The idea of food waste collection for community composting appears to have started almost by accident within the past few years. It is already becoming an impressive movement.
Gardeners have been composting for centuries.
People who aren’t gardeners have been sending food waste to the landfill for generations. Or more recently, running it through the garbage disposal.
How can we encourage the recycling of organic waste instead? Community composting suggests an answer.
Community farms and urban gardens need fertilizer. How can they get it? Without community composting facility, they have to collect waste from restaurants themselves. Otherwise, they can buy expensive organic fertilizer or settle for petrochemical fertilizer.
Some gardeners might not want or be able to have their own compost heap. They may prefer to give their food waste to a community composting operation.
The community composting movement regards organic waste as a community asset. It needs to be reinvested in the community that generated it. In that way, it differs from industrial composting.
Community composting vs industrial composting
Industrial composters must drive garbage trucks long distances to collect wastes. Then they must sell their product for a profit. Their customers may not be in the same community where they collect the waste.
Community composting uses small collection centers so no one has to go very far to find one. People can drop off wastes as they do other errands. Some food waste collection services use small trucks. They are less expensive to own and operate than regular garbage trucks. Some services use bicycles instead of trucks.
Community composting organizations may sell compost. Many donate it to urban farms or community gardens. But whether they sell the compost or donate it, it remains in the community.
Although industrial composting and community composting differ, they don’t compete. Each model can operate where the other can’t. For example, industrial composters must use large trucks. They can’t as easily collect from downtown restaurants as someone with a small truck or bike.
On the other hand, local farms and gardeners can only absorb so much compost. Community-based food waste collection services shouldn’t have to stop collecting at that point. They can arrange for industrial composting companies to collect their excess.
The US Composting Council has come to recognize community composting organizations as a constituency they want to reach and work with. It offered grants at its conference this year so 50 community composters could attend. Its schedule included a half-day workshop on community composting.
Here is a sample of some recent developments in community composting in the US.
Chris Cano of Gainesville, Florida became an enthusiastic gardener after he graduated from college.
At first, he approached friends who owned or worked in local restaurants for food waste so he could compost it for his garden. One of them regularly brought him kitchen scraps in a trailer behind his bicycle.
Eventually, he realized the magnitude of the restaurants’ food waste. He knew that plenty of other gardeners could use it as compost for their own gardens. In September 2011 he went into business as Gainesville Compost and quickly signed up five restaurants.
His friend’s bike trailer could only haul four five-gallon buckets. He collaborated with another friend, Steven Kanner, to design and sell 4-6-foot long trailers that can hold up to 500 pounds. Their company, Kanner Karts, builds custom carts to whomever wants them for multiple purposes.
He built a special one for Gainesville Compost with a 1.5-gallon aluminum tank. It is no longer necessary for the company to supply two collection bins at each restaurant. Instead of picking up a full one and leaving an empty one, the collector empties the container into the tank and cleans it on the spot.
This special cart does not replace the kind that collects containers of scraps. The more standard cart works well at farmers’ markets and other lower-volume sites.
Bicycle-based food waste collection services as far away as Traverse City, Michigan and New York City have purchased Kanner Karts.
Dustin Fedako learned of Cano’s company and founded his own. It likewise uses bicycles.
Unlike Cano, he had some background in composting. He used to work in sales for a residential composting service in Austin.
Austin has established a goal of zero waste by 2040, but he found many residents didn’t compose or even know what composting is.
He also noticed that Austin lacked affordable and convenient ways for people to compost. So he started Compost Pedallers in December 2012. It services both residential and commercial subscribers.
Residences receive a five-gallon collection bin. Commercial subscribers keep their five-gallon bin inside and receive one or more 32-gallon containers on roll carts.
Once a week they put their bins out front. The company’s bicycle fleet collects them, empties them, then cleans and returns them.
Once Compost Pedallers collects waste, it delivers it to the nearest of about 30 partner sites called “CompHosts.” High volume composting happens there.
Composting has environmental benefits easy to describe and hard to envision. So Fedako devised for customers to visualize their impact. Each subscriber has an online profile. The weight of each collection is added to each profile.
People can check their profiles to see how much material they have diverted from the waste stream. The profile also shows how much compost their waste has created and other quantifiable impacts. This information especially gives the commercial subscribers a way to call public attention to their sustainability efforts.
Subscribers can receive compost as a prize for participating. Not all residential subscribers have any need for the compost, though. And not all care about climate change.
So the company awards one point for every pound of waste collected. They can exchange points for anything from a free cup of coffee to a free bicycle.
Rochester, New York
Steven Kraft and Brent Arnold, like Cano started, composting for themselves. They used a friend’s vacant lot and collected material from neighbors. They also collected from a small restaurant.
The amount of waste offered to them soon exceeded the lot’s capacity. So they explored starting a business. They posted a website to ask if there was any interest in a residential food waste collection service in Rochester. A Facebook marketing campaign drew expressions of interest from 350 residents within two weeks.
They launched a company called Community Composting in 2013. Subscribers receive a 4-gallon bucket with the company logo and a locking lid. Most of them choose to have one bucketful collected once a week, but they can choose more than one bucket and/or a different schedule. Corporate subscribers can choose 32-gallon containers.
Community Composting uses dump trucks, not bicycles, to collect the scraps. It takes most of them to the Vermigreen facility in Farmington. It also works with some other processors in Rochester. Subscribers can choose to receive finished compost or donate it to a local garden twice a year. Or, they can choose to receive an edible plant from a local greenhouse.
Greensboro, North Carolina
Greensboro currently has no community composting program. That will change if a team of school children gets their way. The Greensboro (North Carolina) Science Center sponsors FIRST LEGO League Robotics teams.
The FIRST LEGO League is a worldwide educational program. In the US, it is open to children from 9-14 years old.
A team has at least two and no more than ten children and an adult supervisor. Teams work on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)-related projects and present their solutions to a panel of judges.
A team called Legosauruses chose to work on food waste. They proposed community composting. They thought of having an established company collect scraps from individual households. But they soon realized it would be prohibitively expensive.
Brooks Contractor, the company they studied, specializes in food waste collection. It is based in Goldston, which is more than an hour’s drive from Greensboro.
The team eventually proposed establishing community composting hubs where people could drop off scraps at their convenience. Brooks Contractor can much more economically collect waste from these neighborhood hubs.
The Greensboro Science Center likes the idea and may choose to move forward with it to make it a reality. If it does, the team will market it to school children, possibly the most effective way to interest their parents.
Several American cities have added food waste collection to their trash and recycling service. Since they must use large dump trucks, these efforts don’t come under the heading of community composting. But again, community composting and industrial composting don’t have to be rivals.
New York City has aggressively pursued industrial-scale composting. It has also invested more than $1 million to support network of community compost efforts. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers technical assistance to them. Among other things, they help with the training and management of volunteers.
This post has highlighted three commercial companies in the community composting business. It’s not the only model. Non-profit groups operate community composting projects all over the country. So do neighborhood organizations.
What’s happening in your neck of the woods that you can share in the comments?
Other posts about food waste on Sustaining Our World
The business of community composting / Nate Clark, BioCycle. January 2015
Community composting grows from a seed into a movement / Cat Johnson, Shareable. January 26, 2016
Community composting technical assistance / Brooklyn Botanical Garden
Encouraging composting in the community / Greensboro Science Center. February 10, 2016
Community composting, Australia. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Food scraps, compost. Photo by Phil Cohen. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Source separation. Photo by Tim Jewett – City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Compost pile. Some rights reserved by hardworkinghippy