Urban Sustainability and Business
What the Kids Are Up To These Days
It’s 6:00 am on a Wednesday. Barry Paull is getting ready for another full day.
Wednesday is always the longest day for Compostwheels drivers, as that is the day we have scheduled the longest of our pick-up routes through metro Atlanta.
As Barry eats breakfast he checks the primary Compostwheels email one last time to catch any last minute changes to the day’s pick-up manifest. The truck is waiting for him in the driveway.
This truck is our savior. It doesn’t belong to us, but we use it every week. This is Zipcar’s dependable Nissan Frontier. As per our partnership with Zipcar, Barry will be picking up our subscribers’ organic garbage — coffee grounds, tea bags, and coffee filters –with this Ziptruck today.
With an amply annotated manifest and sufficient snacks for the day, Barry heads out the door fifteen minutes shy of 7 o’clock. The Ziptruck is on the road five minutes later with six empty 32 gallon barrels and new buckets for the customers that signed on over the weekend.
The first pick-up takes him from Compostwheels suburban headquarters in Clarkston, known as one of the most diverse communities in the United States, east to Decatur, just a few miles west of Clarkston’s eclectic neighborhoods of native Georgians and resettled political refugees.
The first pick-up is comprised of rotting tomatoes and broccoli, two pots of what appears to be coffee grounds and a mostly unpleasant smelling indistinguishable juice, and a handful of rice. Barry spares his shirt as best he can while dumping the contents into one of the barrels in the truck bed. After putting a fresh liner into the customer’s bucket, Barry checks the name off on the manifest. And then, on to the next customer’s address.
Barry will spend two hours in Decatur, where the Compostwheels customer base is growing daily. From Decatur he’ll go on to Atlanta’s gated communities, town houses, bungalows, apartments, and the high rises in the city’s Midtown.
The last stop on the route will be to dump the day’s haul at one of our composting sites.
At the composting site, Barry empties the barrels of Atlanta’s spoil (nitrogen) onto an existing compost pile and covers this “feedstock” with sawdust (carbon) and a small amount of mature compost.
Put simply, this system of adding green and brown at a two-to-one ratio and consistently turning the mass of material is called “active composting”. The pile covered, Barry sprays down the barrels and the Ziptruck and heads back into the Atlanta rush hour traffic —the day is almost over.
For some U.S. urban composting services, the business model ends there.
David Paull, founder and chief composting officer of Compostwheels, LLC, decided to carry the service one step farther by giving the finished compost back to the subscriber. This means that every Compostwheeler receives fifty pounds of finished compost annually, thereby helping close an energy loop for the Atlanta community.
The compost is useful and appreciated by gardeners, even those with the smallest of plots, and Compostwheelers also are given the option to donate any or all of their fifty pounds to Compostwheels partner farms and gardens.
Although many urban composting services ship their food waste to a contractor for processing, David Paull decided to keep the active composting within the scope of his business. Motivated by a mission bigger than his bottom line financial profit, David made this decision with his whole urban community in mind.
Compostwheels takes the organic waste from the community and returns finished compost to the community, following the founder’s commitment to work cooperatively to create health in city soil and maintain a high standard of fertility with a local and sustainable model.
This is where it started for David.
Healthy food and healthy community are regional goals there, a rural area that supports four retail grocery cooperatives and a vibrant farmers’ market. The importance of agriculture and healthy agricultural practices was very apparent, part of the hometown vernacular of David’s childhood.
After a stint at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California, David transferred to Savannah College of Art and Design, SCAD, enrolling on the Atlanta, Georgia campus. With his move to Atlanta, he found a new opportunity, a chance to get involved with urban agriculture.
He discovered this opportunity at Fresh Roots Farm, located in central Atlanta, where Fresh Roots farmers prove with their quality production that urban farming is achievable and can be financially sustainable.
David got involved at Fresh Roots, and his interest in urban agriculture began to grow. The guiding hand of a family friend led him back home to Wisconsin and there he became interested in the work of Will Allen, a leader in the urban agriculture movement. Allen’s lauded organization Growing Power is based in Milwaukee, across the state from David’s hometown.
