create fertile soil using the waste we had around us and start a garden more or less immediately.
We started making bokashi directly. Barrels and barrels and barrels of it. We collected organic waste from our two local markets, from our neighbours, from the fruit shop on the corner. We fermented it all.
The process is simple, actually. We make a fermentation starter called bokashi bran out of rice bran and Effective Microorganisms (read more here) and molasses, and use that to ferment the food waste.
We give each barrel a week or two to ferment, then dig it down. This is our basic method: the concept we plan to spread throughout the country. Collect, ferment, dig down, grow. The whole process, start to finish, takes just two or three weeks. And it is possible to handle huge amounts of organic waste in this simple way.
The fermented bokashi can be used in a number of ways. We have one method for people living in apartments, another for people living in houses with yards, another for community projects and urban farmers.
The method we’re working with most, just now, is the latter. We’ve set up a corner to demonstrate the first two methods, but the real challenge is how to process big quantities of food waste in relatively small spaces. In effect, we are developing compost farms that can be scaled from very small scale to very big.
Actually, we were really lucky to have a visit from a New Zealand woman, Claire Mummery, in the middle of all this testing. Clair has worked with large-scale bokashi for many years in vineyard restaurants in NZ and has developed an excellent method that she shared with us.
It means we can get 200-300 liters of fermented organic waste down into a small area of just a couple of square meters.Where previously we were layering with soil (or in our case, sand, as we have no soil), Claire showed us how to layer with carbon. So now we dig deep trenches a meter or so deep, and alternate layers of coconut husks, brown leaves, shredded newspaper and rice husk with our fermented organic waste, or bokashi.
In terms of soil-building, this is optimal, as the brown materials have a higher carbon content than the fruit and vegetable waste, which have more nitrogen. We top off these deep beds, filled with the most amazing nutrients, with a layer of sand.
One week later we can start planting.
This is unheard of in the gardening world.
Normally compost is something that takes months and years, not just a couple of weeks. Bokashi is fast, but the magic is that you don’t have to wait for all the materials to turn into soil before you start planting in them. The first week or so the mix is a bit acidic, but after that it’s fine — and the fermentation has prepared the nutrients in such a way that the plants can take them up immediately.
Actually, a very convenient win-win solution. We get rid of our waste fast, and we can start growing in it fast.
This means that the time from a pineapple or cabbage being discarded at market until a new tomato or mango is planted in the mixture is just a couple of weeks. And the new plant will have all the nutrition it needs to grow big and strong, and produce new fruit and vegetables.
So this is what we’re doing in our bokashi yard.
We’re currently processing 60-100 liters of organic waste per day in our small yard. Just to see if we can, and if it works. We’ve sorted out a few deals with the cabbage guy at the market, and the coconut guy, and with the fruit woman too, and there is a squad of local trishaw riders who more than happily deliver it all to us at going rates.
All this experimentation is giving us confidence in what we’re doing. We’re getting some good flows going, and learning how to streamline our, admittedly, small-scale process.
Next step is to scale it up a notch. So we’re looking for a new, and bigger yard, not too far away where we can start up more of a process line. We hope to add a coconut crusher to the input end, and a roofed area where we can work, some proper space for all our incoming and outgoing materials.
We’re arranging with companies and others to get in our raw materials — organic waste, mainly — and will develop a range of different compost and fertiliser products as our output. For people that want to do all this themselves, we will structure up our training and demos and share our methods.
That’s our bokashi yard, version 1.0. We are really pleased, and excited about what our yard 2.0 will bring.
Meanwhile, we have a couple of other projects underway — same idea but in communities where this type of solution is so badly needed.
Setting up shop here doesn’t seem to be so be so hard. A cloth on the ground and a truckload of veggies brought in from the farm. But there’s a lot of competition, these markets in Yangon are big!
And at the end of the day there’s a neat pile of waste by each stand. We’d like to get our hands on it!