With the growth of food waste management, pickup and composting, Black Earth Compost continues to grow its business at the forefront of this changing industry.

Formed in 2011, Black Earth Compost (Manchester, MA) started out with just one employee and an old F350 dump truck. Owner Conor Miller had moved from Seattle, WA (where it was the norm to pick up food waste) to Massachusetts where even though the supermarkets were getting serviced, no restaurants or residents were getting the same kind of service in the area he lived in. It was at that moment that he decided to develop the company, Black Earth Compost, and do something about the problem. “I figured there was a need. If I wanted to do it, others would want to do it too. I knew this was something I could figure out, but it was way tougher than expected—a lot of lessons learned along the way,” says Miller. Starting with a F350 dump truck, he and a friend built a hydraulic lift into the truck at first and started picking up food waste. When they outgrew that and Miller’s friend Justin Sandloader joined on as a partner, they purchased more trucks. In 2013, Andrew Bruso, joined the company to start the composting end of the business because up until that point they were only collecting the food waste. Currently, Black Earth Compost runs five trucks, has nine employees and serves Northeast Massachusetts picking up residential and commercial food waste.

Building a Network

In the beginning it was tough, says Miller. “I was going to restaurants and calling and e-mailing. Nothing worked that well; you hardly ever reach the manager. When you’re one person, it takes all day to reach five people to talk to and if you call hardly anyone picks up. You need a thick skin. It would be upsetting to spend a whole day trying to sell and not getting anything.” Initially, five out of 100 would say yes. However, through Miller’s perseverance and hard work now customers come to Black Earth Compost for their services. “I think that it has gotten easier because composting has grown in schools and restaurants; there has been a cultural shift in being more green in the last five years and composting has been a hot trend. People want to highlight that they are doing it, so that has been helpful,” says Miller. Another thing that has helped Black Earth Compost is by going to community events and showing people what they can compost, which is almost anything. Miller points out that they can reach a lot of people at these events who are being introduced to composting, whereas before people just thought you could only compost coffee, vegetables and certain foods. On Black Earth Compost’s Web site, they also have a PDF that shares what is acceptable and what is not. Not only does the company participate in community events, but they also periodically go to schools to talk to elementary kids on why composting is important, how it works and what the company does.

It took Miller a few years before understanding that he needed to buy new trucks for the business. “Food waste was so much heavier than I expected. It also stinks in summer, freezes into solid chunks in winter, rots out steel truck beds fast, and wears down trucks with its weight and acidic nature. That’s why new trucks are imperative. Old trucks collapse in this business,” he says. “I am not a mechanic and trucks were breaking down quite a bit. With food waste, you also start  burning through mechanics because some of them don’t want to work on trucks that have food waste dripping out of it. So we switched to new trucks which were under warranty and had better designed lifts for handling super heavy totes.” The bigger Black Earth Compost grew, the more comfortable people were in selecting the company’s service.Previously, they could only get the small restaurants; then, bigger restaurants, malls and grocery stores came onboard. “The older your company is, the more established it is and you start building a network of people that you know in the industry who will refer you and your name keeps getting out there. Plus, having partners that can connect you with larger corporations that like to work with nationwide haulers has been very helpful,,” says Miller.

Growth of Composting

Within the last five years, food waste management, pickup and composting has really increased in Massachusetts. The state has been behind what Black Earth Compost is doing and really pushing composting and anaerobic digestion, which has really helped grow the business. The Massachusetts’ Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban has been in effect in the state for the last three years that says if you produce one ton of food waste in a week or more, you must compost it or anaerobic digest it. As a result, Black Earth Compost picked some business from that and it also helped push awareness to a previously fringe activity.

Now, the schools are asking for composting and more residents are interested in doing it as well. On the commercial side, although the changes have not been as quick as the schools and residents, there is still an increase of around 20 percent per year for Black Earth Compost. “Commercial restaurants may have been a little more hesitant because it costs money. It doesn’t save them money until they reach about ½ ton per week. Until then, they break even or it costs more for them,” says Miller. “Every place has trash and recycling but not every place has compost so the density isn’t nearly there as it is in trash and recycling. That is why it has been a niche out here in the Boston area, kind of between waste veggie oil and recycling. However, if trash companies don’t want to be involved, they are comfortable hiring us to pick up the food waste.”

For its composting process, Black Earth Compost dumps the picked-up food waste on a layer of wood chips and wood bedding, which gets moved into a pile where high powered fans blow air through pipes. It is all an aerated static pile that is turned more frequently in the beginning, then every once in a while, after a couple of months when the wind is favorable; then after about a year, the company screens it and sell it in the spring. “We put a big pile in the community where schools and local residents can take advantage for their own personal use. There is a local non-profit that does a lot of gardening, etc. that we give compost to, and we sell the rest to garden centers in bags, a  lot of residential delivery and sometimes tractor trailer loads to bigger companies,” says Miller. “People love the compost that Black Earth Compost produces and we are proud of that success.”

