BL&D Interview: Blue Earth Compost
We sat down with the guys behind Blue Earth Compost. Not only great partners for the KNOW GOOD Market but a very exciting business expanding rapidly at the intersection of sustainability and just plain smart business. Read on to learn more.
So, thanks for coming. We’re excited to have you guys; been working with you guys for almost 2 years, if not more.
Sam King: We did the first full season of the markets.
Alex Williams: Yea we started doing the first full season. I think I did go to the pilots, but that was before I started working with this dude.
It’s been a long time. Well, again, thanks for joining us. I’m excited to have you guys here. It’s exciting to learn and talk more about what you guys do and the wonderful work you do for us. It’s greatly appreciated. I think vaguely people understand what you do. But, the business is definitely more complicated than that.
Blue Earth Compost: Yea
Do you guys mind giving a little bit of a scoop as to what Blue Earth compost does as a service? What that is as a business?
S: I think most people know us because we are at the KNOW GOOD Markets helping people sort their compost and their recycling and their trash.
A: Yea, they know us as the compost police basically.
S: Most people don’t even know that it’s a business. I’m getting paid to be there. Like they just assume that I am some guy who’s really fervent about this. Which is true.
S: But we make our bread and butter on selling our service to homes and businesses, where we provide them with receptacles so that they can collect their food scraps. And then we pick them up for them, and we bring them over to a compost facility that is in Southington, called Quantum.
Is that the new one?
S: It’s a brand spanking, brand new one.
We'll get back to that.
A: We’ll talk about them.
S: They compost it for us, creating electricity in the process, and then we’re able to bring compost back to our residential customers.
Is that something people want?
S: Oh yea. Most of our residential customers take advantage of it.
A: Yea, for sure. We just did a delivery, and easily like 80% want their compost back.
S: It’s a big driver of interest. It’s a little bit of a value added thing.
How does that go down? Do you guys weigh on one end and weigh on the back end.
A: No, we never kept that close track of it. It would be too much of a challenge to track it all the way through the process like that. We just give everyone a set amount. We do it three times a year now, and it’s about 50 pounds every time. That's around two 5 gallons of buckets worth. It’s not huge, but it’ll do the job for sure.
That’s cool. So you are just on your routes one day and drop stuff off.
A: We started last week and have been working through this week to do the delivery for the summer.
And that comes out of that facility, all that compost?
A: We used to just bring it to a regular composting facility up in Ellington but, when Quantum opened like 6, 8 months ago- something like that. We started going there exclusively. We’re going to transfer all of our operations there from, disposal to picking up compost over to Quantum now.
Let’s touch on that a bit more. You guys are both relatively new to a business that’s actually not that new, right? The business existed before either of you were invovled?
A: You mean specifically Blue Earth Compost?
A: Yea, I mean it was new when I purchased it. The woman who started it, Susannah Castle, had only been running it for 6 months or so by the time that I bought it. We only had 22 residential customers at the time. So it was pretty young, fledgling for sure. There’s multiple companies that do similar work to us, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, so there’s other models if you will. But, specifically BEC was pretty fledgling when we first started.
Gotcha, how long ago was that?
A: That was in April of 2014. So, about 3 years in the residential and about 2 years in commercial.
S: We’re up to 55 commercial stops, which translates to 40 customers.
Got it, got it. So business in multiple locations, or businesses that have multiple spaces?
S: Yea, like we have a grocery store chain that has 11 locations throughout the state.
A: Restaurants and businesses with multiple locations.
So, even taking a step back from what you guys do, let’s talk more about the industry of overall, because you guys are essentially part of the waste management system. Whether you think about it that way or not, eventually that’s how people are gonna think about it. If culture continues the way it’s going right now that’s how it’s going to be perceived. The fact of the plant happening in Southington. That is an indication of where people are pushing the waste management systems. Essentially you guys are creating almost a utility, which is kinda nuts to have as a start-up business. If you think if waste management as a public service or a public good as a business, that’s pretty nuts.
A: Yea, I mean when Susannah started the business, she was basically filling a vacuum and we kind of continued that. We operate residentially as the only player in town. Trying to fill that void, if you will. But yea, you’re definitely right. The waste management industry is this mega operation; all these giant trucks and massive capital. It’s been tough for sure, but we’re basically trying our best to compete in that market and take a little slice of the pie for ourselves.
