Creating a compost culture

New truck and in-vessel composter help expand IGI’s food waste concept.

Every time I scrape food waste into the trash I think to myself, this could and should be composted. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources, the land, or the permanent home address to make at-home composting a feasible feat for myself. Island Grown Initiative (IGI) is changing that narrative. Now, those of us who want to compost, can.

IGI piloted a Food Recovery Program in 2016 that organized weekly food waste pick-up sites at participating restaurants. Partners include Waterside Market, Linda Jean’s, Sharky’s, Park Corner, and another 25 or so local eateries. Last summer, IGI expanded that concept by setting up food waste drop-off sites at Island transfer stations. They secured Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, and are working on Aquinnah and Tisbury. For $2 a bin, anyone can bring their 5 gallon counter compost to their local transfer station, and IGI will handle the rest.

Two recent infrastructure updates allow for this expansion: a “new-ish” food waste dump truck, and an in-vessel composter. Both investments will drastically speed up the composting process, allowing IGI to manage more pickup sites and handle a higher volume of food waste, according to Sophie Abrams, food equity and recovery director. Abrams said they take everything — meat, bones, coffee grounds, coffee filters, paper towels, paper napkins. “We try to make it easy on people,” she said. “No sorting required.”


The truck

Every Monday and Wednesday, IGI driver Aaron Lowe hops in the new green dump truck and makes the morning rounds. IGI purchased the truck from a compost collection company in Rhode Island. The new truck has a hydraulic lift, so Lowe doesn’t have to do the manual lifting anymore.

“There was a lift on the old pickup that couldn’t handle the weight of the food waste toters,” Lowe said. “This makes everything easier.”

The new truck also includes a power wash spray system, so Lowe can clean out the toters on site, and leave them clean for restaurants or transfer stations. With the influx of seasonal clients, Lowe said he’ll be making more like five to seven runs come summer.

“You can get a lot more done in a day with this,” Lowe said.

After the rounds, Lowe brings the food waste back to IGI’s Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven.


The in-vessel composter

IGI purchased an in-vessel compost rotary drum and brought it to the Island this past March. Although it’s not functioning yet, the in-vessel composter will expedite the actual composting process by at least one month, according to Abrams. In the past, IGI composted using open windrows.

“With that system, you’re dumping food waste out in the open and it’s susceptible to rats, rodents, skunks, racoons, and seagulls. They love it,” Abrams said. “It’s also labor intensive. You need to use a tractor and turn it. You have to mix it daily, and turn it on a weekly basis. It’s a slower act of composting.”

It takes about a month of active composting, and then another six to eight months of curing, according to Abrams. With the in-vessel composter, food waste will be fed into the machine and come out as semi-finished compost in three to five days.

“It still has to be cured for up to six months, but the composting time is reduced significantly,” Abrams said. “That will allow us to handle a large volume of food waste without some of the problems that come with windrow composting.”

The composter still needs to be wired and welded, but should be up and running by the end of May, according to Abrams.


Compost culture

Creating a compost culture is part of a larger initiative — zero waste on Martha’s Vineyard. The short-term goal is a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030.

Garbage is the Island’s number one export, according to an IGI press release. 6,500 tons of food that has been grown, processed, and transported to or around the Island is only shipped off again as waste. It costs $622,180 per year to transport and dispose of organic waste in landfills off-Island. Food waste also represents 261 trucks on the Steamship each way every year, and is the equivalent of leaving 2 out of 5 bags at the grocery store, according to IGI.

“We want to make sure we’re not sending away all of this food that could enrich our soils, increase our crops, our bounty, and feed our people,” IGI project manager Eunice Youmans said.

At the same time, Youmans said the Island ships in an unbelievable amount of fertilizer.

“All the yuck that goes into the fertilizer being shipped over here has environmental consequences,” Youmans said.

IGI wants to create a closed system where everything stays on the Island.

“Because we have the ferries, we know what comes in and what goes off, so we can really track those things in ways that other people can’t,” Abrams said. “If we can figure out how to do it here, in our closed system, then it’s a model for other communities to follow.”

“Food waste is a huge resource and as you’ll see, it can be turned into an incredible product,” Abrams said.

Abrams and Youmans led me to a pile of 400 yards of finished compost or “black gold.” On Monday, April 22, IGI celebrated Earth Day by selling some this compost. They had 89 transactions and sold about $4,000 of compost, according to Youmans. They still have another 150 or so yards to sell through the fall.

“We actually had our compost tested by Landscope,” Youmans said. “Ours tested back much higher in pH which is good for our soils here. It also tested higher in organic content, so it’s a superior product.”


The rich “black gold” is made from leaves, grass, local manure, and Island food waste collected from Lowe each week. IGI is giving away countertop compost bins. They’re available free at the Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Edgartown transfer stations, “Or, you can just call us,” Youmans said.

Composting is part of IGI’s Food Rescue and Waste initiative, which includes food recycling and food recovery. Composting falls in the category of food recycling, but food recovery is their top priority, according to Youmans. “Getting food to people who need it,” she said.

In the wake of the Stop & Shop strike, which concluded Monday, IGI was successful in recovering about 2,000 pounds of food from both Stop and Shop stores between Friday, April 19, and Monday, April 22. It was then redistributed to the Island Food Pantry, the Wampanoag Women’s Center, the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, the Boys and Girls Club, and other groups.


To find out more about Island Grown Initiative, visit or call 508-687-9062.