It doesn't smell as bad as you would think.
I'm standing in the back of a van, surrounded by dozens of four-gallon plastic square bins with snap-on lids. Each is stamped with a teal "CompostNow" logo and lined with a green biodegradable plastic bag. One of these black buckets is mine.
Misha Hoskins weighs my bucket. He works as a trash collector for CompostNow, gathering scraps from Chapel Hill and Carrboro residences and businesses every Thursday, including from my apartment. My weekly kitchen scraps clock in at four and a half pounds. Hoskins claims this is an average haul. It's his fourth time picking up from my apartment since I joined CompostNow in October. With an interest in composting—and figuring out how to do it in my tiny apartment—I signed up for a two-week free trial. So far, it's easier than I imagined and leaves me feeling good about reducing my carbon footprint.
CompostNow's Matt Rostetter faced the same predicament back when he started the company in 2011 and was living in a small apartment. Luckily, three companies in the Triangle offer the service: CompostNow, Tilthy Rich, and Food FWD.
"People want to eat local and they care about local farms," says Noah Marsh of Food FWD. "If they care about where their food comes from, this is the next natural step. They should care about where it goes afterwards."
The companies offer monthly membership services for weekly pickup at residential locations, businesses, and offices. I pay $25 per month for CompostNow to pick up compostable scraps, like veggies and fruit, paper towels, and meat and dairy products.
By 9 a.m., the back of Hoskins's van is already packed with more than forty buckets and five large curbside bins that measure about half the size of regular garbage bins. Empty, clean containers are stacked to the left of the van's doorway, awaiting drop-off at the next sixty or so remaining stops.
Despite a van full of waste, the smell is barely an odor. In fact, it's pretty mild when compared to the trail of stench that garbage trucks often leave behind. But olfactory disgust is still a key factor holding composting back, says Kat Nigro of Tilthy Rich, a compost collection service in Durham.
"People think it's gross and nasty and smelly, but if you do it right, it doesn't smell at all," she says, standing next to a pile of compost at the Geer Street Learning Garden. Weeds, tea bags, and pumpkin chunks from Thanksgiving decorations stick out of the first pile of the three-bin composting system at the garden. A thick layer of sawdust floats and settles again as Nigro mixes. Next to it, another pile looks more like soil and only has a few scraps, like egg shells, poking out. This second stage, which is how the first one will look in a month and a half, steams as Nigro shifts the contents. Nigro points out that the three piles of scraps represent the process of composting, which takes about three months to complete. The final section is a rich, dark pile of soil that barely exudes a smell.
Started by Chris Russo in 2013, Tilthy Rich works with a similar business model to CompostNow, but stretches its environmental ethos to the max, using bicycles for pickup. The business has grown to fourteen riders who pedal to more than three hundred houses and ten businesses, including Cocoa Cinnamon and Ninth Street Bakery.
Nigro says they hope to service four hundred houses in 2017. Tilthy Rich composts half of its food scraps in local community gardens around Durham. The other half goes to Brooks Contractor, an industrial composting facility in Goldston, about an hour from the Triangle. (Brooks is also where CompostNow takes all of its scraps.)
North Carolina laws are much stricter than in other states, where bigger cities already have comprehensive composting systems in place. Nigro laments local regulations, like not being able to redistribute soil made in community gardens, that prohibit Tilthy Rich from pushing its environmental model further.
Though Amy Brooks of Brooks Contractor agrees, she says getting the public interested in composting has its share of obstacles. Her company grew out of her family dairy farm and currently has over 150 clients around the Triangle. Twenty-four locations are education sites, like elementary and middle schools and universities.
"There's a weird disconnect between society and nature's processes," says Brooks. "But composting is relatively easy. It's just about working with the public."
Brooks also notes that farmers understand that "compost is the key element for foundational health in society."
"Receiving waste from urban areas and returning healthy soil to farm land is essential," she says. "Once we run out of good, fertile farmland, who knows what will happen."
Looking forward, she hopes cities will take the lead and educate citizens on the importance of composting and make it easier for people to do it themselves. Durham and Carrboro have already started looking into municipal composting programs. James Freeman, the Director of Public Works for Carrboro, says the town has hired a consultant to assess the feasibility of implementing a larger-scale, municipal compost program. He says Carrboro is evaluating the costs as well as warm weather's potential effects on food scraps, and whether the city would use an existing collection service or create its own internal team. According to the international Natural Resources Defense Council, American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy; composting can help divert up to half of that waste.
At present, CompostNow has diverted over 1.3 million pounds of waste. Cofounder Justin Senkbeil understands the challenges, but believes the movement can't be stopped.
"Everyone wants to do good," he says. "They just need a path to do it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Compost Modernism"