Compost bins join other waste bins at the curb citywide starting in April. (Photo: Martha Henry)

Everyone does it. The Greeks did it. So did the Romans. It’s even in the Bible. Hamlet mentioned it (“do not spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker”) when yelling at his mother. George Washington did it at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson played around with ways to do it better. This spring, all of Cambridge will be doing it. Again.

We’re talking about composting. This April, a pilot program in North Cambridge will be expanded to include the entire city with curbside composting offered to households in buildings with 12 units or fewer. All eligible households will get a kitchen bin to collect food scraps and a green plastic cart to roll out to the curb on collection day.

By weight, about 40 percent of residential trash is compostable, so collecting organic materials such as coffee grounds and moldy doughnuts and diverting them from landfills makes both economic and environmental sense.

According to Department of Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riordan, “It’s the single biggest waste stream that can be recycled by one collection mechanism and will allow us to reach our goal of a 30 percent reduction in waste by 2020. Composting propels us on to our ultimate goal of zero waste by 2050 or earlier.”

Though curbside composting may seem like a progressive idea, it’s actually a return to past practices. Composting has been around since the early days of agriculture, ever since our ancestors noticed that plants grow better in poop and began using animal and human waste to fertilize the land. Organic material broken down by microorganisms creates humus, which enriches the soil and fertilizes plants.

Privies and piggeries

Before European settlers arrived in what is now New England, Native Americans were growing corn and using leftover fish parts as fertilizer, a practice they taught to the Mayflower Pilgrims. Colonists used ashes, manure and soiled straw from stables as compost for their fields and gardens.

According to Rob Gogan, a recycling and waste manager at Harvard, “Harvard has been recycling since 1636,” the year of its founding. Dr. Diana Loren, a curator at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, knows a lot about colonial garbage, and said organized trash collection was unknown in the 17th century. Unwanted materials – from broken tankards to chicken bones – were thrown out windows and doors and tended to stay near where they had been used. Spoiled food was often tossed outside with a layer of ash scattered over it to contain the smell. The privy, or outhouse, was another dumping place for household trash. “The past had a different smell-scape,” Loren said.

By the mid-19th century, Cambridge had a department to collect offal, the term used for plant and animal waste. Though the department had 22 employees and revenue of $7,000 a year from selling scraps to pig farmers, it seemed no one wanted to run it; in the 1886 Annual Report of the Overseers of the Poor of Cambridge, under the heading “House Offal” is this complaint:

The Overseers have continued their voluntary charge of this department during the year. But inasmuch as this is in no way a part of their duty in the care of the poor, the expenditures for this business of collecting offal must be considered the same as if it were an independent department of itself.

Swamp, brickyards, dump

This 1937 painting of a Cambridge clay pit, “The Excavators” by Henry Carter Johnson, hangs in the Department of Public Works office on Hampshire Street.

Throughout the 1800s a growing brick industry brought big changes to North Cambridge. Swamplands around Alewife Brook were excavated for clay. Several large brickyards were established, along with a number of smaller ones, each with its own clay pits and drying kilns. Most of the workers were Irish immigrants. After the Civil War, a boom in the housing market created a surge of brick purchases. The New England Brick Co. emerged as the biggest operation, eventually buying up smaller brickyards.

By the start of World War I, the local industry was in decline. Closed clay pits were leased to the city to be used as dumps. The Annual Report of the City for 1937 mentions how unhappy residents were:

Dumping on land, particularly in a city like Cambridge of small area and large population, creates a serious health menace. The department receives constant complaints regarding odors and nuisance caused from fires which are continually breaking out on exposed dumping areas.

Also mentioned in the “House Offal” section of that year’s report: “The collections for 1937 were disposed of in the usual manner by sale to hog raisers … The demand among the hog raisers for the offal still exceeds the supply, but this condition may not always remain, and eventually some mechanical method for the disposal of the offal will have to be made.”

By the end of World War II, Cambridge’s brick making days were over. The New England Brick Co. shut down operations in 1951 and sold its huge pit along Sherman Street to the city for use as a dump.

