Collecting Philadelphia’s food scraps has helped Bennett Compost hit pay dirt

Photo by Christopher Leaman

Photo by Christopher Leaman

Get Growing

by Matt Bevilacqua

At the corner of Henry and West Hunting Park avenues in North Philadelphia, hidden behind an old warehouse building, sit several steaming piles of household waste. A faint earthy smell hangs in the air, but all the apple cores, coffee grounds and eggshells in sight will soon become some of the best fertilizer that gardeners can get their hands on. 

“It’s a really fine, nutrient-rich compost,” says Tim Bennett, who founded Bennett Compost in 2009. 

His company has since become one of the busiest composting services in the city, gathering food waste and fallen leaves from city residents as well as larger clients, such as Philadelphia University. The real magic happens out back, where various mounds of kitchen scraps gradually break down into organic matter.

“We take what nature does and re-create the ideal conditions for it,” Bennett says.

Initially, the waste is mixed with leaves, placed under a tarp and left to sit for two or three days. Over the next three weeks it will move three times, hooking up to different hoses that will supply the oxygen necessary to accelerate microbial activity. Later, the piles will sit in the sun for an additional six weeks as the material continues to break down. Eventually it will all go through a sifter and, finally, be bagged or put into potting. The stuff that doesn’t break down goes back onto the pile. 

“For a lot of urban residents, they just don’t have the space or the ability to do this at home,” Bennett says.   

A 2014 survey by the National Waste and Recycling Association found that while 72 percent of respondents didn’t compost, more than two-thirds of the noncomposters said they would try it if the process were easier. While local groups such as the Dirt Factory serve specific neighborhoods and larger companies such as Organic Diversion deal with restaurants and businesses, Bennett Compost is one of the few composting options available to Philadelphia residents in general.

When the compost is ready, customers can pick it up on-site. South Philly’s Urban Jungle sells bags of it, and you can buy worm castings—that’s an even more effective version of the compost, courtesy of worm poop—at Weavers Way Co-op. Bennett also distributes through Philly Foodworks, a local CSA, and partners with farmers markets during the spring and summer.

The SHARE Food Program, a hunger relief nonprofit, started using Bennett’s compost last year. Headquartered at the other end of the sprawling complex where he works, SHARE grows produce that it delivers at highly discounted rates across the city.   

“We normally grow 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of produce,” says Steveanna Wynn, SHARE’s executive director. “Last year we grew 20,000. It was absolutely beautiful, and it was all because of the compost.”  

Order compost and potting soil mixes, as well as vermicompost, in various sizes for pickup or delivery at bennettcompost.com.