Composting Pick-Up Pilots Going Strong In Milwaukee Area

Apr 16, 2020

A few years ago, the city of Milwaukee launched a curbside organics pick-up pilot for households to sign up to recieve a special bin to toss yard waste and food scraps.

In 2016, 500 families signed up — now that number's at 519 — primarily in the Bay View, East Side and Riverwest neighborhoods. 

READ: Milwaukee Pilots Home Compost Pick-Up

Advocate Melissa Tashjian, the owner of Compost Crusader, hopes to build on the momentum. Her company transports the waste for the Milwaukee pilot, so her four rear-loading garbage trucks, pick up the food and yard waste. The fleet delivers the scraps to a processor called Blue Ribbon Organics, which is 20 miles south of downtown Milwaukee. Once there, the waste gets recycled and turned into compost that Blue Ribbon sells.

Tashjian’s Compost Crusader business sprouted from Kompost Kids, a volunteer organization she helped create in the Bay View neighborhood. She says her business appeals to restaurant owners and others who don't want food waste to go into the garbage.

“Institutions like Odd Duck, Café Corazon. Fernwood School was the first MPS school we brought aboard ... then just through word of mouth it just grew,” Tashjian says.

READ: Bay View Compost Concept Picks Up Steam

The organics pilots fold in yard waste along with food scraps.
Credit Melissa Tashjian

Tashjian is determined to keep as much of what’s compostable out of landfills as is humanly possible.

Hauling contracts with restaurants and businesses have kept her business afloat since its inception in 2014. But it was when the city of Milwaukee chose Compost Crusader for its household pick-up pilot that Tashjian felt she was moving in the right direction.

“Residents are really the catalyst for change that we’ve been working for. In the last year, we’ve changed our focus from more businesses to [dealing] a little bit more with residents so that we can roll out to more communities and help infect them with this awesome opportunity of change,” Tashjian says.

In 2018, two years into the Milwaukee pilot, the city’s public works department reported 96% of households were happy with the program. And there has been a consistent waiting list to get into the program. The model has even inspired other pilots — first in Shorewood, then in Wauwatosa.

But Tashjian says mobilizing residents to turn apple cores into a renewable product is a first, not a final, step. To be sustainable, municipal programs must drive down their carbon footprints — something that’s happening in Wauwatosa.

The person spearheading the pilot in Wauwatosa is Heather Kuhl — who also happens to serve on the city council. Wauwatosa’s pilot launched less than a year ago.

“We’ve diverted [roughly] 45,000 pounds of food scraps from just the 200 people in eight months,” Kuhl says.

Heather Kuhl helped bring Wauwatosa's household organics pilot to life. Here she is in Wauwatosa’s Department of Public Works yard, where huge rows of food and yard waste are breaking down into compost.
Credit Susan Bence

Kuhl hopes to win residents and city leaders over to the idea of expanding the program by demonstrating the money the city can save when composting more and landfilling less. Municipalities pay a tipping fee for every load of garbage hauled to the landfill.

“So if you’re diverting from the landfill at $45 per ton to only $25 per ton, you’re going to save money,” Kuhl says.

Paula Godkin is already sold on composting. When Shorewood launched its pilot, she immediately enrolled. When she moved to Washington Heights on Milwaukee’s west side, Godkin recruited her new neighbors to try to extend Milwaukee’s pilot to their side of town.

“Got about 100 respondents who said they were interested. And then we had a community meeting and more people came. And then we had the annual neighborhood association meeting Michael Murphy came,” Godkin says.

Michael Murphy is Godkin’s alderman. He says she’s not the only resident he’s hearing from.

“I certainly from the demand side hear from my constituents that they would like to have the opportunity to participate in the program,” Murphy says.

He says Milwaukee plans to expand its organics pick-up program, in one form or another, by 2025.

Exactly how that program will look is unknown. The Department of Public Works says it will consider “any combination of solutions … including collection of food waste only, yard waste only, and food and yard waste combined.”

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.

_