Yea, it’s interesting because one of my cousins, she’s getting her masters in some variation of Environmental Science. She was telling me how messed up the recycling industry is in the US. Issues with what actually gets recycled, and the cost of the product that is created after recycling... No one wants to buy recycled aluminum because the raw aluminum is usually a lot cheaper. A lot of times we end up sending it overseas. What’s unique, what I see, here that this very local solution. You guys living in the region and it’s working on a local level. And that’s really encouraging that some people are seeing the value in it.
A: Definitely, one of the benefits on that front is food waste isn’t very shippable. You can’t carry it in your hands- you can’t even package that shit and send it anywhere- but yea you’re 100% right. That is what drew me to the whole topic in general, when I first started learning about it when I was doing all my internships in college and what not. It was exactly what you’re talking about. It’s hyper local, whether you like it or not. Even if you’re a big hauler who's got giant tractors and big dump trucks, this waste stream is going to be collected, disposed of, and done with in local setting, which is a beautiful thing for sure. Especially with Quantum coming on board because they are a dual prong, if you will. Not only do they produce the electricity, but the resulted product can be composted as well, which is like a double good effect, and it’s literally 30 minutes from the City of Hartford. That was definitely one of the biggest drivers and one of the most interesting aspects of this new recycling frontier.
When you guys go out there and sell like what is that reception like, is there still a lot of progress being made? Are people coming around to it? What’s happening?
S: There's enough interest organically in order to sustain what we’re doing. You know a lot of people are coming to us with the same mindset that it’s the thing of the future and in all regards it’s actually the right thing to be doing with the waste. So, because of that we get a lot of referrals and also just a lot them finding us by word of mouth, or by the internet and stuff like that. The other thing is, it’s just about trying to convince those who are sorta on the fence who might have understood, maybe understand the concepts and the principals behind it. But they need something to put them over the top. We are trying to position ourselves in a way that convinces those people that either this is not something that is going to cost them money, or it might actually save them money just based on the way that we run our business, and the way that the industry is moving. It’s positioning itself where recycling is actually going to be cheaper than throwing it in the trash. That's what we are trying to convince people because it’s really great if we can come to the table with the environmental argument, that it's the right thing to do, but it really nails it home if people can save money.
And a lot of people don’t actually think about needing to pay for trash disposal, but most businesses do. So businesses, inherently, you have value propositions in action.
S: We’re not trying to convince homeowners that they are going to save money. Realistically, it’s very difficult to be saving money, unless they are throwing out just gigantic sums of food.
But they need the compost.
S: Yea, residential customers are really, solely in it for the environmental benefits...
A: ...and the compost.
Speak more about the value proposition for a business owner. The business is paying for, either just waste disposal or waste and recycling, or maybe something else. How do you guys fit into that?
S: Essentially, most businesses are paying for kind of a crummy service. They have to put their waste into their own containers and then drive it out to a big old dumpster that doesn’t ever get cleaned. It smells like doo doo, and then they pay somebody to take that away for them. What we’re offering them is the ability to do something that’s cleaner, that’s a better service. Hopefully it will be saving them money and it’s doing the right thing with the food waste. Because we clean all the carts, we bring them back to them so they don’t have to have their staff do that. We do all the work of moving them around, picking them up, and doing the dumping. And then like I said before, the environmental and monetary benefits.
So you guys think you can already save those businesses money today?
S: Depending on what the size of the business is.
So it is based on the scale?
S: The bigger the scale, the more likely they are going to save money.
A: Yea, that’s how it always works for sure. That’s where the biggest marketing tool will eventually come from. I mean, at this stage of the game, the places that do accept food waste are much cheaper to dispose of the material, but they waste energy with incinerators and what not. But, there’s still a curve that needs to occur for those wastes of energy to phase out, if you will. As the technology gets a little older, the plants start needing more repairs, and the fees to use them will increase. It’s also about location. There’s only about two or three places in the state that can accept any measurable amount of food waste. Like Sam said, at this stage, we attempt to save people a little bit of money or at least break even on what they’re paying at this time. But basically we’re trying commercially, for the most part, to take all the difficulties out of collecting this much material and sending it to the right place. That’s how we’ve got most of our people to really sign on.
