By Shelley A. Sackett
Last Sunday at Dead Horse Beach, the sun shone brightly, the air was Fall-crisp and pumpkins were flying through the air as over 100 people participated in Salem’s first Great Pumpkin Drop and Toss.
Scotia Hunter, 10 and a fifth-grader at Carlton Innovation School, never imagined she would be throwing her jack-o’-lantern into a barrel four days after she carved its face.
“I think it’s really fun,” she said, despite hers landing a little short of its mark.
Sponsored by SAFE (Salem Alliance for the Environment), SalemRecycles and Black Earth Compost, the community event promoted composting with the goal of signing up more Salem households to participate in the fee-based service. It also provided the opportunity for people to find out if they had the skills to shoot their pumpkin through a basketball hoop.
A blue tarp in front of the truck bore the slimy remains of those former Jack o’ lanterns whose owners didn’t score.
“I feel like people are underestimating how much force it takes to get a 10-pound pumpkin up and over into the truck,” said Justin Sandler, Short Stop at Black Earth Compost of Gloucester, which donated its services. “We lowered the hoop for the kids, but some people have been adventurous,” he added with a chuckle.
Black Earth Compost CEO Conor Miller, who has done post-Halloween pumpkin pick ups in other towns and has handled Salem’s for the past couple of years, knew the city was ripe for just such a special event.
“Salem’s amount of pumpkins is triple any other town’s, and I always wanted to shoot one through the basketball [hoop],” he said. “We’re trying to get as many people in Salem on board to participate in curbside composting. It’s the right thing to do.”
The idea to host a free community composting event grew out of a SAFE board meeting last summer where members set reducing residential composting rates and increasing participation as one of its top priorities for the coming year.
Initially, a grant allowed Salem to offer composting at no cost during a pilot program begun in April 2014. By that December, about 1,500 homes had signed up. When the grant ran out and the city had to start charging for the service, household participation rates took a tumble.
Current subscribers pay $8/month, but the cost could be reduced to $6.50 per month with the addition of fewer than 100 more households, according to Miller.
SAFE Chairman Pat Gozema, who has been active in SAFE since its 2001 founding, says her group is concerned about the existence of methane gas coming from landfills and the incineration of organic material, particularly food.
“We need to increase composting so food waste goes to the growing of more food rather than producing more methane gas that causes climate change,” she said.
Gozemba organized an initial event planning session shortly after last summer’s SAFE board meeting. She invited Miller, Salem Business Manager Julie Rose, and members of SalemRecycles, the all-volunteer committee appointed by Mayor Kim Driscoll in 2008 to develop ways to increase recycling and decrease waste.
Miller suggested doing a pumpkin drop off.
“He said after Halloween, the compost bins are very heavy, straining his collectors’ backs. He thought this would be helpful,” said Shelley Alpern, SAFE board member and longtime volunteer.
The group decided to make the event community-wide and free, so they could amass hundreds of pumpkins and reintroduce people to composting. Black Earth agreed to absorb the cost of the pick up in return for gaining the organic material. Coffee Time Bake Shop on Bridge Street and Honey Dew Donuts and Dunkin Donuts, both located on Washington Street, donated treats and donuts. SAFE absorbed remaining costs.
Miller started Black Earth Compost in 2010 after working in the recycling and composting fields in Wisconsin and Wyoming. He is passionate about eliminating wasted materials and committed to doing his part to make that goal a reality.
“I think of composting like a soil bank. If you’re only drawing from it, in other words sowing but not recycling the nutrients, then we’re all going to be broke,” he explained. He refers to food bank and animal feed donations as alternatives to composting, but is adamant that consumers not throw away food that came out of the ground “or we’re going to run out of nutrients.”
He too hopes more people sign up for curbside composting services after attending Sunday’s event.
“Driving from one house to the next is more efficient than driving from one neighborhood to the next. It becomes cheaper and cheaper the more people that do it,” he said.
Judging from the almost full container of names entered into a raffle for a free one-year compost pickup, the event sponsors succeeded in whetting people’s appetites to participate more in composting. The free cider and treats didn’t hurt either.
“Instead of letting pumpkins sit on the sidewalk for three weeks and rot, the city collects them and makes them into compost,” said Salem resident Craig Barcelo between bites of a donut. “This is fantastic. I’d definitely do it again.”