By Robyn Metcalfe
Not far down the road from Waste Management Inc., the largest residential recycler in the U.S., Tyler Frank watches Marcus Brooks, his newest hire, jockey hundreds of white plastic compost buckets through a brightly lit wash basin. Tyler’s small company, Garbage to Garden, in Portland, Maine, started hustling compostable materials in white buckets from the city’s homes to his warehouse in 2012, creating a new subscription service that produces compost and energy through a system of farms and biodigesters. The company won $5,000 as a finalist in our Food+City Challenge Prize competition last February. I recently paid Tyler a visit to find out how they’re doing.
from scraps to compost
Garbage to Garden’s model is straightforward: Customers collect food scraps in one of the company’s white buckets and leave them curbside, visit drop-off sites in the area or dispose of compostable material in office building totes or at events. In return, customers get a clean bucket and, if requested, a bag of compost.
By collecting the food waste and partnering with farms that have the means to turn that garbage into compost, Garbage to Garden produces compost certified by the Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association for use on organic soils. At the moment, Garbage to Garden produces 50 tons of compost per week for use in gardens and the fields of farms around Maine.
But compost isn’t the only end product from Garbage to Garden’s pickups and partnerships — energy is another. Exeter Agri-Energy (EAE) at Stonyvale Farm in Maine, picks up waste from Garbage to Garden and other food distributors, including Hannaford, Maine’s largest employer. EAE has a large anaerobic digestion system that turns garbage into biogas for use in generating heat and electricity.
More than a garbage pick-up service, Garbage to Garden hopes to become both an environmentally sustainable enterprise and a financially sustainable company. Scaling their model is top-of-mind for Tyler. He greeted me at his warehouse on one of the busiest days of his week — wearing the Texas cowboy hat he acquired during his short stay in Austin last February — and brought me up to date.
competing and overcoming challenges
Their biggest news — which happened a few weeks after our visit — is a grand prize win of $100,000 at Greenlight Maine in late June. Greenlight Maine describes itself as a “statewide collaboration of entrepreneurial catalysts and corporate leaders, designed to promote and mentor the development and growth of business.”
Those newest winnings will undoubtedly come in handy as Garbage to Garden continues to move through the challenges inherent in any startup venture. For example, Tyler said getting smart, passionate employees is a challenge for the company, and it’s something he’s paying close attention to. His mother, Sheila Frank, has joined his team part time, bringing skills she developed as a supervisor in the returns department at L. L. Bean. Sheila, who’s also a clinical social worker, serves as Garbage to Garden’s human resources guru. Currently, 15 team members are hustling to homes in Portland to pick up buckets; shuttle totes from offices, warehouses, and loading docks; maintain equipment; and provide Garbage to Garden’s many support services.
Beyond compost: GtG's newest services
He also talked about the challenge of growing the company: Taking care of existing business while developing new business requires eyes on the ground as well as forward to the future. As we toured the warehouse, Tyler described some of the company’s new initiatives.
One is the fabrication of planting boxes, which the company fills with fresh compost, providing customers with a ready-made garden. Tyler is anxious to see how the new gardens fare, hoping to see another purpose for the compost flowing into his warehouse.
Filling the center of the warehouse on the day I visited were rows of tightly bound green bags — trash and compost from a Ray LaMontagne concert at Thompson’s Point, a popular Portland event venue. The concert clean-up was part of another new service from Garbage to Garden, which now picks up garbage and compostable materials from office buildings and event companies, in addition to its residential curbside pickup.
In one corner, someone was crouching by one of the company’s delivery trucks, a welding torch blazing deep into the engine’s innards. The company’s specially designed totes and buckets were engineered to work with the trucks so that his team can pick up compost with minimal wasted effort and space. Garbage to Garden maintains a fleet of eight trucks and is about to add a big new one that has an automatic tote-washing system. They’re just some of the assets Tyler intends to leverage as the startup expands its services.
Food+City’s Challenge Prize winnings helped the company expand the fleet, enabling the startup to scale not only in the Portland area, but to open new partnerships in Belmont and Arlington, Mass. Tyler’s knack for building partnerships seems to be paying off as a way to grow the business. He’s also considering additional partnerships, ways to monetize existing assets and potential funding platforms — including venture capital — at some point.
The Prize also helps to fund new employees, like Marcus, who was piling up one clean white bucket after another as Tyler and I met in the warehouse.
For Food+City, Garbage to Garden is an important example of how challenge prizes can help new startups, but also as an example of how the food supply chain must account for the waste stream at the back end of feeding cities. Food in and food out. Tyler’s model illustrates how food can contribute energy to cities not only in the form of calories but in the form of kilowatts.
My recent visit, along with Garbage to Garden’s continuing growth and additional wins, confirms that our judges discovered an entrepreneur who has a plan, an ambition and a sense of the challenges ahead. We couldn’t be prouder.