Hopefully your business, but maybe other businesses, see a growth in composting as a total percentage of waste management. One of the craziest things, that you guys know about, is that only 4 percent of the waste at the KNOW GOOD Market is going to trash. A good half is going to recycling and the other half is going to compost.
S: It is a pretty good microcosm, they say that about 40% of the whole waste stream is compostable. I don’t remember the exact percentage that is recyclable, but I would imagine it is the same magnitude, somewhat between 40-50%. So what actually should be thrown in the trash is a negligible amount.
When do you see us getting to a place where, whether here locally, or in the country overall, do you see us having realistic dent in that? Do you guys have an understanding of what the trends are?
A: It’s hard to say specifically, but I can tell you that the topic is becoming extremely popular across the country from all these different reports from a scientific perspective that are using all these actual data from services like ours. There are a lot of people out there who are catching the food before it hits the waste stream. Whether it be a food share, food bank, or there's a lot of places that take ugly food and just sell it. I read some article about a food distributor who was basically taking every last bit of organic waste they had and sold it at some sort of marketable value. Maybe they made juices or feed it to chickens or pigs, or something like that. So it’s certainly hard- the waste hauling and the disposal industry creeps along. Metal, glass, plastic, cardboard, recycling: those were the first things to really gain popularity in the early 90s, I wanna say. You still go to a lot of places and see opposing businesses that just aren't doing it. So it’s a curve, 100%, but it’s definitely gaining a lot more traction than it ever has in the past.
What’s exciting to me about you guys is your approaching it like a business. A lot of people would assume that these kind of positions, because it’s a public good, like we talked about- on a state level, legal level, national level, but you guys are able to- regardless of how big it is you’ve made some kind of impact.
A: For sure.
With a business doing it, right? At some scale, you see that gain that can be dictated or the market can bear what it can bear.
S: Most successful programs are in places like Portland, San Francisco, or Seattle. So the government does have a role to play in this. They can really help to influence the public, but also to be really good energy managers of the program. I don’t know if you have you ever been to San Francisco?
San Francisco, No. Seattle and Portland, yes.
S: So you have some familiarity with this. It’s gone from the point where it’s an municipal service, to the point where it's part of the culture. You try to throw something in the trash and it's supposed to go in the compost, and people are going to look at you weird in a place like that. Hartford is obviously behind that, so we gotta fill that void as a business and we are happy to do so. We are just being hopeful for the fact that places like Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport more in the future will be doing this on their own, if not with the help of companies like ours. And New York City is going to be doing it soon too. They already started in places like Brooklyn and the Bronx.
A: It’s definitely gotta be a public/private partnership to some degree. A big driver of the digester being built in Connecticut and this becoming, sort of a gaining traction in this state specifically, is that there’s a ban that the state put in place. Hopefully they will start enforcing it more stringently, but that was a big driver.
What was the ban on?
A: It’s on food waste. Right now, you have to produce 2 tons a week and you have to be within 20 miles of the facility. So it doesn’t capture a real large amount of individual people, but it does capture large producers. It’ll become more stringent in 2020, if I’m not mistaken. That tonnage limit, will drop down to 1 ton, so that'll certainly capture a lot more. And specifically, like I said with Quantum, it’s driving the building of other disposal facilities and what not to try to capture more ways let it be in the Hartford area, New Haven, Fairfield county, that kind of stuff. So it’s certainly going to be a private/public partnership, there’s no doubt about it. There’s certainly market forces that can drive it especially in a small state like CT, where there isn’t really space to dispose of stuff anymore, except at these incinerators.
We touched on a little bit, as far as where Hartford service fits into this context. Looking up on you guys before the interview, we came upon where the name came from and you talking about the root of it came from this concept of Blue zones, which I had forgotten about but I read about it in the past. Do you mind touching that a little bit? I think Hartford is, specifically the city, is behind now, there’s only one place in the city where- we’ll get to it. So do you guys want to explain that a little more?
A: Yea, that was a founding principal for Susannah that I agreed with 100 percent and was excited to keep on board when I took over the company. It is basically the idea of certain areas where people are a little connected to the food they grow, the land that they live on. You can even widen that to the community they live in; they more associate with other members and being active and that kind of stuff.
We talk about that concept a lot, we'd call it social cohesion.
