From food scraps to new business venture

Bins at collection point for Crown Town Compost. Photo: Mary Newsom

Three environmentally minded Charlotte entrepreneurs believe they can make a profit by diverting food waste into compost.

Fact: Mecklenburg County residences generate some 60,000 tons of food waste annually, with only about 2 percent to 5 percent diverted from landfills by home composting.

Fact: In Mecklenburg County, 22 percent of commercial solid waste (not counting construction/demolition debris) is food waste.  Almost none is composted.

Fact: Nationally, some 37 million tons of food waste are produced yearly, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, the second highest source of waste behind paper. And only 5 percent of it is composted or otherwise diverted from the waste stream—the lowest rate for any of the major categories of waste.

Fact: The Environmental Protection Agency has a new goal to reduce food waste nationally by 50 percent by 2030.

Three environmentally minded Charlotte entrepreneurs contemplated those facts and instead of just seeing food waste as a stinky mess, they sniffed out potential for a new business. Enter Crown Town Compost.

Launched in late July after almost two years of planning and jumping through regulatory hoops, the fledgling business is working with 10 households in the Wilmore neighborhood and five businesses to collect food waste and send it away for composting.  So far, says co-founder Kris Steele, the business is making money. He and his partners hope to expand to other neighborhoods and other businesses as demand grows.

Here’s how it works: Residents who want to reduce food waste but aren’t doing their own composting pay a $10 monthly membership fee and get a 3-gallon bucket that is picked up weekly (and replaced with a clean bucket). Using a bicycle and customized trailer, Crown Town Compost’s three founders collect the compost and deliver it to 12 bins in the corner of a South End parking lot. They pay Earth Farms Organics, a composting business in Gaston County, to pick up the compost.

Earth Farms has a minimum requirement for pick up, so it’s tough for individual households and small businesses to meet it, Steele says.  “We’re more cost-effective for small customers,” he says.  

For the business customers, he says, they use a truck, not the bicycle. Business customers so far:  Not Just Coffee at Atherton Market and Friendship Trays, both in South End; 300 East restaurant in Dilworth, Mountain Khakis off West Morehead Street, and Pure Pizza in Plaza Midwood.

Why bother? Steele explains: “I think about what are we going to leave for our next generation. If we continue at this rate we're going to leave them graveyards. We're going to leave them highways. We're going to leave them landfills”

He notes that food decomposing in landfills also releases methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas with more than 21 times the global warming potential, compared to carbon dioxide.

Steele sees no sense in generating more waste and expanding landfill space.   “Trash collection is big business,” Steele says. “Why shouldn't composting, an industry that’s doing good, also be good business?”

Steele has been working on the idea since late 2013. Along the way he picked up partners David Valder and Marcus Carson.

As they discovered, neither Mecklenburg County nor the City of Charlotte incentivizes residents or businesses to reduce food waste. Not only that, handling solid waste puts you knee deep into government regulations.  “The requirements behind a site to compost were intensive and expensive and restrictive,” Steele says.

Because their new business is new for Charlotte, “This is a space where nobody operates in,” he says. “What people don’t know, they’re fearful of.”

The business had to deal with city, county and state regulators, and deal with environmental, legal, engineering, zoning and code enforcement officials. “Everybody had their concern,” Steele says.

Not to mention that they are dealing with, well, garbage. “Solid waste is nasty,” Steele says. But he credits the officials they worked with: “There has been nothing but optimism.”

They considered a variety of plans, including vermiculture and Bokashi, a type of anaerobic composting that uses special microorganisms. Those methods required temperature-controlled environments, and weren’t suitable. Several other early plans fell by the wayside, at least for now, including using community gardens as composting sites or maybe delivering compost to customers who want it.

Steele says that to give people in non-served neighborhoods a composting option, Crown Town Compost is working to set up a drop-your-compost site, possibly on Saturdays at Atherton Market on South Boulevard.

Steele, Valder and Carson all have other paying jobs, but Steele is optimistic about the number of environmentally minded potential customers and the future for Crown Town Compost: “So far we haven’t had to reach out to one person. They have come to us.”