It was in the dirt of his grandfather’s gardens that Michael Bradlee began his life’s work. He studied the rich brown stuff that made up the soft compost heaps. He sniffed at the finished material and poked at its sowbugs and worms. In the lab at school, he placed crumbs of it under a microscope and watched microbes wriggle to life. He hounded his parents to get him a composting unit. They did, and from the age of ten, his fate was set. The dirt, the worms, the new backyard composter, and an eighth-grade epiphany would lead him to a life of science and pioneer composting.
It’s many years later on a spring day in 2020 when Bradlee stands inside the humid habitat of a compost-house at the back of Frey Florist and Greenhouse in Providence. The deep brown, shoulder-height heap at his left represents composting’s past. The plywood structure on his right represents composting’s future. He has named the future of composting “Earth Appliance.” It is a prototype that has just been granted U.S. Patent #10556840.
The Earth Appliance is a set of incubating containers designed to compost all food scraps, including meat. It is a four-chambered system about 3.5 feet tall, configurable to a length from six to 12 feet, depending on the amount of food scraps a household or group of households might produce. The current prototype at Frey Florist is a 3 x 6-foot system that uses Bradlee’s patented aeration system to transform kitchen scraps, in stages, to vermicompost (compost made with the help of worms). It leaves no residual waste — just compost. The aeration mechanism is what makes it different from other home composting systems; among other things, it keeps the smells down. Smells turn some people off to composting. So does effort, which explains the Earth Appliance’s simplicity.
“It’s like cooking,” said Bradlee. “You do everything in order.”
First, mix one part green matter (such as food scraps) to three parts brown matter (dried leaves, for example). Blend thoroughly. Then introduce forced air, with a shop vac or a vacuum cleaner. Let sit for a few days, monitoring its temperature. It will get warmer, and then begin to cool. When the temperature of the composting material drops, add more leaves and food scraps to keep it going.
“It’s like sourdough,” said Bradlee. “Once you have starter, you can continue to make batches of bread.”
The Earth Appliance composts all food scraps. Rather than sitting in one bin, as with some off-the-shelf systems, the material is moved from one chamber to another. Aeration speeds breakdown and accelerates the composting.
Like most inventions, the Earth Appliance took years of development to get to where it is now. In Bradlee’s case, about nine years. On top of the persistent hours spent tending his heaps and working on the Earth Appliance (he has been told by loved ones to consider Sundays off), Bradlee is a research scientist for Spectra Systems in Providence. This too he linked to composting. Wondering how he could apply what he knew (as a scientist) to what he loved (yes: composting), Bradlee introduced the tool of process optimization to the mix. Process optimization, he learned at his job, is applied to any system to minimize cost and maximize throughput.
“Each try-and-test solved weaknesses,” he said. “I test drove, modified and retested, until I had the system I’ve patented and is being built now.
“Over time,” he says, “it was clear I was working toward a community-scale composting system and process that met criteria of a commercial system, but was economical and easy to use.”
The patenting process had its own stops and starts. Working with a law firm in the early days of his first iterations, there wasn’t much guidance from the corporate attorneys. “I felt there wasn’t direction in the process. I wasn’t getting enough communication on how to proceed.” A friend connected him with a small Rhode Island patent agency called Keeley-DeAngelo. Scott Keeley, a patent agent with his own sustainability projects, took time to describe the patenting process and the various scenarios. “I felt I understood better what the risks were and what each would entail,” said Bradlee. Keeley shepherded Bradlee’s invention through 18-month process to its recent patent grant.
The Earth Appliance had a growth spurt starting in 2013. That was the year Bradlee started his urban composting endeavor at Frey Gardens. His project became what is now known as the Community Compost Depot. At the Depot, neighbors drop off their food scraps along with a donation, and Bradlee nurtures all the leftovers into nutrient-dense plant food. The Depot has composted more than 200,000 pounds of locally generated food scraps and leaves, turning a greenhouse-gas problem into a saleable commodity: premium vermicompost, which is sold at Frey Gardens. It was with this success that Bradlee was encouraged to develop the Earth Appliance. “Over time,” he said, “It was clear I was working toward a community-scale composting system and process that met criteria of a commercial system, but was economical and easy to use.”
His goal: to turn everyone on to composting. To make composting as common as municipal trash pickup. He envisions food-scrap bins on every city block, with companion Earth Appliances to compost it all. He has pitched the idea to Smith Hill ward leaders. They’re interested. So is Somerville Community Growing Center, a 1/4-acre community garden outside Boston, where Bradlee is building a large unit onsite.
If there is a pattern here, it is Bradlee’s methodical bent. Beneath that is the inspiration one finds in nature, and in a pivotal lesson Bradlee got from an eighth-grade teacher.
It was in science class at Saugus Junior High in Massachusetts that Mr. LaPierre stood at the front of the classroom, holding up a leaf.
“When is a leaf not a leaf?” he asked the class.
He tore the leaf in half. Then he tore it again, and again, breaking it into tiny bits until they fluttered out of his hands. Then he turned to the projector and reduced the leaf even further, showing microscope images of its cellular structure.
That lecture probably had something to do with Bradlee’s BA in biology and chemistry, and the empirical studies in composting that brought his coursework to life. Composting helps explain, for instance, an element’s structure: “How does it break down and return to something useful?” he wondered. “Iron, for instance. How could a piece of iron break down to something that can be absorbed by a plant?”
Bradlee thinks community composting will lead people to understand the value of recycling food scraps. “How can I train people to understand it’s a resource?” he asks. “How do we retain it?” Instead of dumping food scraps in a landfill to emit methane gas, or sending them through the garbage disposal to strain a municipal drinking-water system, “this resource should be cultivated. The activity can nurture a community.
When you experience all that compost does, like enliven soils, increase vegetable nutrition, reduce stormwater runoff, and save on watering the lawn and the garden, make everything greener, it’s a no-brainer. No waste, no mess. Just clean, sustainable recycling.”