Composting in Boston

This story was originally posted in February of 2013, but is being reposted here as a part of a change in organization.

Saving Food One Bucket at a Time

Last month, the United Nations launched Think.Eat.Save, an initiative to prevent food waste and food loss around the world. According to the campaign, about a third of the food produced in the world gets lost or wasted in the food production process. In the United States, that number is closer to 40%.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection estimates that about 15% of municipal waste in Massachusetts is food waste. Not only does this mean food is going uneaten, but food that ends up in landfills lacks the oxygen it needs to properly decompose. As a result, it releases methane while it decomposes, a smelly, greenhouse gas.

In Boston, Bootstrap Compost is offering residents an alternative to seeing their food scraps and other compostable materials excrete methane. Since 2011, Founder and Jamaica Plains resident Andy Brooks, 38, has collected buckets of compost from clients across Boston and its neighboring cities and sent their contents to local farms where they break down into compost. But he didn’t start the business as a composter.

“The reason I was really struck with the prospect of starting a business based around composting was not so much with what comes afterward…a commodity you can use in local agriculture,” he said. “I was more intrigued by having some sort of a role in the food in its state prior to becoming compost. I wanted to save that food.”

Bootstrap Compost attempts to do just that. It interjects after food has been wasted and inserts it back into the natural cycle of decomposition, allowing it to become something that can make more food.

“We’re using the food scraps that are produced in Boston to grow food for people,” said Everett Hoffman, a driver for Bootstrap Compost and a United States Compost Council certified composting specialist.

Customers also receive a portion of the compost their food scraps helped make.

The company started out as just Brooks and a trailer of buckets attached to a bike. He met his partner and vice president, 25-year-old Igor Kharitonenkov, when Kharitonenkov made a short film documenting Bootstrap Compost’s work. He joined the company as a sort of marketer, giving the company facts to back up its humble mission.

According to Brooks, every pound of food scraps in a landfill creates roughly a pound of methane. Bootstrap Compost has over 400 residential and 19 commercial clients and sends thousands of pounds of food scraps to local farms to be composted every week, thereby diverting thousands of pounds of methane from emission.

Brooks said those numbers are only going up. “Business is booming,” and right now, Brooks said they’re adding five to 10 new customers a week.

Part of the reason for the company’s success may lie in what Brooks and Hoffman agree is a recent increased interest in composting. Hoffman thinks the company may be a part of why.

“It’s a great time to be involved in compost in Boston,” he said. “I don’t know how much Bootstrap is a part of instigating that, but there’s a sort of zeitgeist throughout [the city] of compost right now.”

Although the popularity of composting is good for Bootstrap’s business, it could also become a problem.

The City of Cambridge recently published a report about the feasibility of citywide compost collection. The report also outlined plans for a pilot project to be instigated in April of next year at the latest. Although such a program is great for the composting cause, the effect it would have on businesses like Bootstrap Compost is unclear.

“That’s a hard one to say,” said Randi Mail, Cambridge’s director of recycling. “It’s kind of like asking me to look into a crystal ball.”

The pilot program would only include 800 of Cambridge’s close to 45,000 households for a year. If the city decided to implement a compost pick-up service, Mail said it would fill in for company’s like Bootstrap Compost.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a need for Bootsrap to serve residential customers,” she said. She added that the city would not serve commercial customers, and companies like Brooks’ would “still have a niche for the corner coffee shop.”

That being said, as Brooks said, it is still early to know what exactly a citywide compost service would look like, or even if the pilot program will be successful. There are still many things the city has to work out, like how best to collect the compost, where to send it and how to get it there.

For the moment, she would rather people be thinking about how they can reduce food waste now. She is more interested in preventing food waste altogether, not just making something with it. Her words echo those of Andy Brooks about saving food, and highlight the importance of initiatives like Think.Eat.Save.

“It’s really important to think about the amount of food that we waste,” she said, citing the 40% of food going to waste in the US. “Composting is the last result before landfill or incineration. I don’t want people to feel good about themselves just because they’re composting.”

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