A: Yes, exactly, and the KNOW GOOD Market is a perfect example of that. KNOX just opened a new farmer's market, it’s happening in the city, but it was certainly something that we thought that we could bring more of to the area.
So a Blue Zone is a place where people frankly live longer, right?
A: Exactly. That’s the idea, that’s what all these factors sort of lead towards, they live a more fulfilled, longer, and prosperous life. One of the main things that Susannah thought about when she named it that, something that I agree with, was the fact that even though composting is not the coolest or sexiest topic, it goes along with that Blue Zone idea perfectly because this is one of the things that we always preach. It’s not food waste, it’s food scraps. There are nutrients, there’s absolutely no reason why this food should not be given right back to the earth it was used to grow this food in the first place. And that just goes right along with the idea of a Blue Zone. You take what you took from the ground and you give it right back to the ground, and that is logical for making a more healthy community in general.
S: Yea, well said.
What’s next for you guys? Where are you guys looking to go from where you guys are now? You have facilities coming out more. There seems to be some public interest in your service. That ban, was it this past year that that happened?
A: It’s been in place for a while now, but it’s starting to get enforced a lot more powerfully, especially since Quantum came on board.
A: We’re always pressing. We just moved into a new space over at the Brush Factory over on North Main street in Hartford.
That’s awesome. When did you do that?
A: That was literally, like, April, right?
S: End of April.
A: End of April. We more than tripled the size of the space we’ve using for the last 6 months, so that’s been a huge upgrade for us.
How many people do you guys have on staff?
A: It’s me, King, and we have one employee, his name is Cody Davis. He is a boss, that dude puts in work, and my Dad still helps out, thankfully, with the residential services as well. Yea, so it’s just us three in the moment-
A: And we’re pushing this new space that gives up a lot more expansion possibility. We’ve… weathered a couple road blocks, speed bumps, if you will, which has given us a lot of experience on how to do that kind of side- the tedious, uglier side of business. So that’s been a great learning process.
It’s literally a place where you guys clean the bins for the compost?
A: Yea, we clean everything. We house all our bins there, we park our trucks there.. Got an office space too, which never hurts.
S: Yea, we have an open house in August.
A: We gotta show it off a little bit. Do you know New England Seed Company was in the space before.
A: But yea, we just got that new space. Residential service is always growing in it’s clip. Referrals, word to mouth, that kinda stuff. We’re pushing hard on the commercial side of things right now.
S: In every business I’ve ever worked in, I’ve like to use the analogy that we are building a plane as we fly it. So.. we are using a lot of energy to keep the thing in the air.
S: We’re trying to get to the point where we can kinda coast it, for sure. Alex has put in a lot of energy in the past two years- blood, sweat, and tears. And I’ve been here for a year and a half now, and.. We wanna get to the point where we know that the business is going to be safe and sound. And the we can just sit back and direct it, and just help the business grow in a sustainable fashion. Even though the industry outlook looks good for us it’s still challenging to be a small business in Connecticut.
S: It’s not an easy thing to do. There’s a lot of factors working against us.
A: Yea. Yea, that’s 100% true, and maybe to put a more positive spin on it, we brought on our first labor specific employee, Adam started in what October, November?
A: So we brought the first one on, again we learned well from that. We then moved on to Cody who just started with us a couple months back. And it’s truly been a really good learning experience for both of us, and just a great story to see how the work that we put in can transfer that to somebody who really needs an opportunity and puts their all into it. So, that’s 100% where we focused in trying to grow the business to a point where we can have a good work force that kinda maintains itself. Hopefully we make a huge impact and we can just continue to haul through it and do the damn thing.
S: Yea, we are over a million pounds of compost so we’ve made a huge impact on the environment, that’s like a million pounds of food that would’ve gone into an incinerator and then burned and put in the atmosphere.
S: In Connecticut alone. And instead we were able to make sure that that’s turned into soil and helps to grow more food. That’s a really great feeling.
A: Yea, and lot of that. Like one of the most encouraging parts for us is a lot of that weight has come from recently too, with the uptake in our commercial business we- I mean in just the last 6 months or so we’ve done about 250 tons, which for 3 dudes and 2 box trucks that’s a pretty huge amount of stuff.
S: Yea that’s the goal for sure.
Interview by BL&D Team
Photography by Amber Montalvo