A new business is helping city residents in the Greater Boston area turn their food waste into brown gold. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn profiles the owner of the kitchen scrap pickup service, Bootstrap Compost.
CURWOOD: You're listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Americans waste a lot of food. We throw away a staggering 68 billion pounds of food each year, most of which winds up in municipal landfills.
Composting is one solution to the problem but it's not always easy, especially if you live in a city. But now some urban dwellers in Massachusetts can compost without the dirty work - producing nutrient-rich material that can be added to the soil, and enriching a young entrepreneur at the same time. Living on Earth's Jessica Ilyse Kurn has our story.
KURN: It’s late afternoon and Catherine Iagnemma stands in her 2nd floor apartment kitchen. The Somerville, Massachusetts resident grabs a colander, washes vegetables and lays them out on the counter.
[SOUNDS OF WASHING AND CHOPPING VEGATABLES]
IAGNEMMA: So, I’m making dinner, and I’m cutting up my brussels sprouts.
KURN: Also on the menu: sweet potatoes, asparagus and ground lamb. Iagnemma cuts off the vegetable ends and pushes them into a pile on her wooden cutting board.
IAGNEMMA: Normally, all these ends, I would just throw in the trash. But I’m going to take them, and just put them in this five gallon bucket that we keep right next to our butcher's block.
KURN: In the ideal world, Iagnemma would have the time and space to throw these scraps in a backyard compost heap. But her neighborhood is dense. Her backyard is small. She finds the logistics of composting overwhelming.
IAGNEMMA: Like if I had to go and start up a compost bin in my backyard, I don’t know if I would do it, or I don’t know if I would know how to do it.
KURN: Now composting is part of Iagnemma’s routine, thanks to a new startup business.
IAGNEMMA: I just feel like it should be a part of anyone’s environmental protocol. If they’re recycling, then composting is really not that hard, especially with someone like Andy.
KURN: Andy is Andy Brooks, a young entrepreneur who founded Bootstrap Compost - a kitchen-scrap pickup company. Brooks travels around greater Boston, mostly by bike, and collects organic waste for customers like Iagnemma. He then brings it to a local farm for composting.
[SOUNDS OF OUTSIDE]
BROOKS: Through composting our material, we are collectively improving our community.
KURN: The idea of helping the community was his inspiration, and he had another motivation. A college grad, Brooks was getting frustrated after searching endlessly for jobs.
Andy Brooks with his hand cart, which he uses, to transport compost buckets in winter, instead of his bike. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)
BROOKS: After like relying on this cruel economy of applying and cover letters and resumes and interviews, and nothing was going anywhere for like two years, and I was, like, forget it, I gotta do something for myself, and the whole notion of, like, picking myself up.
KURN: And so Bootstrap Compost was born. Brooks says there are many reasons why he loves helping urbanites compost.
BROOKS: When people ask me that question, it’s like someone saying, ‘Why do you like Star Wars? Or why are the Beatles good?’ I get dizzy. Like, there's so many reasons. The way that interests me is like - what are the challenges that we face being a disposable society?
KURN: Brooks puts on his helmet, and jumps on his souped-up bicycle - complete with a custom-made trailer that tags behind. Such a setup couldn’t have been designed for anything other than a nomadic compost business.
[SOUNDS OF BIKE PEDALLING]
BROOKS: It’s super beautiful, I have to say. It’s all aluminum and then a real simple, thin sort of barrier around it to keep everything inside of it. It’s got two super-nice 10-speed wheels, a reinforced axle - so it’s super sturdy. I mean, it looks pretty awesome.
KURN: Six empty buckets sit in the trailer. They'll soon be swapped with pails filled with carrot tops, banana peels and other scraps. Bootstrap Compost currently serves several dozen customers and is growing. Brooks destination today: the Boston neighborhood, Jamaica Plain.
[SOUNDS OF BIKE PEDALS, GRABBING A BUCKET; CLIMBING STEPS]
KURN: He grabs an empty bucket, and climbs up to the porch of a triple-decker house where a filled-to-the-brim pail is waiting.
[SOUNDS OF OPENING UP BUCKET]
BROOKS: So, pretty like exemplary contents here. You know, for someone’s food scraps. It looks like there’s some kale here, and some sort of gourd or something - I don't even know what that is.
[MOVING BUCKETS DOWN STAIRS]
KURN: How heavy do you suppose that is?
BROOKS: I would say this is probably at least 10 pounds; it's probably a bit more.
KURN: Brooks pedals to three more sites, and each time, his load grows heavier. So heavy, that on his way to the fifth and final stop, he has to push the bike and trailer up a huge hill.
[SOUND OF MOTOCYCLE PASSING]
BROOKS: We’re at the base of a pretty gnarly hill, but we can walk it.
Andy Brooks swaps out compost buckets. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)
[SHOES CLICKING, BIKE SOUNDS AS WALK UP THE HILL]
KURN: At the top of the hill, we reach a professional baker’s house. This client fills two buckets a week.
[SOUNDS OF OUTSIDE]
BROOKS: She gives me like really nice stuff, like beautiful fruit and stuff.
KURN: Two buckets of apple cores, orange peels and espresso grounds sit on the porch. A third bucket is there too, filled with rich, dark compost that Brooks dropped off last week. He says his business is like a bank - clients deposit their raw food scraps, and then can withdraw fresh soil after 15 weeks. Customers that have no need for compost can opt to donate theirs to a local community garden.
[SOUND OF OPENING THE BUCKET]
KURN: Brooks opens the bucket of fresh soil and smiles.
BROOKS: It’s the end result of 7,000 pounds of material that I’ve collected since January. And this is what you get when several months pass, and you’re on top of it and you’re mixing it. And this is what you get at the end of the day.
KURN: Bootstrap Compost operates year-round, and when the weather’s bad for biking, Brooks hops on the subway with a hand truck loaded with buckets. He offers 3 payment plans: a weekly pickup costs $32 a month, biweekly $18, and a once a month visit is $10.
KURN: At the end of the day, Brooks loads the scraps into his pickup truck to be taken to the farm. He says he isn’t trained in this field and hasn’t always composted himself. He just came up with a business plan that works, and has a passion for the environment.
BROOKS: When you throw out your banana peels into the trash, that to me is insulting to all the resources that went into growing those things initially. The end product is just treated like refuse, but it shouldn’t be - it still harbors this immense energy to be used for good, and to go back into the cycle of growing.
KURN: His clients like Catherine Iagnemma start to live by this ethos too.
IAGNEMMA: You really think about where your food is going, and especially on trash day, I’ll look at people’s trash and see is this one family? How many families are living in these home? And how much do we generate as individuals?
KURN: And on trash day when a slight putrid smell hangs in the air, Andy Brooks is extra motivated to recruit more people to turn their food scraps into a useful product. For Living on Earth I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.