NU graduates start composting project

By Beth Treffeisen

Special to the Gazette

For centuries composting has been used as a method to bring valuable nutrients back into depleted soil that has been used for farming. Although living in an urban environment feels unconnected to the farms that produce the food that city dwellers consume, three Northeastern University graduates are trying to link that connection by bringing composting to the city.

It all started about two years ago when Eli Brown was working on a thesis project at Northeastern University that focused on how composting could be brought into the economic system that already exists in a city and make it viable.

Two other Northeastern graduates, Harrison Ackerman and Alex Vipond, who were one year behind Brown, quickly became interested in the project and soon began working on how to explore options for Boston. Before they knew it, they created The Compost Project.

“Just about a year ago we decided we really wanted to pursue this project,” said Ackerman. “Presently, we work with vermicomposting with worms. It started in our homes with full bins, with one or two per household but we also brought some into our full-time office jobs.”

Verimicomposting is a process that uses earthworms to convert organic materials—including food preparation residuals, leftovers, scrap paper and more—into an organic fertilizer.

When vermicompost is added to soil, it boosts the nutrients available to plants and enhances soil structure and drainage.

“Instead of getting an odor it actually gives off the freshly, rained-on smell,” said Vipond.

All together, The Compost Project now has between seven and 10 bins, and they are quickly running out of room.

“It’s been difficult to get enough food bins,” said Vipond. “We are starting to run out of space and storage.”

All of them work full-time jobs and the composting is a side project they hope to expand.

Currently, they are working towards testing for macro-nutrients in the soil produced as by-product of composting so they can start applying it to next growing season.

Although Bostonians create a lot of food waste, most of what is already being composted is being trucked out to farms in western Massachusetts. The Compost Project hopes that their method will work to keep much of the compost created within city limits, to help people such as urban gardeners.

Currently in Boston, there is a pilot program with designated places to drop off food-waste composting and the City Council is working on getting a hearing to discuss curbside food waste composting throughout the city. There is already curbside composting for yard waste throughout the city.

In addition, Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs in 2014 issued a ban on disposal of commercial organic wastes by businesses and institutions that dispose of one ton or more.

“We would love to act as a consulting service for places like the universities that want to compost more but maybe don’t know how,” said Ackerman. “We can be able to show them our solution and turn it into something viable.”

In recent years, a lot of the soil that grows crops has been suffering and are being depleted of the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive. Each time a farming season occurs, the soil loses those nutrients in the soil.

One way to give the soil the nutrients it needs is through fertilizer. “It’s synthetic like an energy drink for the soil,” said Vipond. “It gets the plants through one soil season.”

On the other hand, using compost helps restore nutrients back into the soil and also helps with elements of climate resilience, such as helping the soil retain more water.

“It acts as a vitamin package for plants,” said Vipond. “The microbiology in it helps bring the soil back to life.”

In Boston, they hope to replace fertilizer that can harm the environment, with organic compost to support many of the urban gardens, rooftop growers, and even individual gardens throughout the city. Right now, there is an over abundance of food waste and not enough composting programs.

Vipond said that they aren’t looking to work against any competitors because there is just so much food waste that can be converted.

“We’re thinking how can we work side-by-side with others to be able to take all of the food waste out of the city,” said Vipond. “Everyone understands how big the problem here is.”

But for now, Ackerman says they hope to expand on educating people about the importance of composting.

He said, “It’s about showing people and empowering our people in this city to be a part of this important process.”

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