Composting Trash In The Commonwealth: Turning Trash Into Treasures


Photos by Adam Detour

Composting is quite literally the act of turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure. The beauty of it is that we are all the “other man.” We all stand to benefit from it. Composting is the new frontier in the recycling revolution, and it has finally begun to take hold in and around Boston.

The multi-step process of composting begins with the separating out of green waste from other trash and recyclables. Green waste is all that is compostable: food scraps, lawn clippings, coffee grinds, and tea bags (among other things). This organic matter is then put into an environment where it is broken down with the help of naturally occurring organisms such as microbes and earthworms. After a gestation period of anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, the waste completely decomposes, becoming nutrient-rich compost that can be repurposed back into the earth for gardening and growing.

According to the United Stated Environmental Protection Agency, food makes up the largest amount, about 21%, of the waste that is stuffing municipal landfills annually. Aside from the fact that we are wasting far too much food, neglecting to take advantage of an opportunity to recycle it through composting seems foolish, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) agrees.

As of October 1, 2014, the Commercial Food Waste Ban went into effect, which the MassDEP website states is a “ban on disposal of commercial organic wastes by businesses and institutions that dispose of one ton or more of these materials per week.” The goal is to reduce the amount of waste produced, while simultaneously encouraging businesses to take advantage of composting opportunities that are becoming more readily available.

It is companies such as Save That Stuff Inc. in Boston, Bootstrap Compost in Jamaica Plain, and Black Earth Compost in Gloucester that are helping promote and facilitate these opportunities. Thanks to these folks and others like them, it is becoming that much easier for Massachusetts residents—from households to restaurants to businesses—to responsibly dispose of organic waste. These composting pioneers are doing the majority of the dirty work. They pick-up and transport the food scraps and green waste, coordinate with local area farms to turn them into compost, and often bestow that compost back on the community. All it takes is keeping organic trash separate from everything else.

Igor Kharitonenkov, one of the co-founders of Bootstrap Compost, explains his company’s processes as a “great, sustainable closed loop system.” The proof of this exists in the provision of finished compost to those who have given their organics to create it, as well as the business’ environmentally conscious processes. Simple things, like giving subscribers recycled buckets for collecting their scraps and using bikes for pickups instead of trucks whenever possible, are what make Bootstrap and others like them sustainable and holistic in their mission to reduce unnecessary waste.

At their core, Kharitonenkov says Bootstrap’s goal is to always be “empowering local food systems through our composting.” They pride themselves on their policy of educating the community on the value of composting in addition to providing a service. They are a grassroots operation dedicated to the “cycle of food life,” encouraging people to compost, even if not with them. They, along with Save that Stuff, are providing educational material at Boston area farmers markets and food events whenever possible, both recognizing the paramount importance of an informed constituency to facilitate change.


Black Earth Compost is doing similar work in northeastern Massachusetts, serving both residential and commercial customers. Conor Miller, one of the co-owners of Black Earth, eloquently describes the company’s primary objective as “to collect wasted food and other organic waste…to create the highest quality compost we can, which is then used by farmers and gardeners to make more food out of it.” The big picture is about diverting from landfills those things that can be recycled in a more environmentally conscious way. Miller was keen to explain the value of companies like Black Earth as essential to the ever-growing composting movement. “Organics haulers like us, who are directly tied in to the final product (compost), care very much about the quality of the material that is picked up” he says. “Those incentives don't apply to regular trash companies.”

Companies like Black Earth and Bootstrap are not just enabling the composting movement, but empowering it. Thanks to their dedication and pioneering, whole municipalities are now being served, many of which have implemented town-wide composting programs.

Both the City of Salem and the City of Cambridge have in the last year put into operation pilot curbside composting programs. The Salem pilot began this past April, and they currently have 850 households enrolled. However, the two-year MassDEP grant that is providing their funding allows them the capacity to serve as many as 1,500 families. Black Earth is doing the pick-ups and transporting the scraps to Brick Ends Farm in South Hamilton, a composting facility that has been functioning since 1975. Salem’s city manager Julie Rose notes that “the program has had steady growth,” and is likely to hit its 1,500 household capacity by 2016.

Cambridge has implemented a similar residential pilot program, also with the aid of MassDEP grant funding. They launched their program in April as well, and currently there are 600 households participating. Championed by Randi Mail, Recycling Director for Cambridge, the pilot has already been met with great success and enthusiasm.

