Finished compost
Credit: Courtesy of Davis Saltonstall

Davis Saltonstall and Tessa Rosenberry of Camden have a thing for garbage.

Or, said another way, the recent college graduates have a thing about the environment and would like to make it easier for Mainers to turn their kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich compost. That’s why they’re driving all around the midcoast in a pickup truck to collect 5-gallon buckets full of banana peels, corn cobs, eggshells, coffee grounds and all the other kitchen trash that is not really trash at all. It’s all in a (smelly) day’s work for ScrapDogs Community Compost, the couple’s new curbside compost collection business.

“We’re really excited about it,” Saltonstall said. “And we’re aware that we’re basically a garbage carting business. There’s a lot of manual labor that goes into this, but that’s worth it for us.”

ScrapDogs is the newest and most northern of the state’s few residential curbside compost collectors. Garbage to Garden, a Portland-based company that was founded in 2012, serves one in seven households in Portland and also picks up compost at homes in South Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, Brunswick and Bath. We Compost It!, based in Scarborough, also founded in 2012, focuses primarily on commercial compost collection but does do curbside residential pickup in parts of Portland, Brunswick and Kennebunkport and transfer station compost pickup in certain locations.

One thing that drives these businesses is the reality that Mainers send a lot of food and organic material to landfills and incinerators. A 2011 study by the University of Maine School of Economics found that about 43 percent of what Mainers throw out is compostable. Two-thirds of that compostable waste is food. And the numbers involved are not small ones. Of the 1.18 million tons of waste Mainers generated in 2014, more than 450,000 could have been composted, according to a Maine Department of Environmental Protection waste generation report. But residents only composted 23,627 tons of organics — though those figures do not reflect the volume of organic material composted in Mainers’ backyards.

Diverting compostable material from landfills, which have limited space, is good for the environment. And there are economic benefits as well. Garbage to Garden, We Compost It!, and ScrapDogs turn their customers’ organic waste into finished compost, a valuable addition to gardens. It takes about a year for the process to be completed, said Bill Crawford, the general manager of We Compost It!. Food waste has a lot of nitrogen in it, so the company carefully adds carbon-rich material such as leaves or sawdust.

“We manage that very closely, taking temperatures, turning it, loving it,” he said. “It’s as much an art as a science. Everything’s a little different, and it becomes a great soil amendment.”

Still, although many southern Maine communities are well served by curbside compost pickup companies, that has not been the case in more rural parts of the state.

“Basically it comes down to the fact that you need density,” Crawford said. “You can’t be driving around to pick up a bucket here and a bucket there … driving 10 or 15 minutes between stops wouldn’t make sense.”

That’s why in some ways, Saltonstall and Rosenberry, who serve a less-dense, more rural part of the state, are bucking the conventional wisdom as they work to get ScrapDogs off the ground. The 24-year-olds met at New York University and bonded over their shared passion for waste reduction. As undergraduates, they started a zero-waste initiative and worked on creating zero-waste strategies for educational institutions.

“That was something we really wanted to do, but we couldn’t sustain ourselves with,” Saltonstall, a Rockport native, said. “We keyed in to a bunch of waste-related conversations and realized that one of the biggest components of zero-waste initiatives around the country and the world is compost. And we thought we could start our own compost carting service.”

They came home to Maine to do it, and in the first few weeks of business, have been picking up buckets of compost anywhere between Belfast and Rockland, with a focus on Camden and Rockport. There are a lot of miles of rural road in that area, but that’s fine with the couple — for now, at least.

“We’re OK driving on country roads, for the moment,” Saltonstall said. “We know that we’re trying to find the right customers.”

They do have an eventual goal of centralizing their routes, but that will come later. First, they need to sell the idea, which might not be obvious to potential customers who often have enough space to make their own compost pile. ScrapDogs is bringing the food waste to a former commercial flower greenhouse in Camden and keep it hot enough to kill the weeds and breakdown sturdy materials such as meat, bones, pits and shells. In a year, they should have made good compost there, likely better than what can be made by a casual backyard composter. The couple will give that compost at no extra charge to the subscribers who pay them $20 per month (plus a $10 set-up fee) for the curbside compost pickup service. That’s a slightly higher rate than the $15 per month that Garbage to Gardens charges or the $9 per month charged by We Compost It!, but so far, people have responded positively, Saltonstall said.

“It’s been very positive,” he said. “We’re quickly gaining traction with subscribers. For us, it’s getting the word out there.”

If the customer base is similar to southern Maine, a minority of people will be eager to sign up, Crawford said. Then it gets harder.

“There’s a small percentage of the population that will do everything to recycle anything,” he said. “And a percentage of the population that says, ‘I don’t care. I’m not recycling anything.’ The bunch in the middle says, ‘I’ll recycle if you make it easy.’”

Right now, his company is trying to persuade more of the middle group that paying for compost to be picked up is the right thing to do and can be cost-effective, too.

“The pace of growth has slowed down,” he said. “There were early adopters. Now you’re selling it. You’re having to convince people.”

Curbside compost pickup is not the only way to divert organic waste from landfills. One company, Agri-Cycle Energy of Portland and Exeter, collects food waste throughout New England from supermarkets, restaurants, colleges and other institutions. The waste is anaerobically digested and converted into biogas to produce energy.

Still, to proponents, there is something inherently satisfying about turning food scraps into garden compost. Saltonstall described the way the food system used to work in Camden, just 70 or so years ago.

“During World War II, greater than 65 percent of food need was met locally in Camden through Victory Gardens,” he said. “That kind of local agricultural production has been somewhat lost on us. There’s so much potential that can come from your backyard, from the compost you make with your whole neighborhood.”

BDN writer Christopher Burns contributed to this report.

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