Temperatures had dipped to the mid-20s when Rudi Saldia started pedaling at 3:30 a.m. to start his route Tuesday. By the end of his workday, he would travel 25 miles by bike to collect food scraps from 150 homes in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.
Saldia works for Bennett Compost, one of at least two businesses in the city that have figured out a way to make cash from kitchen scraps, using pedal power.
Based in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia, Bennett Compost collects kitchen waste from 2,600 households, each paying $18 a month to have their scraps removed weekly, or $16.50 a month for a year paid in full. About 700 of those households are collected by bike, weather permitting, and Saldia has set his up as an office on two wheels.
“I have all the equipment I need in my cockpit," Saldia said, pointing to his handlebars. “There’s a computer with all the stops I have to make ... my coffee, my music, my headlight, and my bell.”
The company’s owner, Tim Bennett, 36, said the idea came to him in 2009 when he was living in a second-story apartment in South Philadelphia and wanted to compost his food waste, rather than tossing it in the garbage. He couldn’t find anyone to take it. So he came up with a plan: Stick some flyers in a coffee shop, rent a truck, and offer to haul away food waste from neighboring homes for a fee.
“I said, let’s just see what happens,” Bennett said.
The calls started coming. Now, he has six full-time employees and four part-time workers.
Not far away, Michele Bloovman, a food scientist, and her husband, David, started Circle Compost in 2016 and uses a similar-business model. “We were hearing about how much food waste goes to landfills,” Bloovman said. “We wanted something to change that.”
Food waste is a big — and growing — problem, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says on its website that 39 million tons of food waste is generated annually. Almost all goes to landfills or incinerators instead of being composted. According to a statement on the agency’s website, “more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash."
Moreover, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide goes to waste.
Composting presents one solution through a natural process that breaks down food waste and turns it into soil.
Where others saw waste, “greenpreneurs” saw a business opportunity.
“It was very grassroots,” Bennett said of his start. “I didn’t have a big advertising budget. I think one time I wore a sign outside of a farmers’ market to advertise."
Bennett studied business at Temple before taking a job at the university. While working in the Small Business Development Center, he witnessed entrepreneurs in action and looked to start a business of his own with a green focus.
Bennett Compost’s customers each get a 5-gallon covered bucket for food waste. Buckets are picked up weekly.
In the spring, customers get 10 gallons of compost for personal use. They also get discounts on additional compost supplied by Bennett Compost. The company has its own composting site in Hunting Park as well as a contract with a compost facility in Montgomery County.
Bennett said he knows some people might scratch their head at the thought of paying someone to haul food scraps away. But his customers are environmentally conscious, he said, and “want to do the right thing.” They are either residents who don’t have access to a backyard, don’t have the ability to compost, don’t want to put it down a garbage disposal, or are a commercial operation that generates lots of scraps, he said.
He says his business is profitable.
Overall, the EPA has a hierarchy of food waste that prioritizes how scraps should be used. It says food waste should first be reduced up front, then used to feed hungry people and animals, be converted to biofuels for energy, and, finally, composted.
“There are others doing this,” Bennett said. “But we’re the only ones doing it on this scale in this city.”
Anika Pyle, manager of Riverwards Produce in Fishtown, said the business uses the compost service “to reduce the amount of waste that goes to a landfill.” Pyle also uses the service at her home.
But not all food waste should become compost, nor should all go down a garbage disposal. Among the items that can be composted, according to the companies: coffee grounds and filters, tea bags (without staples), eggshells, fruits and vegetables, dairy, rice, pasta, grains. hair and fur, newspapers, lawn clippings, leaves, pine needles, wood chips, brown paper bags, corncobs, real corks, and paper-based egg cartons. Meat, bones, pet waste or yard trimmings treated with chemicals are not allowed. Each company’s website has a list of what’s acceptable.
In flat and densely populated neighborhoods such as Fishtown, Fairmount or Center City, the company picks up the buckets by bike -- really, a tricycle specially equipped with a cart and trailer. In hilly neighborhoods or for commercial customers, workers use trucks. Bennett starts employees at $15 an hour. He said he contributes to employees’ health care.
Based in South Philly, Circle Compost also charges residents and businesses to pick up food scraps. Bloovman said the company does not have its own composting site. Rather, it has partnerships with community groups and urban farmers to compost the material. Customers also get compost back in return.
Bloovman was consulting for food manufacturers nearly three years ago when she and her husband started the business. She said composting was common where she grew up in New Hampshire. However, few composted in Philly, she noticed.
“We said, ‘We can do this. There are plenty of people who want change in Philadelphia.’ Our first customers were our friends,” she said. "We started with one bike and one trailer. We’ve grown since then.”
Using bikes was a priority, Bloovman said, to cut down on emissions of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
The business has grown to between 450 and 500 customers, paying $18 a month for pickup, or $12 a month for pickup every other week. The core of Circle’s customers is in Center City, but the company serves other neighborhoods. Trucks are used to collect from commercial accounts, such as restaurants, coffee shops, and even churches.
Bloovman said that the company is not yet profitable, but that 2018 was the first year that Circle Compost had a positive cash flow.