Boston’s curbside composting program kicks off Monday, with thousands of households set to have their food scraps picked up for free in a city-run program.
The program will ramp up over the next three years with more households, part of Boston’s push to recycle 80% of all waste by 2035. Industry experts say the demand has long been here, with paid private programs that can cost more than $10 a week filling the gap. Now some residents will have food scraps like produce, coffee grounds, eggs and meat collected for free to be turned into compost and converted into energy.
The city is also expanding Project Oscar, launched in 2015, which currently has 15 bins across the city where residents can drop off their food waste. By the end of the summer, there will be 20 to 25 sites in total, with new sites to bring scraps at local gardens and farmers markets.
“Project Oscar — it’s been great,” said Theresa Savarese, Boston’s zero-waste manager, who said 200 tons of food scraps were dropped off into its bins in the last fiscal year. “However, we have a lot of food waste to collect. In order to do so, we want to make it even more accessible to residents.”
Organic material such as food scraps and yard trimmings account for about a third of all municipal waste, making it a major site of opportunity to redirect material otherwise destined for landfills. There’s another component to the environmental impact, too: When food scraps are trapped in landfills, buried under piles of garbage, the organics can’t access oxygen while they decompose, resulting in the production of the greenhouse gas methane.
City-run curbside programs are not widespread in the commonwealth — Boston will be just the fifth city in Massachusetts to offer it, alongside Manchester-by-the-Sea, Wenham, Cambridge and Hamilton, which kicked off the trend with a pilot in 2009. While some programs, including Boston’s, ask residents to opt in to curbside composting, Cambridge requires all its residents to compost. The city said residents cut citywide trash by 8% in the program’s first year — according to Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection, the equivalent of not driving 2.7 million miles.
Savarese said she was “pleasantly surprised” that the first 10,000 spots filled up for Boston’s compost pickup just a few weeks after they opened in late May. Another roughly 3,000 households are already on the waitlist. Only people who live in buildings with six units or fewer are allowed to sign up in the current cycle. The program will expand by another 10,000 households each year over the next three years and cost about $15 million in all.
“We were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to canvass, we’re going to have to do so much outreach in the first year,’ and we reached 10K extremely fast,” she said. “We just had the assumption that Boston residents want this, but this is definitely a confirmation that Boston residents need this.”
"We basically are just trying to show this is something that Boston residents want."Theresa Savarese, Boston’s zero-waste manager
One local company has seen residents’ high interest for years.
“I started the company in 2011 just serving Jamaica Plain,” said Andrew Brooks, CEO and founder of Bootstrap Compost, a private curbside composting service. “And within a couple of weeks, I had like 40 customers. A couple of weeks after that, I had a couple hundred customers.”
Brooks says part of Bootstrap’s appeal is the extra services they offer, like education to help avoid contaminating the bucket.
“We’re $11 per visit. But the reason we’re $11 per visit is because we’re a premium service,” he said. “We clean the bucket.”
The companies contracted to run Boston’s curbside program, Portland, Maine-based Garbage to Garden and Boston-based Save That Stuff, are anticipating challenges that other companies have been dealing with: contaminants and driver shortages.
Drivers will bring the bins’ waste to two different locations: One is in West Bridgewater, where the food will be made into compost. That final product, which enriches soil, will be distributed to local farms, gardens and schools. Contaminants like metal or glass that erroneously get mixed in with organic materials can be a problem when it’s brought back to aid in growing, which can be addressed with education and awareness.
The other site is Waste Management in Charlestown, where it turns the scraps into an “engineered bio-slurry” that’s then used to produce clean energy. For the process in Charlestown, contaminants don’t have the same effect, so they’re not as big a cause for concern, according to Erik Levy, the founder and president of Save That Stuff.
Also, the scraps will be picked up in smaller vans, which use less fuel than massive trucks and don’t require a special license to drive — hopefully helping to stave off driver shortages.
“Our plan with Boston is to try and pioneer the way in which organics are collected in small bins,” Levy said. “We’ve got a very unique truck design in the works and it's basically taking, you know, UPS- or FedEx-style step vans or Amazon vans, and cutting the back off and converting it into a dump truck suitable for collecting organics.”
Savarese hopes to expand the program citywide and make a dent in the roughly 240,000 tons of waste produced by Boston households every year.
“We basically are just trying to show this is something that Boston residents want,” Savarese said. “So it’s really important that we reach the 10,000 each year if we can show to the administration, ‘Hey, look how successful this program is. Let's break down all barriers and let's open this up with no limitations that any resident in Boston can sign up.’”