Portland composting company pulls profits from curbside pickups of food scraps, cooking grease

Posted March 28, 2013, at 4:37 p.m.
Last modified March 28, 2013, at 6:19 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Avocados, red peppers, lobster. If you can’t see what he’s talking about, it’s almost mouth-watering — at first — to hear Tyler Frank talk about his business.

“It’s a really great mix,” he said lovingly Wednesday. “It’s a lot of great nutrients.”

Then he gets past the grapefruit and pumpkin on his list of goodies.

“… rabbit droppings,” he continued.

Frank, one of four partners in the Portland business Garbage to Garden, had just helped dump the contents of 350 buckets of mostly food waste onto the ground. Like the tooth fairies of rotting vegetables, Frank and his colleagues travel the greater Portland area during the morning hours whisking away residents’ table scraps and leaving behind clean buckets for the following week.

The 27-year-old Munjoy Hill resident said inspiration for the service hit Sable Sanborn, soon to be one of his three business partners, and himself about a year ago.

“We had both composted all our lives, but living in the East End, we didn’t have the space,” he recalled. “We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to put it on the curb for pickup like we do with trash and recyclables?’ After about 30 seconds of the gears turning, we realized there were probably a lot of other people who were thinking the same thing, that they’d love to be composting but don’t have the room or the time to do it well.”

Last August, Frank, Sanborn, Cory Fletcher and Caitlin Milliken got their new business off the ground. For $11 per month, residents in Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth — and ideally soon, Westbrook — can have Garbage to Garden pick up their food waste and take it away.

After dumping the filled 6-gallon buckets into larger containers on the Garbage to Garden trailer, company crews put the dirty buckets into their truck and drop off clean ones. Or, if the customers prefer, they drop off a bucket filled with dark, fine compost — the resultant product from past pickups of rotting vegetables and lobster carcasses.

In municipalities like Portland, where residents pay between $1 and $2 for each bag of trash they put out for curbside pickup, the composting service can be offset by savings from buying fewer garbage bags. Customers who want to shave off even more of their costs can get a month of free Garbage to Garden pickups by volunteering for one of the business’ supported events, like last November’s Portland Cleanup Day.

“[Food scraps represent ] 30 percent of the waste stream, for the most part,” said Garbage to Garden customer Ben Lake on Wednesday morning outside his Portland home. “If we can get a lot of this stuff out and get it to an organization that can turn it into good dirt and other compost for farms and people around here, it’s a better use of the resource.”

Garbage to Garden doesn’t stop with avocados and rabbit droppings. The business also picks up 32-ounce containers of cooled cooking oils, fats and grease curbside and takes the unwanted material to Portland’s Maine Standard Biofuels, where it’s converted into diesel fuel and — indirectly — glycerin-based liquid soaps.

The company uses the diesel fuel to fill up its trucks, and the soaps to wash out buckets to be dropped off for customers.

New life for dairy farm

Once their daily route is complete, the Garbage to Garden truck heads to Benson Farm in Gorham, where the compostable material is mixed with sawdust, old leaves and livestock manure, then systematically turned over until the mixture breaks down and becomes dark, dirtlike compost.

Mountains of the material in various stages of decomposition can be seen across the horizon at Eddie Benson’s farm.

Benson, who sells in bulk whatever compost the Garbage to Garden team doesn’t distribute to its customers, said diversifying his farm’s offerings was one of the only ways he could keep it open.

“If you want to be in commercial dairy farming today, you really need to be milking 1,000 cows [to be profitable],” said Benson, who noted that his farm is milking about 60 cows. “But around here, you can’t afford to grow to that size, because of the prices of land around you. Dairy farmers are having a hard time staying in business.”

Garbage to Garden currently has 800 customer households, and Frank said that number is growing. He noted that the company is just now reaching its first spring season in business — the time of year many people are most likely to start gardening and want compost.

“We were adding about 100 households a month through the winter, just through word-of-mouth,” he said.