Thirty years ago, this thirty-acre patch of dirt in southwestern Chatham County was a dairy farm. Today, full of big machines busily moving piles around, it’s growing something else.
When a kid tosses out her French fries at a Chapel Hill school, when a Durham Co-Op customer doesn’t finish his chickpeas, or when a Raleigh CompostNow subscriber puts a bucket of scraps out to be whisked away, this is where it all ends up: Brooks Contractor, one of the Triangle’s only large-scale composting facilities.
Brooks has been engaged in composting since the early 1990s, but the company has faced hard times. These days, though, it’s on the upswing, thanks to CompostNow, a small but fast-growing company that’s somehow managed to make composting sexy. Together, Brooks and CompostNow have created their own small ecosystem, symbiotically harvesting most of the residential and consumer-driven compost in the Triangle—and reaping profits in the process.
But as composting goes mainstream and cities like Durham consider progressive new policies, that tenuous balance could shift. The change would likely be a win for the region’s residents, but it could significantly alter the landscape for the current big players.
First, though, a tutorial. Composting, of course, is the act of letting organic matter decay naturally, something gardeners and eco-minded folks have been doing for decades. But with climate change an ever-looming threat, the practice has gotten more notice—for good reason. Composting aficionados talk about how composting “closes the loop” on the farm-to-table philosophy: It returns organic matter to its origins so that it can once again be productive. In contrast, food and paper products that go into a landfill take up critical space, produce methane—a greenhouse gas—and can never be used again.
In the United States, food scraps make up roughly 22 percent of waste, the largest single component; a 2016 Durham waste study found that about 30 percent of the city’s trash is compostable. So if we want to cut down on the amount of trash going to the landfill, the best place to start is with food.
There are other benefits to composting, too: It captures carbon, reducing the amount in the air. It also adds fertility and beneficial microbes to soil, cutting down on the need for pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
“Most North Carolina soils have less than one percent organic matter. When you add compost, you’re jump-starting all of that activity,” says Frank Franciosi, the Raleigh-based director of the U.S. Composting Council. “There are all these positive ecosystem services that you get by producing and using compost.”
Those advantages are well-known now, though they weren’t when Dean Brooks was seeking an alternative to dairy farming in 1989. But he saw an opportunity in the state’s new Solid Waste Management Act, which banned some organic waste from landfills, and he began collecting debris from chicken hatcheries.
It was a start, but his facility didn’t really begin flourishing for a decade, not until Orange County sought his help boosting its composting program.
“We engaged with Brooks and set up a contract whereby Orange County paid Brooks to pick up food waste from larger-scale commercial generators,” recalls Blair Pollock, a solid waste planner with the county.
That launched Brooks’s foray into composting food scraps on a large scale, something novel at the time.
“I think we were the first company on the East Coast to collect [organic waste] the way we do and compost it,” says Amy Brooks Fulford, Brooks’s food-waste collection manager and a partial owner of the family business. (She is Dean’s daughter and grew up at the facility.)
Orange County wound up launching what’s been the Triangle’s most forward-thinking composting program. For a while, the county paid Brooks to collect food waste from big generators like UNC—both the university and the hospital—as well as Whole Foods, Weaver Street Market, and the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group’s eateries. Eventually, it sent most of them off to negotiate their own contracts with Brooks, though the county’s program still covers about forty local restaurants and institutions.
And at every elementary and middle school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system, kids segregate their food waste and Brooks picks it up for composting, for which the company is paid about $40,000 a year. (Because the system’s trash pickup costs are reduced, that program is cost neutral.) In five years, the school system has diverted 1.3 million pounds of food waste from the landfill.
Meanwhile, other institutions got on the bandwagon. Duke University has been collecting and sending its compost to Brooks for years, as has the EPA office in the Research Triangle Park.
For Brooks, this has all been good news. But the compost biz is surprisingly precarious. The material might be waste, but transporting it costs money, and the machinery needed to pick up, turn, screen, and deliver it comes with a high price tag. A single piece of equipment can cost half a million dollars. Today, though, the company—which is deeply invested in advancing sustainable practices in the region—processes about sixty-five thousand tons annually, assisting with transport and providing a destination facility.
There, over the course of six months to a year, organic waste slowly turns into rich black dirt.
That finished compost has found its way to the landscaped yards of new developments all over the Triangle, as well as farms and university campuses, including Duke Gardens.
Composting isn’t yet at a point where it makes good economic sense, though. In Orange County, the institutions that donate food scraps to Brooks benefit from lower trash-pickup costs. But the entire operation is subsidized by the county, which pays Brooks up to $180,000 a year. For businesses that have their own contracts with Brooks, the costs can vary.
