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Turning Garbage Into Food

Compost Entrepreneur Connects Sustainable Agriculture to Efficiency

Jeremy Brosowsky, founder of Compost Cab, picks up food waste from customers and delivers it to urban farms  helping connect sustainable agriculture with efficiency. (Washington Post  Juana Arias)

Jeremy Brosowsky, founder of Compost Cab, picks up food waste from customers and delivers it to urban farms helping connect sustainable agriculture with efficiency. (Washington Post Juana Arias)

Jeremy Brosowsky never pictured himself in the garbage business. A serial entrepreneur, he is 39, with an Ivy League degree and a stint at Goldman Sachs on his resumes. But when he turned his attention to sustainable agriculture, he realized that what Washington needed most wasn’t another urban farm. It was compost — rich, organic matter to enrich city soils — for the city farms already out there.

Trash, even “good” trash like compost, is not usually appetizing enough to make it into the pages of The Post Food section. But this column’s mission is to highlight businesses that fill the gaps in the sustainable-food chain. Composting is one of them: Americans generate 250 million tons of garbage every year. Nearly a third of what is sent to the landfill could be composted but instead sits in an airless hole where it decomposes and releases methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

“I don’t think of it as the garbage business,” Brosowsky said. “I’m in the magic business. As I tell my kids, ‘I turn garbage into food.’ ”

Brosowsky remembers the date when he had his eureka moment about composting. On March 21, 2010, he was in Milwaukee at Growing Power, one of the country’s most successful urban farms, where he hoped to learn enough to start his own rooftop garden in Washington. On a compost run — a trip to a bakery, a cafe and several other locations to pick up food scraps — he realized just how inefficient it was for the farmer to drive from place to place, often waiting an hour or more between pickups. Suddenly, he had an idea: Farms need materials to produce compost. And people need stuff picked up. Putting those together is natural. On the spot, Brosowsky sat down and wrote up the outline of his business plan. Using Growing Power’s shaky WiFi connection, he registered the domain name CompostCab.com.

For $32 a month, Compost Cab gives each customer a countertop collection basket and an airtight bin, lined with a sturdy, compostable bag, to minimize smells and keep away rodents, always a worry with composting. Customers fill the bin with kitchen scraps such as banana peels, coffee grounds or vegetable trimmings. If it grows, it goes, is the company rule.

Each week, Compost Cab picks up the bag, leaving behind a clean bin with a new liner. It delivers the waste to urban farms, including Eco City Farms near Hyattsville, Md., and the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, which use the material to improve their soil and grow more food. It also works with commercial clients including the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill and Qualia Coffee in Washington.

“As composting becomes more mainstream, my job is to make sure that some significant piece of the stream gets captured for urban farms,” Brosowsky says.

For Kate Hill, a caterer and self-described “foodie,” subscribing to Compost Cab was a no-brainer. She had been giving her scraps to a neighbor with a compost pile, but that ended quickly when rodents became a problem. “It killed me to see how much I was returning to the trash,” she said. “There was no reason that it shouldn’t go someplace that it can do some good, rather than sitting in a landfill in a plastic bag.”

The company has converted city residents who otherwise might not have considered composting, including Doug Rand, a policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He doesn’t garden, and he doesn’t have a back yard. He wanted to compost but he wasn’t interested in collecting trash and driving it each week to a dropoff: “Until Compost Cab arrived, there was no way to do it unless you were a zealot.” If it weren’t so easy, he wouldn’t do it, he said.

To date, with no marketing save a few postings on local listservs, Compost Cab has recruited 350 residential customers. Seventy-five percent of customers continue to subscribe after one year. Each week, Compost Cab delivers about two tons of compostable material to local farms. This month, the company will begin to offer service in Baltimore. Brosowsky says he hopes to add six more cities, possibly including Brooklyn, Chicago and Charlottesville, in 2013.

Brosowsky admits that residential compost pickup is only a short-term business. In the long run, it makes sense for cities and towns to pick up organic waste along with garbage and recycling as they do in San Francisco, where city trucks collect 600 tons of compostable material each day. Washington’s Sustainable DC task force, which aims to make the city the “greenest” in the nation, is discussing options for composting, though no formal plans have been announced. In the meantime, Brosowsky is working to prove to municipalities that composting makes sense.

In University Park, Md., he helped to run a 50-home pilot project for the town council, which was interested in composting as a way to reduce methane production. After a six-month test, all but one participant recommended the service, said Chuck Wilson, program director for University Park’s Small Town Energy Project, which oversaw the pilot. During that time, each house contributed between eight and 10 pounds of kitchen waste. The only whisper of a complaint was that customers wanted bigger buckets so they could compost more.

University Park plans to expand the program to include 150 homes, 20 percent of the town’s households. With triple the number of families, the town will be diverting three tons of food scraps each month from the local landfill. Remarkably, the cost of the program is no more than paying to dump the town’s waste, Wilson estimates.

“We wouldn’t be here if Jeremy hadn’t pushed us down this road,” Wilson said. “He wasn’t working with us to try to get a bigger contract. He was trying to get composting to work.”

There are still many challenges to making composting work. Urban farms can handle only so much waste. There is a dearth of commercial composting facilities big enough to handle large quantities of compostable material. (Right now, the closest one to Washington is in Wilmington, Del.)

But Brosowsky says he is convinced that if he can make composting simple enough for families, businesses and urban farms, it will be easy to sell. “It’s not about waste reduction. It’s about food production,” he says. “Farm-to-table is great. But farm-to-table-to-farm is better.”