David investigated and enrolled in soil building and microgreen workshops, looking for information to help to expand the production potential of Fresh Roots Farm. He agreed with the emphasis Will Allen gave to healthy beginnings.
For David Paul, soil building seemed the place to begin.
It was at the Growing Power workshops that David learned of Jeremy Brosowsky and his Washington, D.C. company Compost Cab. Brosowsky introduced the concept of an urban compost pickup service to David, who was immediately intrigued and inspired. He cites Jeremy Brosowsky as a strong influence on his initial urban composting business model.
David Paull explored the concept of the urban composting service while in Milwaukee and he designed a business model for such an operation for his final project at Growing Power. And, he decided to tackle composting as well as pick up, working with Fresh Roots Farm to establish the composting systems.
With positive feedback from his advisory board, David went back to Atlanta and began work with a fury. After completing market research, he put some gas in the tank of his Subaru station wagon and drove out. So was born The Waste Wagon, incorporated February 15, 2012.
Frugality and cooperation part of his business plan, David began enlisting customers by sharing a farmers market stand with Fresh Roots Farm.
A young man with a legal pad and a sandwich board, David started advertising his project, initially meeting skepticism from the market shoppers he encountered. Although interested in quality food, people weren’t ready to hand over money for a service that overlapped their current trash collection service and demanded a change in their household garbage handling habits.
However, by July The Waste Wagon had its first customer—an address on a pickup route – and the business began to grow. Shoppers buying food at the market kept seeing David’s face at the market, and eventually they heard his message and signed on.
But David was still working on his undergraduate degree in Interior Design, and by fall he could see that he had so many customers that he would need help. He looked north to Wisconsin, and his father, Barry Paull, answered the call.
The elder Paull would add a mature face and sense of security to the Waste Wagon project, and David was pleased to consider teaming up with his father.
A reserved and soft, well spoken man, Barry Paull considered the project with an interest in supporting his son and with a history of successful management of small businesses in the service industry. By October 2012 Barry Paull had moved to Atlanta, and he quickly stepped in to help. At first, while Barry handled all the pickups, David continued answering emails, working with a database designed by his brother Ryan Paull.
After a few months, Barry took over the computer work at the Waste Wagon as well, giving David more time to focus on his schoolwork and on the educational aspects of the growing business.
And the business was changing as it grew. Unhappy with the name he had chosen, and ready to phase out use of his Subaru stationwagon, David had changed the name, and a few weeks before his father’s arrival, he started the tedious legal process required to make the name change official. With invaluable graphic design help from artist Carolyn Kernodle, Compostwheels, LLC was born.
By now the service was working. Barry’s mature presence helped instill faith in the Compostwheels customer base, and the Compostwheelers themselves found the system easy use, the waste pick-up dependable, and the compost delivery a welcome bonus. People started talking. And new Compostwheelers signed on.
When Compostwheels reached fifty customers, it became apparent that growth was required in other departments of the business as well.
The initial partnership with Fresh Roots Farm gave way to partnerships with multiple farmers’ markets and with the Piedmont Park Conservancy, the organization that manages Atlanta’s showcase park.
At Piedmont Park David had the opportunity to participate in educational programs at children’s day camps, bringing to Atlanta Will Allen’s agricultural philosophy for city kids. Hearing a six year old girl say “I know what that is, my Grampa composts!” couldn’t have been more rejuvenating.
Compostwheels’ interest in education attracted the attention of a parent at the Springdale Park Elementary School, a progressive and sustainable-minded charter school near the heart of Atlanta. When she became a subscriber, she also became the connection to the school, already known for innovative educational programs. David approached the school and after a few months of negotiation set up a small compost bin on campus to demonstrate the composting process to students.
This partnership with Springdale Park Elementary helps Compostwheels promote its own mission – to create healthy soil for healthy food – in the realm of education, and at the same time expand its customer base.
When the program is fully functioning, students will carry what they’ve learned home and into the community, and they will carry their household compostable materials to the Compostwheels collection station at school.
