Story & photos by Jeff Keeling
It’s 4:20 a.m., and Joe Hoffman is standing outside the back of El Charolais restaurant. A few meters away, his Ford F-250 pickup is barely visible in the pre-dawn, a winch rising from its bed.
Hoffman lifts the lid on a plastic trash bin, looks inside and finds – nothing.
“That’s okay,” says Hoffman, undeterred even though he also just came up empty behind East Tennessee State University’s Culp Center. Since early February, the Science Hill High School teacher has risen before the sun four days a week, hopped in his truck, and collected food scraps from institutions, businesses and households.
The customer base is growing for the region’s only food scraps-to-compost business (and one of just a few statewide) with the not-so-fancy name: Hoffman Composting. So far, Hoffman has picked up 14,041 pounds of food scraps – more than 8,500 pounds of it from ETSU food services –and trucked it to a 60-acre piece of property he owns off Woodlyn Road in east Johnson City.
The scraps are mixed with wood chips before sitting for several months in piles on a large concrete slab, turning into what Hoffman says is the best compost money can buy. The “aerated static piles” are run through with a four-inch PVC pipe pricked with small holes that blow air through the piles to keep them oxygenated. The leaf blower is powered from batteries housed in a small shed atop which sit solar panels, putting the whole operation off the grid.
Whether one decides Hoffman is tilting at windmills or on the verge of something that will grow exponentially, it’s impossible to question his dedication.
“I’ve got a degree in agriculture, and in the ‘90s I became really fascinated with nutrient cycling and soil biota, and irritated with needless waste and loss of resources,” Hoffman says, adding that he started acting on the composting idea a full decade ago.
Months of intensive prep work followed Hoffman’s 2013 purchase of the Woodlyn Road property. He built out the concrete composting pad and solar-powered hut, allowing for a process that yields complex biota, which he says are great for gardens.
More importantly, Hoffman says, his method avoids the release of methane into the atmosphere. While food scraps and other organic material decompose in landfills (and in many non-aerated home compost piles) they release methane. While the Environmental Protection Agency lists methane as comprising 11 percent of U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, it’s also listed as having a pound-for-pound impact on climate change 24 times greater than carbon dioxide – and 20 percent of methane released comes from landfills.
The preparation – which also included buying his truck, successfully completing the permitting process, and soliciting customers – was a slow process, but Hoffman has about two dozen households in addition to several restaurants and the university. He also got the notice early on of Metcalf’s Tree Service, whose owner, Rick Metcalf, believed enough in the businesses’ positive impact that he supplies at no charge enough tree mulch stock for Hoffman to mix with the food scraps in his composting process.
Still, institutional customers represent the most realistic chance at significant growth – and grow Hoffman can, if he gets the volume. “I could take 10 tons of food waste per week,” Hoffman says – an amount nearly double what he collected in his first six months. Monthly fees are $10 for a residential five-gallon bucket, $15 for four five-gallon buckets, $20 for a 32-gallon can and $33 for a 64-gallon rollcart (weekly pickups included). Hoffman also offsets his costs by selling the compost that’s produced.
“There are times where I wonder whether it’s gonna pan out, absolutely. But it’s a good time now. I feel pretty confident now more than ever I feel it’s a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’”
Regardless of how long it takes for the business to grow, or whether it happens at all, it’s a labor of love for Hoffman.
“It began with and it still is, it just feels good to be doing something about the wastefulness of throwing away a good resource. The benefits, such as rebuilding the soil and recreating the soil carbon sink to mitigate global warming, all that’s great. But it all began with an uncomfortableness with throwing away something that’s perfectly good and losing it. To do something to reverse that feels pretty good.”
That’s something the Mathewes family has realized since becoming customers. Jocelyn Mathewes and her husband Stephen tried home composting when they moved here from Boston in 2012, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. When a friend told her, “there’s this guy who will come to your house and do it,” she was in.
Along with Ruth, 8, Lucas, 7, and Irene, 2, the family has diverted nearly 200 pounds of food scraps over the past several months.
Jocelyn Mathewes says the practice is a good learning experience for her kids, in addition to having a positive environmental impact.
“It’s wasted energy,” she says of landfilling food scraps. “It’s like leaving the doors open when your air conditioning’s on. This is perfectly useful material that can be put aback into the earth to make more food for everyone.”
Hoffman tries to keep his prices for businesses competitive. He also pitches the good PR prospective customers can expect for changing their business practices to become more altruistic. But before he mentioned either of those things to El Charolais owner, he was nodding his head and saying it was the right thing to do.
Restaurant owners may be able to lessen their number of pickups from the city, so they can save some money in exchange for Hoffman’s fee and the change in habits. Residential customers are coming on even though they’re already paying for municipal waste collection. Essentially, they’re agreeing to pay extra and changing their habits in order to separate the food scraps.
“People have to want to do it,” Hoffman says. Those who think they might want to can find more information at hoffmancomposting.com.