In the best of worlds, we’d never waste food. Our plates would return to the kitchen clean. We’d puree and eat that turnip in the back of the produce drawer long before it started dissolving into a stinking miasma. We’d give the raccoons no reason to pry at the garbage can, and we’d send nothing—nothing—to the landfill.
Until the day that happens (and it won’t be soon), the best-case scenario for urban food waste will include places like this: A low, steel-built warehouse in north Austin, Texas, baking under the Central Texas sun. Inside are industrial-size plastic drums full of leftovers from offices, restaurants, and homes. Over here is a barrel about one-third full of overturned paper trays, amid unrecognizable chunks of brown and white, wedged between handfuls of penne covered in a something that might be stewed tomatoes and either melted cheese or yogurt that’s undergone some traumatic changes. Nearby, a 55-gallon drum of something white and frothy is attracting a squadron of soldier flies as big as your pinkie knuckle. The smell is astonishing.
This warehouse is a way station for food headed to a composting facility. A day ago, it was in big blue buckets at curbsides and loading docks throughout the city. Tomorrow, it will be in a nearby facility, where it will be mixed with other forms of organic waste and turned into a commercial product for soil improvement. In between, it’s in the hands of Break It Down—the owner of this warehouse—or one of its competitors. It’s a dirty job, but the strange thing is that, in Austin’s entrepreneurial food-obsessed business climate, compost-hauling is a crowded field.
That smell, as hair-curling as it is, is apparently the aroma of opportunity.
More than 20 percent of all food in the U.S. ends up in city landfills, making it the largest single component of municipal waste in the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In September 2015, USDA put in place goals to cut food waste in half by 2030. Unless you’re one of the lucky residents of the 100 U.S. cities with curbside composting, you’re probably stuck in the backyard with a compost bin. To be sure, home composting has become more mainstream—Pinterest is full of cutesy bin setups—but many people don’t have time to tend to one. So, if the food doesn’t go out with the trash, who picks it up?
In 2009, Austin decided to find out. The city embarked on a planning process that culminated in the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, which was approved in 2011. The 321-page document declared, among other things, that Austin should divert 75 percent of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2020 and 90 percent by 2040. In 2013, the city council followed up with a law requiring food service businesses—including fast-food chains, caterers, cafeterias, and bars—to send organic and compostable waste to be composted. The law applied first to facilities larger than 5,000 square feet, which need to be compliant by this year, smaller companies by 2017, with food trucks coming in for regulation at some point in the future.
What the law didn’t do was put the city in charge of hauling compostables.
“That’s a private haulers’ market,” says Jeff Paine, who owns Break It Down with his wife, Melanie MacFarlane. “The city can’t participate even if they wanted to.”
In response to the law, a patchwork of private companies popped up in Austin to haul food scraps and waste to large-scale composting facilities. Paine actually got a jump on the whole movement. He and MacFarlane launched Break It Down in their front yard in 2009, when Paine was a graduate student at the University of Texas. They started small, hauling compostables for a nearby coffee shop to a friend’s place who wanted compost for her garden. But before long, Paine realized he could monetize this kind of hauling, which he had been doing for free. He worked alongside his wife for the first two years, doing much of the hauling himself.
“By and large it was a massive amount of sweat equity,” says Paine. “I think I tapped out at around 120 hours of labor a week before I could hire someone… This is stuff of legend. It was truly a pretty insane amount of effort.”
In 2011 they hired their first employees and in recent years have applied for funding to buy more vehicles and trailers. They haven’t had any outside investors and nearly all their profits are funnelled back into the company. Their cash flow is still low by most business standards, but Paine says they’re on track to grow their business by 50 percent this year so that the warehouse rent–at $7,000 a month, it’s the company’s largest regular expense–will be less than 20 percent of their total expenses.
