Black Earth Hauler
Compost King: Conor Miller
Using marketing efforts that are as about as organic as the stuff he hauls around, Conor Miller founded his compost pickup and delivery service in January 2011 by going door to door and inbox to inbox, eventually convincing a half-dozen restaurant owners in his home base of Gloucester to give Black Earth Hauler a try. He told them that if they were willing to separate their paper napkins and towels and the kitchen scraps, he’d sell them barrels and compostable bags, swing by once or twice a week to empty the barrels into his truck, and haul it all to Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton, where it would be converted into nutrient-rich soil—"black gold" to North Shore farmers.
A year and a half later, the affable Miller has nearly 40 commercial clients, and twice a week his truck winds through 10 North Shore communities, backing up behind restaurants like Finz Seafood & Grill and Green Land Cafe in Salem and Cape Ann Brewing Company and Jim’s Bagel and Bake Shop in Gloucester. But it’s not just restaurants anymore; it’s markets like Vidalia’s in Beverly Farms and Milk & Honey Green Grocer in Salem, as well as Chive, a catering service in Beverly. The Manchester-Essex school district’s student "Green Team" and Gordon College are also regular stops on the route.
Once considered impractical, skyrocketing landfill "tipping" fees and hauling expenses, paired with ambitious waste- and pollution-reduction goals, have made composting services like Miller’s more attractive for residents and business owners. There have been signs that North Shore residents are ready to get their hands dirty; last year, Hamilton-Wenham’s first-in-the-state residential compost pickup program included more than 500 households. Nearby Ipswich and Newburyport began piloting similar programs this spring.
But if Massachusetts is to reach the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) goal of reducing the amount of waste going to landfills by 30 percent this decade, backyard composting and residential programs alone won’t match the effects of diverting commercial compost. According to the DEP, if restaurants and institutions like college dining halls, long-term care facilities, and hospitals were composting more efficiently—or at all, in most cases—there could potentially be an additional 1.4 million tons of garbage kept out of the state’s 24 landfills every year.
Composting has suffered from an undeniable "ick" factor for decades, and even today, Miller admits his potential customers’ initial reactions to the word speak volumes. But thick resin totes and compostable bags, though not game changers, are making it much cleaner and easier to do. So much so that in West Coast cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, large-scale municipal pickup programs are sending recycling and composting rates through the roof. San Francisco, which made composting mandatory for businesses and residents in 2009, is diverting more than 70 percent of its waste from landfills. In Seattle, the rate is 54 percent, which is 15 percentage points above the rate in 2003—an all-time high.
Miller, 30, and his girlfriend Sarah Wolfskehl, 30, were living (and composting) in Seattle two years ago before she moved back to Gloucester to be closer to her family. Miller, a Wisconsin native who had spent a few summers in Gloucester and has family ties to the city, followed. When he arrived, he couldn’t believe how far behind Seattle this area was when it came to composting. "In Wisconsin it’s called ‘compost.’ In Seattle it’s called ‘compost.’ But when I moved here, everyone was calling it ‘garbage’ or ‘wet garbage’ and ‘trash’ or ‘rubbish,’ says Miller. "I would say, ‘What’s garbage? No, not garbage—compost.’"
It’s an important distinction: Almost two-thirds of the weight of our "garbage" consists of organic materials that can be composted. Removing that heavy, wet compost from garbage destined for landfills means lighter loads for haulers who are typically greeted with "tipping" fees ranging from $65-$72 per ton. But Miller underestimated the weight of the compost and quickly discovered he couldn’t lift the barrels into his truck bed. So he spent the first few months shoveling the compost out of the barrels.
