Dirt, Cheap: A Composting Business for the Community

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Recycled City owners Dylan Krueger (left) and J. D. Hill (right) flank Stan Swenson, who handles residential pickups.
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A clean Recycled City food-waste bin and a bag of bokashi await delivery to a residential customer along with bags of finished compost.
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J. D. Hill and Stan Swenson bag finished compost to distribute to Recycled City customers.
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The Orchard Community Learning Center’s gardens are adjacent to Recycled City headquarters (visible in the background), where food waste is collected and stored in blue barrels until it can be composted.
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J. D. Hill turns compost at Recycled City's South Mountains facility.
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Recycled City owner and founder J. D. Hill picks up food waste by bicycle in Phoenix’s historic Coronado neighborhood.

Tucked under power lines at the base of the South Mountains in sprawling Phoenix, a new sustainable business is breaking down — in a good way. Recycled City, a small but growing company, uses food waste to feed people instead of feeding landfills.

At Recycled City, pretty much everything is recovered, recycled, and regenerated. Food waste is collected and composted, that compost is used to nourish crops, and those crops go to customers whose food waste is collected and composted … and so on, in a satisfying unbroken cycle. What sets Recycled City apart from other composting companies is that it directly manages every part of the process — collecting, composting, growing, and more. “Recycled City has a huge competitive advantage because we’re integrating everything,” explains owner J. D. Hill.

Waste Not, Want Not

Here’s how it works: In exchange for a modest monthly fee, Recycled City provides a lidded bin in which customers collect their food waste. The filled bin is replaced every week, two weeks, or month (depending on each customer’s chosen plan) with a fresh bin and a bag of a microbial blend that includes dried mash from local breweries. The blend accelerates the decomposition process while reducing the odor. Besides the usual vegetable peels and husks, the powerful blend allows customers to include meat, fish, dairy, and some food-contaminated paper, plus more unusual waste, such as fingernail and hair trimmings. Commercial customers pay higher fees to receive larger bins and schedule more frequent pickups. Recycled City’s collection routes extend for miles, from downtown Phoenix to Scottsdale and Tempe and well into the East Valley communities.

Back at Recycled City, the food waste is weighed and recorded. Every 70 pounds of waste entitles a residential customer to receive 1 cubic foot of finished compost, but most homeowners prefer to donate it to one of Recycled City’s partners, a nonprofit farm operating on adjacent land owned by the local utility company. The 7 acres managed by the Orchard Community Learning Center (OCLC) bloom with citrus trees, vegetables, fruit, flowers, and herbs that OCLC sells at its weekend market, at area farmers markets, and through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Things are done slightly differently at Recycled City’s other partner sites around town, including the downtown Coronado Community Garden and Dax’s Farm in Scottsdale. The food waste collected in those areas — by bike in Coronado — stays in those neighborhoods, where it’s composted locally and pumps nutrients into gardens maintained by Recycled City staff. The produce it yields is offered through a CSA, the proceeds of which directly benefit the company.

Recycled City currently has about 550 residential customers and 50 commercial accounts, and collects about 60 tons of food waste every month from homes and businesses in the Phoenix metro valley — with only four employees (three of whom are pictured on Page 55). Soon, collections will double with the addition of new commercial accounts, including St. Mary’s Food Bank, which claims to be the world’s first food bank, founded in 1967.

Both residential and commercial customers desire more than a home for their waste; they also want the food that’s been fed by their compost. This is especially true of commercial clients. The chef at House of Tricks in Tempe incorporates Recycled City’s produce into a special dish every week — plus, recycling its food waste has allowed the restaurant to cancel one of its large dumpsters. Residential clients can choose to pay a bit extra for a delivery that includes a CSA box of produce grown from their composted food waste, along with the usual fresh compost bin and microbial blend.

Putting Down Roots

J. D. Hill’s personal story begins far from Arizona. He began gardening as a young adult in suburban Minnesota, where he describes the growing season as “pretty traditional, after the snow melts.” He educated himself with library books and online resources, and got hands-on experience by cultivating productive gardens in the area. Hill landed in Arizona as a business student. Jobs in finance were scarce when he graduated in 2008, so he enrolled in Arizona State University’s new School of Sustainability. There, he was shocked to learn that about 95 percent of food waste in the United States ends up in landfills or incinerators.

After a few years spent migrating between Minnesota summers and Arizona winters, he and his brother Danny came to a revelatory decision about starting a composting business. (At the time, Danny managed the aquaponics setup for Growing Power, the iconic urban agriculture project started by Will Allen in Milwaukee.) The brothers hooked up with a couple of close friends to start Recycled City, adopting the motto “We build urban farmland in food deserts with local compost.” As Hill likes to say, he found his purpose. Recycled City turned over its first compost in early 2014.

At first, J. D. Hill did everything by hand, digging trenches and burying food waste with shovelfuls of soil to produce compost. He was making it work, but just barely. Luckily, an encounter at the Tempe farmers market led to the OCLC partnership, and soon Recycled City had more room to breathe.

A Different Kind of Desert

While it’s clear that Phoenix is in a climatological desert, it’s less evident that parts of the city are also food deserts — urban tracts where at least one-third of the population is low-income and lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. What makes this fact so devastating is that Phoenix has three growing seasons. Almost any edible vegetable or fruit will grow there in fall, winter, or spring. As with any major urban area — Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the United States — unused plots of land, ripe for composting and cultivation, pepper the cityscape.

Although you can’t do much about a climatological desert, you can turn around a food desert. Recycled City’s goal has always been to provide access to quality, organic, local food. And, while it’s difficult to find locally grown produce in downtown Phoenix, plenty of businesses generate food waste that can be turned into compost, which in turn builds healthy soil for growing local produce. A recent study by the city revealed that food and yard refuse make up 45 percent of Phoenix’s waste. The city has instituted an initiative to dramatically reduce its food waste by 2020, and it chose Recycled City for its pilot program. A three-year contract pays Recycled City cash in exchange for regular waste pickups at City Hall and two other facilities. The money has been welcome; currently, Recycled City turns massive mounds of compost with a single aging tractor, and employees pick up food waste with one old truck. Plans are underway to upgrade to newer equipment.

Recycled City also desperately needs a larger labor pool. With a waiting list of more than 50 commercial clients and many additional individual homeowners, plus new leases on urban farmland, the sustainable start-up is on the cusp of dramatic growth. Hill is looking for an administrator, a salesperson, and several gardeners. His ambitious plans for Recycled City extend far beyond staffing and equipment. “I picture it being one of the biggest companies in the country in organic agriculture,” he says. “We’ve created a new business model, and it’s going to be copied by a lot of people. I’ve been saying this from the beginning: The full-circle business model — food to food — is going to be mainstream one day.” In Phoenix, that day may be close at hand.

Compost Leaders

Composting businesses are rescuing urban food waste around the country. Here are two that have inspired the folks behind Recycled City.

Compost Cab: Washington, D.C.

Compost Pedallers: Austin, Texas (all food waste is picked up by bicycle).

Rebecca Martin is an editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and an avid recycler of food waste. She maintains four compost piles in her urban garden.

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