Garbage Entrepreneurs Are Turning Food Waste Into a business

By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The EPA estimates that Americans dump 70 billion tons of food waste into the garbage. It’s the largest single component going into municipal landfills. But recycling of food scraps is on the rise and so are businesses that help in the recycling process. Several “garbage entrepreneurs” have sprouted up in cities across the United States. They will pick up food scraps at businesses, homes or both and haul them away!

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Part-time waitress, full-time garbage entrepreneur — Melissa Tashjian has carved out a niche helping turn smelly food scraps into a dark, rich medium to grow more fruits and vegetables.

Two years ago, Tashjian started her little business, Compost Crusader LLC, with a small, slow-moving dump truck and a handful of customers.

Today, her client list of restaurants, schools and hospitals stands at 55 and is growing by the week. Her original truck, “Torty,” has been traded in, replaced by two larger garbage trucks.

Last month, Tashjian’s outfit picked up 115,000 pounds of food waste and other organic material — more than four times the weight she was handling in the summer of 2014.

And, she’s making money. Not much, but enough that she has reduced her waitressing hours (Transfer Pizzeria Café) and stopped driving her trucks in favor of calling on potential new accounts.

“I think that in one year from now I’ll have at least a hundred customers,” Tashjian said. “… I want to just keep growing and spreading the message because it makes sense and so many other states and cities are doing it successfully.”

There’s lots of room to grow. Americans dump 70 billion tons of food waste into the garbage, the EPA estimates. It’s the largest single component going into municipal landfills.

But recycling of food scraps is on the rise. More than 200 communities offered curbside food collection in 2013, an EPA report last year said. And businesses such as Tashjian’s, that pick up food scraps at businesses, homes or both, have sprouted in dozens of cities.

Jeremy Brosowsky said there simply weren’t any other collectors when he started Compost Cab in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
“Now I think there are 40 or 50 companies doing it around the country in one form or the other, including a few here in Washington,” he said.

And Tashjian isn’t the only one growing.

Philadelphia’s Bennett Compost has gone from about 1,000 residential customers less than two years ago to 1,400 today.

During that same period, Bootstrap Compost, in Boston, has seen its residential accounts grow from 750 to 1,500, and its business customer base rise from 50 to 85.

Rust Belt Riders Composting, in Cleveland, which started about when Tashjian did, now has 45 clients and is adding about two per week.

“It’s now kind of in the Zeitgeist,” Brosowsky said. “Food waste is a very hot topic.”

Ecological concerns generate part of that interest, and help motivate some of the folks launching collection businesses. When it started, Bootstrap Compost hauled by bicycle. So did Rust Belt Riders. In Chicago, Jonathan Scheffel still does.

He pedals more than 500 miles a month through the city, collecting waste from 160 homes and 10 businesses, and hauling it — as much as 400 pounds per load, on an 80-pound bike trailer — to a worm farm in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

Not yet a year old, his business, Healthy Soil Compost, is one of six food-waste collectors now operating in the city, he said. Others use motor vehicles, but Scheffel, who is a very trim 28 years old, has stuck with two wheels.

“A lot of people sign up with me because I’m bicycle powered, and the value of that is pretty high, I think,” he said.
Green values also help drive demand for such services.

Tashjian said many of her customers are able to reduce their regular trash pickup enough to cover the cost of separate collection of food scraps and other organic waste.

It’s pretty close — perhaps 90% covered, said Lakefront Brewery executive chef Kristin Hueneke.

“But where we really make up is the piece of mind with it, that we know this isn’t all going to a landfill,” she said.

Café Corazon owner Wendy Mireles said using Compost Crusader at her two restaurants increases her overall waste disposal bill — by a few hundred dollars in March, for example. But Mireles, who not only separates her garbage but also pays extra to buy paper and plastic products that can be composted, also has a philosophical commitment to reducing her restaurants’ eco footprint.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” she said.

Mireles applauded Tashjian’s efforts, as did good-food guru Will Allen. Allen’s nonprofit, Growing Power, collects millions of pounds of food waste annually to help make compost for its roughly 300 acres of farmland. But he welcomes the far-smaller bite Tashjian is taking out of the Milwaukee area’s mountain of garbage.

“She’s doing a terrific job at getting her business started this way, and it’s much needed,” Allen said. “And the more we can keep out of the landfill, the better.”

Compost Crusader is bidding in the City of Milwaukee to run a one-year test to study the possibility of a residential organics collection program. The study will be conducted in Bay View and on the east side, where residents, for a fee, will be offered the option of separate collection of organic waste such as food and garden debris.

Such efforts reduce the huge amount of food waste going into landfills, where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas. Instead of being buried in gas-belching mountains of garbage, collection programs and businesses like Tashjian’s usher the waste along on a recycling journey that ultimately produces new food.
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Compost Crusader hauls its scraps to Blue Ribbon Organics, a compost farm in Racine County that receives an average of 100,000 pounds of food waste a week.

Most of that comes from much larger collector Sanimax, a Montreal-based company with extensive U.S. operations. But Tashjian’s contribution is rising, helping to enrich the area’s supply of soil-enriching compost, and replacing stinky odors with good ones.

“It smells like wet earth,” Tashjian said of the finished product. “You know, it smells like after a spring day.”

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