This month, we took The Stories Behind Our Food on the road. Danielle and Kate interviewed Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost at his home in Boston, where we checked out his garden and learned about all things compost!
Waste diverted from landfills: 4.5 million pounds
Compost created: 2.2 million pounds
Greenhouse gases offset: 3.2 million pounds
That’s the equivalent of 24,366 trees or 1,734 acres of forest land. Looking at the offset another way, it represents 1.6 million pounds of coal or 165,800 gallons of gasoline that were not burned!
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everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts. All right.
Hello. The stories behind our food is on the road this week. Danielle and Gary, our producer are being hosted right now by Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost. He’s the Co founder and chief operating officer. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Thanks for hosting us and giving us pomegranate juice. Pretty awesome. I want to start out by asking you about your mission. Basically, I think composting isn’t super mainstream in the US. Why do you think that is?
Well, it takes a lot of time and effort to compost. You have to be genuinely interested in it to actually create a good nutrient rich soil. A lot of people try to compost in their backyard and what they do is they basically are just creating a mini landfill, because they’re just throwing food scraps, one on top of the other. you need a, you know, mix the compost, you need to water it. Occasionally you need to make sure it has access to sunlight so that all those microbes and macro and micro decomposers can have an environment where they thrive.
Yeah. I think you’re getting into this already, but if you can explain basically from a scientific perspective how composting works and how it’s different from a landfill.
Sure. Well, first of all, composting is a much better use of resources then than landfills are. according to the EPA, 14% of waste is compostable, but only 2.9% of that is actually composted. So we’re on average every day producing enough food waste to fill a stadium the size of Gillette, where the Patriots play full of food waste and that’s mostly going to the landfill. composting is good for a variety of reasons. first of all, of course you’re creating a, a soil out of it that can be used. It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that can be used to grow and help grow and help create a really, a really positive sort of ecosystem for plants to thrive in. I put compost on my garden, you know, I have really beautiful Kale growing back there and tomatoes and it really helps create the proper kind of environment with the right kind of nutrients that a plant is supposed to have. But the other reason composting is so good is because of the fact that it actually offsets, greenhouse gases. So in a landfill, you are creating methane gas, methane gas. It’s, you know, we always say landfills are where food scraps go to die and methane gas is the byproduct of that. Methane gas is 14 to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Where does it come from? It’s just being like, it’s coming out of the piles of an uncompensated scraps?
You know, I’m not a chemist, but I do know that food scraps and other stuff that’s just sitting there and rotting creates methane gas.
But with composting, you’re flipping that, that food waste, you’re adding water, you’re adding naturally heat as added through that process. And I believe it’s a combustion reaction, but essentially you’re taking methane gas and you’re converting it to carbon dioxide, which again is 14 times less potent in the environments you’re actually offseting greenhouse gases by, by composting. Take this, for example, every pound of food waste that you can post, you’re actually offsetting around 0.9 pounds of, of greenhouse, of greenhouse gases. to put that into terms, every mile you drive, you pump out one pound of carbon dioxide. So essentially, you could offset your whole footprint. You know, by composting, say, you know, I mean you’d have to compost a lot of food and maybe change your lifestyle a little bit, but you could really have a zero waste kind of neutral greenhouse gas lifestyle with the help of composting. So…
That’s pretty compelling. I think a lot of people don’t see what they can do as individuals, but this, especially when you’re doing it on large scale as your businesses and we’ll get into that. It’s got, it gives me a lot of hope. That’s neat.
