Landfill space is a valuable and potentially limited commodity in an urban area.
The Orchard Ridge Landfill in Menomoney Falls, the largest in the state, was close to capacity in 2019 with a pile of waste nearly 16 stories high. Expanded its territory by 40 acres, and now it has Plan for more capacity.
Nationally, about 108 billion pounds of food — the equivalent of 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food — is wasted each year in the United States, according to Feeding America.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources studied state landfills last year and found that more than 30% of the waste disposed consisted of edible or otherwise edible food, along with food scraps, husks, bones and coffee grounds.
Understandably, most residential areas don’t care that there are mountains of trash in their vicinity. But with the average Wisconsinian dumping 4.7 pounds of trash per day, all of that trash has to go somewhere.
Well, it’s not all waste. Many of them are compostable.
For many, the idea of composting comes with the concepts of smelly and pest piles in the backyard. A properly maintained compost pile is possible, but for many people, it is impractical. Those who live in apartment buildings and condominiums are unlikely to have space for home gardens, and many do not need organic fertilizers.
But this does not mean that they cannot fertilize.
“Concentrating efforts to reduce organic waste can make a huge difference to Wisconsin’s waste stream and the environment,” Casey Lamensky, DNR Solid Waste Coordinator, told the Journal Sentinel last year. In addition to occupying valuable landfill space, landfilling these materials contributes significantly to the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide if released into the atmosphere.”
They use slightly different models, but all work by subscription: they offer composting buckets or bins and pick-up services so that customers only have to turn accepted food waste into a pail, and the rest is done for them. Different processes have different rules for what can and cannot be composted.
With so much food waste taking up space in landfills and polluting the air, a robust composting program can divert thousands of pounds of waste from landfill each year, said Melissa Tashjian, founder of Compost Crusaders.
The goal is to get rid of the waste and turn it into a usable result.
Curby makes composting cost effective
Composting is good for the environment, but there is also a financial incentive. It can save individual and municipal money and be profitable. Susan Bonucci, owner of Curby’s Compost, saw there was money to be made in composting.
Curby’s is wormwood, which means it uses worms to turn food scraps into compost that is sold as compost. What makes this process unique is how clean and effective it is.
At its Port Washington location, Curby uses a proprietary process to grind and press the compost to remove moisture. Within 24 hours of collection, Bonucci said, the waste is reduced to about a tenth of its weight. Worms eat the resulting product and secrete nutrient-rich castings and help stabilize the soil. It is sometimes referred to as black gold.
“What I wanted to do was create something that could be in a small urban area, without odor, without pests, that would be effective and create high value. Castings have a higher value. Our by-product is worth more,” she said.
In addition to Curby’s, Bonucci owns a sister company, Dirty Dirt Soil. There she sells castings, which makes Curby not only environmentally friendly, but ultimately a successful business.
“I became intrigued to see if there was a way to make it profitable to get things out of a landfill so that there would be economic benefits to the community from composting.
“The apple core you throw in the trash dies in the landfill. There’s no other market for it at that point. But if you take the core of the same apple and put it in a compost bucket, it’s now moving to another market,” Bonucci said.
“We can generate economic gains for our community. We can create jobs for our community. We can create other markets for our community. We can also use it as a way to address some of the problems in our community. Throwing the core of an apple in the compost can really change our community.”
For every 5-gallon pail offered by Curby customers, they receive $1.50 in soil credits. They can use these credits to purchase soil or fertilizer from Bonucci if they so choose. But clients who do not work in gardens can donate these soil credits to programs working in the community on issues such as food insecurity.
Offer Shorewood, Wauwatosa Fertilization
Shorewood and Wauwatosa both offer composting services in association with Compost Crusaders.
Ann McCullough McCaig, president of Shorewood Village, is now composting because the Shorewood Conservation Committee brought the idea of a compost program to the village council. Partnering with Compost Crusaders makes it easy and manageable.
The Shorewood program allows neighbors to “share” the collecting carts, expanding the program and making it more accessible. In other people’s homes, McCaig finds it strange to throw things that she knows might compost in her home.
“It really changed the way I think about waste,” she said.
Tashjian said a shift in mindset about all kinds of trash is common once people start composting, even in restaurants served by compost Crusaders.
“We found that composting also helped implement more mindful behavior in general and proper source separation habits,” Tashjian said.
Composting in Wauwatosa is also done through Compost Crusaders, which offers a discount for referrals. Tashjian said having a number of pickup trucks in a neighborhood is good for a number of reasons, but primarily because it reduces the carbon footprint of her compost truck.
Cruciferous compost also takes some of the more complex food waste from the UWM. Coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, and egg shells are collected by the university’s Office of Sustainability through the Panther Pails Program.
Anyone living on or off campus can sign up for a pail to fill up their leftovers and toss them at the Sandburg Garden Hoop House, where UWM students keep a compost pile that feeds campus gardens.
For other area residents, Compost Crusaders start at $5 per month.
Brew City Compost in Brookfield serves a number of Waukesha County communities, with bi-monthly apartment pickups and on-site processing. They also collect leftovers from businesses and sell compost. The Brew City website lists a cost of $20 per month.
Brew City recently began serving two area schools, Arrowhead High School and University Lake School as well.
Struggle to expand fertilization
Compost Crusaders do not process compost in part because it lacks the land to do so But he collects it and delivers it to Blue Ribbon Organics in Racine, which processes it.
For Compost Crusaders, the demand is beyond the capacity to meet. The company has a waiting list for new customers and recently reduced the route due to staff shortages.
Also, the Milwaukee City composting pilot program that diverted more than 600 tons of waste was canceled in September 2020, just seven months after the city invited proposals to expand the program. The decision baffled Tachjian, who worked with the city on the pilot and knew the community’s interest in participating.
What she and other small composting companies can achieve is tiny compared to the environmental impact the city of Milwaukee can have, according to Tashjian.
“What the compost industry needs to succeed is already there. We just need to get to it. If we had some of the infrastructure capabilities that municipalities have at our disposal, we would be able to figure out a lot of the puzzle pieces on our own,” Tashjian said.
“Wisconsin leadership is really failing to make the connection between climate change and fertilization, and what’s more, clean water and compost. … I don’t see there being one right way to do it. I think it just needs to be done.”
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