Dirt, Cheap: A Composting Business for the Community

A young Phoenix company has hit paydirt by recycling and reusing food waste to benefit consumers, businesses, the land — and the landfill.

  • Recycled City owners Dylan Krueger (left) and J. D. Hill (right) flank Stan Swenson, who handles residential pickups.
    Photo by Slaven Gujic
  • A clean Recycled City food-waste bin and a bag of bokashi await delivery to a residential customer along with bags of finished compost.
    Photo by Slaven Gujic
  • J. D. Hill and Stan Swenson bag finished compost to distribute to Recycled City customers.
    Photo by Slaven Gujic
  • 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.
    Photo by Catherine Slye
  • J. D. Hill turns compost at Recycled City's South Mountains facility.
    Photo by Catherine Slye
  • Recycled City owner and founder J. D. Hill picks up food waste by bicycle in Phoenix’s historic Coronado neighborhood.
    Photo by Catherine Slye

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.

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