And I think going back to why don’t more people compost? Well it does take a lot of work. People are busy here in Boston. People don’t have the space to do it. oftentimes they don’t have the time to do it themselves. So services like ours, really help. I just read a statistic that said that of non– 72% of people don’t compost. But of those 72%, 67% say they would compost if it was, if there was a convenient way to do it. Now convenient is a relative term to some people, convenient might mean buying a tumbler and putting it in their backyard instead of having a pile. A tumbler is a device that you essentially spin and rotate. And over time, those food scraps, you know, you add your carbon sources, your, your nitrogen sources, your, your browns and your greens essentially for a healthy compost pile, you need both a lot of leaves and carbon sources, even cardboard or you know, paper materials like that. And then you also need your, your food scraps, your banana peels, your leftovers. So that might be, that’s easy for someone, for other people, that means actually having a service like Bootstrap. So recently I was in New York City for the community composting, conference. And there are businesses starting up all over the country. We were one of the original community composting operations in America. and we’re one of the biggest ones now. People really look up to us and we frequently, frequently get inquiries from places in Florida or Alabama or California, Oregon. Across the board. There are, you know, hundreds of companies starting now that are looking up to us and looking up and seeing that people are starting to become more conscious with their food waste. So many years ago we became sort of conscious about how we eat. More and more people are buying organic. More and more people are buying local. I think more people are into even gardening. and now that same kind of clientele that is shopping at Whole Foods and is really buying into kind of the values that what they stand for, what they put in their body. They also want to put back into the planet via composting. So we started serving Jamaica Plain. That was our initial neighborhood. We had a few dozen clients and now we’re, you know, out in the Back Bay with, you know, what I would consider a higher end clientele. You know, the people that can afford, you know, the lattes and you know, the Yoga studio classes and, and now they have a composting bin too. So that’s a really cool revolution that I’ve seen over the, over the time of this business is that we’re not just reaching kind of this niche audience of, you know, I don’t want to put a label on it, but people that are just really, into the environment. Now we have people that are into a lot of things, but they also are into the environment as well.
Yeah. Make compost. Cool. Make compost mainstream. Yeah, that’s right. Can you explain — I’m seeing the obstacles here. People want to do this, they already want to do this more and more, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it and they don’t have the space. So how do you make it convenient for city dwellers here in Boston?
Yeah. Admittedly I was one of those people that you were talking about earlier who by accidentally was making a mini landfill in my back yard. So I’d love to hear what, how it works for an individual
About starting your own compost pile or about signing up with Bootstrap?
Signing up with Bootstrap. Didn’t work for me. Right?
So if you are interested in composting, and again, if you don’t have the space or time to do it or maybe you’re not creating the kind of soil that you wanted to, you can sign up with us. And what we do is we deliver a five gallon bucket to your house. if you’re, if you’re a resident, we also provide commercial services as well. but if you’re a resident, you can sign up and we give you that bucket. You can fill it with …basically anything that grows goes. So we accept produce, we accept meat products, you know, and then we, and then we come by and based on your needs, we can come by once a week or once every two weeks and pick up that bucket, swap it out, give you a fresh, clean bucket. We sanitize, we clean and sanitize every single bucket. We put a nice little compostable liner around it, so it’s really smell free, it’s hassle free. And on the day of your pickup, you just place it outside on your front porch. We swap it out and you get to start again.
Do you have to do a lot of educating? Do people know what they can compost and what they can’t? Or has that been a problem for you?
\It hasn’t been a problem, but it’s sometimes a little bit of an issue with our commercial accounts. So we serve a lot of, a lot of offices for example. And that’s another movement where I’ve seen, you know, it used to be just Nature Conservancy or Series and now we have Puma and Uber and Lyft and just these big brand names that are now part of, you know, having composting services at their office. I visit them frequently. Toast Boston for example, is a huge growing company and they have so many compost bins and they fill them all up. it’s, it’s pretty amazing to see and it’s a huge impact because at an office you are potentially reaching thousands of people and educating them about composting. But sometimes things can go wrong because not everybody understands what to put in the compost Bin and what not to put. Or maybe they’re in a hurry and they’re just kind of like, you know, throwing it wherever and the first empty bin. With our residential subscribers, it’s not a problem. Again, it’s a volunteer kind of service. You don’t have to sign up for it. You can if you want.
They’re highly motivated already. They already want to do it. So they probably know more.
Exactly. Yeah. So they already know how to do it. Plus we send them, you know, like a little leaflet little flyer that says what you can and can’t compost. We, there’s plenty of Info online about, so, so people are, you know, if they’re, if they’re buying into it, they’re usually gonna follow the rules. Yeah. That being said, we have had, you know, a bucket full of diapers delivered to us once. Staying on the theme of poop, we once had a lady that was throwing her dog poop in the compost bin. So we’ve had a few weird incidents along the way, but 99% of those buckets are really just good food waste.
Yeah. So what is your personal area of expertise? I know you talked kind of being that bleeding heart environmentalist. What, what is your background and what gave you this idea and wanting to get into this?