The city stopped dumping in the early 1970s and used the former landfill for public housing at Rindge Towers, built in 1968; the Tobin Elementary School, built in 1971; and Danehy Park, completed in 1992.

Honey wagons

Cambridge Public Works employees empty a trash can into a “honey wagon” on McCarthy Road sometime between 1954 and 1959. (Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology via Creative Commons)

“Composting used to be widely practiced by individuals in backyard piles or gardens, when the country was more rural and people had farms and gardens,” said Ann McGovern, consumer waste reduction coordinator at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It was common practice to throw your scraps into a backyard pile or feed them to the chickens. With increased urbanization, that practice became less common.”

When Lenny Silva began working for Cambridge’s DPW in 1971, his first job was collecting food waste on the honey wagons, as they were called – though they smelled anything but sweet.

Each garbage truck had a crew of guys who picked up discarded food from backyard “swill buckets.” The steel pails were stored in the ground; each was surrounded by a cement liner with a steel lid to keep out animals. The buckets were heavy, and when full, could weigh more than 50 pounds.

During the hot weeks of summer, “the smell was godawful. You knew when we were coming down the street,” Silva recalled. “Most of the guys wore leather aprons. No matter how hot it was, we always wore long-sleeved shirts with elastics on the ends so maggots couldn’t crawl up your arms.” The honey wagons emptied their cargo at the city dump. Pig farmers would take a full dumpster of swill and leave an empty one.

The honey wagons stopped operating in the mid-1970s, when the dump at the old clay pits closed and Cambridge started trucking trash to an incinerator in Saugus. By that time, fewer and fewer people were putting out food scraps. “People said the heck with it,” said Silva, who still works for the DPW.

It would take another two decades for the landfills on top of the clay pits to be cleaned and become Danehy Park, a 50-acre recreational area with baseball fields and picnic areas. “I can’t believe it’s so beautiful, after all the stuff we dumped there,” Silva said. “They did a great job.” Some of the buried garbage buckets called honey pots can still be found in Cambridge backyards.

Changing attitudes

A 1956 Chevy is among the waste at an old Cambridge dump, once a clay pit, that closed in the 1970s. (Photo: Cambridge Historical Commission)

Composting was on the wane in the 20th century as commercial fertilizers became the norm for large farms and backyard gardens. The food industry was seeing a similar trend. By the late 1960s, takeout meals and convenience foods had become as American as apple pie (which McDonald’s added to its menu in 1968).

Many see the first Earth Day, celebrated in 1970, as a sign of coming change. The organic movement grew as more people became concerned about pesticide residues on food and big agriculture’s reliance on petrochemicals. As the cost of landfills and waste disposal rose, municipalities began to look into composting as an alternative to throwing food scraps and yard waste in the trash.

In the early 1990s, Massachusetts introduced disposal bans on leaves and yard waste. “Leaf and yard waste material was already being separated by people for the most part,” McGovern said. “It was fairly easy to get that waste stream, so the state helped cities and towns set up municipal compost sites. Compliance has been excellent.”

The state agency also started encouraging food waste composting with grants for home compost bins.

The compost guru

When Cambridge began a voluntary recycling program in 1989, mathematics instructor Robert Winters spent hours answering calls on the hotline. When the city began curbside recycling collection in 1991, Winters turned his volunteer energy to backyard compost bins.

At the time, the city had no interest in selling bins. Winters and a few others decided to form a nonprofit to buy and distribute bins at cost. The money for the first order – about $1,000 – came from bottle deposits collected during the volunteer recycling program.

“The gardeners were the leaders. They wanted compost for their gardens,” Winters said. Bins could be picked up at the Recycling Center, or he would deliver and help set them up. He was often invited to stay for lunch. “I enjoyed that,” said Winters, who was nicknamed the Compost Guru.

As he remembers, the biggest day for bin sales came in 1994, when a guy named Herb Noseworthy, president of Norsemen Plastic, offered to sell a truckload of Earth Machines at discounted prices on Cambridge Common. A couple hundred bins were sold over the course of a weekend.

Winters’ nonprofit distributed more than 2,000 bins in and around Cambridge before the DPW took over sales. “The hardware was one thing,” Winters said, “but it was the promotion and the normalizing of the idea of composting that was at least as important.”

