Backstory

Backstory: Tilthy Rich Compost seeks to improve Durham's soil with compost

vbridges@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

Chris Russo, co-owner of Tilthy Rich Compost, standing next to the company’s compost pile behind Eastern Carolina Organics in March. The company plans has recently shifted from producing its own compost to having it picked up by a Goldston company.

VBRIDGES@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — By Virginia Bridges

  • Advice from Chris Russo

    • Have money, time or both.

    • Don’t underestimate the importance of support from people close to you.

    • Don’t plan on conquering the world in one day.

— Nearly a year ago, Chris Russo and Jodi Hart founded a company to improve the Bull City’s soil, one bucket of compost at a time.

But the co-owners of Tilthy Rich Compost soon discovered the challenges behind the noble mission.

The initial business plan centered on customers paying $15 a month for the mostly bicycle-powered company to pick up a bucket of compostable scraps from their homes once a week. The contents were then delivered to a space behind Eastern Carolina Organics on East Pettigrew Street and folded into a natural decomposition process that would transform the waste into compost. Then, twice a year, the company’s roughly 55 customers could choose to receive the results of the process to spread in their yards and gardens.

The company’s most formidable challenge, however, comes from Tilthy Rich’s affordable and relatively hassle-free competition – city garbage collection.

“I think that is the biggest battle that we fight,” Russo said, as people are OK with sending as much to the landfill as they can fit in their trash.

The company’s origin traces back to two separate but similar efforts.

In August 2012, Russo started experimenting with compost collection. He sent a message to his neighborhood email group offering to pick up buckets with compostable items for free until he worked out the kinks.

“I think I got 20 responses within an hour,” he said.

Russo set up a website where people could pay online and sign up for reminders.

Initially, he developed the compost in his backyard, but expanded to a spot behind nonprofit sustainability shop Recyclique on Hillsborough Road.

Meanwhile, Hart started working for Bountiful Backyards, a Durham employee-owned cooperative that plants edible landscaping and garden systems. She collected coffee grounds, brewers’ waste and food scraps from businesses to create compost that could be used by the landscaping company.

Russo and Hart consolidated their efforts by founding Tilthy Rich in May 2013, and moved the composting operations to a space behind Eastern Carolina Organics.

The owners, however, soon learned they were operating in a gray area of the law.

Their location, which was initially offered rent-free, has a light industrial designation, but the city requires commercial composting to operate in areas that are zoned industrial.

Russo and Hart tried to build momentum for changing the rules, but recently abandoned their months-long effort after realizing they didn’t have the leverage or the funding to back the fight.

“I think we were leading with our hearts,” Russo said. As a result, the growth of the business suffered, he said.

So now the partners are making efforts to have more of a presence at community events, including Earth Day celebrations.

Hart and Russo have yet to pay themselves, but have made enough to cover four contractors to help collect scraps.

However, in recent months, the owners have shifted their focus to scaling the business and have qualified for a state grant that will allow them to buy a truck and a lift to collect compostable items from apartments and condo communities.

The company now dumps collected scraps in a dumpster that is collected and processed by Goldston composting company Brooks Contractor, which has the proper permits and zoning.

“It’s not ideal to be sending as far as away as Brooks … but if it’s leading us on a path that we can bring processing closer to the source, then it makes sense,” Russo said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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