That’s something I think about a lot. my background is actually in psychology and I moved to Boston to pursue a phd in neuropharmacology, which lasted all of eight months. I did not decided I did not want to, pursue on that career path and kind of be stuck in a lab and the academic environment just didn’t suit me. I think by nature I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker and a businessman, you know, I was that kid, you know, going around the neighborhood, mowing lawns for people, making a little money, shoveling snow, you know, any opportunity I could make a dollar, you know, like I tried. then after Grad school I kind of floated around. I did some media work for a little bit, I did some communications work, but my heart was always in, in the environment and how do we help the environment. So I, initially saw a flyer for Bootstrap Compost and I thought, hm, that’s a cool service. I want to, I want to be a part of that. And I profiled Andy in a video.
This is your cofounder, right?
Andy is, yeah, my co founder, and I, this was back when he had like, you know, 40, 50, 60 clients in Jamaica Plain. And after that video, he really liked the work that I did. I think the video had got a lot of views. so I did some more stuff for him for free and then he decided to, you know, take me on for a few hours a week just doing part time marketing. He needed help. He was doing all aspects of the business. and somewhere along the way I just kind of developed a business acumen for efficiency, for operations, for hiring, all these things that it takes to grow and scale a business. We now have 26 people working on our staff. we serve over 3000 clients. and all that took a bit of risk taking and a lot of management. And I guess over the years I’ve just realized that those are some skills that I have.
Bootstrap describes itself on its website as a social enterprise. What does that mean to you?
It means a lot of things. I have a whole hour talk about social enterprise and what it means to be a social enterprise. I’ve done talks at UMass and Tufts to a variety of students. I’m talking about social entrepreneurship. what it means to me is you’ve heard of the bottom, the triple bottom line. I mean, probably it’s the good for people, good for planet, good for profits. So I think that’s kind of like the basis of it. you know, for example, in house we invest in our workforce, so we give people above livable wages, we have health insurance, we’re now starting to unroll 401k plans. and we give bonuses and we always pay people and we put them on flexible schedules. We have several people who work remotely with us and they’re getting their job done and it’s treating each other with respect and treating each other with kindness, in house. So that’s what we do in house. outside of that we are big in the community. So we do a lot of education. We have a community outreach team that, is spearheaded by one of our employees who, together. Her and I designed a very robust K-6 sort of curriculum about composting a an hour long presentation essentially to that we can shop around and go to schools with and teach kids about, you know, the importance of composting, talking about soil health, talking about plant health, talking about some of these issues like the landfill stuff I was bringing about bringing, talking about, and methane and all that other stuff. And it really ties in a lot of like science, technology, math kind of stuff. We bring the worm bin too occasionally. The young kids really love the worms. They love to look into, you know, that compost bin. And we asked them to like find a, a warm egg or find a big worm finally. So we do a lot of that with kids. the service in itself is a social enterprise, I feel like because as I mentioned that offices, you’re reaching a lot of people and teaching them about, behaviors that are more favorable for the earth. the buckets out on the curb out on this front step make people wonder, Oh, what does bootstrap compost? They look it up to like, oh, composting made easy. Hmm. What’s that?
Yeah. If you look at their Instagram, you can see a lot of the buckets, but we’re talking about a branded bucket that has the name of the service on it. So people who see it will know right away. This isn’t just a random bucket. There’s a purpose for it.
Yeah, exactly. we hire, we hire folks with disabilities and they come into our warehouse through Triangle and they work with us four days a week. that’s something I’m extremely proud of that partnership and we’ve been able to keep it going now for I think coming up on three years. and it gives folks with disabilities a sense of purpose and meaning and an income, for a population that has historically been disenfranchised or misunderstood. And we love those guys. They come in and they just, they just, they just crush it. and then we have a community outreach team, which, goes back to the compost donations. We give out a lot of compost to community gardens. We just gave one a to a community garden that’s starting up in Chinatown. We delivered 20 buckets to another community garden. I can’t think of the name right now. but there’s a lot of compost that’s being given out. We have a budget. you know, we try to do 1% or more of our revenue goes back into causes we believe in. So not only do we donate compost, but we also do financial donations. So we’ve donated to the ACLU, the Hyde Square task force, among many other organizations that we believe in, that uphold the spirit of, you know, liberty and, and and, and doing something right.
It’s awfully efficient that you can advertise your own service and simultaneously be teaching people about good behaviors that are good for the earth. Even if they’re not, they don’t choose to go with Bootstrap, like, you can without feeling like it’s just an ad. You can talk about what you do and get new supporters. But also have people like really learn something useful that’s, that’s good for the world.