Mail is a woman excited to talk trash, and I don’t mean the kind you hear when the Yankees are in town. She is also a woman of action. Not only has she helped to get Cambridge’s curbside program off the ground, she has also organized compost pickups for local businesses and facilitated drop off locations around the city to provide all Cambridge residents the option to responsibly recycle their compostables. A longtime advocate of decreasing organic waste through education, Mail was a catalyst in setting up the “Food to Flowers” composting program in 9 out of the 13 public schools in the district. Her hard work and dedication have put her in a position to now be a resource to other towns and communities across the Commonwealth hoping to engage in this recycling revolution.

Cambridge works with Save That Stuff Inc. who picks up their food scraps and brings them to Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus for processing. The finished compost is then brought back to Cambridge and can be picked up at locations around the city. Mail surveyed her constituents and learned that not only were they interested in recycling their organic waste, they were also thrilled to have access to the finished product of organic composting soil to put back into their own gardens. “The goal is to reduce waste as much as possible through maximizing recycling, composting, and getting residents to reduce waste in the first place,” says Mail, and it is her hope that the city will commit to continuing the program once the pilot is finished. “This is a habit we are forming in the household, and we don’t want to suddenly reverse that message.”


Ideally, at the end of their pilots Cambridge and Salem will have gained enough steam to emulate the town-wide, town-endorsed curbside program of Hamilton. Gretel Clark, Chair of the Hamilton Recycling Committee, has worked tirelessly since 2008 to set the necessary wheels in motion for the town to get its formalized composting system off the ground.

Clark credits “extremely serendipitous circumstances” for getting Hamilton to where it is with their composting. The program was born out of an appeal to increase recycling and reduce waste in the town, and as Clark was petitioning the selectman for these changes, Peter Britton, owner of Brick Ends Farm (which is right in Hamilton) began appearing at her Recycling Committee’s meetings. Briggs, in support of Clark’s efforts, offered up his services to help smooth the town’s path towards composting. The last piece of the puzzle to get the project off the ground was Hiltz Disposal, who willingly provided cost effective hauling from the curbsides to the farm. Clark recognized how lucky it was to have this perfect storm of “people willing to go the extra nine yards to prove to the town it could work.” And it did.

Hamilton ran two pilot programs, the first with just 74 households in 2009; the second the following year with increased participation to include 600 households (which is when their neighboring town of Wenham got in on the action). Each house received its own 13-gallon compost bin to fill, which Hiltz picked up when they did trash pickups in specially designed dual body trucks to keep the green waste separate from the solid waste, and then deposited the scraps for processing at Brick Ends Farm. The process was beautifully streamlined thanks to the dedication and collaboration between the town and the contractors. It was a resounding success.

The participants in the program were surveyed and said they would be devastated if it ended, saying that they would even be willing to pay an additional recycling fee for it to continue. The town was able to save a significant amount of money in trash pick-up fees because waste was reduced so significantly as people were consciously recycling. The benefits were undeniable, and the town voted to implement the program for everyone in 2012. Their success was a motivator, Clark explains. “It’s been a domino effect. All these towns around us started implementing programs also.” Wenham, Ipswich, and Manchester have all jumped on the bandwagon.

Following the example of places like California, Oregon, and Canada that are all ahead of the curve, Massachusetts is stepping up its composting game. With the North Shore leading the charge, and the rest of the state falling in line, it is only a matter of time before composting comes to a city near you. In addition to the new Commercial Food Waste Ban, this fall will also see the inauguration of Project Oscar (which one could assume is a nod to a certain trashcan-dwelling cast member of Sesame Street), the first residential composting program in Boston proper.

While the city is not yet on par with some of its neighbors, it is making strides with this program that is part of Mayor Walsh’s “Greenovate” initiative. Two major compostable scrap collection sites will be set up for residents of East Boston and the North End to drop off their organic waste. This community approach to composting is an innovative way to encourage responsible recycling in big cities.

Cities, towns, businesses, restaurants, and schools across the Commonwealth are getting on the green bandwagon; helping to divert thousands of pounds of waste from landfills through composting. All it takes is an additional moment’s thought to remember to separate green waste from solid waste. Just a moment to turn your trash into treasure.

This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.