According to Conor Miller, owning a composting company has been a lot like mountaineering, “I ski bummed in Jackson and Seattle for five years after college and that was the real education; the precursor to being an entrepreneur is mountaineering and all that. It gives you determination and motivation to go up hill, one foot in front of the other, all day. Route finding, figuring things out as you go, and knowing that in the end you might make it to the top, even if it’s tiring. I think that builds up a reservoir for tolerating challenges.”
Creating a business certainly does come with challenges, especially when you’re starting from scratch. That’s exactly what Conor did, along with his business partners Andrew Brousseau and Justin Sandler, when they created one of the first composting companies of its kind in Massachusetts in 2011. Conor moved here from Washington back in 2010, and at that time he had no idea what lay ahead for him. “Since there was composting in Seattle, I thought that there should be compost pickup in Massachusetts, but there really wasn’t. And if I wanted to compost myself, I felt like there must be others who want to do it too. Which led me to do it myself. I’d been thinking about something like that for a long time but I didn’t have any clue what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t like I had a big master plan… So I just went around to all these restaurants in Gloucester and found six who were interested. I bought a truck and started picking up from them, basically learning how to do this more effectively as I went along.”
Conor, Andrew and Justin own and operate Black Earth Composting: a company that collects organic matter and processes it into compost for both commercial as well as residential clients all over eastern Massachusetts. Compost is the decay of organic matter to create nutrient rich soil for plants. It is important because it decreases waste, improves the quality of garden soil, and produces healthier plants. All of this is beneficial for the earth and for us, it’s a win-win.
BEC has several sites throughout eastern Massachusetts where they drop off the organic matter that they collect. At their Manchester location, they separate the organic matter into piles at various stages of decomposition. Over time, heat and oxygen motivate the decomposition of the organic matter, so BEC uses pipes and air machines to send hot air into the center of the compost piles. By the end of the decomposition process, they are left with nutrient dense soil.
“For me personally, it’s not just about composting, it’s any kind of waste or inefficiency in general. I just hate throwing things out. It doesn’t feel right… Rather than throwing food waste into landfills, we turn it into compost and return nutrients to the soil,” Conor passionately explains. According to the EPA, 20-30% of the waste that is thrown into landfills is actually compostable. This means that if everyone composted we could decrease the amount of waste in landfills by up to 30%, and as a result, reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) that landfills emit.
BEC’s impact extends beyond their composting services. They donate their finished product to local gardens and schools and they offer educational and outreach programs for children and adults alike (BEC’s compost is available to anyone, whether their services are used or not). They also provide compost consultation, to help at-home composters produce a more fertile compost. Through donating and a variety of other services, BEC is supporting their community which in turn is impacting the health of the entire planet.
Finding the Best Method of Composting
Composting at home is not accessible to everyone, which is why companies such as BEC simplify the process by collecting your compostable materials and turning them into soil for you. Conor’s advice to anyone interested in composting is to educate yourself and know where your waste is going. You can contact your local town hall or conduct a simple internet search to find a company that works for you. Be sure to research different companies, keeping in mind your lifestyle and schedule, before settling on a final decision. Once you’ve made your choice, contact them directly to set up specifics as far as your waste collection is concerned.
The compost company may provide a compost bucket, possibly for a small fee, or one can always be purchased online. There are compostable bags available online as well, however Conor suggests using two paper bags inside one another- they’re free, compostable and readily available at your local grocery store. Be mindful in the summer time of leaving a compost bucket in direct sunlight, as it may begin to smell. If using a compost company, be sure to check with them about the specifics of what can and cannot be composted. Some companies, like BEC, will accept bones and shells, which take much longer to decompose and their large-scale operation has the means to process those materials.
If you decide to compost at home, which is the most energy efficient method, there are a few vital distinctions to be aware of. It’s important to know that there are two types of composting—hot composting and cold composting. Additionally, the organic materials that can be composted are broken down into two categories: nitrogen, or green materials, and carbon, or brown materials. Nitrogen-rich materials consist of fruit scraps, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, grass and plant clippings. Carbon-rich materials consist of dry leaves, finely chopped wood and bark chips, shredded newspaper, straw, and sawdust from untreated wood (a more detailed list of these items, which you can print out and keep near your composting bin, is available at the end of this article). Ideally, your compost should have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1. However, each individual item you put into your compost has its own ratio of carbon to nitrogen, so tracking this ratio can be daunting. Most experts suggest composting whatever organic material you have and monitoring its decomposition rate. The closer you are to this ratio, the faster your pile will decompose. If the ratio is off, your compost will still decompose but at a slower rate. Essentially, if you are using the hot composting method, after about three months your compost should be complete or near complete. If it is not, your ratio of carbon to nitrogen may be off.
To begin the cold composting method, collect your organic matter in a concentrated pile, bin, or compost-specific container. There is no need to turn or maintain your compost with this method, but it will take a year or so to fully decompose. You may continually add to this compost pile but be mindful that the newer organic material will not necessarily decompose at the same rate as the older organic material. When the compost turns dry and dark brown, with a crumbly consistency, it is ready to use.
To begin the hot composting method, start with at least 3 feet deep of leaves (or other carbon that you have available). Initially, wet the compost pile until it feels like a moderately wet sponge. Don’t overwater as this may lead to rotting. Monitor the compost by checking the interior temperature with a thermometer – the internal temperature should reach 100-140°F. Composting is an aerobic process and needs oxygen, which breaks down the organic material. Andrew, the BEC composting expert, suggests creating a “door” by moving aside materials until you reach the center of the pile, where you can create a cavity to add new organic material (essentially a hole in the side of your pile which you will close after adding the new material). This is much more efficient than turning the pile, as most composting articles tell you to do. As the center of your compost pile will be the hottest, you should receive faster results with this approach, while still introducing oxygen to your compost on a weekly basis through the “door” you’ve created. For serious gardeners, hot composting is a much better approach. It is similar to cold composting, using the same organic matter and bin, but this method differs in that the compost should be usable within one to three months.
You can use a kit to determine the nutrient levels in your compost, purchased online or in select gardening supplies stores. Depending on the kit, these tests will either take place at your home or they may require you to send out a sample to a lab. You can also try the BEC approach: Andrew explained how he plants the same plant in three or four different soils, with one soil containing his compost. Based on how well each plant grows, the results will reveal how nutrient dense your compost is.
My family and I began composting at home about three years ago. We collect our organic matter in a steel bin in our home which can accommodate a little over a gallon of material. About once a week when the steel bin is full, I dump it into the compost tumbler in our backyard, and then I turn the tumbler itself once every one to two weeks. The compost tumbler allows for an easier, cleaner composting experience while still introducing oxygen as often as needed (either when adding new organic matter or by removing the lid periodically). When the organic matter has turned into a dark rich soil, I’ll dump the tumbler and collect the finished compost in a separate bin in the yard until I need it for gardening.
Healing our planet will need to be a collaborative effort, and the best thing that we can do individually is to make better choices in our everyday lives. Whether you prefer to compost at home or use a company such as BEC, composting is a simple but impactful decision you can make to produce the healthiest plants, minimize your household waste, and improve the environment for future generations.
Jessica Ann Mandelbaum has been eating her way around New England for the past four years. When Jessica’s not writing about the multi-sensory perception of flavor or force-feeding loved ones her various kitchen creations, she can be found practicing yoga, gardening, reading, hiking, or spending quality time with her dog-daughter.