With the ever-larger Compostwheeler routes and the expanding educational programs, it became clear that the Compostwheels organization also needed to grow.
Here is where I come in.
When spring came around in 2013, I answered the call. In fact, I made the call.
David and I met at age three. Our parents had moved to Viroqua, Wisconsin – his from Colorado, mine from central Wisconsin – where they met taking their children to the Waldorf School.
Growing up in this small town/rural community, David and I were avid followers of the skateboarding scene and subsequently became both wannabe and legitimate “skater punks” together. Our first joint business endeavor came in the form of a Skate Shop in David’s tree house.
At ten years old, we scrapped together an inventory consisting of enough hardware to construct two skateboards, minus the actual boards. Needless to say, where we lacked in marketing, branding, inventory, and funding, we made up for in momentary passion. The skate shop never received a single customer during its eight hour existence.
However, when I called David from Boulder, Colorado in March, I did so with utmost seriousness and faith in him as a business partner.
I had left college in Michigan after realizing I needed a break from school, and I wanted, put simply, to create something in the real world. Over the years David and I had imagined collaborating on a project, but thus far our collaboration lived in the realm of long conversations and friendly consultation over the phone.
This time, however, I was ready to see what we could do.
In April I flew out to Atlanta and got a first hand account of where Compostwheels was going and what I could bring to the table. When it became apparent that a passion to steward the soil was the driving force of the company, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
I recognized a priceless opportunity; I wanted to be get involved and help make Compostwheels a powerful force in Atlanta. I signed on and promised I would head south. And I followed with interest the activities of the business.
In the following months, the Wednesday pickup route reached eighty addresses spread across the Atlanta metro area. David and Barry split the pickup route into two days per week.
With the summer break from school came more time for David to attend more farmers’ markets. This meant people were now consistently seeing Compostwheels at four different farmers markets every week. Meanwhile, I was in Wisconsin, preparing to join the team in July.
As market season got into full swing, I received updates reporting fast progress. We were gaining customers at on an average rate of eight per week.
By the time I arrived in Atlanta, the need to alleviate the Wednesday pickup load a second time was already on the horizon. After moving from David’s first location on the industrial, northwest side of Atlanta, headquarters was now in the eastside town of Clarkston, and we got to work setting up shop in our new home.
Building an office space in our new quarters didn’t take long, so I went ahead and built a bike trailer for the next big operational development in Compostwheels: a bike route.
By August we were at six farmers’ markets weekly, we had one hundred and fifty Compostwheelers, we had three pickup routes, two by truck and one by bike, we had added a new small scale composting site and were on the lookout for a new partner for large scale composting.
Our growth has allowed us to further our partnership with the Piedmont Park Conservancy, arranging for composting to take place within the Park. This will make Piedmont the only park in Atlanta with locally sourced compost piles on hand both for immediate use and for brewing compost tea, the highly concentrated natural fertilizer that is brewed with water, much like coffee.
Another plan is for a second bike route that will operate out of the park, thereby putting a Compostwheels bike and trailer in and around Atlanta’s high rises of midtown.
Working as we are in cooperation with our community and with nature’s powerful transformative forces, there is no shortage of passion on hand here at Compostwheels Head Quarters. We know that soil depletion is an agricultural fact in America, and we know that it affects our health. We know that garbage handling is a major urban challenge, and we know that the way garbage is handled affects our household economy.
In our work at Compostwheels, we see that garbage can transform to sweet soil if we handle it correctly and don’t bury it to rot into unhealthy substances in landfills. And we see that this transformation can be managed within local communities.
David believes that in our growth we will demonstrate a model of logistics that can be applied to much larger businesses and that can be viewed by the city of Atlanta as a feasible municipal option.
While the prospect of franchising has been on the table, we are focusing our expansion efforts within the Atlanta metro area for the time being, wanting to stay true to our commitment to promote sustainable community health in a living system.
For now, we’re demonstrating that even if you live in a densely populated urban area you can be connected with the food you’re eating and the soil that gave it life. We provide an easy vehicle to move household organic garbage through the composting process and back to the soil in gardens growing food for our future.
Compostwheels: “your spoil into soil”