Randi Mail and the red wigglers

When Randi Mail became the city’s recycling director in 2002, she advocated for increased composting and took steps to make it happen. “Looking at the housing stock in Cambridge, where less than 10 percent of the buildings are single-family homes, I started to think that maybe we had reached the saturation point for backyard composting,” Mail said. She started thinking about ways to expand access for people without backyards.

One option was worm composting, which could be done inside and year-round. Beginning in 2004, Mail taught how-to workshops. She showed people how to drill holes in a big plastic bin, add shredded newspaper as bedding, bury pockets of food waste in the newspaper and add red wiggler worms. The wigglers, which are available online, can process half their weight in food waste in a day. “They eat through the food, they eat through the paper, and they poop it out. That’s the compost,” Mail explained.

Commercial collection

Next, Mail set her sights on the schools. She and Adam Mitchell of Save That Stuff, a local recycling hauler, looked at the quantity of food waste generated at schools. “It was not compelling from a business standpoint to put a truck on the road for the material,” Mail said, “so we shifted gears and looked at the commercial sector.”

In 2006, the state awarded Cambridge a $35,000 grant to offer organics collection to businesses and institutions. Mail and her colleagues contacted big generators of food waste, including universities, supermarkets, hotels and laboratories, along with smaller generators such as corporations, restaurants and hospitals. Save That Stuff now had the incentive to buy a packer truck for organics collection, which began in September 2006. Food scraps and food-soiled paper were hauled to Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus for composting.

Grendel’s Den signed on as soon as commercial pickup was available. Kari Kuelzer, the general manager, welcomed the opportunity to compost at the restaurant her parents had opened in Harvard Square in 1971. “There was no practical way to do it unless we had a pickup,” Kuelzer said. “There’s no land here for us to compost. There’s very little space for us to even hold trash.”

“It wasn’t that hard to train people on what was compostable,” Kuelzer said. “Returning some awareness to what happens to things you want to get rid of helps create efficiency and better behavior on the part of my staff. It’s not just a matter of trying to save the environment, it’s also a matter of improving practices in my place of business.”

Kuelzer grew up in Cambridge and remembers the honey wagon. “There’s the idea that composting was this new, progressive, back-to-the-land thing in the ’70s, but it was also something that normal people were doing because it makes sense.”

“In the ’70s and ’80s, residential pickup made it so you could stop thinking about what happened to your waste,” Kuelzer said. Before that, “there was material that you had to get rid of, and how you did it was something you had to think about.”

School time

With a truck on the road for commercial pickup, schools could be added to the route. But first school staff had to be convinced composting was a good idea. “From day one, you need support from the principal and the head custodian,” Mail said. “With those two people, you can start a program.”

Composting began with the King Open School in March 2009. “The kids poured off their liquids into buckets,” Mail said. “Overnight, the custodians loved us because carrying around bags of liquid is heavy. It hurts your back, it drips, it gets all over the place. You have to mop and then you throw a bag of liquid in the dumpster and it breaks and it’s a mess. So they were, like, ‘This is great.’”

Systems were put in place, problems worked out and, slowly, more and more schools started separating out food scraps. By April 2016, all 17 Cambridge public schools composted.

Bike pickup joins the mix

In 2008, the DPW began to offer residents the option to drop off food scraps at its yard on Hampshire Street and at the Whole Foods Market on Prospect Street. “There were good options for people who didn’t want to compost at home,” Mail said.

One of those options was bike pickup from homes, which began in 2009 with SoilCycle. BootStrap and City Compost soon followed.

Mail encouraged their efforts, but “I told them all to think about the future, because I wanted to put them out of business. I wanted the city to offer this for free, so please keep that in mind.”

Andy Brooks started Bootstrap in Jamaica Plain in 2011, collecting compost in white buckets with a hand truck before upgrading to a bike trailer. With minimal startup costs, the business was a good match for a young, environmentally minded entrepreneur. Bootstrap offered pickup in Cambridge within a year. Subscribers are charged $10 a week and can get back composted soil in return if they ask for it, though only about 50 percent do.

