Memphis compost service turns food waste into rich soil

Similar to the tooth fairy, The Compost Fairy promises to take something unwanted and leave something good in its place. In this case, co-founders Mike Larrivee and Sanne Roijmans exchange food scraps from Memphis households for nutrient-dense soil.

Seeking to start a garden in their Cooper-Young home in 2014, the co-founders looked to the Nextdoor app to solicit kitchen scraps, like coffee grounds and vegetable peels, from their neighbors.

“We didn’t want to pay for soil, so we made it. We ate healthily; we ate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, but not enough to make nine raised beds worth of soil,” Larrivee said.

The Compost Fairy has evolved into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that collects and composts materials across the city.  As demand grew, they expanded to offer a subscription service — much like a green-friendly trash collector. Memphians can buy into the service for $20 a month.

“You get a bin that’s upcycled from a local restaurant and branded with The Compost Fairy logo. You leave it on the porch and the Compost Fairy comes and picks it up weekly and leaves a fresh one. Twice a year at a minimum you get ten gallons of finished compost,” Larrivee said.

The growth in demand and interest over the years has led to the purchase of a trailer for hauling materials as well as the rental of a one-acre processing facility at Lamar Avenue and Willett Street, which the nonprofit shares with Get Green Recycling. Each week, nearly one yard of compost materials, which weigh about 1 ton when wet, are hauled to the facility for processing. There areMike Larrivee, co-founder of the Compost Fairy. (Submitted) no paid staff so the composting work is done by Larrivee, board members, and volunteers.

“If you can turn it once a week the quality and nutritional value of the finished product is amazing,” Larrivee said, adding that the workload takes about six people working a couple hours a week.

In order to alleviate the time and labor required, they will be fundraising in April to acquire a tractor. This will make a huge impact on their operations, reducing the time needed to produce the compost by 80 to 90 percent.

“That time and energy is super valuable to a small operation like ours and can be reinvested in expansion and in developing in directions we haven’t had the capacity for to this point,” Larrivee said.

In addition to the subscription service, The Compost Fairy collects compostable materials for free at the Cooper-Young Community Farmer’s Market, sometimes even letting people drop off material at Larrivee’s home if they can’t make it to the market that day. There is a list of compostable and un-compostable materials on The Compost Fairy’s website.

In The Compost Fairy's early days, composting operations took place at Loch Holland Farm, which is owned by Chris Peterson, the nonprofit's board chairman.

A large part of The Compost Fairy’s mission is educating the Memphis community on the benefits of composted soil as well as the dangers of sending organic waste to be buried in a landfill. 

“People tend to know that it’s good and know that it’s important but abstractly.” Peterson said. There’s not a general public knowledge of exactly why.”

Organic waste in landfills produces greenhouse gases which are responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming. These gases are released when food waste decomposes anaerobically, which happens when they get buried and decompose without the presence of oxygen, Larrivee explained. Composting food waste not only prevents greenhouse gas production, it leaves behind nutrient-rich soil coveted by gardeners and farmers.
Compost Fairy branded bins are used by subscribers. The nonprofit will pick up compost scraps weekly. (Submitted)
“The value of what it turns into is contingent on how it’s processed. If it goes in a hole in the ground in South Shelby landfill it’s going to turn into leachate and poison. At our facility it’s going to turn into soil,” Larrivee said.

Mary Baker is a Compost Fairy subscription customer and avid gardener who is reaping the benefits of her composted kitchen scraps. 

“It is like gold when it comes to having a productive and beautiful garden. There is no commercially available fertilizer that will help you have success in the garden like natural compost.”

The Compost Fairy has some opportunities and ideas for expansion, though time and resources are limited. Larrivee and the four board members all work full-time jobs in addition to running the business unpaid.

Larrivee hopes to apply for an equipment grant through the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation to help scale his operation.

In the future he would like to develop a modular system where individual neighborhoods can set up their own composting operations and employ the people living there, especially lower-income communities that may not have the money for Compost Fairy's services.

“I don’t want this to be an exclusionary operation. This affects us all; this is our planet, and everybody is in this together. So whether or not you can afford 20 bucks a month to pay one of us idiots to come around in the dark of morning to pick up a bunch of food scraps shouldn’t exclude you from being a part of making a difference,” Larrivee said.

Signup for Email Alerts