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Businesses find cash in composting

Melissa Tashjian was saving money to remodel her kitchen. She bought a dump truck instead.

She had the rust-speckled, 25-year-old Ford fitted with overhead forks, named it Torty (short for Tortoise; the truck's top end is 80kph) and made it the muscle of her new trash-hauling business.

But not just any trash. Tashjian, a cheerfully resolute, tattooed 33-year-old who describes herself as an "organics diversion enthusiast," is zeroing in on food scraps, bones, dirty paper plates and anything else that can be turned into soil-enriching compost.

In this, she sees a market.

It may not be high-profit, but it's "extremely viable," she said of her early reading on the prospects for forging a business out of offering restaurants and grocery stores special pickup of organic waste that otherwise would be headed for landfill.

Launched earlier this year, her company, Compost Crusader LLC, has lined up seven customers so far without doing much marketing. The early clients were enough to generate nearly 11,340kg waste in August that Tashjian trucked to a suburban composting operation.

"I would like to be able to see a hundred businesses on board by the end of next year," she said.

She's not the only one sensing opportunity in wilted lettuce, uneaten pizza crusts and soiled napkins.

Elsewhere, small business have sprung up to serve the needs of those willing to pay a little extra to have their garbage recycled into compost.

Bootstrap Compost, in Boston, used bicycles when it started collecting food scraps in 2011. Now, it has eight employees and three trucks and gathers organic waste from 750 homes and 50 businesses.

"I realised pretty quickly that there was a pretty big demand for this," said Andy Brooks, a former journalist who started his firm with a vague interest in composting that since has become a passion.

In Philadelphia, Bennett Compost owner Tim Bennett and his crew call on more than 1,000 homes and 15 to 20 small businesses, hauling their food scraps and yard waste to five different farms for composting.

Raleigh, North Carolina-based CompostNow has 350 residential customers. In Washington, DC, Compost Cab counts about 500 homes and a few dozen businesses as clients.

"What we're really talking about is building a more sustainable citizenry, one bag of food scraps at a time," Compost Cab founder Jeremy Brosowsky said.

Widespread acceptance of organics recycling, however, could in the long run undercut the viability of small, entrepreneurial ventures like CompostNow, Compost Cab and Compost Crusader.

A growing number of communities are looking at putting citywide organics recycling programs in place, said Jerry Powell, executive editor of Resource Recycling magazine. Such programs already are running in hundreds of communities, most of them large West Coast cities and their suburbs, he said.

One-man-and-a-truck operations can't handle citywide organics recycling. Rather, Powell said, it's most efficiently done by the municipalities themselves, or the large haulers with which they contract.

"At which point our business goes away," Senkbeil said. "So this model, nationwide, is probably a 10- to 15-year business model."