On the road with We Compost It
“This is some of the best-smelling stuff around!” 33-year-old Tyler Gleason shouts over a roaring compactor at the back of a truck that’s gobbling up rotting pork, discarded collard stems, and coleslaw. Most of the food has been sitting outside in rubber garbage totes for at least a couple of days. Large chunks of soggy meat cling together, releasing a putrid stench scarcely reminiscent of their origin as those tasty eats found at Salvage BBQ in Portland.
Other items also make their way into the crusher, too, like compostable utensils and paper plates.
It’s just before midnight on a Friday. This section of outer Congress Street is sleepy, except for a few rogue speeding cars. A mile into town, busy pubs still have another hour before last call.
At six foot four, Gleason towers over five 36-gallon totes at the restaurant’s waste disposal area. Directly behind him is a pumpkin-orange garbage truck that can hold up to 20,000 gallons of food scraps and other carbon-based waste. After collection, all of it will be transformed into nutrient-dense compost over a period of about seven months in Auburn.
Emblazoned on the side of the orange crusher is the company’s name, “We Compost It!,” with a cartoonish carrot for a logo. Gleason wears a billed cap with the same design, and proudly, as his ride-along companion for the night will hear more than once.
We Compost It (WCI) is a Maine curbside commercial and residential composting company that was started in 2009 by three University of Southern Maine students after they won an entrepreneurship contest and were awarded $30,000 in seed money.
What started as a small operation with a rented pickup and 12 customers has grown to just under 1,000 accounts—commercial and residential combined. Today, the company has six full-time employees, including Gleason, and they own and operate two identical orange rear-load packers—your basic trash truck—covering Kennebunk to Brunswick, and inland toward Lewiston. Food waste and other discarded organic material from residential and commercial customers is “upcycled” into what is amusingly referred to in the industry as “black gold.”
“Our general rule is ‘if it was alive, then it is compostable,’” says Gleason who, as the company’s operations manager, also offers in-person trainings for all of WCI’s commercial accounts.
In 2016, WCI produced a whopping 7,500 cubic yards of compost, roughly equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of an Olympic swimming pool.
This verdant soil is then sold at garden centers, used by farmers and landscapers, and donated to schools for gardens and projects. Homeowner subscribers with the curbside service can also retrieve a five-gallon bucket of soil once a week from any of the 10 pickup points operated by WCI from spring through fall.
Gleason works anywhere from 30 to 60 hours a week and does a little bit of everything, from managing accounts and customer service, to driving the early-morning shift. While there are two full-time drivers who typically work full-day shifts and average an impressive 100 pickups, Gleason will regularly drive the 2–8am shift on Saturdays.
But on this particular Saturday, with a Nor’easter promising high winds that make totes, buckets and lids hard to handle, Gleason has decided to start the shift earlier than usual. Even so, because the truck is such a hulking beast to maneuver through narrow Portland streets, Gleason wisely waits until midnight hoping that bar-goers in the Old Port would be mostly cleared out (to reduce any additional obstacles).
Salvage BBQ is the first stop on a long and aromatic night’s work, with no two stops alike. Salvage requires a twice-weekly pickup from WCI, and, on average, fills five totes each time, or just over six regular-sized trash cans. By comparison, Maine Medical Center requires three weekly pickups, filling seven to 10 totes each time. In 2016, MMC composted an astonishing 86 tons of food waste. On whether this is a comment on the quality of hospital food, Gleason is silent.
Commercial customers, including restaurants, schools, and hospitals, pay a flat fee of $30 per month for a single tote pickup per week, and then the price scales up with the quantity of waste. For example, a business might pay $200 or more a month for the composting service, but they are also simultaneously reducing the cost of trash removal by the city, and can take pride in being green.
“[Municipal trash collectors] are smart enough to realize that this is the way the world is going, they are getting involved and partnering with compost companies” says Gleason. “It’s really a neat time for the waste climate in Maine.”
WCI’s residential customers pay $8.99 per month and receive a bright orange five-gallon bucket that they fill over the course of each week with food scraps and other appropriate materials (paper towels, small amounts of newspaper, compostable packaging products). The bucket is picked up curbside by WCI every week.
