As I was cleaning out my fridge this summer, tossing long-forgotten leftovers and produce past its ripening point, I was hit by a dose of guilt. I should be composting this, I thought, not sending it to a landfill.
I signed up with Bennett Compost, planning to fork over $18 a month to have them take away trash previously hauled off for free. I dutifully saved my avocado skins, strawberry stems and stale bread, sealing the scraps in a bucket that grew more pungent each time I opened it.
Finally, the bucket was full enough to put outside my door. It was gone the following morning.
But not due to the compost service. When I checked in, Bennet told me my pickup was nowhere to be found when their early-morning crews had rolled down my Spring Garden street. Someone must have walked off with the rotting food during the night, they said. Weird, but it happens sometimes, they told me.
I got a new bucket — and it too mysteriously disappeared. Puzzled, I tried another provider, Circle Compost. Same results. One evening Circle even dropped off an empty container around 5:30 p.m. and by 6, someone had lifted it.
Oddly enough, I’m not the Philly’s lone compost-theft victim, I learned. There are dozens of us.
“I think there’s just some people who think there’s a treasure inside,” Tim Bennett, co-owner of Bennett Compost, told me. “We’re certainly very interested in the content, but they’re not necessarily as enthusiastic as we are.”
Composting still unusual in Philly
Between 30% and 40% of all food grown in the U.S. gets wasted, according to the USDA, and composting has emerged as a solution, turning inedible scraps into nutrient-rich soil.
Philadelphia does not yet have a citywide effort like some other municipalities, such as San Francisco and New York. Instead, residents can use one of a few private companies to have the organic waste picked up from their homes.
According to a list maintained by the city, the Philly area has four small-scale operations offering food waste pickup services. But one hasn’t been in service since 2013, according to its Facebook. Another says its services are limited to the western Philly suburbs.
That leaves the two main competitors, Bennett Compost and Circle Compost, both of which I tried. For $12 or $18 a month, each company will pick up compost from doorsteps either biweekly or weekly.
Without widespread adoption in the city, it seems the sight of a bucket on the street is confusing.
The canisters can get picked up on trash day, wrongfully claimed by construction workers or — even more peculiarly — stolen for reasons unknown.
Bennett said his business receives three to five reports of missing buckets a week, out of around 3,000 completed pickups. Michele Bloovman, of Circle Compost, said the rate of missing containers is about the same for their 600 customers.
A couple dozen containers nabbed each month isn’t really enough to suggest a large-scale anti-composting, bucket-hoarding scheme.
But it’s significant enough to make you wonder. Why would anyone would steal rotting food even once? Or in my case, multiple times?
Universal truth: ‘Buckets are useful’
Bennett said he thinks most of the missing buckets aren’t victims of foul play. They can get confused with trash and recycling left on a curb, and are more likely to disappear when they’re near construction sites or too close to the street, in his experience.
But he did note that stranger things do happen. One customer reported watching via their home surveillance system a thief running off with a bucket in the early morning hours — after stealing another from across the street.
One Bennett customer got creative after multiple thefts, attaching a note with a plea from “Count/Countess Clinton Von Compost Bucket III” to stop being taken away.
When I contacted Circle Compost for this story, Bloovman said she remembered my missing bucket experience. A customer might lose between one and three buckets over the course of a year, but multiple times in a month? That stood out to her.
My bucket was not put out on trash day, nor do I live in a building with a large multi-unit entrance, where they’re more likely to disappear. I kept it all the way against my door instead of on the curb, as recommended.
It’s worth noting I’ve never had an Amazon package go missing, which seems like far more desirable loot.
“It happens throughout the whole city: North Philly, Spring Garden, South Philly,” Bloovman said. “Buckets are useful. That’s the only thing that I can think of. People want them. We have no way of tracking who takes them.” The company sometimes finds Circle buckets on streets where they have no customers, she said, which they call “buckets in the wild.”
Some people, including me, will just quit composting if they lose too many containers. I decided it wasn’t worth painstakingly separating my scraps if they would never become fresh soil.
“We have had a few people who said, ‘I want to do it, but it’s so frustrating that my bucket keeps disappearing,’” Bennett confirmed.
So far, none of mine have made a comeback. Are my neighbors hoarding them, or were they taken to another part of the city entirely? And I really have no clue what the thief did with all that spoiled food in the middle of the night.
Bucket thief, if you’re reading this, please tell me why you took all of my compost — and maybe bring my bucket back, too.