Putting food waste to work

Tuesday October 24, 2017 08:56 pm EDT

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Compostwheels, the local company that built a business picking up home compost collections by bicycle, needs a tractor. And an industrial-strength windrow turner. And big-league sifting equipment, too. The estimated tab? $120,000. All in the name of nutrient recovery and a stronger local food ecosystem.

While home composting has been the core of Compostwheels' efforts to date, being able to work with more restaurant and commercial kitchens is the next step in their effort to turn waste into nutrient-rich soil for local farms and gardens. To fund the upgrade, company founder David Paull has partnered with the Carse brothers from King of Pops and their farm, King of Crops, under the moniker wait for it King of Compost. Together, they have launched a month-long Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds necessary to scale up for more commercial composting. The stated mission? "Together we aim to turn thousands of tons of landfill-destined food waste into finished compost every year ??_ to not only improve the vitality of our soil and strengthen our local food system but build healthier, stronger communities as well.?۝

I sat down with Paull to talk through the challenges of scaling up to serve more restaurants, cafes, and hotels as well as his thoughts on the state of composting in Atlanta and the path ahead for the bicycles, tractors, and trucks of Compostwheels.

No value assignedFor those not familiar, what problems does composting address?

We fundamentally have a broken system. All of these nutrients that are contained in our food waste are either being flushed down our drains, which creates its own issues, or we are dumping it into landfills, which is also problematic for many reasons.

What's the quick history of Compostwheels?

Compostwheels was founded in February 2012. It's a relatively simple idea: collect food waste from homes and businesses and bring that food waste to farmers who need and want it to create quality compost for their farms. I was attending a six-month-long commercial urban agriculture training program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, learning the importance of healthy soil as the foundation to a sustainable food system and community. I learned about other models happening around the country for food waste recovery, and pieced the plan together.

I started with a sandwich board sign that said, "Do you compost?" at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market. The crew at Community Farmers Markets let me stand there and ask market-goers whether or not they composted. That launched our first route, which was done with my Subaru station wagon, but we've done Grant Park by bike pretty much since we started, and it's a great way to engage people around what you're doing. They see the bike when you're riding through the neighborhood and someone on their front porch shouts out. You wouldn't get that on a truck zooming by, so there is a lot of benefit to it even if the bikes are not totally scalable.

What impact have you made here in Atlanta?

Since that first year of hacking things together, we have diverted over two million pounds of food waste from Georgia landfills instead, creating one million pounds of finished compost that has gone back into our local farms and gardens, helping to grow the most nutrient dense produce around town.

No value assignedLove Is Love Farm has been a long-time partner. We process close to 2,000 pounds there a week, right in a neighborhood, turning food waste into some of the best soil in the city because of how they help steward that process. By giving them really clean ingredients, they get a really clean end product that can be used in the field right away. And Freewheel Farm in Grant Park is our second largest partner. There's not a more sustainable model of nutrient recovery than that, since we collect on bike in Grant Park, bring it to the farm, process it right there, and then food is grown from that material and is sold right back to the community in the Grant Park Farmers Market, which is so cool. There's a tremendous community being built around that farm.

As for restaurants and commercial composting, what do you see as the opportunity?

Today, Atlanta doesn't have the infrastructure. For so long, composting has been attached to the conversation of waste management, but it's a much more complicated process than dumping material into a hole.

For several years, we have been exploring how to start working with all the restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, hotels, etc. that are wasting a tremendous amount of food. We began building relationships with folks in the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the Georgia Recycling Coalition, the Mayor's Office of Resilience, Food Well Alliance, Georgia Organics, etc., learning all the while the very complicated history of composting in our area and the big barriers.

We have demonstrated over the years that this can be done safely, correctly, and with ample benefit to the community. This, coupled with a growing national conversation, has moved the needle towards lowering some of the barriers that stifle innovation and solutions for this enormous problem. There are still regulations today that limit how much we can process, and those are being worked on. The conversation is happening right now, but the community has to speak up.

No value assignedWe're very interested in working with restaurants that share this mission that we're setting out to do: building community Compostwheels already works with about 35 commercial clients, including Farm Burger and Dancing Goats. They often buy from the same farms that we support, so they're tying themselves closer to their supply chain by investing in their farmers' soil, helping ensure that they get the highest quality produce. The whole point right now is to demonstrate that we do this really well, gain the trust of the community, and to say that the rules as they are written prevent us from scaling not just us, but anyone who says they want to make a difference through composting.

You're now partnering with King of Pops and King of Crops. How did that start?

With the story of us both starting at farmers markets, that was a big launching point for our relationship with King of Pops. So over the years we got to know each other and realized we were largely working towards similar goals of doing good things for the community. As time went by and they started their farm, King of Crops, we were looking for a home for a larger composting site. They were looking to more efficiently compost all of their popsicle byproducts. So we decided to start kicking around the idea of partnering up. We quickly realized that it made a lot of sense from many perspectives and started to draw up the plans.

What is the goal for the commercial composting effort you're working on with them?

Working with our partners at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, we have received a permit to compost at this scale at King of Crops. In order for this facility to be truly impactful, we need the right machinery and support from our community. The crowdfunding campaign tells the story of why it is so important for our city to compost, and what it takes to do that. There is no better way for us to move the needle on this topic in our city than to support building the infrastructure necessary to compost large amounts of material.

We need to raise $50,000 for a windrow turner, which goes over the compost pile and turns it. It's pulled by a tractor, which is another $30,000. Then you have to sort out components that aren't quite ready when the compost is finished, big chunks of things they're called overs, and they're put back in to the start of the next compost pile so you need a sifter, which is another $30,000. Then the last $10,000 is for site prep, to improve the site, to make it efficient, like extending the concrete pad for mixing, putting a roof over it to protect from rain.

We also are working on building restaurant relationships. Because we are cause-based, we take the time to train our restaurants. We talk about WHY we're doing what we're doing. If they don't understand the end result of the process, they might not care about their role in it. When they realize it's going back into agriculture and community gardens, in communities they are in, they care more. If we can do it simply, efficiently, and keep it enjoyable for our client, we're not so worried about getting every single contract in the city we just want to do it really well.

To learn more about Compostwheels, visit www.compostwheels.com. To donate to their fundraising campaign, click here.

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