Postconsumer Pilot Update

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The Kompost Kids cancelled their Postconsumer Pilot in June 2014 after nearly a year of intensive planning and coordination. In short, the Pilot cancellation was directly related to a total lack of area waste haulers that were either equipped (or otherwise motivated) to pick up small or modestly sized waste receptacles in dense urban settings with the frequency demanded by compostables.

Building the Postconsumer Pilot customer network helped the Kompost Kids document a substantial unmet demand for the diversion of compostable waste by forward-thinking businesses. We learned several lessons along the way.

First, the traditional waste sector is dominated by large corporations that are unequipped and generally unresponsive to accommodate the emerging market demand for urban compostable waste hauling. We expected that our ability to deliver an entire portfolio of willing customers to the doorstep of a waste hauler would be incentive enough for one or more of them to modify a portion of their business model to seize the opportunity. We were unprepared for the lack of interest despite what we thought to be undeniably encouraging proposals.

A second lesson was that urban areas pose a whole host of logistical challenges for the large containment and removal equipment employed by the corporate haulers that dominate the market. Narrow alleyways, small waste bins in cramped utility yards, and overhead power lines were just a few of the challenges. Large corporate waste haulers profit through volume and speed. There is little of either to be offered when navigating the alleys of Milwaukee’s restaurant and entertainment districts. Moreover, we discovered a hidden cost in organics diversion: compostable bag liners for kitchen receptacles and other containers. Lacking a local distributor for compostable bags meant increased costs to pilot partners and less efficiency in the overall supply chain.

A third lesson was that we would have been hard-pressed to reliably and accurately document the Pilot participant business’ diversion rates without a substantial amount of Kompost Kids volunteer time spent in following up with them. We found that the earliest Pilot participants were happy to simply be composting and were either not business-minded or interested enough to maintain accurate records of their diversion rates after the Kompost Kids stepped aside. Reliable data to compare the cost of composting to the cost of traditional waste was a key component of testing the Pilot’s hypothesis. Without that data, we would have no proof of concept that composting makes sound financial sense.

After identifying the above lessons, the Kompost Kids had considered addressing them in the DIY manner common to nonprofits. We discussed making overtures to grantmakers in the community to help fund an expansion of our organization that would invest in the equipment and labor necessary to fill the urban composting niche. We also considered spinning off a social entrepreneurship arm of the organization funded through small and minority business loans. As the Postconsumer Pilot evolved, it became a larger and larger drain on our administrative resources. We found our established programs receive less attention than they deserved, which concerned us.

After much discussion and heated deliberation, we decided to return our focus to the core programs that have been recognized for their success. We fully recommitted ourselves to the grassroots Community Compost Network that creates soil for small emerging urban agriculture projects through small-scale compostable waste diversion.

The Postconsumer Pilot, even in its abbreviated form, provided rewards. We connected several large grocery stores with the only sizable organic compostable waste hauler serving our region. None of these stores would currently be composting their waste if it weren’t for the efforts of the Pilot. Now over 7 tons of their waste is kept out of the landfill each month. Additionally, the economic value of small-scale urban compostable waste diversion was identified adequately enough by the Pilot to motivate at least one enterprising entrepreneur to start a business that addresses this unmet demand. We hope that this startup’s success will be a testament to the economic, social, and environmental value of responsible waste diversion in the city. And the ‘big guys’ will be late to the party!