One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Topsoil

bootstrap compostPhotos by Jess Benjamin

With no citywide composting program to turn to, environmentally minded residents rely on private pickup services instead.


After throwing her pickup into park on Somerville Avenue, Emma Brown practically flies out the door, grabbing a five-gallon plastic bucket from the truck bed on her way. She dashes across the sidewalk and into a building lobby, swapping her empty bucket for one that seems quite a bit heavier, and returns, swinging the full one into the bed. After climbing back into the driver’s seat and crossing a name off a list of more than three dozen, Brown is off to the next stop—all in about 30 seconds.

Brown and her colleagues at Bootstrap Compost provide this curbside pickup service for an estimated 420 residents and businesses in Somerville and many more throughout Greater Boston. For 10 bucks a week, food scraps and other compostable materials—think onion peels, old leftovers, coffee grounds, dead floral arrangements—go into a Bootstrap bucket instead of a trash bin and, from there, to local farms, where they’re turned into soil.

In many ways, curbside composting is the logical next step for environmentally minded city-dwellers. More Americans than ever before report feeling concerned about climate change and human impact on the environment, according to a recent Gallup poll, and composting can divert a significant amount of solid waste from our landfills. Over the past few years, Somerville residents’ recycling rates have steadily increased while the city has ramped up other environmental efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. And so while Somerville doesn’t have a city-run composting program (yet!), local companies like Bootstrap sell that service directly to consumers.

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Bootstrap, which was founded in 2011 and began serving Somerville six years ago, has more than doubled its regional business since 2015. Today, the company counts more than 2,000 residential and commercial customers in the Greater Boston area. It doesn’t do much advertising, relying instead on word of mouth, and the business model comes with some built-in promotion: Bootstrap-branded buckets on sidewalks and front porches around the city often lead to more signups in the immediate neighborhood, Brown says.

At the company’s warehouse in Malden, employees—including Brown, who heads up customer service and marketing—consolidate food scraps from the individual buckets into big garbage bins, which are then transported to local farms. The resulting compost produces nutrient-rich soil that plants love, and subscribers can get a few pounds of that fresh soil returned to them throughout the year.

Residents and businesses that use Bootstrap report loving the eco-friendly service because it diverts food waste from their trash.

“We compost to keep food waste out of our dumpster, which eliminates a food source for potential pests,” explains Katie Rooney of the cafe 3 Little Figs, a Bootstrap customer. “And, hopefully, to make a positive environmental impact!”

bootstrap compost
Brown emphasizes that Bootstrap is a local company, one with deep roots in the Boston area. Two of the 18 employees live in Somerville, including Brown, and Bootstrap employs people through a Malden-based nonprofit called Triangle, which helps people with disabilities find employment. Plus, the compost they help to create stays local.

“We live here, we work here,” Brown says. “The money that you put into Bootstrap stays in the community.”

As much as you might want to join up, the leap to composting can be a big one, especially if you don’t have an extra $500 a year to spend on pickup service. There are some other options: For ‘Villens with outdoor space, the city offers discount backyard composters for $90. Two-thousand of those have been purchased through Somerville since the year 2000.

There’s also the Maine-based curbside pickup service Garbage to Garden, which recently expanded to Somerville and costs a bit less—about $15 per month—and encourages residents who might be interested in getting their hands dirty to sign up for volunteer opportunities.
“We collected almost three tons of food waste from Somerville residents in May 2017,” says Phoebe Lyttle, Garbage to Garden’s community outreach director, “and know the number will only continue to increase.”

Groundwork Somerville works toward environmental sustainability through programs and initiatives like the South Street Farm, and the local nonprofit sells affordable at-home worm composters—and worms!

But even so, Groundwork executive director Conrad Crawford thinks municipal compost pickup would make a big difference for the community.

“People need to pay for their virtue at the moment, but municipal programs would provide more access,” Crawford says. “The scale and reach provided by municipal programs dwarfs the laudable, but incremental, efforts of companies like Bootstrap.”
bootstrap compost
Cole Rosengren, a writer for the waste and recycling website Waste Dive and a resident of Somerville, says municipal composting is on a national upswing.

“It’s sort of a value choice in your city budget,” Rosengren says.

Nearly 200 municipalities reported offering compost collection in a 2015 survey. Around that time, Somerville announced its own plans for a pilot curbside composting program. But that never happened, mainly due to the program’s projected expense, which meant the city couldn’t afford to scale up the program citywide—even if it was a success.

Compost is still on ’Villens’ minds, though.

“I honestly think it might be the number one thing that I get comments and questions about from residents,” says Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Somerville’s director of sustainability and environment.

Sellers-Garcia points out that the city’s waste makes up a relatively small portion of overall greenhouse gas emissions—only 2 percent, according to the latest inventory. That’s significantly less than our emissions from vehicles, natural gas and electricity. And that makes investing in a municipal composting program a bit complicated, Sellers-Garcia explains, especially when there might be more environmentally impactful ways to allocate city resources.

“Climate change and the environment are not synonymous,” says Sellers-Garcia. “What we do for greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t cover everything that we need to do to have a healthy, sustainable community. But I do think [that complexity] adds some color to the decision that we all have to make as residents and as members of the community.”

Somerville’s waste emissions are lower than in other cities, too, because the city’s trash is incinerated to produce electricity at the Wheelabrator Saugus facility rather than being trucked hundreds of miles to a methane-producing landfill. But energy production facilities like this aren’t perfect, either. They leave behind ash which has to be landfilled itself, and Wheelabrator is located right next to the Rumney Marsh Preservation in Saugus. Waste Dive’s Rosengren recently reported that the Conservation Law Foundation filed a notice of intent to sue Wheelabrator Saugus over violations of environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, which Wheelabrator denies.

That’s why advocacy organizations, like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, say that diverting food waste from your trash is always a good idea, no matter where your trash usually ends up. Composting extends the usefulness of food scraps and supports local farmers, all while minimizing negative environmental impacts of trash incineration and landfills.

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Every municipality manages its waste in different ways—even our next-door neighbor to the south. Michael Orr is the recycling director for the City of Cambridge and heads up the city’s composting program, which he says began with a pilot in April 2014 and expanded in 2015 to serve more than 5,000 households. The program just received $1 million in city funds to expand citywide next year.

“It’s not just environmental,” Orr says. “It’s economic.”

For Cambridge, Orr explains, it’s less expensive to divert food waste from trash. (Sellers-Garcia says that’s not currently the case in Somerville.) Food scraps and compostable materials make up nearly half of total municipal waste, Orr says, which means composting can effectively divert a lot of trash. He thinks Somerville would do well if it adopted a compost program because in Cambridge, one-, two- and three-unit buildings have higher participation rates than bigger buildings, boding well for the city’s many triple-deckers.

Somerville definitely hasn’t ruled out a municipal compost program. Sellers-Garcia says the Board of Aldermen has inquired about entirely restructuring the city’s policies around waste management in order to accommodate composting. It’s also possible that the market for compost collection could simply become more cost-effective for Somerville in a few years.
Waste emissions may be a relatively small share of emissions overall, but composting has the potential to make a meaningful difference on a local level. And unlike many other climate and environmental policy goals, it’s a household-scale, tangible practice.

“You can’t necessarily choose where your power comes from,” Rosengren explains, “but you can choose what you buy and what you do with it.”

This story appears in the July/August print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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