Yeah. It’s a win win. And we don’t try to be salesy. People come to us. We’ve grown tremendously this past year, especially in the commercial sector. And there’s just a little signup form or a little information form that people fill out and we get five inquiries a day, 10 inquiries a day of commercial clients who want to sign up with our service. So we’re just clearly getting out.
Can you talk about, we haven’t actually gotten to this yet. What happens to the food you pickup? What happens to the compost you make?
Yeah, so we work primarily with one farm where it gets turned into compost. They have, an in-vessel, system where they take the food waste and they put it into this giant sort of screener that is also, powered by I believe, diesel. and it runs for like a, I don’t know what the capacity is, but it’s massive. It’s the size of like a semi semi truck, like an 18 wheeler. and food waste gets put into that and they spin it around and they heat it. And within 24 hours, you have 90% finished compost. Actually 24 hours. Yeah. And the screener, the screen is actually able to separate, it’ll keep the like bad stuff in and the compost, it gets screened out. Then they take that compost and they put it into these large mountain sized piles. They’re not actually the size of mountains, but they’re pretty big. They’re probably the size of this house. so, and then that, that sits there and they come by with a tractor and turn it, you know, every, every couple of days. And, and we’ve tested their compost and it tests really, really well. in terms of testing low for heavy metals testing high for nutrients, we always test the compost before we, do our, you know, giveaways. so that’s one thing that happens. We work with another farm, which is much more agrarian if you want to put it that way. They just have a basic three, three, like it’s not a three bin system, but it’s like three areas.
Yeah. Three piles essentially. Yeah. And so they have one pile that’s like the act of pile where we would dump food scraps that gets turned in. The middle pile is when you’re no longer dumping, but it’s not fully finished than the last pilot’s to fully finished compost. So they have that kind of system would go there once a week. So they get maybe about, you know, a thousand pounds a week less than that.
And these farms are using the finished compost — other than what you donate, like you mentioned earlier that the compost — they’re using it for their food production?
So the first farm, they’re a commercial composting site. They sell the compost or they give compost back to us. And with our partnership they give us as much compost as we want, as, as much as we need to be able to do our donations to be able to, give back to our residents and even to do some sales. we mixed their compost actually with some of our own worm castings, which are, you know, the most potent kind of compost. So even just a little teaspoon of worm castings is enough for one plant. whereas with compost you’d want like a handful of compost for one plant. So we mix it in and we kind of branded as our own Bootstrap compost that we sell or give away or donate. But the other farm, they actually do use their compost on their crops.
Yeah. Cool. I’m seeing a lot of packaging, like food packaging recently that’s marketed as compostable anyway. Is that something that you can handle and do you have thoughts on that movement toward packaging food in compostable … I don’t know what it is. Bioplastic or something?
We can handle a limited amount. we’re fortunate enough that most of that stuff we, we don’t get a lot of that stuff. So most of our, I’d say 95 to 98% is food scraps. So we don’t have a lot of, compostable packaging that comes our way. My personal viewpoints on it are mixed. While it’s probably better than plastic. I still think it’s kind of contributes to a culture of a throw away culture, and a culture of waste. And, I’m not sure what even like what the ratios are for the amount of resources that you need to create, a compostable cup versus a plastic cup versus, so I probably need to do a little more research on that. But I do think generally speaking that it would be better if offices used, you know, people used water bottles or or plates like real plates and real forks and knives. But then again, I understand, I’ve been to some of these offices that have, you know, thousand employees running around with literally a cup of coffee in one hand, a laptop and the other. So convenience is a factor and it’s just something we’re dealing with. And I guess it’s better to have compostable plastics then than to not have them. But on the flip side, too many of those and farms can’t process them. And, and they have to go to digesters. And, and I know for a fact that that digester in Charlestown doesn’t accept, you can put them in, but it’ll grind them up and it won’t go into the slurry. It’ll just be thrown away with the stuff that’s, you know, that’s the byproduct. So it’s really hard to compost that stuff.
Ironic. But good to know.
Yeah, it is ironic.
I think another thing to think about, especially for a lot of our listeners is the individual behavior that we have and how that impacts what companies do. We have a lot of those compostable packaging now because it’s been demanded. You want the convenience, but you want, you know, the quote unquote environmentally friendly that turns out it’s not so environmentally friendly. And I think what I want to stress to our listeners and to individuals is to really own your individual behavior and how that impacts what companies do and that it’s important to buy whole foods. It’s important to buy bulk and your food and your grocery store. And when you buy packaged goods and you continue to buy packaged goods, that’s going to change the behavior of where you’re buying that. So, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on kind of how folks’ individual behavior kind of impacts maybe the way you do business and you know, the other folks you’re doing business with as well.