“It’s super-affordable for our family’s budget, and we are always interested in finding green things to do that are easy,” says Karyn Butts of Brunswick. “I love seeing the truck driving around town. I feel this little spark of community when I see them, knowing they are also working for our schools.”
After Salvage, Gleason steers the truck east on Congress Street, swinging left onto Deering Avenue, stopping at King Middle School, and then to Lincoln Middle School and Deering High. Each school averages about two totes twice a week.
It’s nearing 1am, and the residential neighborhoods are dark and especially calm. The truck is unrelentingly loud, growling as it maneuvers its way through town.
Back on the Portland peninsula, Gleason deftly maneuvers the truck through the narrow alleyway behind the popular Slab restaurant. Known almost exclusively for its one-pound “hand slab” pizza, one needs to look no further than Slab’s compost totes to get an idea for just how well-liked this place is—there is virtually no food waste. Instead, Slab composts all utensils, paper plates, and napkins. Of all the stops we’ll make, Slab is by far the least stinky.
And while some slop-filled totes aren’t so much foul as they are fragrant—Maine Squeeze, the juice and smoothie bar, smells of citrus; Standard Baking of divine yeasty bread and sweets; the majority of the pickups are, well, hard to get used to.
“Pungent…fishy undertones,” Gleason smiles as he describes the smell he claims he’s gotten used to over time. “I kind of feel like I’m describing a beer I’ve never had—it smells like we’re doing the right thing. That’s what it smells like.”
Around 2am Gleason crisscrosses through the Old Port and back up Congress, turning toward Free Street to pick up eight totes at Maine College of Art. WCI collects the same amount from the school about six times a week—nearly 2,000 gallons of food waste.
Back through town, the truck stops at Central Provisions, The Press Hotel, Duckfat, and then DiMillo’s. It’s here that Gleason discovers in a tote the first non-compostable item of the night—an ivory china bread plate. With a wide grin, Gleason holds the treasure above his head, as though he’s just won a small trophy.
Over the years, Gleason has collected silverware—the real stuff—found while doing pickups. He has two five-gallon buckets in his basement filled with silver.
Gleason claims the foulest thing he and his crew have to deal with are seagulls. “They love to follow us around, hoping we’ll drop something,” he says, “but we have a strict no-food-scraps-left-behind policy.”
Flatbread Company on Commercial Street is the next stop. One of 15 locations in New England, this wood-fired pizza joint boasts organic ingredients and free-range meats, and serves an average of 1,000 customers daily in summer at its Portland location. Assistant Manager Thomas Cancelliere, a champion of composting both at home and at Flatbread, would like to eventually get the restaurant to be “100 percent no trash.”
“We try to compost everything we can,” he says. “We try not to purchase things with massive amounts of packaging, and we work with local farmers because they inherently use less packaging.”
“It’s about doing something meaningful for our community and our environment.”
The final stop of the night is at the shared dumpster of Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Company, and The Honey Paw on Middle Street. It is now 3am and Gleason, who has otherwise been a boundless force of composting energy, lets out a big yawn.
Instead of green totes, the restaurant trifecta loads everything into one big dumpster that is lifted five feet off the ground by levers and slowly but swiftly tipped into the bed of the truck. What comes next is a rapid cascade of oysters, lobster tails, and fish heads. It sounds—and smells—like an ocean tide rushing over shells. It’s this last pickup that could be a dead giveaway that we’re in Maine.
Each batch of pickups makes its way to WCI’s Auburn plant where the organic material is dumped in piles indoors, covered to rot, then turned and tested, left to rot again, and so on for about seven months. For the waste to ultimately be made into “black gold,” the conditions have to be just right for soil with the right balance of nutrients.
At a certain point in the composting process, the pile is transitioned outdoors where last night’s dinner looks more like the dirt beneath your feet.
Claire Jeffers works as freelance writer and marketing strategist in Portland. Follow her adventures on Instagram, @claireinmaine.