By Melody Wilson, Grist
Washington, D.C.’s trash is Jeremy Brosowsky’s treasure.
Jeremy Brosowsky was in a Milwaukee greenhouse in March 2010 when he had an epiphany: “What if we could take our garbage and grow food in it?”
Brosowsky, 38, was in Wisconsin to learn about urban agriculture at Growing Power, the pioneering urban farm of McArthur Genius fellow Will Allen. At the time, Brosowsky was thinking about starting a rooftop agriculture business, but he was intrigued by Allen’s emphasis on the importance — and elusiveness — of fertile soil.
“If you don’t dramatically improve the soil, you cannot grow food in cities,” Brosowsky says.
His solution? Compost Cab, a Washington, D.C.-based service that picks up urban food waste and delivers it to local farms for composting. From group houses to government offices to high-end restaurants, all are welcome to give up their brown gold.
Composting, both private and commercial, is not a new idea. “Nearly 100 cities now divert food waste from landfills,” Elizabeth Daigneau reported recently for Governing. Heavy hitters include San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Boulder, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Des Moines, says Leanne Spaulding, manager of membership and communications for the U.S. Composting Council, and many other cities have instituted composting programs to varying degrees. She adds that New York City recently received funding to expand compost pickup at farmers markets.
On the business front, there’s also NYCompost in New York, Urban Worm Girl in Chicago, Urban Compost in Minneapolis, Az Valley in Phoenix, and Bootstrap Compost in Boston.
Compost Cab is different, Brosowsky says, because of its specific focus on aiding urban agriculture rather than simply disposing of trash. “Composting is not just about waste reduction,” he explains. “It’s about food production, education, jobs, and creating social benefits in communities beyond the environmental benefits of composting.”
The average American family produces about 500 pounds of food waste a year, but only 2 to 3 percent of those families compost. Brosowsky’s mission is to make it easy for urbanites and organizations to compost and for urban agriculture to thrive in the city.
“Farm to table is good,” he says, “but farm to table to farm is better.”
The Compost Cab process is simple. Customers sign up online, and Brosowsky fits them into an efficient weekly route. Compost Cab delivers an airtight bin, a rubber band, and a corn-based compostable liner, along with a guide to urban composting. Residential customers, who pay $8 a week for the service, abide closely by the rule “if it grows, it goes,” with the exception of meat, dairy, and oil. Brosowsky boasts a contamination rate of “practically zero.”
Compost Cab then picks up the waste once a week and delivers it to partnering not-for-profit farms. Currently, these farms include Eco City Farm in Edmonston, Maryland; Common Good City Farm in the LeDroit Park neighborhood; and the farm at Walker Jones, a D.C. public school.
The fertilizer is free for the farms. “We’re like the Robin Hoods of trash,” Brosowsky says. Compost Cab takes food waste from those who can afford the service and uses it to grow food in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh produce.
Since it launched in September 2010, Compost Cab has grown slowly but steadily.
Brosowsky manages two employees, one full-time and one part-time, but he’s also in the process of hiring a general manager.
Prior to a listserv campaign Brosowsky began a few weeks ago, Compost Cab “hadn’t done a stitch of marketing.” All of his business has been by word of mouth. He serves several hundred residential customers and dozens of commercial ones. What’s more important to Brosowsky is retaining the customers he does have, which so far has not been a problem. “Once you get in the habit, it’s really hard not to compost,” Jeremy says.
Joel Finkelstein, owner of Qualia Coffee, is one of Brosowsky’s commercial customers. “It was never really a question whether we would compost our grounds,” Joel says. And for the first few years, he actually distributed all of the grounds to individual farmers, which proved to be an unreliable solution. He’s even able to trade coffee for compost pickups.
Commercial customers compost to reduce their landfill-bound waste, which in turn reduces pickup costs. It’s also a marketing tool of sorts that communicates a company’s focus on sustainability to customers and employees. “There’s an element of altruism,” Brosowsky says, “but it’s smart business, too.”
This summer and fall, Brosowsky hopes to roll out Compost Cabs in other cities. First up: Baltimore. “That’s the easiest and lowest-hanging fruit for us because it’s so close,” he says.
He’s also looking at Chicago; Charlotte, North Carolina; St. Louis; and San Diego, to name a few. By creating a scalable solution to food waste and soil needs, Brosowsky says, he’s built a model that anyone can plug into.
“I’m in the magic business,” he says, beaming. “I take garbage and turn it into food. It is extraordinarily satisfying.”
Melody Wilson is a Washington D.C.-based book reviewer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, China Dialogue, and the International Reporting Project.
This article was published on Grist on June 14, 2012.