Fortunately, three months and several broken shovels later, Black Earth Hauler got some much-needed help. Sarah, who by now was the company’s marketing manager and website developer, enlisted the help of a family friend with a talent for tinkering, who built a hydraulic lift that attached to the passenger’s side of Miller’s truck and swung barrels up and over the side of the truck bed in a few seconds. "Without that I couldn’t have gotten any bigger," says Miller of the catapult-like contraption he nicknamed "The Praying Mantis." "I didn’t understand how it was going to work—it just seemed like an unbelievable motion," he continues. "But we made one, attached a barrel to it, and hit the ‘up’ button. It made it up a few feet and then exploded. I was stoked, though. It moved! We just needed to beef it up."
The truck wasn’t the only one in the company that needed help at that time, so when Miller ran into Justin Sandler, a friend from summers past, he asked him if he’d help sell his service and continue to grow the company, which had doubled its client roster to 12. When Sandler, 25, a Manchester-by-the-Sea native, agreed to be sales manager in July 2011, Miller was thrilled because he now had someone who knew the area and was admittedly better at pushing the idea than he was.
"Convincing the ones who love the idea but have minor concerns is a challenge," says Sandler. "Quelling those concerns and pushing them to go that little bit further is what we’re trying to do. Everyone ‘loves’ the idea, but there’s a clear difference between loving the idea and implementing it."
Many businesses, even those that call themselves sustainable, show reluctance. Sandler says in addition to the "ick" factor, owners are worried about having enough space for the barrels, finding the time to educate and train their staff about what can and can’t be composted, and the start-up costs—not to mention potential rodent and bug problems. New clients need to buy barrels and have the option of buying compostable bags, which, even at cost, are twice as expensive as regular garbage bags.
Penny Petronzio was "greening" Green Land Cafe—swapping plastic straws, to-go containers, and cups with their compostable counterparts—when she interviewed the Black Earth Hauler team. She loved how excited Miller and Sandler were about composting, and she signed on. Over time, she was able to eliminate one weekly Dumpster pickup. Green Land’s monthly trash removal bill went from around $800 to $500, while composting only cost her $80 a month. "As the general manager, I saw the bottom line, in addition to the good we were doing," she says. "It was very rewarding for me." Petronzio is greening another restaurant, Brenden Crocker’s White Horse Tavern in Beverly, which will soon be another client of Black Earth Hauler, she says.
In its third year, Chive Sustainable Event Design & Catering in Beverly catered 130 events in 2011. Typically, the host sites require them to either dispose of all of their waste on site (i.e., "let me show you where our Dumpsters are") or take it with them, which is what they do. "We choose to pay for our waste to be managed," explains Julia Frost, Chive’s business manager. "We are willing to pay for that because we know the effect it has on our local economy and the greater environment in general." For Chive, Black Earth Hauler is helping them raise the sustainability bar. Whenever possible, Chive serves locally grown organic produce from First Light Farm in Hamilton, which happens to grow its produce in compost from nearby Brick Ends Farm, where Black Earth Hauler just so happens to unload the leftovers from Chive’s events.
This past winter, Miller raised $10,000 using an online fundraising site called Indiegogo, and he used the money to buy a second truck. Although he’s seemingly always smiling, Miller’s grin gets wider whenever he’s talking about the new Ford F450 with only 24,000 miles he bought from Gordon College. The new truck means their biggest expenses, which include diesel fuel ($120 to $140 per fill-up) and truck maintenance and repairs, will increase over the summer months. But apparently, so will demand. Miller is hauling nearly 20 tons of compost a month now, but he expects that figure to double or triple by the fall.
Newburyport has asked Black Earth Hauler to do the pickup for its pilot residential program, doubling the number of Miller’s residential customers. In April, he was contacted by a large private school in southern New Hampshire, hospitals in Gloucester and Beverly, and a collection of businesses in Newburyport. "It’s on everyone’s radar right now," says Miller. That includes the area’s garbage companies, which he says are telling clients that rather than renegotiate their hauling fees, they’ll start offering a compost pick-up services themselves.
"But it’s not us versus them," cautions Sandler. "We’re not only saving the restaurants money, but we’re also saving the garbage companies money. They’re paying to unload the stuff, and now they have a lighter truckload. The only ones losing out are the landfills." blackearthhauler.com.