October 16 will see volunteers dressing as plants to deliver sacks of fresh compost — via bicycle — to customers of Soil Cycle.
Soil Cycle, a social enterprise business of Colorado Springs Food Rescue, gathers food scraps that otherwise would be dumped into landfills and converts them into compost.
Subscribers can have their food scraps picked up once or twice every two weeks, or can drop them off at the Westside Community Center, 1628 W. Bijou St. Twice a year, they receive compost give-backs in return.
“We take the give-back deliveries as an opportunity to have some fun,” Composter-in-Chief Nat Stein said.
Soil Cycle was started during the summer of 2018 to remedy a gap in the local food system.
“There’s no option for residents to compost unless they’re doing it themselves,” Stein said. “A lot of people don’t have the space, time or desire to do that.”
Instead, most people just toss food scraps, which end up in landfills where they generate greenhouse gases — particularly methane.
According to Project Drawdown, a research organization that tracks factors influencing the global climate and identifies science-based solutions, up to 35 percent of food is thrown out by consumers.
“Food waste is the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gas,” Stein said.
Food that isn’t consumed contains nutrients drawn from the soil in which it’s grown, spurring the need for chemical fertilizers and repeated tilling to grow more food.
“That has been really harmful to the soil and also is putting more carbon into the atmosphere,” Stein said. “We saw that problem, and then we saw an opportunity.”
Colorado Springs Food Rescue, which has redistributed more than $5 million worth of surplus food from local supermarkets, backyard gardens and cafeterias to nonprofit and community-based programs, was already moving food around the city on bikes.
“We thought we could do curbside collection ourselves,” Stein said.
The organization researched best composting practices and designed a hot composting system to turn food waste into “black gold,” without pests and smells.
Soil Cycle started accepting subscribers in August 2018. At first, it limited the area it served to Mid Shooks Run.
“We found a member base really quickly,” Stein said. “I think it was easy for us to connect with the people who were kind of waiting for something like this.”
After expanding its service area into downtown Colorado Springs, Soil Cycle now has around 140 members, including households and a few commercial accounts.
“We love working with offices,” Stein said. “It’s a great way to reach a lot of people. They can bring their food scraps to work with them.”
Soil Cycle charges residential customers $32 a month for weekly curbside pickup or $20 a month for every-other-week pickup. The company provides a 5-gallon bucket, 3-gallon ventilated countertop basket and a roll of compostable bags.
Drop-off costs $12 a month and is open to anyone, not just those in the service area.
Processing is done at Mid Shooks Run Community Gardens and the Hillside Food Hub adjacent to the Hillside Community Center.
Soil Cycle has been operating through grant funding and help from community partners, but its goal is to be financially sustainable.
“Kind of an overarching goal is creating good local jobs,” Stein said. “We’re trying to grow to a scale where revenue covers our costs and we’re employing more people.”
A portion of the subscription proceeds is being tilled back into the business.
Soil Cycle plans to build a second dropoff center at Ivywild School and a third at the Hillside Food Hub, a 3½-acre tract of land at 1090 S. Institute St.
The organization will construct a four-season greenhouse and a building on the west side of the Hillside site to serve as a food distribution center, classrooms for nutrition and cooking classes, and office and event space.
After construction is completed in 2021, Soil Cycle will create an urban farm on the southeast side of the site, where it will grow vegetables and, potentially, raise poultry.
The rest of the site will be devoted to large-scale composting, small-scale demonstration models and a neighborhood gathering space with herb beds, an outdoor kitchen and a pergola.
Soil Cycle’s long-range business plan also includes producing and selling bulk compost, vermicompost and compost tea.
“Sequestering carbon is good for everyone on the planet,” Stein said. “But compost could also be a key part of a green infrastructure approach to managing our stormwater. … It not only helps keep water on the landscape, but can also support more vegetation, which improves the health and quality of life in our city.”