HARTFORD, CT — Entrepreneurs at Blue Earth Compost have begun a crowdfunding and marketing campaign they say can put the company in a position to reduce food waste burdening the state’s aging trash infrastructure.
The five-year-old company has collected more than 4 million pounds of food scraps from 275 residential customers and 70 commercial accounts, and has a new goal of collecting 4 million pounds this year alone.
“There are clear flashing signs around the state that the trash-to-energy infrastructure is old and is only getting older, and if there’s a waste stream like food waste that can be fairly easily diverted and can then be used for a very beneficial purpose, it seems a very logical thing for us to focus on,” said Blue Earth owner and operator Alex Williams.
The quasi-public Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority trash-to-energy plant in Hartford shut down for about two months this winter after equipment failures. The shutdown caused a rapid accumulation of waste and showed the delicate state of Connecticut’s waste disposal infrastructure.
The Blue Earth crowdfunding campaign will raise money by offering discounted memberships and merchandise. The infusion of cash will help grow the business, and if the new members are happy with the service their future membership renewals will sustain it in coming years.
“We have proven that almost 300 people in the Greater Hartford area are willing to pay to have their food scraps collected, and it’s not an insignificant amount of money,” Williams said. “I think the fact that we’ve shown that people are willing to do this and pay for it is a very good tell that if the political side of it could get sorted out, [large-scale composting] could be quite a success.”
The residential service provides a four-gallon pail lined with a biodegradable bag, collected weekly or every two weeks for a variety of rates depending a few different factors. Commercial customers, which make up about 75% of the volume of food waste Blue Earth collects, get bigger bins to be stored in kitchens or food preparation areas.
Commercial prices vary based on location and the amount of food waste generated. Some small cafes pay $100 to $250 per month, while larger customers like a university pay $1,500 to $2,000 per month.
“It’s cost effective, it’s clean and it’s more environmentally conscious,” said Sam King, head of marketing and development for Blue Earth. “In most cases if you’re throwing away food you’re paying to throw it away already, you’re just paying a trash hauler to do it. So what we’re trying to do is be pretty aggressive in our sales strategy so that any customer that would come to us is really not paying more. Our goal is to make it cost-neutral for them, or better, to do this.”
About 40 percent of the state’s waste stream is compostable materials, and about half of that is food waste, said Chris Nelson, supervising environmental analyst at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“There’s a lot of interest nationwide in reducing waste in general, and donating when that’s an option,” Nelson said. “Connecticut is heavily reliant on an aging fleet of waste-to-energy facilities. It certainly is less expensive to reduce a ton of waste than it is to build a new facility to handle it.”
State laws require large commercial producers of food waste — over 104 tons per year — to dispose those materials at an approved facility. The law is part of a state goal to reduce overall waste and reduce food waste in the general waste stream, Nelson said.
There are three composting facilities in the state and one anaerobic digestion facility, which turns organic materials into energy. Three more digesters have received DEEP permits but are still in planning phases, Nelson said.
Williams said Blue Earth is ramping up through the campaign to try to meet the state’s food waste diversion needs. Recently the company purchased a modified garbage truck that will enable automated collection and speed up the labor-intensive collection they’ve been doing by hand with a box truck for five years. The company also won a $8,250 state grant to purchase a motorized bicycle with a trailer to do residential pickups in the Greater Hartford area.
The company now has six employees including Williams and King.
Williams, 27, bought the business in 2014 from a prior owner who was moving out of state.
King, 31, signed up for a Blue Earth subscription when he moved to Connecticut for a job in Hartford. When he was laid off in 2016, he signed on to work for Williams and has been focused on helping the company expand its visibility in a do-everything, second-in-command role.
“For every 35 pounds of food we’re able to divert, it’s environmentally equivalent to a gallon of gas not being burned and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide not going into the atmosphere,” King said. “It also makes more soil. There’s so many environmental benefits. It’s really one of the key ways our state can be a more sustainable place.”
While Blue Earth has high hopes for the future, composting has not had a noticeable impact on reducing the waste stream at MIRA yet, said Thomas Gaffey, director of recycling and enforcement.
“Hopefully this is a growing trend,” Gaffey said. “It seems to be growing, but it’s in its infancy. As a total percentage of the waste stream, what’s being diverted is tiny compared to what’s being disposed of at the waste-to-energy plants. We’re a long way from seeing any noticeable reduction.”
In an effort to foster more composting, King spoke last week at the state Capitol before the Environment Committee in favor of SB 234, “An Act Establishing A Pilot Program For Curbside Food Waste Collection Used In Anaerobic Digesters.”
As part of his testimony King said their company “exists as a litmus test of the public interest in community scale composting. With a payment-based platform we have been able to enlist hundreds of households in the Hartford area. The rate of growth has also accelerated as of late. This leads me to believe that cities and towns in the state are ready to make the switch to source separation of organics.”