“Our customers are overwhelmingly female and between the ages of 30 and 60,” Brooks said. “They have an interest in the environment and climate change. They’re interested in reducing a sense of guilt about throwing away a useful product, even if it’s food scraps.”

Bootstrap has grown up as a business. Brooks and his partner now have a staff of 17. Bicycles have been replaced by vans, pickup trucks and a box truck.

The start of citywide collection, the day Mail warned of years ago, has arrived. “It’s bittersweet,” Brooks said. “It’s going to force us to calibrate where we’re offering our services. We’re constantly expanding anyway. We’re on the move as much as the industry is on the move.”

Organic waste ban

From the late 1990s to 2010, the state’s environmental agency worked with supermarkets and other large food waste generators to set up composting programs on a voluntary basis. “That helped to form an increased infrastructure for food waste collection and for operations that would accept and compost food material,” said John Fischer, its branch chief for commercial waste reduction and waste planning.

In October 2014, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a commercial organic waste ban for establishments that produce more than a ton of material per week. Instead of throwing out large quantities of food, businesses and institutions have several options. They can donate food to shelters and food pantries, deliver scraps to farms to use as animal feed, compost the scraps or truck the waste to anaerobic digesters.

Curbside pilot

In 2009, Cambridge set ambitious goals for reducing trash: 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Because compostable items account for 40 percent of trash by weight, citywide composting is necessary to meeting those goals.

In October 2011, the state agency awarded Cambridge a $67,000 grant to conduct a feasibility study and implement a pilot program for curbside compost collection. “The feasibility study focused on an analysis of all the processors in the area,” Mail said. “That was the big question: Where’s it going to go? And also, who’s going to collect it?”

The pilot started in 2014 with 600 households in North Cambridge, the same neighborhood that had been home to the clay pits and the city dump.

By 2014, residents had been introduced to backyard composting, worm composting, drop-off composting and bicycle pickup. “We had most of the schools composting at that point,” Mail said, “so people with kids were aware of that. Their kids were coming home saying, ‘Mom, why are we throwing out the banana peels? I don’t throw them out at school.’”

Mail knew she and her colleagues had to sell the program for it to succeed. “We went door to door in the neighborhood and talked with people who had that typical reaction of ‘This is going to smell. This is going to be inconvenient. This is going to cause rodent problems. Get off my porch. Go away.’”

But they didn’t go away. Mail and DPW staff and volunteers held community meetings to answer questions and address concerns. Staff delivered kitchen bins and green plastic carts. Volunteers knocked on doors to explain the program and offer tips, such as keeping a kitchen bin in the freezer so it doesn’t smell.

The city hired Save That Stuff to collect the compost and haul it to Rocky Hill Farm. Technology was used to track the program’s success. Each green cart has a radio-frequency identification chip matched to an address. When the cart is close to the collection truck, scanners on the side of the truck get the signal and transmit it to a computer. The data collected helps the DPW measure how many households are participating in the program and how often.

The first phase of the pilot was a success. In 2015 the program expanded to 5,200 households – all of the Monday trash route – from 600. When Mail left her job in 2016, Cambridge was close to citywide composting.

Donations and data

In Colonial times, Harvard had its own piggery, and food that students didn’t eat was fed to the swine. In modern times, leftovers are still a concern.

In 1997, Harvard started collecting food waste for composting. In 2012, the university collected almost 3,000 tons of material for composting, most of it food scraps. Harvard’s Gogan endorses composting efforts while stressing the importance of “reducing, reusing and recycling. In that order.”

On a typical day, Harvard makes breakfast, lunch and dinner for about 6,600 students – more than 20,000 meals a day. For such a large operation, leftovers are inevitable. In 2014, Harvard Dining Services started a collaboration with Food for Free, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that collects what would otherwise go to waste and donates it to those in need.

At the end of each meal at Harvard’s undergraduate dining halls, unused food that meets safety criteria is weighed, logged and frozen. Food for Free collects the frozen food several times a week. The first year of the program, Harvard donated more than 58,000 pounds of food. Last year, that figure dropped to 27,000 pounds.

