Java Bradley’s first experience with composting was teaching kids about healthy eating at Philip's Academy Charter School, one of Michelle Obama’s legacy garden schools in Newark, New Jersey. Bradley, a longtime teacher at the school, volunteered to manage the composting program, where students grow food in a rooftop garden, eat it and then compost the scraps.
When he brought the composting idea home, his wife, Michelle, a mother of three, feared the food scraps would stink up their apartment in Maplewood and attract unwelcome critters. Once she was exposed to the process, she became hooked and wanted to start a small composting business so others could experience the joy of composting.
“In New Jersey, there’s a lot of food waste regulations and they’re pretty antiquated,” Michelle says. “It’s not easy to set up a food waste pickup service.”
Under regulation, food scraps must be processed at licensed composting facility that manages organics, “not just yard waste.” The problem is Ag Choice, New Jersey’s first and only commercial food scrap composter, is at capacity and can’t accept scraps from a small residential collection, Michelle says. So, the couple turned to backyard composting.
Java’s Compost, West Orange, New Jersey, started three years ago by offering backyard composting services, including providing tumblers, a compost bucket and a Compost Guide, as well as additional compost training, coaching, compost sifting and applying the finished compost to yard or garden beds as natural fertilizer. Three months ago, the business expanded to include a weekly or bimonthly food scrap pickup service.
“We’re members of the group Institute for Local Self-Reliance,” Michelle says. “They do a lot of composting education and advocacy work. One of the members of that group offered to work together to bring food scraps to a facility out of state.”
Java’s Compost provides residential and commercial pickup services. For $8 a week for small households and $12 a week for large households, the company collects food scraps, transfers the scraps to a holding area at the public works department in West Orange. The scraps are then taken out of state for processing.
Java’s Compost collects about 1 ton of food scraps per week and has collected more than 14,000 pounds of food scrap since collection services started three months ago.
“We’ve been doing a lot of grassroots marketing—going to community events, putting flyers up around town, going to farmers markets,” Michelle says. “Our customer base has tripled since we started three months ago."
Businesses have also signed up for the service, including a bakery and flower shop in Maplewood.
“We’re finding there is a desire to compost from a business perspective, but margins are tight, especially in restaurants, so it’s hard for them to find a budget to compost because they’re already paying for trash," Michelle says. "So, it’s finding those customers that value the service and experience and what’s its all about and partnering with those people."
One of the challenges of the business is educating the average household about composting, Michelle says. At farmers markets, Java’s Compost brings a sample of the compost with a sign that says, “This was food.”
“That always stops people,” Michelle says. “I remember being in the kitchen in our apartment and Java taking a banana and he said, ‘this can turn into soil.’ If you haven’t seen the process, you really can’t imagine.”
At first, Michelle and Java wanted to start their own small-scale community composting facility; however, costs to permit and license a commercial composting facility are as high as $100,000. That "prohibits us from doing that as a small business,” Michelle says.
Michelle says Java’s Compost is working with New Jersey Composting Council, a local chapter of the US Composting Council, to change regulation to make it easier to start small-scale local composting facilities, so “we can keep resources local and not truck it so far to process it.”
Continuing to educate people that food scraps, when properly managed, are a valuable resource and expanding composting pickup services in Northern New Jersey is also a goal of the company.
“We want to be able to service anybody that has a desire to compost,” Michelle says. “We get calls from other counties and we build lists with the hope to expand in the future. If we can’t provide pickup service there now, we have on-site solutions we can offer, too.”