2013-02-08 / Front Page

Compost collection gaining momentum in city

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Cory Fletcher of Garbage to Garden empties a compost bucket filled up by a participant in the Willard Square neighborhood of South Portland. The service allows residents in the Portland area to leave food waste curbside on their normal trash pickup day, saving the food scraps from entering landfills. (Jack Flagler photo) Cory Fletcher of Garbage to Garden empties a compost bucket filled up by a participant in the Willard Square neighborhood of South Portland. The service allows residents in the Portland area to leave food waste curbside on their normal trash pickup day, saving the food scraps from entering landfills. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Peter Wilson used to compost at his home in the Willard Square neighborhood of South Portland. He filled his bin inside with food waste: coffee grinds, grains, fruits and vegetables, and any other food scraps, excluding meat and bones. Then, he’d empty it outside, where it would decompose and turn into fertilizer for his garden. This winter, after a few heavy snowstorms, the drifts were so high outside Wilson’s door he couldn’t even make it to his compost pile.

So last month, he signed up for Garbage to Garden, an organization that lets residents of South Portland, Portland and nearby towns leave out their food waste in plastic bins on their normal trash pickup days. Garbage to Garden employees pick up the bins, which have snap- tight lids, replace them with a clean one, and take the food waste to a composting facility.

From left: Tyler Frank, Cory Fletcher, Caitlin Milliken and Sable Sanborn are the team behind Garbage to Garden. Frank and Sanborn started the company in August, and within the first month had over 100 participants, mostly on the Portland peninsula. Today, the program has grown to over 600 participants in five towns. This month, Garbage to Garden is starting a service to collect fats and oils that will be converted to diesel fuel and heating oil (Jack Flagler photo) From left: Tyler Frank, Cory Fletcher, Caitlin Milliken and Sable Sanborn are the team behind Garbage to Garden. Frank and Sanborn started the company in August, and within the first month had over 100 participants, mostly on the Portland peninsula. Today, the program has grown to over 600 participants in five towns. This month, Garbage to Garden is starting a service to collect fats and oils that will be converted to diesel fuel and heating oil (Jack Flagler photo) Garbage to Garden began this summer, when co-founders Tyler Frank and Sable Sanborn came up with the idea for the service to both protect the environment by removing food waste from landfills and to provide residents in his Portland neighborhood with quality compost in a convenient fashion.

Frank, Sanborn and their roommate, Cory Fletcher, spread the word to the public at area farmers markets and Portland’s First Friday Art Walk starting in August.

“I didn’t know if anyone would want to do it, but when we had, I think, 17 different households signing up in the first few hours, we knew it was going to work,” Frank said.

Frank said he started with the idea to simply offer curbside composting in Portland, but within the first month heard a request for the service from residents in South Portland and expanded the service across the Casco Bay Bridge. Just after it launched, Garbage to Garden brought in Caitlin Milliken, a South Portland resident and University of Southern Maine student who provides social outreach for Garbage to Garden as the fourth member of the team.

After Garbage to Garden employees gather the bins on a day’s rounds, they bring the large buckets of waste to Benson Farm in Gorham, where it’s turned into compost. Benson Farm’s facility has the ability to take in products that aren’t generally compostable at home, such as meat, bones and egg shells. Garbage to Garden then offers the compost from Benson Farm back to its customers who participate in the program.

“When you get compost back, it’s as close as it can be to your own food waste. We want it to be a closed loop system, no different than doing you’re own composting, but much more convenient,” Frank said.

The curbside composting service allows urban apartmentdwellers to help the environment even though they may not have a garden. For those who used to compost at home, the service saves them from throwing meat and bones in the trash, and keeps critters from invading home compost piles. Milliken said the worst damage to the buckets were from a family’s golden retriever trying to break in for a snack.

However, the main benefit for most of the customers isn’t the compost for their garden, it’s the knowledge they’re helping the environment by keeping food waste out of their garbage.

“People don’t do it for the compost, they do it for the composting,” Frank said.

Benson Farms can’t take fats, oils or grease, but Garbage to Garden has started a new service to collect those products from residences, called Fats to Fuel. Participants can request plastic 32-ounce containers, similar to what take out soup would come in. Those can go inside the larger bin, under the lid, when they’re full.

The cooking waste is then handed over to Maine Standard Biofuel, which refines it into diesel fuel and home heating oil. Garbage to Garden hopes to have a new, larger vehicle within the next few weeks that runs solely on the biodiesel it collects from homes on the route.

Garbage to Garden started with about 150 households, and has steadily grown with about 100 more signing on each month since, Frank said. Milliken put the total number of households at more than 600 combined in Portland, South Portland, Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth. In six months of operation, she added, they have diverted nearly 60 tons of food waste into compost rather than landfill.

“The route is changing pretty much every week,” Milliken said.

Most of the participating homes are on Portland’s peninsula. Fletcher said the crew picks up about 200 bins each Wednesday morning when trash crews move through the east end and the west end, but Wilson said he’s noticed the service growing in South Portland as well.

The program is funded through a monthly contribution of $11 from each participant, but members can earn “credits” to bypass that fee by volunteering at various events. Fletcher and Frank said Garbage to Garden’s success hasn’t made the team rich, but the generosity and appreciation from the participants has made their endeavor worthwhile.

As Fletcher moved through the route in Willard Square Tuesday, Feb. 5, he found a slip of paper pinned under a rock on top of one of the plastic bins. “Thank you g2g,” the message read. After he showed it to Frank and Milliken, Fletcher slipped it into his pocket, and kept moving along the route. He had about 50 more houses to get to before the day was over.

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