“What those statistics tell you is that we’ve been able to get a handle on our own food waste and production,” said Crista Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communications at Harvard Dining Services. “It was possible to scale back the production of some things.”

“At the end of the day, we have to make sure that we use our food dollars as best we can and that the food we’re going to donate is appropriate for donation – that, as Food For Free talks about, it’s a meal with dignity,” Martin said.

Move to anaerobic digestion

Erik Levy started his Save That Stuff business in 1990 to facilitate recycling and then composting. (Photo: Save That Stuff)

When Erik Levy founded Save That Stuff in 1990, he collected cardboard boxes and sold them to recyclers. His business changed and grew over the years. When Save That Stuff started collecting organics, the material was hauled to farms where it was mixed with horse manure and leaves to create nutrient-rich soil. “We learned a lot about the value of dirt and how sought after good soil is,” Levy said.

“As composting became more popular, more people started doing it,” he said. “Now companies are buying compostable plates and cups and forks and knives. The compostable serviceware business took off exponentially faster than the infrastructure of composting facilities was able to handle.”

Utensils made of cornstarch did not always decompose as advertised. Levy remembers a farmer sending him compostable forks and knives that had been in a pile of dirt for 14 months and looked exactly as they did when they went in. “Composting facilities reached their saturation point on compostable serviceware,” Levy said. They still wanted food waste, but there was pushback on taking loads that had a lot of serviceware or were contaminated with trash.

The increasing supply of organic material, due in part to the state’s organic waste ban, created a market for large-scale anaerobic digesters. Last year, Save That Stuff started hauling organic material to the Waste Management CORe facility, under the Tobin Bridge in Charlestown. At the facility, organic material is processed and prepared for anaerobic digestion tanks – ones that are sealed off from air.

“The CORe facility has the ability to take in organics and 5 percent to 10 percent contamination is okay,” said Levy, whose company has partnered with Waste Management. “We’re doing the screening and cleaning of contaminants and a little bit of recipe management to produce an organic slurry.”

The slurry, which has the consistency of oatmeal, is pumped into tanker trucks and driven 30 miles to North Andover, to anaerobic digesters at the wastewater treatment plant of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District. The digesters capture methane gas from the slurry; the gas is converted to electricity and heat to power the plant. The residue that remains after the digestion process is called a biosolid, which is shaped into pellets and used as fertilizer.

Today, Save That Stuff has grown to a business with $20 million in revenues, 75 employees and 30 trucks. “I joke with people that I’m a capitalist environmentalist,” Levy said. “I want to make money, but I want to feel good about it.”

Curbside composting (finally) arrives

Cambridge used Save That Stuff trucks for a composting pilot program in North Cambridge, but has its own for the rollout of citywide composting April 2. (Photo: Martha Henry)

About 800 tons of compost were collected during the North Cambridge pilot program. When curbside composting comes to all Cambridge neighborhoods in April, city trucks will take over the collection from Save That Stuff. The number of eligible households, those in buildings with 12 units or fewer, will jump from 5,200 to 25,000, about half of the households in Cambridge. The food waste will continue to be trucked to Charlestown for processing, then to the anaerobic digester in North Andover to create energy.

Cambridge is on the early end of a national trend. Last year, BioCycle magazine surveyed residential food-waste collection programs around the country and found that the number of curbside programs has increased 87 percent in the past three years,  to 148 programs from 79 in 2014. San Francisco was a leader in curbside collection. New York is rolling out collection in all five boroughs.

To O’Riordan at the Department of Public Works, the benefit to Cambridge is clear: “Significant reduction of material disposed of at landfills at costs that continue to escalate at alarming rates.”

The groundwork for citywide composting took 30 years, but it was a textbook example of how to create a successful program, with collaboration between state and city government, volunteer participation, school and community involvement, pilot programs, buy-in and patience.

”Our first goal is to get composting off the ground,” said Mike Orr, the current recycling director. “And then incrementally, each month, to get more and more people to participate.”


Martha Henry is a Cambridge resident who serves as executive director of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and has been a Cambridge Recycling Advisory Committee member since 2017.

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