“It’s hard to stop when you’re growing every month. I’m really stubborn and I like a challenge. In some ways it was overconfidence, I knew I could do it and I refused to quit. “
Many compost haulers only take fruits and vegetables, but Break It Down does it all. Using an old church van and an open-bed trailer, the company hauls two dozen or so barrels a few days a week to a facility about eight miles away that recycles and composts all kinds of food waste, including pasta, breads, dairy, meat, and compostable serviceware. Next, landscaping outpost and compost producer Organics by Gosh grinds everything up, mixes in similarly ground-up brush, and piles it up to sit for six months or more while microbes in the soil do their work, transforming leftovers into a soil supplement that Organics by Gosh bags and sells in a half dozen different mixes.
Today, Break It Down owns four haulers and offers an array of business and residential composting and recycling services, though it does most of its business with office buildings and restaurants. Each week, Break It Down drivers pick up giant blue barrels from hundreds of locations, swapping out the full ones with clean ones. The volume ranges from one barrel once a week to 15 barrels 8 times a week. That heavy load comes from JuiceLand, the Austin-based purveyor of cold-pressed juice and smoothies. At around 250 pounds a barrel, JuiceLand produces close to 16 tons a week. “The math explodes pretty quick,” Paine says.
A study done last year by Austin Resource Recovery (formerly known as Solid Waste Services—the city’s garbage collection agency) showed that around 40 percent of residential waste sent to the landfill—enough to fill 18,100 city buses—is compostable. To offset some of those thousands of tons, the city piloted a curbside composting program for 14,000 Austin households. Susanne Harm, spokesperson for Austin Resource Recovery, says the goal is to roll out the program for all of Austin, which would require citywide vote and city council approval.
“We’ve been fine-tuning that to make it the best it can be,” says Harm. “It’s a big deal. It would probably help us get to our zero waste goal fast—like, really fast.”
Estimates show the citywide program would cost about $4 per household, per month, on top of regular trash service to pay for trucks and collection bins. The city doesn’t sell its compostables outright. Instead, it receives tons of usable compost for public parks and municipal landscaping–along Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, for instance.
About 90 percent of Austinites said in a city survey they consider themselves recyclers, so composting can’t be far off. On the other hand, Harm says the compost program will be rolled out slowly, because of lack of infrastructure. The best-case scenario would see a citywide curbside program in five years.
“We need to change the culture,” says Harm. “I think of composting as recycling. You know, it’s Mother Nature’s way of recycling organics.”
Until then, part of that gap is filled by Compost Pedallers, a bike-driven compost hauler founded in 2012 by Dustin Fedako. Like Break It Down, Fedako’s business doesn’t actually compost waste. Instead, it’s a hauling company run on pedal power. All transport is done by bike. Four or five couriers, who are paid between $10 and $15 an hour, each work around 20 hours a week to pick up compost buckets and load them onto bike trailers that can haul around 500 pounds of compost.
The company charges a $16 monthly fee and most of its residential customers put out bins of compostables every week. Since its compostables end up at organic farms, Compost Pedallers accepts only vegetable and fruit matter—no meat or dairy. Fedako says he currently services around 700 customers.
“Our biggest competitor is the trash can. When it’s easy and convenient to throw something in the trash, the challenge is to try to educate people on what their motivation is to take two more steps—to put it in compost and do the right thing,” says Fedako.
The company’s growth in Austin, mostly along the I-35 corridor north of Lady Bird Lake, is in part because of the benefits Austin has over other Texas cities: a network of bike lanes, a population open to composting, a city hall encouraging the practice. As long as the city’s curbside pickup is only a pilot program, Fedako says, Compost Pedallers will continue to haul.
“Nothing with a commitment to sustainability is easily scalable,” he says. “There’s a consistent growth to what we do but every time we grow too fast, we exceed our capacity to manage and consistently collect.”
All in all, Fedako says the profit margins are low for this kind of business. Though the company sells its compostables to farms, it only makes around $11,000 a month in customer fees, about half of which is spent on paying the pedallers. In that way, for Fedako, making money by biking around food waste isn’t really the point.
“This isn’t like a tech start-up where venture capitalists are falling over each other to give you million-dollar checks,” he says. “It’s very bootstrap. We’ll prioritize making it accessible over making it profitable.”