Well, it’s interesting you bring that up because 40% of our food is wasted across the board, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a household. And that’s really sad because if food waste was a country, I believe it would be the second largest producer of energy and like the third largest use user of energy and the third largest user of water.
And that’s globally speaking, that’s not just the US but in the US it’s 40%. And you’re right. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s like, you know, don’t go to Costco and buy six heads of lettuce because it’s gonna cost you $3 less, you’re going to end up wasting three of those heads of lettuce. Yeah. If you’re buying it for your family, you know, I go to Costco, I’ve completely stopped buying the produce there because I realized that it’s just half of it just goes bad. And I’m, I’m part of the problem when that happens. So, you know, with produce, just be very careful and mindful of what you buy and how much you buy. sSo that does come down to individual decisions, individual behaviors, eat your leftovers, you know, if you’re at a restaurant, take it home, eat it for lunch the next day. Try to be creative about your cooking. Try to not order out so much and you know, eat, eat, eat healthy and eat well. Try to do some gardening if you’ve, you know, got the interest and start to really appreciate food more than what it takes to grow it because it’s not easy. And as far as the industry goes, I think we’re coming up with more sophisticated ways of food packaging. There’s a company out in California called Apeel and they’re coming up with an organic sort of, by organic, I mean plant based, plant based coating that you can put on produce, which increases the shelf life from say, you know, a banana that would go bad in three days to like seven or eight days. And it’s that those are little technologies that are going to go a long way in the future, that are going to help us reduce food waste because it’s not just that, it’s also grocery stores. It’s also, you know, in the transportation of the food. It’s also at the farms. So I’m talking about big, big systemic issues that we have with food waste. And we at Bootstrap always say like, we sometimes open up a bucket and we see like a perfectly fine potato in there. We always wonder like, why didn’t you just eat that? Like, or it might have like a little smudge on it that you could just cut off. So like people have this idea that they’re, and as much as I love Whole Foods, I think Whole Foods has contributed, the company, to like this idea of like shiny, happy food. Yeah. their produce is very high quality, but it’s also like, you don’t need the perfect apple all the time. Yeah. You don’t need to have the perfect tomato. okay.
Food can be ugly and still be good and tasty and nutritious. It’s interesting to hear somebody who’s in the compost biz say that actually it’s better to not have too much food than it is to compost the extra. Reducing the amount of food that you buy and eating what you, what you buy rather than buying too much and putting it in the compost. It’s not actually a zero emission solution. Anything that you want to cover that we haven’t touched on?
Yeah, I mean, one thing that I talked about, was, well, one thing that we didn’t really cover was the impact that Bootstrap’s had. And that’s something that I, you know, I’m really proud of. So since 2011, we’ve kept four and a half million pounds of food waste out of landfills. We’ve created 2.2 million pounds of compost through the process of composting. We’ve offset 3 million, 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases, which, that number is not just fictitious. You can go online. EPA has a calculator. you can go in and plug your numbers, how much you drive and you know, how much our vehicles are on the road versus how much we collect. That’s the number we have 3.2 and that 3.2 million of greenhouse gases offset is the equivalence of planting 24,366 trees. Or creating 1,734 acres of forest land. To put that in perspective, that’s slightly larger than if you were to combine the Back Bay, the South End and the Fenway neighborhood and turn it all into a forest. We’ve kept 1.6 million pounds of coal from being burned. Again, that’s an equivalency. or if you look at gasoline, we’ve, we’ve prevented 165,800 gallons of gasoline from being burned and that is the equivalent of taking close to 1700 trips from Boston to LA and a car hundred trip and a 30 mile per gallon car.
Wow. Yeah. I’m going to, for people who don’t process numbers when they hear them, I’m going to put these numbers on our blog as well so you can look at them. I think that’s really impressive and really speaks to the good work Bootstrap’s doing. Thank you so much for joining us, Igor. I’ve definitely learned a lot and I know our listeners will as well. And if you are in the Boston area, I hope you’ll, you’ll give Bootstrap a thought for your composting needs.
Thank you for your time. I loved having you guys here.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, inc a worker-owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate chess and Danielle Robidoux and sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.