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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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D.C. Startup Makes Urban Composting as Easy as Taking Out the Trash; Lush Soil Benefits Urban Farm Projects

December 20, 2012 |

Tis the season for turkey, ham, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, hors d’oeuvres, a lot of desserts and cookies! In keeping with seasonal tradition, Americans are preparing to ‘wow’ their guests with all sorts of tasty delights. While food spreads at holiday parties can be very impressive, they can also be quite wasteful. How many of us have chucked a bunch of leftover goodies, because they sat out all day or because they didn’t get eaten?

But, food waste isn’t just a problem during major holidays. Americans are wasting a huge percentage of food on a daily basis. According to a recent NPR article, 40 percent of food in the United States does not get eaten, and food waste costs the U.S. about $165 billion per year.

Jeremy Brosowsky has set out to help curb these statistics. His Washington, D.C.-based urban composting company, Compost Cab, helps people easily compost their food scraps right from home. The company provides its customers with composting bins and liners, and once a week, it picks up their food scraps and replaces their bin with a fresh, clean one. “We make it easier to compost,” says Brosowsky, explaining that not everyone has the space, means or time to compost himself. “People will participate if it is easy. If you want to see [the number of people composting] grow from three percent of Americans to 50 percent you have to make it as easy as taking out the trash.”

While Brosowsky—founder of Compost Cab—was not always into compost, he was interested in urban agriculture and the benefits it provides to a local community. To learn the tricks of the trade, he took a commercial urban agriculture course with urban farming expert Will Allen at Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis. “After about halfway through the five-month program, it was clear to me that there are two ways to grow intensively in the city: with a vertical greenhouse model, which is difficult to get off of the ground, and a fertile soil method, which maximizes square foot production, particularly in an urban environment,” he explains. “Good soil is practically nil in urban communities. Urban farms and urban agriculture projects are understaffed, overworked and over-capitalized. If we can take one thing off of their plates, it provides an enormous value.”

Customers not only receive a composting service, but after at least three months of composting with Compost Cab, they are eligible to receive a shipment of soil that the company creates with the very compost it picks up. For those who do not want the soil, but still want to compost, the company recommends that they donate their soil to local, non-profit urban farm partners. For those that do not want to spend the money composting, they can drop off their food scraps with Compost Cab at area farmers markets.

“We work with individual residents to big hotels,” says Brosowsky. “Our core residential program is [made up of] regular people with apartments, houses and condos who want to compost, but don’t have the time or space. We make it easy, so they really love it.”

When asked what challenges Compost Cab faces, Brosowsky quipped, “What isn’t a challenge? There is a fluid, regulatory and policy environment, so composting falls in between the environmental spokes and public works spokes. It doesn’t neatly fit it in anywhere. In most communities nobody has [taken ownership of it]. But, the advantage of the Compost Cab is that we make a direct connection between food waste and food production. It’s not just another thing we throw away. And that meaning is not insignificant. We make a direct connection between food waste and food production. It’s not just another thing we throw away.”

For Brosowsky, a recent success came a few weeks ago when Compost Cab was acknowledged in the Washington Post. “The thing that made it so special was that we were in the food section, and as far as we are concerned, that is where [composting] belongs,” he says. “It’s not about waste production, it’s about food production. If you want to see composting in this country, the best and easy way for it to mean something is to incorporate it in the food system. That’s what we’re doing, one bag of food scraps at a time.”

As of now, most of Compost Cab’s customers hear about its services through word-of-mouth. “Frankly, we wanted to test some hypotheses,” says Brosowsky. “We wanted to know, ‘will people pay for this?’ And, we are finding that yes, they will. And, when they start our composting service, the vast majority of people don’t stop,” says Brosowsky. “Once you start composting, not composting becomes unnatural. It’s in their kitchen, it’s in their lives and it’s in every meal for their family. It’s a really easy way to green their home and people really love that. And, it makes me feel good.”

“We’ve discovered that there are enormous opportunities in this universe,” says Brosowsky. “Cities are just waking up to how powerful urban agriculture can be for their communities. People are looking for innovate ways to explore those relationships. We think Compost Cab has a role to play in that.”

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