“Smaller businesses, if they really sharpen their pencil, can get close to making diversion of food waste pay for itself,” says Pollock.
Close, yes, but not all the way there. At this point, it’s still cheaper to simply throw food scraps away—which means that for many companies, composting is a mission-driven decision.
But that dynamic changed somewhat when CompostNow entered the market. Started in 2011 by Matt Rostetter of Raleigh, the compost collection company has seen exponential growth, quickly gobbling up competitors Tilthy Rich Compost and Food Forward. The business now also operates in Asheville, Charleston, and Atlanta, but about half of its five thousand members are in the Triangle.
With its ease of use, reasonable prices, and good timing, CompostNow has managed to make rotting vegetation cool. And it’s achieved something else that diehard environmentalists have been waiting for: “They’ve planted that seed of, this isn’t waste, it’s a valuable resource that’s not being used properly,” says Franciosi of the U.S. Composting Council.
In essence, CompostNow has served as an ambassador for the practice.
The message has certainly gotten through to Lakisha Chichester, a Durham resident and enthusiastic CompostNow customer. She says she’s no tree hugger; a coworker turned her on to the benefits of composting.
“After that conversation, every time I scraped something into the trash, I thought about it: What am I doing—why am I taking something that can be used and putting it in the trash?” says Chichester. Like two-thirds of the company’s clients, she doesn’t ask for the finished compost (which is free to customers); it simply feels like the right thing to do.
This sentiment is becoming increasingly common. Office-based composting, for example, has been taking off “unlike anything we’ve seen before,” says Kat Nigro, the head of marketing and engagement for CompostNow. “We see this demand from employees to work in a sustainable, environmentally focused office. Employers are thinking it helps attract talent.”
CompostNow also services Wake County’s compost collection sites and has hundreds of smaller institutional clients all over the region.
But that expansion is possible only through its collaboration with Brooks Contractor. CompostNow specializes in collecting, sorting through, and cleaning out compost bins, something Brooks doesn’t really have time for. Meanwhile, Brooks provides the acreage, machinery, and know-how to create the final product. Together, they’ve found a mutually beneficial balance.
This being a relatively nascent industry, however, that balance could shift. And it might. Durham has big plans that could make it a leader in composting across the state and perhaps even the nation, but that could affect CompostNow’s business model.
At the moment, Durham contracts with the company Atlas Organics to compost its yard waste at a facility on East Club Boulevard. But the city owns five acres of compost sheds that are permitted to receive and compost food scraps, as well as biosolids. The latter is treated sewage sludge—aka human feces. Its use on food crops is mildly controversial, but the substance is heavily regulated and tested by the EPA to ensure its safety. Like animal manure, it increases soil fertility.
What all of that means is that Durham could be doing far more composting than it currently is. And it’s fixing to change that. Once this exceptionally wet spring dries out, Atlas will experiment with composting a combination of yard waste and biosolids. Meanwhile, the city government will research and pilot a program to collect household food scraps.
“The city is really interested in making this happen,” says Muriel Williman, Durham’s senior assistant solid waste manager. She was hired five months ago to help guide this initiative.
How exactly it’ll all work is unclear—but some big brains are on it. Durham’s Innovation Team, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, together with Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight have taken on the project and are currently examining best practices around the country and the barriers Durham faces. In six to twelve months, they’ll pilot a curbside collection program with about two hundred households that are already signed up for yard waste collection and see how it goes.
Durham will also establish drop-off sites for food waste. If municipal curbside compost collection succeeds, though, it would be the first in the state—and make Durham one of only a few dozen municipalities in the country to compost all three types of organic waste that a city produces: yard waste, biosolids, and food waste.
“The ramifications are huge, not to mention the carbon reduction,” says Williman. “Talk about resilient cities—we could do all of it ourselves.”
But if Durham established residential curbside food-waste pickup and did its own composting, the big loser would be CompostNow, which has hundreds of subscribers in the city. Brooks, with its wider customer base, would be less affected—although that might change, too, if Durham’s initiative goes well and other municipalities start their own composting programs. Already, Carrboro officials are mulling launching their own curbside food scrap pickup effort.
CompostNow says it’s not concerned. And who knows? Durham might decide to hire CompostNow to do the curbside pickup. After all, that’s what the company does.
No matter what, no one’s going to suffer too badly. As everyone in the industry agrees, there’s more than enough organic waste to go around.
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