Every Monday morning, Sebastian Brown gets in his green GMC Sierra pickup truck, loaded with empty buckets, and drives around the Merrimack Valley -- including all over Andover -- picking up food scraps from people’s houses.
The bed of the truck has that damp, earthy smell of decomposing food — cheese, bread, coffee, and eggs — things people might think to just throw in the trash.
But Brown and his partner and fiance, Mary Jeanne Harwood, are trying to make it easier for people to cultivate sustainable habits. A year ago they launched the startup curbside composting business Roots Compost.
Subscribing members receive a bucket and a biodegradable bag to put all the food scraps they accumulate throughout the week. Every Monday, Brown switches out the full bag with a fresh one, and drops all the scraps into Toters that then get transported to existing compost piles where the organic waste decomposes and becomes natural compost.
The concept of curbside services like Roots goes back to the 19th and 20th centuries, when a “rag and bone man” would pick up unwanted household scraps and sell them to merchants. People knew their local rag and bone man, just as they knew their milkman.
But Roots wasn’t named for the history; it refers to a more modern — and literal — return to roots.
“For you to see the full cycle where you are, as a community contributing scraps and making your own soil, then ideally growing your food out of the soil,” he said, “it goes back to that idea of the community providing for itself.”
Roots doesn’t sell their scraps to merchants the way curbside collectors did in the past.
Instead, they charge members a monthly fee for their services, and the scraps get sent to Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton, where they are added to the existing compost piles at the facility.
“A few times a year, we’ll get some of that compost back, and can redistribute it out to people who have purchased the service, so people get their own bucket of compost every couple of months,” said Harwood.
When Brown and Harwood first moved to Lawrence three years ago, they knew they could build some sort of social enterprise — essentially a business that aims to improve human and environmental well-being — to serve the community.
“That’s one thing we’re hoping to offer in the service, beyond just us picking up your compost and you feeling good that you’re not being as wasteful,” Brown said. “We want to build it and mobilize a pool of people who are all interested in sustainability and connected to each other.”
Their goal is to eventually coordinate meet ups with members, brainstorm community-based ideas, and eventually advocate for citywide adoption of a curbside composting model.
So far, Roots has about 50 subscribers in Andover, North Andover, Haverhill and Lawrence.
Brown said he wanted to focus Roots hyper-locally, starting in their neighborhood in Tower Hill, Lawrence.
Through his work as a community organizer with Lawrence Community Works, he said he has heard from locals that they grew up with sustainable habits in Latin America, giving food scraps to farm animals and using animal manure for fertilizer.
“There’s this assumption about Lawrence that people don’t have the means or the bandwidth to care about sustainability because they have so many of their own immediate needs to meet,” said Brown. “But we see this amazing community spirit here,” that made him realize composting could easily be adopted at a grassroots level.
Part of the Roots mission statement is to foster healthy cities.
“The nutrient-rich compost we create together can help revive the topsoil in Greater Lawrence, which has been contaminated by factories over the years,” their website reads. “With better soil, we could grow more food and create a greener, more beautiful city.”
Brown and Harwood have been tabling at local festivals and events, and recently announced they are starting to do compost for community events and for local restaurants and cafes like Deb’s Bell Tower cafe in Lawrence.
“We want to create a community of people who all value sustainability and who want to support it on a larger level,” said Harwood.
Roots aims to make composting more accessible for everyone; that includes those who live in an apartment and don’t have the space, and those who live in a single-family home but don’t want to deal with the sometimes messy upkeep of a backyard compost pile.
“It’s not like your average backyard compost pile because it includes meats, bones, cheese, bread, anything cooked with oil, things that normally you wouldn’t want to put in your backyard because it would attract animals,” said Harwood.
Compost vs landfills
About half of what people throw in the trash is biodegradable and ends up in landfills, where the mix of biodegradable and inorganic materials makes natural decomposition impossible.
“It doesn’t happen in landfills because you need crucial ingredients like water, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and in landfills there isn’t enough air,” said Brown. “They pollute a lot, and emit gasses like methane.”
Because compost piles are exposed to oxygen, the decomposing food waste produces carbon dioxide instead of the methane that Brown said contributes more to global warming when not captured and turned into energy.
If it is not captured, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfill methane becomes a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, when it rises into the atmosphere.
So, grassroots advocates like Roots and larger commercial entities like Brick Ends Farm, work together to reduce the amount of organic waste being sent to landfills by promoting composting.
The actual process itself is simple, and happens in nature when organic materials are left alone. Sometimes, worms are used to speed up the process, but all it really takes is the right combination of ingredients. Eventually, micro-organisms break down the organic waste until it becomes nutrient-rich soil.
“It’s cool to see the whole process through,” said Brown. “Like with recycling, you’re not really seeing the end product, but this is where you’re feeling more a part of that full cycle from table to farm, back to table.”
For more information about Roots Compost visit www.rootscompost.com.