Transitioning to Automated Data

One of the challenges that Black Earth Compost has dealt with successfully is transitioning from manual routing and data entry to automated. Before, the company just had printed out sheets with customers’ information on them and the driver would have to manually write down how many totes per stop. Then Miller would have to go through all the pickups, adding up tote numbers, etc. “That was fine in the beginning when we had two trucks,” he says. “But now we have five trucks and we have a lot of routes to take care of every week and more employees—paper doesn’t work as well for that.” As a result, Miller decided to partner with Rubicon Global, which has been a big help. “Rubicon has established a network of haulers across the country to help compete for business within their local markets. Rubicon provides haulers like us with its hauler app, which dynamically adjusts routes to accommodate new service requests,” he says. Now, Miller can see where the routes have been started, where they are, what routes have been completed, how many totes at each stop, etc. and gain access to larger corporations previously hard to reach as a small company. Rubicon’s hauler app also has GPS routing to make it easier for a new driver. “With a new driver, along with training alongside an experienced driver for a couple of weeks before going out on their own, we would have to train them on every new route they had not driven yet; now, they don’t have to learn the route because Rubicon shows them how to get to each stop. It has been a great training tool. I had looked at routing software previously, but it had always been so expensive, but Rubicon is free for us. And the functionality is getting better and better. For example, mall drivers would have to find the location of the dumpsters, but now there is a dot on the map that guides you to where the totes are. And I can put the lock combinations into the app so drivers don’t need to memorize codes or dig around in the truck looking for them. I also don’t have to create a new route every week because the Recurring Routes feature automatically sets the drivers up,” says Miller.

Currently, Black Earth Compost has pilot programs in three towns where there are 400 to 500 residents per pilot and they also do a citywide count of 2,000 people, so one of the challenges is figuring out how to streamline information to 2,000 to 3,000 residents that they pick up. “Now, there is one person in the office that handles all these issues from residents and it is time-consuming, many people may not get a message about services because of the holiday or a snow storm, if there is something new in the program, or their composting was dropped off at this location, etc. Dealing with the public on a larger scale is a new challenge because only 50 percent of people actually get the communication and food waste is the hot potato of the waste stream. Nobody wants to be missed; they want to get rid of it fast. So people call whenever they missed their pickup,” says Miller. In order to combat the challenges of clearly communicating with the public, Black Earth Compost uses social media, including Facebook and Instagram, which, according to Miller are great for advertising and marketing, but in reaching the public, e-mail blasts with information about a program change, etc. are a little more challenging, as sometimes people do not look at their e-mails. “There is no one source of media that everyone uses. We are working on setting up Google Business e-mail as well as implementing a program called Grasshopper that categorizes all incoming messages so they can get directed to the right people; we can see if it’s a missed pickup, a frequently asked question or a non-pressing issue. If there are three missed stops, we can see it and talk to the driver over one phone call. These two business tools will work together to coordinate better. That is what we are working towards,” says Miller. “It’s the hardest thing to figure out how to price into these residential collections; the amount of time spent on the phone or e-mail answering so many different questions or handling missed pickups. We try to keep it simple and say we just want food waste and things certified compostable, but there’s no end to the list of things people call up to ask about. It’s such a time sink that it really needs to be priced in so you can afford to pay someone to handle it. Handling 3,000 residents’ invoicing, payment and inquiries is a full time job so I hired my sister-in-law this summer.”

Moving the Company Forward

Miller is proud of the success that the company has had over the last several years. Black Earth Compost has grown significantly and is signing on more residential customers with increased density throughout Northeast Massachusetts. Starting out in Gloucester, MA and then spreading throughout the north shore until they are the main food waste collection company in northeast Massachusetts, Black Earth Compost moved their operations from Hamilton to Manchester six months ago operating the town’s compost site and doing citywide food waste pickups. “We operate the site for free and in exchange we can bring our organics there,” says Miller.

He also is always keeping an eye out for new and innovative ways to move the company forward. He has been keeping his eye on electric collection trucks, but he knows that is about five years down the line. “It would be cool to have solar power on compost sites with electric trucks.” He continues, “People love us; that has been the big surprise. They love composting and they are psyched to be doing it. We feel a lot of good energy from the people that we pick up from. It wasn’t an easy business to start and I am proud of our perseverance. For the first two months I was shoveling all the food waste into the back of the truck—there were a lot of nasty stories about the beginning, but we are getting beyond the hardships since then and it has been a great experience.”

For more information, e-mail Conor Miller at [email protected] or visit www.blackearthcompost.com.


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