You might think that a van stuffed with gallons and gallons of garbage — literal garbage, as in hundreds of pounds of celery tops, onion skins, orange peels and soggy oats — would stink. Would reek, even. Instead, it only smells faintly sweet, and earthy, and a little bit like coffee beans.
Emma Brown is the one driving this van (which is named “Miley,” by the way) and as she maneuvers it down Somerville’s narrower-than-narrower one-way streets, her eyes scan each porch and stoop for the sight of a bucket. These buckets — unassuming white plastic, with a simple stenciled label — are the reason why she’s here.
Suddenly, she spots one.
“There she is,” she mutters quietly, and guides Miley over to the curb. Brown hops out, grabs an empty bucket from the stacks piled in the van, and scurries to replace the one she’s just zeroed in on. Then she climbs back into the driver’s seat and keeps going.
Now, this is pretty odd behavior, which is why people come up to her all the time and ask her what she’s doing. Then, Brown patiently explains: she works for a company called Bootstrap Compost, which takes its customers’ food waste, converts it into compost, and then delivers it right back to their door (or, if preferred, donates it to a school or park in the area). If you were to use the parlance so popular in Silicon Valley these days, you might say it’s a little bit like Uber — but for trash.
People are often incredulous at first, she admits. But, luckily for Bootstrap, Brown is an indefatigable compost evangelist.
“Using compost — there’s no shortage of reasons why you should,” she said.
First of all, there are the big-picture environmental benefits. Americans waste a staggering amount of food every year: nearly half of all that is grown, according to a 2016 report from The Guardian. When waste like that goes into a landfill and decomposes, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to the warming of the planet. Turn that waste into compost instead, however, and methane production is significantly reduced.
Not only that, but some studies suggest that using compost can actually capture and store carbon that’s already in the air. One study from U.C. Berkeley found that spreading compost over just 5 percent of California’s grazing lands could capture a year’s worth of carbon emissions from the state’s farming and forestry industries, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
But there’s a personal, practical reason to use it, too: plants love the stuff. Using compost adds nutritional value to the soil, which reduces the need to use chemical fertilizers on plants and cuts down on the amount of water needed to irrigate them.
“You get happier, healthier plants,” Brown said. “You’re not just using a bunch of weird, fake chemicals on things you eventually want to eat.”
She’s not the only one who thinks this way. When Bootstrap started in 2011, they had only 12 subscribers, according to co-founder Igor Kharitonenkov. Now, they have over 2,000, and they’re — pardon the pun — growing.
They’re not the only ones. Similar services like Garden to Garbage, a Maine-based company, and CityCompost have popped up to serve area residents eager to do their part, but without the space or know-how to do so. Local governments have also experimented with compost programs. In 2014, Boston set up dropboxes for food scraps at five locations around the city — an initiative they dubbed “Project Oscar” after the Sesame Street character who lives in a trash can. Cambridge even launched a curbside compost collection program in 2015, which is still going strong, albeit on a limited route.
Still, the numbers of people making and using compost overall are relatively low, something that Kharitonenkov hopes he and Bootstrap can start to change.
“We’re trying to reach the folks on the outskirts and bring them into the herd,” he said.
In the meantime, Brown keeps making her compost runs. Once she’s finished collecting buckets, she’ll take them back to Bootstrap’s headquarters in Malden, where they filter out contaminants like meat bones (which attract unwanted vermin), plastics and even silverware. From there, they ship everything to a farm in Saugus, where it’s ripened into usable compost.
Then, of course, Brown — and Miley — hit the road all over again.