Q&A: Andy Brooks of Bootstrap Compost

Bootstrap Compost is a year-round residential and commercial food scrap pickup service.

Andy Brooks and his buckets. Photo by Allee Gar

Andy Brooks and his buckets. Photo by Allee Graziano

In 2011, Andy Brooks started Bootstrap Compost, a year-round residential and commercial food scrap pick-up service, with just a bucket, a hand truck, and a willingness to make a difference. Two years later, the Jamaica Plain resident has half a dozen employees, upwards of 550 residential and 21 commercial clients, is partnered with four farms, and has diverted 240,000 pounds of organics from polluting landfills to fertilizing fields. They’ve also begun attending events at the Aquarium, Nature Conservancy, and Goodwill among other places to talk about the importance of separating not just your plastics and cardboard, but your banana peels, napkins, and coffee grounds from you trash. We caught up with Brooks to hear more.

What inspired you to start Bootstrap Compost?

I started it on New Years Day of 2011 after having a pretty rough time finding work.

So it was kind of like a New Years’ resolution in a way?

Yeah, it was. I was spending time with my family in Vermont and noticed my sister had a bucket in her garage. I asked her about it and as she explained about composting I was really captivated by the whole idea of doing something like that in Boston. I was determined so I came back to Boston and put up a bunch of fliers around JP about a food-scrap pick-up service. I had no real model in place. I didn’t have a website, and I didn’t have a car. I basically just had some fliers and a hand truck and was just kind of hoping it could become something. Immediately it became clear that there was a real interest in this. One day I had 40 emails in my inbox and it’s been growing ever since.

Originally what did you do with those first buckets of compost that you collected?

So there in laid the problem. I didn’t quite have anything set up so I just did it all on my own out of my house in JP. I just bought a bunch of large plastic barrel trashcans and read as much as I could about it.

When you had all of these buckets in your backyard didn’t that smell?

It was fine until the summer.

I’m just imaging a backyard filled with buckets on buckets of food scraps and people’s decomposing dinners.

It would go out to the farm, so it wasn’t strictly staying there, but there were definitely a few days when my immediate neighbors were ready for me to get a space. But they were very patient and cool about it.

So how long does it take for a bucket to completely decompose and turn into something that doesn’t look like a banana peel and a napkin?

To be on the safe side and really let it stabilize we don’t return our product until it’s between eight months and a year old. We’re really active with it. It gets stirred daily, we introduce a lot of worms to it and the worms are propagating like crazy. We add leaves and check the moisture and temperature levels.

Why use compost instead of traditional fertilizer? What are the benefits?

Compost revitalizes soil. So you have the ground and your farming on the ground for decades and often times your practicing monoculture so the soil is really suffering from a lack of enrichment. When you introduce compost you introduce a lot of healthy microbes into the soil that plants need to grow. Basically, fertilizers are like steroids whereas compost is good for the long haul.

Tell me more about your experience explaining composting to people.

There’s definitely an art to convincing people, particularly businesses people, that it make sense to compost rather than just going the waste route. But people are finally coming around to it. We’re seeing a shifting culture around composting. It’s becoming a desirable thing to have in your office space. If you’re going to have recycling you might as well have compost.

What reactions have you’ve gotten? Do some people just not get it?

It happens all the time. A lot of people are concerned about smells. Which certainly makes sense. But my reply to that is that dumpsters are still going to reek in the summer, the food isn’t just going to disappear. We inform people about the best ways to keep the odor down in case they do encounter anything, including putting coffee grounds on top of all your material at the end of the day. We even have a little concoction for people to use that mitigates any smell.

What can tell me about compost that most people don’t know?

On average Americans throw away three thousand pounds of food a second and 95 percent of that is compostable, actually all of it is compostable if it is organic material, including meat. I think people don’t understand the bad effects of landfills. In landfills the Styrofoam and the plastic covers up the organic material and it has no access to sunlight, water or oxygen. So it releases methane gas, which is like 20 times more detrimental than CO2. So opposed to just throwing compostable material into a landfill, capture it and make it something useful. People don’t understand that it’s not just some fancy, “bougie” yet hippie sort of lifestyle choice, it’s a practical thing to do.

I always find myself saying that when I was a kid recycling was just becoming very commonplace and now that were in 2013 composting is now where recycling was 20 years ago. We’re sort of on the cusp of a real cultural shift in terms of composting becoming a mainstream, normal part of our lives.

What’s your five-year plan for Bootstrap?

Right now we give away our compost to subscribers as a part of being in the program. We still want to do that because it’s a key component of what we do, but we are also looking into having a retail component where we’re actually selling the compost and worm castings and possibly compost tea.

Compost tea?

Compost tea is when you introduce water into finished compost and you add molasses and a bubbler to oxygenate the water so the microbes come alive. You can spray it directly on plants and they react to it.

Have you ever spilled a bucket on anyone’s front porch before?

Oh yeah, we carry around a lot of plastic gloves, towels and everything. We’ve got it covered, it happens.