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Hey, Where Ya Going with my Trash!?

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 May Issue Newsletter

Bootstrap biker Adam recently managed to collect a record 12 full buckets on the Baby Trailer 5000

If you meander through Jamaica Plain, MA, on a Tuesday at 10 am or so, it's likely that you'll see a guy on a bike trailing a cart stacked with plastic bins marked (in big urban edgy lettering): Bootstrap Compost. Who is that mysterious man with the buckets, you might ask yourself; and where is he going? A new company founded in 2011 by Andy Brooks, a BU grad and all-around sustainability visionary, provides home pick-up of compost scraps for customers in and around the Greater Boston area. The idea behind the business model is that consumers may not have the ability to compost table scraps at their place of residence, but don't want those scraps to get integrated in their normal trash pick-up. So once a week, every other week, or once a month (customer choice) Bootstrap Compost shows up at your door, picks up your yucky compost bucket and replaces it with a fresh new bucket and the cycle continues.

Business model? Really? People really pay someone to come pick up their old orange peels and coffee filters? Isn't that a kind of luxury expense? In its first year, Bootstrap Compost has grown to a client base of 300 customers, and is adding new customers at a rate of 3-4 per week. If they keep going at this pace, 2012 will see over 100%-growth in sales by year-end. Apparently the model is working. Bootstrap employs 5 part-time people and uses Brooks' house in JP as its headquarters. Andy got the idea for the company after being out of work and navigating a bunch of odd jobs. He was trying to find a career path that made sense and echoed his values. He had been a writer at the Harvard Gazette covering sports and other various beats.

Last year, with just a few lowly buckets and some fliers, Boostrap Compost entered the world. As Andy explained, the business name came from his personal experience of having to pull himself up out of an unsatisfactory professional situation. He also wanted to convey a sense of community in the brand and messaging. Brooks feels strongly about improving the food system - he feels that this service empowers people to contribute to that goal.

Once the table scraps are picked up, they are transported to a local farm where they are composted over the course of a year and then re-distributed both to the host farm and back to customers in the form of rich compost for the garden. The current composting sites include Buckle Farm in Dighton, City Natives in Mattapan, and Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester. Before transportation to the farms can happen, however, the BC crew has to sort through the garbage to determine its makeup.

Different compost sites have different levels of nitrogen and carbon - and so BC has to make strategic decisions about where the food goes, so the compost piles process well. The long term goal is to have multiple compost host sites where the food is taken, so that the scraps do not have to be transported long distances. The hope is that this will also foster a direct connection between consumers in a particular area and a local farm in that same community that is benefitting from their composting commitment. Currently the highest percentage of Bootstrap customers resides in Jamaica Plain, Somerville, and Arlington. At the end of the composting period - a year or so - product is re-distributed back to consumers. The processing time varies a bit depending on a few variables: the chemical composition of the pile, weather, and how much it's turned. There is no extracting with Bootstrap Compost. All the material is taken out at once after it's completely transformed. Since day one, BC has composted 8,621 pounds of natural waste.

Bootstrap Compost is very serious about greening its operations. BC isn't just about the 'what' -it's about the 'how.' Pickups and deliveries are currently made by both bike and truck. Bike pickups make up 30% of the transportation effort. Brooks is working to move that percentage to 50% bike transportation by September 2012. In a highly dense small city like Boston, the bike method is doable. As the company expands, BC will have to determine whether the far suburbs will be feasible. There will always be a balancing act between the environmental benefit of communal composting, contrasted with the negative aspect of transportation inputs and emissions.

The mission of Bootstrap Compost means different things to different people. According to Andy, people are very relieved that they're not throwing something usable away. The process seems to reduce the sense of guilt in people. People feel awful when they have rotting food that wasn't consumed. Bootstrap not only provides a means of separating the natural waste from the regular trash stream, but also provides a kind of moral redemption for our American habit of over-consumption and over-purchasing. Folks also like to know that their scraps are contributing to growing new food close to home, and are helping to support local farmers economically. There's another kind of redemption Andy sees in consumer motivation. The food we consume comes from all over the world. Scraps contain produce from all kinds of unknown sources - chili peppers or banana peels from Latin America; strawberry stems from Canada. Our food sources are diverse and spread impossibly far. Taking a product that traveled from long distances and putting it to good use here at home is another way Andy thinks customers can remedy their sense of buyers' guilt.

A somewhat shocking stat about the Bootstrap Compost client base is that it is 90% women. Brooks has no idea why the service has skewed so overwhelmingly to one gender. Are women more engaged with the management of household waste? Do women feel more responsible for contributing to a healthy environment and food system? Common perception says no. Perhaps this customer distribution anomaly will provoke some marketing research on the part of BC in the future. BC has not executed a very robust traditional marketing or PR effort to date. Most of the interest in their services has been generated (remarkably!) through Facebook, and through some on-site outreach and tabling at local events. Their relationship with customers is very friendly and informal. Brooks likens the relationship between drivers and customers to a mailman/milkman relationship. Customers see the delivery guys as people that they can trust, who provide a 'feel-good' service for them.

Bootstrap Compost is always looking to partner with host farm sites in the Greater Boston area. If you are interested in becoming a partner, please contact Andy Brooks at bootstrapcompost@gmail.com.

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