2021 Trends in sustainable waste management: Rise of the private compost hauler
Part two of a three-part series
One of the most exciting trends to watch for in the sustainable waste management sphere in 2021 is the rise of the private organics hauler. Call them a hauler, a composter, a waste management provider, a champion of soil; it doesn’t matter. These often small, local or regional-serving businesses have their hands deep in biodegrading food scraps and their fingers on the pulse of the new and oh-so-necessary material recovery infrastructure in the U.S.
OUT with 2020 is the U.S.’s outdated and underperforming community recycling sorting, processing and reuse infrastructure. INTO 2021 is the growing sophistication of private organics waste diversion businesses and their new strategies for generating revenue, creating jobs and keeping methane-producing, nutrient-rich organics waste out of landfills and back into the soil.
My education in community organics (food scrap) programs began with hearing the torturous story of Madison, Wisconsin’s decade of attempts to bring their residents an organics diversion program. It was painful to hear. Current Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson, his predecessor and other city officials gave everything they had to get and keep the program going for years. Changes or lack of haulers and processors and too much contamination eventually shut down the program in 2018.
Why was this municipal-led organics diversion program model just not working?
The barriers behind Madison’s failed attempts at implementing a community-wide curbside food scrap program are some of the very same reasons community recycling programs have broken down:
– Too much contamination (consumers don’t know how to properly recycle or compost);
– Lack of local processing capacity (lack of upgraded, high functioning sorting/processing equipment);
– High logistical costs (hauling costs not economically feasible for financial ROI)
Here is where the story takes an exciting turn.
In 2020 I met some really smart, passionate innovators in the private organics hauling and composting space. My networking adventures began with a brief intro to Melissa Tashjian, founder of Compost Crusaders based in southeast Wisconsin. Somehow, in the part of the state with the least amount of farm fields, Tashjian figured out how to monetize a residential and commercial composting program. I apologetically simplify her hard work. The point, however, is that Tashjian and her team have been successfully diverting organics from Milwaukee landfills for years now, while the progressive City of Madison sputtered for a decade trying to make their food scrap program work.
Before I get too far, I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate Bryan Johnson’s efforts to implement three new food scrap drop-off locations for Madison residents in 2020. He worked tirelessly to bring this resource to Madison residents. With COVID-19 (hopefully) slowing down, I know his program will see more participation and more organics diverted from the landfill in summer 2021. Municipalities in some of the more eco-progressive nooks-and-crannies of our country have similarly been slowly growing successful organics programs.
Growing even faster, however, are the 350-or-so innovators in the private organics hauling and composting space.
After Tashjian, in 2020 I met (via zoom, of course) the founders and team members of private organics haulers The Compost Crew (Bethesda, MD area), Rust Belt Riders (northeast Ohio) and CompostNow (Raleigh, NC area). Card-carrying U.S. Composting Council members may have known these teams and businesses for many years. To anyone outside of the national composting community, these businesses are unknowns.
You’ll get to know these players and more like them in 2021. And don’t for a second think of these businesses as people riding around picking up rotting food scraps trying to turn a small profit while doing good for the earth. These are entrepreneurial earth stewards. They are strategically creating new business models, using technology to optimize efficiency and rallying their members around the concept of personal responsibility for waste generation. Ultimately, these haulers are building the new waste management economy in the U.S. And they are having a ton of fun doing it.
Here are just a few ways private organics haulers are revolutionizing the waste hauling industry:
– Use household or business pay-for-service membership models for both pick-up and drop-off services
– Use of logistical software to optimize pick-up routes (Stopcheckr)
– Use of digital membership sign-up and account management
– Use of chatbots on their websites and SMS messaging to cost effectively and effortlessly communicate with new and existing members.
– Use pick-up routes to double as delivery opportunities for sustainable products
– Process and sell their own private-branded soils
– Pick and choose what materials come into their operations, instead of focusing on volume, alone.
The need for private compost haulers and processors is only going to grow. Communities large and small across the U.S. are beginning to talk seriously about diverting food waste from landfills. Even the federal government stepped in and the EPA set a goal to reduce food loss and waste going to landfills or combustion facilities by 50 percent by 2030. Thankfully, we have a cohort of business savvy haulers and processors who are building the infrastructure to meet this goal.
Maybe the most important thing private compost haulers have done is establish a norm that consumers want to take responsibility for the waste they generate. That is an incredibly powerful cultural standard that does not yet exist en masse in the U.S. as it does in other countries. Thanks to private compost haulers, we see this exciting paradigm shift really taking root in 2021.
Founder and CEO