Boston Biz Makes House Calls for Food Scraps

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

JAMAICA PLAIN, Mass. — Andy Brooks needed a career change. For nine years, he worked as a sports writer for Harvard University, but he felt like jumping ship to explore other options. So he did. But it was 2008 and, needless to say, his timing wasn’t perfect.

While visiting family in Vermont over Christmas, Brooks had an “aha moment” when he saw his sister shoveling food scrap into a bucket provided by Earthgirl Composting, a local startup that offered a door-to-door food-scrap collection service. He returned to his home in Jamaica Plain a few days later and plastered his neighborhood with flyers advertising a similar service.

“I had nothing in place to make it happen,” Brooks said. “I didn’t even know how it was going to work.”

Business was steady when he started in January 2011 with a pushcart and some second-hand buckets, and then skyrocketed three months later after DailyCandy wrote about his company, Bootstrap Compost.

“I woke up the day that it ran and I had 40 e-mails in my inbox,” Brooks said.

Bootstrap Compost now has some 400 residential and more than 20 commercial customers, from restaurants and cafes to office buildings and a construction company. Clients are from Jamaica Plain to Winchester and Dorchester to Newton. Brooks acquired a business partner, Igor Kharitonenkov, and four employees in response to the demand.

In less than three years, the company has diverted more than 170,000 pounds of food scrap from being landfilled.

While happy with his success, Brooks is clearly proud his business is playing a role in “honoring food by not just throwing it away.” Considering that a tremendous amount of resources go into the growing and transportation of food, he said, “it seems actually depressing that that material would be just thrown away where it would degrade and release harmful greenhouse gases,” such as methane and carbon dioxide.

Here’s how Bootstrap Compost works. Residents choose a pick-up day and whether they would like a weekly ($8) or biweekly ($9) service. Brooks and his crew drop off a bucket hand-stenciled with the company’s name, a compostable liner and brief instructions about what can and can’t be composted — no meat and cheese, please.

They then swing by with a bike and trailer, pickup or van on the selected day and swap the full bucket for a clean one.Commercial customers receive a slightly different treatment according to their needs, with pick-up service starting at $18 a week. Brooks and company visit the site, empty buckets, give them a quick rinse and replace the liners. The whole process takes about five minutes, Brooks said.

Bootstrap Compost takes the collected food scrap to Charlestown, where it’s sorted and transported to one of three local farms: The Buckle Farm in Dighton, Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester or City Natives in Mattapan.
Brooks recently reached a deal with recycling waste management company Save That Stuff to collect other items, such as paper and compostable cups and cutlery, that only break down in larger-scale composting facilities.

Brooks said it takes up to 12 months for compost to cure, which brings up another subscriber perk: customers can receive 5 pounds of screened, finished compost every 16 weeks to use for potted plants or in gardens.

He said about 15 percent of customers accept the offer. Remaining compost stays with host farms or is donated to community gardens and schools in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.

As Brooks sees it, Bootstrap Compost is one way to “shut off the valve of badness that is inherent in our global food system.” Diverting food scrap, he said, “actually holds a lot of potential benefits for creating and sustaining a locally minded food system.”