By Rick Romell Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Melissa Tashjian was saving money to remodel her kitchen. She bought a dump truck instead.
She had the rust-speckled, 25-year-old Ford fitted with overhead forks, named it Torty (short for Tortoise; the truck's top end is 50 mph) and made it the muscle of her new trash-hauling business.
But not just any trash. Tashjian, a cheerfully resolute, tattooed 33-year-old who describes herself as an "organics diversion enthusiast," is zeroing in on food scraps, bones, dirty paper plates and anything else that can be turned into soil-enriching compost.
In this, she sees a market.
It may not be high-profit, but it's "extremely viable," she said of her early reading on the prospects for forging a business out of offering restaurants and grocery stores special pickup of organic waste that otherwise would be headed for the landfill.
Launched earlier this year, her company, Compost Crusader LLC, has lined up seven customers so far without doing much in the way of marketing.
The early clients were enough to generate nearly 25,000 pounds of waste in August that Tashjian trucked to a Racine County composting operation.
"I would like to be able to see a hundred businesses on board by the end of next year," she said.
She's not the only one sensing opportunity in wilted lettuce, uneaten pizza crusts and soiled napkins.
Elsewhere in the country, small business have sprung up to serve the needs of those willing to pay a little extra to have their garbage recycled into compost.
Bootstrap Compost, in Boston, used bicycles when it started collecting food scraps in 2011. Now the business has eight employees and three trucks and gathers organic waste from 750 homes and 50 businesses. Residential service costs $8 a week. Commercial accounts start at $18 a week.
"I realized pretty quickly that there was a pretty big demand for this," said Andy Brooks, a former journalist who started his firm with a vague interest in composting that since has become a passion.
In Philadelphia, Bennett Compost owner Tim Bennett and his crew call on more than 1,000 homes and 15 to 20 small businesses, hauling their food scraps and yard waste to five different farms for composting.
Raleigh, N.C.-based CompostNow has 350 residential customers. In Washington, D.C., Compost Cab counts about 500 homes and a few dozen businesses as clients.
"What we're really talking about is building a more sustainable citizenry, one bag of food scraps at a time," Compost Cab founder Jeremy Brosowsky said.
Brosowsky has a Milwaukee connection. A former publishing entrepreneur, he got interested in urban agriculture and came to Milwaukee to study with Growing Power and its farmer-in-chief, Will Allen.
While here, Brosowsky hatched the idea for Compost Cab, which he started in D.C. four years ago. He's now thinking about licensing the model for use by others.
"There's an opportunity here," he said. "And the good news is it's a rising tide. It is not an easy business, but we set out basically to prove that any guy with a truck could earn a living doing good in the community by building soil in the city."
Maybe. The residential pickup model seems to work in densely packed cities with lots of apartment dwellers who lack space to compost -- assuming they have the inclination. It may be a tougher sell in places like Milwaukee, where backyards are more abundant.
Duane Drzadinski has been trying for the last few months to get a service going that would emphasize home pickup.
His Hales Corners-based business, Compost Express, has a website, a blog and a Facebook page. Drzadinski is active on Twitter (more than 1,200 postings since early May) and puts out a daily online publication that aggregates composting news from around the Web. But so far he has struggled to line up customers.
"There are just a lot of challenges that have made this difficult," Drzadinski said.
Among them: Finding people willing to spend money for things that may help the community in general -- reducing use of landfills, creating more-fertile soil -- but don't benefit them directly.
"At the end of the day, people pay us because it makes them feel good," Brosowsky said.
That represents a business niche, but a small one, said Justin Senkbeil, co-founder of North Carolina's CompostNow.
"It's a very challenging business to get into," he said. "It's something that grows with culture and with awareness."
Widespread acceptance of organics recycling, however, could in the long run undercut the viability of small, entrepreneurial ventures like CompostNow, Compost Cab and Compost Crusader.
A growing number of communities are looking at putting citywide organics recycling programs in place, said Jerry Powell, executive editor of Resource Recycling magazine. Such programs already are running in hundreds of communities, most of them large West Coast cities and their suburbs, he said.
One-man-and-a-truck operations can't handle citywide organics recycling. Rather, Powell said, it's most efficiently done by the municipalities themselves, or the large haulers with which they contract.
"At which point our business goes away," Senkbeil said. "So this model, nationwide, is probably a 10-to 15-year business model." Tashjian, though, sees plenty of near-term potential.
"One thing there is not a lack thereof is waste," she said. "It happens every day, all year. It doesn't matter what the weather's like. It doesn't stop."
That's true enough. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, Americans dumped 69 billion pounds of food scraps in landfills. Hollow out the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Milwaukee and you could fill it more than 75 times with all that garbage. So the 25,000 pounds Compost Crusader diverted in August is a droplet in a Mississippi River-sized waste stream. But it's a start.
"I'm committed to making this work," Tashjian said.
Her service wins praise from kitchen manager Anne Vaillancourt at Beans & Barley, one of Compost Crusader's customers.
"It's going great," Vaillancourt said. "She does a great job."
Vaillancourt said the system -- tossing waste vegetables, fruit, eggshells, cheese and such into a container lined with a compostable bag made of plant material -- has worked smoothly and has reduced garbage by about a third at the east side restaurant, deli and grocery store.
That means no more overloaded Dumpsters, and Vaillancourt hopes that Beans & Barley eventually can offset its added costs by cutting back on its current four pickups a week of regular garbage.
Tashjian also heads a nonprofit volunteer organization, Kompost Kids, that diverts organic materials from the waste stream. Her business operates independently of the nonprofit, she said.
A waitress at Transfer Pizzeria and Cafe (another customer), she has taken something of a do-it-yourself approach to Compost Crusader. Her dump truck was modified for waste pickup by her boyfriend, Matthew Scannella, at his business, Robert Ivens Machinery Co.
Scannella makes the recycling dumpsters there too, and, since he holds a commercial license, drives the truck. He and Tashjian do the route on Sunday mornings.
The cool weather this summer has been a bonus, holding down odors wafting into the cab.
Anyway, the smell isn't that bad, and Tashjian hung one of those pine-tree shape air fresheners inside Torty.
"That seems to do the job," she said.