News: Dirty Business

compostBy Nick Cox

When you think of the future, what leaps to mind? Jetpacks? Google Glass? Netflix beamed straight to your occipital lobe?

How about discarded foodstuff?

It’s the last one that Mayor Joseph Curtatone, in true Somerville style, is betting on. On February 25, City Hall announced that it was seeking applicants for a nine-person committee to head up the implementation of a municipal compost collection service for Somerville residents. Once assembled, the Curbside Composting Task Force, which will be co-chaired by Mayor Curtatone and Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, will look into how best to pick up an entire city’s food scraps off the sidewalk.

If it succeeds, the curbside composting initiative could greatly improve the city’s environmental impact. According to an estimate by the Somerville Office of Sustainability and Environment, foodstuff accounts for roughly 25 percent of our trash, which means that curbside composting could potentially divert as much as 5,200 tons of Somerville’s waste per year out of landfills and into the ecosystem.

BootstrapUrban composting is not without precedent: Bootstrap Compost, a commercial curbside compost collection service founded in Jamaica Plain in 2011 and now based in Charlestown, serves 700 customers all across the Boston area, including about 100 in Somerville. Bootstrap customers pay on a weekly or biweekly basis, and get a clean compost bucket with each pickup. They also have the option to receive a five-pound share of premium soil, nourished in some small part by their own food waste, every four months.

Bootstrap founder Andrew Brooks says his customers choose to compost for a wide variety of reasons, only one of which is a sense of planetary custodianship. “I compost … because it feels good and makes me proud,” he says, “But you have to cast to a wide net.”

The city of Boston has tentatively probed the idea of municipal composting. Last summer, it ran a three-month pilot program in which willing participants could drop food scraps off at any one of three weekly farmers’ markets.

But Somerville, true to form, is looking to go full nelson on food scrap repurposing, with a municipal composting program that offers Bootstrap-style curbside collection.

Nor should we be surprised – the city is certainly a leader in the burgeoning urban agriculture movement. In the fall of 2012, it became the first community in the state to adopt an urban agriculture ordinance, which regulated the sale of homegrown fruits and vegetables (as well as beekeeping and chicken-rearing), and published a helpful guide for Somerville residents looking to get their hands dirty.

compstIndeed, the city’s large urban agriculture-minded community is one of the main factors driving the move to municipal curbside composting. “A lot of the city are already composting or interested in it,” says Jackie Rossetti, the mayor’s deputy director of communications.

But the Somerville composting initiative hopes to entice even those outside the preexisting composting community. “A lot of people [want] to compost but are also concerned about trash and cleanliness issues as well,” adds Rossetti, “ [so] there’s [also] an educational component.” For instance, for those who are worried that putting food out on the sidewalk might attract rats and other vermin, she explains that “there are mechanisms by which, if you’re doing it properly, it shouldn’t attract rodents.”

Brooks, by now an expert on how to sell skeptics on the compost gospel, offers his two cents: “One thing that is key is not making composting some sort of grueling and difficult task. It’s got to be clean, it’s got to be convenient, it’s got to be reliable. Those three things will convince naysayers over time.”

Forget jetpacks and flying cars – this is a future we can be really be proud of.