If the concept of a closed loop – where most everything is recycled and little or no waste is produced – is an environmental ideal, Tyler Frank’s nearly two-year-old business in Portland comes close to achieving it.
Garbage to Garden collects kitchen scraps that clients in Portland and five surrounding communities leave in pails at their curbsides. The wastes are composted and turned into the ideal soil for gardens. The compost goes back to the customers or is sold to the public. That means the service reduces the amount of waste from a community that’s incinerated and produces a product that is, in turn, used to grow more fruits and vegetables.
Even used cooking oil from homes and restaurants is re-purposed – converted into biodiesel fuel that powers Garbage to Garden’s collection trucks and other vehicles. A byproduct of that conversion, glycerin, is used to make the soap that Garbage to Garden uses to clean the pails that its customers use to hold their scraps until pick-up day.
“It’s totally environmentally sustainable,” said Frank, who thinks the day when his company’s scrap pails will be commonplace alongside recycling bins and garbage cans in front of homes is rapidly nearing.
Frank said the idea for Garbage to Garden, which now has about 2,500 residential customers and about 100 commercial clients, came from a roommate’s offhand comment a couple of years ago that composting kitchen waste should be as easy as curbside recycling and trash pickup. Some homeowners have used kitchen scraps to fuel small composting operations in backyards for years, but that can be a little difficult to manage in a city apartment or a house with a small lot.
“The only option was to throw it out, and that didn’t feel good at all,” Frank said.
Soon, the idea was percolating in his head, and he came up with the relatively simple approach of mirroring curbside recycling: Give clients a pail to collect fruit and vegetable peels and other kitchen scraps, and then have them leave the pail at the curb to be picked up on scheduled days. A truck picks up the waste, a clean pail is left in its place and the scraps are taken to be composted. The scraps spend 6 to 12 months “cooking” – bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms do the dirty work of breaking them down. The result is a rich organic matter that gives garden plants the nutrition they need to thrive.
Frank signed up about a dozen customers in his first marketing effort on an August evening two years ago, when he set up a table at a First Friday Art Walk in downtown Portland. Next, he went to an even more receptive setting, farmers markets in and around Portland, proselytizing about this simple, inexpensive way for people to feel they’re not merely throwing out kitchen scraps, but also doing good.
“There would literally be a crowd forming to hear about it,” Frank said. “We have a much better option (than incineration) that’s cheaper and nature does the work. We’ve finally reached that tipping point where doing the right thing for the environment doesn’t have to cost more.”
Frank started composting in his mother’s backyard in North Yarmouth, but soon realized he needed a bigger operation and teamed up with Benson Farms in Gorham, which already had an extensive composting operation to go along with its business of raising and selling dairy cows.
Garbage to Garden is for-profit (charging customers $11 per month) and is operating in the black, Frank said, but he sees a larger mission than just earning the kind of green you can put in your pocket. For instance, clients can eliminate their payments by volunteering at community non-profits, doing such work as helping maintain public trails, sorting food destined for community pantries, or helping to serve a meal at a soup kitchen, said Kendall Hinckley, Garbage to Garden’s community outreach director.
Frank is aiming to increase the participation rate among Portland households from the current 10 percent to 25 percent by year’s end, and a commercial pick-up service, aimed primarily at restaurants, is starting to grow. He’s also exploring a more formal relationship with Portland. He estimates that Garbage to Garden has saved the city more than $100,000 in tipping fees at the ecomaine incinerator by removing 1,500 tons of refuse from the city’s waste stream. A city subsidy in recognition of some of the savings could help Garbage to Garden lower its fees, he said, attracting even more customers.
Emma Thieme, 24, a Garbage to Garden client, said that the service is “a great value.”
Thieme grew up in Winterport, where her family was enthiusiastic about composting. Thieme composted when she got an apartment in Bar Harbor that had a yard. But her options for gardening, and thus her need for compost, were limited to non-existent when she moved into an apartment on Newbury Street in Portland.
Still, the idea of just throwing those kitchen scraps in the garbage ran counter to her upbringing, so she was an early adopter after Garbage to Garden started up in 2012.
Now in a West End apartment, Thieme said she’ll be getting some compost from Garden to Garbage – clients can get up to a bag a week – for a garden she’s planning this year.
“I’ve noticed as I walk down my street that they (the Garbage to Garden pails) seem to be popping up all over,” she said, adding that she feels like she produces a lot less garbage to go into Portland’s $10 each trash bags as a result.
“I don’t feel good if I spend $10 on blue bags,” she said, “but I do feel good about spending $11 for this.”
Contact Edward D. Murphy at 791-6465 or at: