A Healthy Cycle for Austin’s Compost Scene

by Veronica Meewes

October 13, 2014
Anthony Carson of East Side Compost Pedallers. Photo by Veronica Meewes

When Paul Wilson cycles across town, he tends to attract a lot of attention. It’s not due to his attire (or lack thereof—that’s a different story), but rather the size of his cargo load. Wilson is one of the East Side Compost Pedallers, a bike-powered compost recycling program in Austin, Texas. The for-profit organization is on a mission to reduce landfill waste in Austin one bin at a time, by pedaling “scrapple” (their term for compostable food scraps) from homes and businesses to urban farms, schools, and community gardens, where it is composted into rich soil.

The Pedallers’ custom-built Metrofiet cargo bikes carry 55-gallon barrels that can weigh up to 250 pounds each, and one of their retro-fitted pedicabs loaded with multiple containers can total a whopping 800 pounds.

“Yes, it's tiring and yes, I get intimidated by the workload, but the daily cheers from passing cars and trucks who recognize the good we're doing brings me home with my head up,” says Wilson.

East Side Compost Pedallers (ESCP) is currently seven cyclists strong, but they plan to expand operations as they gain more accounts. Aside from their residential service area covering most of east Austin and some neighborhoods near the University of Texas, they also work with nearly 20 local businesses, from large tech companies like Dropbox to small cafes. Residences pay $4 a week for the Pedallers to pick up their compost from bins provided by ESCP. The pick-up fees for businesses depend on the company’s size and number of bins needed.

Unlike other municipalities that have citywide composting initiatives, currently the City of Austin has a small compost pilot program available to residents of some neighborhoods, but nothing for businesses. Cities that have established large-scale organics composting have seen as much as 78 percent of waste diverted from landfills.

Portland, Oregon, was able to switch trash collection to every other week, because so much household waste could be collected by the city’s weekly compost pick-up.

Photo by Kari Sullivan, courtesy of Eastside Cafe

“Imagine if there were no trash cans!” says Marie Horan, ESCP’s director of organic operations. “I think it's entirely doable, especially with compost. Unlike recyclables, organics are such a valuable resource because of how easy they are to turn back into something people can use. The critical mission of sustainability is closing the loop, and responsible waste management is a very tangible way for Austinites to get involved and see the difference they can make.”  

To help clients conceive of how much difference a little organic waste diversion can make, ESCP tracks various data and makes it available. Since their launch in December 2012, ESCP says it’s diverted more than 190,000 pounds of scrapple from landfills, created nearly 50,000 pounds of compost, saved their garden and farm partners $5,000 in compost costs, and prevented almost 30 tons of methane from being released. Oh, and those seven cyclists eschewed nearly 13,000 gallons of diesel fuel while burning more than a million calories on their collective pick-ups and deliveries.

In the past year, ESCP has seen increasing involvement from local restaurants, a major boon considering the high volume of scrapple eateries put out on a daily basis.

Though Eastside Cafe has been composting since the day they opened 27 years ago, the local institution now produces more scrapple than they need to sustain their own sizable garden—and more than their compost bins can hold. So they signed on with the Pedallers, who pick up the excess once a week and add it to other compost bins around town. In the past six months, they have kept 7,115 pounds of scrapple out of landfills and saved more than a ton of methane from being released.

Popular pizza purveyors East Side Pies joined the compost pick-up service shortly after ESCP’s launch. For a business that had already committed to buying produce from urban farms for their artisanal pizzas, composting with ESCP was a natural decision.

“For us, it’s a no-brainer,” says Sandra Ramos, who manages operations and communications for East Side Pies’ three locations. “We love our community, and want to keep it growing for generations to come. That means taking care of our local resources, cutting down on emissions, and replenishing our soil.”

Another early adopter is Justine’s, a hip eastside brasserie. Their waste has since decreased by 35 percent, which they say would have been nearly impossible to accomplish on their own.

Elaine Martin, courtesy of Eastside Cafe

“It's one thing for us to divide our own waste,” says Executive Chef Casey Wilcox, “but to process it along with the other elements of running a busy restaurant is beyond our capacity at present.”

Justine's sees sustainable practices in the restaurant business as not only ethical but also a means of yielding the best and freshest ingredients. “Organic, local, seasonal food tastes better,” says Wilcox. “Food grown with rich compost will make better dinners. As they say, it's not just right but good.”

The compost program is gaining bigger supporters, too. Recently, Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden, a huge, German-style patio dining spot with a staff of more than 100, partnered with ESCP. Ben Siegel, Banger’s owner, says, “We want to be a responsible, good business. So this was the first step for us.”

Executive Chef Ted Prater points out that Banger’s, like all restaurants in Austin, must pay out of pocket for the privilege of composting. “The city’s not doing anything for us. It’s all individuals and individual businesses that are taking the step to move forward,” he says.

These days, ESCP takes on at least one new restaurant account a month. And, while Wilson points out that these businesses do wonders for public outreach and awareness, the best advertisement is the fleet of mighty Pedallers themselves. They’re part of a growing movement to reduce emissions while increasing access to quality, locally sourced food.  

“East Side Compost Pedallers are pioneering the compost movement in Austin,” says Elaine Martin, Eastside Cafe’s chef and owner. “(They) are the real deal. They’re out there pedaling every day, and you can tell they’re passionate about what they’re doing and want to make our community a better place to live. It’s great to work with people who care about your neighborhood as much as you do.”

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A Healthy Cycle for Austin’s Compost Scene