Sustainability Spotlight: Tim Bennett
Sustainability Spotlight: Tim Bennett
Did you know that the average person throws away 1600 pounds of garbage a year? On the other hand, Philly residents who compost with Bennett Compost throw away half of that. Most uneaten food rots in landfills where it accounts for almost 25% of US methane emissions (a nasty greenhouse gas). Only about 3% of food scraps in the U.S. are composted, and we encourage you to change this statistic using a company like Bennett to do so. Tim Bennett believes that people, in general, want to do the right thing and his company makes it easy for you to put those values into practice. The best part? You can get a month of this incredible service for FREE- remember to mention that Sustainable Millennial referred you when you sign up ;)
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and Bennett Compost?
My name is Tim, I am from Rochester, New York, and went to Temple University for school. After graduating, I always knew I wanted to have my own business and do something that had a dual purpose. My view of the world is that people, in general, want to do the right thing. We often times make it hard for them to do that. I wanted to set up something easy and simple for them to do the right thing so that they wouldn't feel discouraged or overwhelmed.
At the time this all started, I was recycling, but not composting, as I was living in a second-floor apartment in South Philly. I had no outdoor space at all do to it. I started researching to see if maybe there was somewhere that I could take my food scraps, or maybe there was someone who would pick it up. I couldn't find anything. Then I was thinking that maybe there were some other nutso people like me who would want to do this--so that’s kind of where the idea came from. Our whole mission is to make composting easy and accessible for people in the city specifically.
When did you start Bennett?
This was all in 2009 when I started thinking about it. I made the decision to start--I didn't quit my job or anything. I said to myself, “I'm gonna put 100 dollars in a bank account and see what happens. See what’s here. If I lose 100 dollars, I know I have spent 100 bucks on stupider things in my life. Probably nothing will happen from this but I will learn a lot and it will be a good learning experience for me.”
I was doing it part-time and figuring out how to do it in the most cost-effective way. In the beginning, I partnered with a community garden and rented a truck by the hour. They used to let you rent pickup trucks for like a dollar fifty an hour back then at night. I remember the day I hung up my first flyer because it was on my birthday, July 11th. I spent the morning hanging up some flyers and a couple days later i got my first call. I picked up a few customers here and there, and had maybe ten to fifteen customers in total. Then I did an event Philly Greenfest where I spent most of the money in my bank account on the vending fees for the event. I figured that I needed to go get in front of people to spread the word. At the event, we had over 120 people give us their information because they found this all interesting. I then was like, ‘Wow, there may be something here.’ We contacted them and probably signed up like a third of them for the service. Eight or nine months after that I was able to leave where I was working and do Bennett full-time. I took a significant pay cut do so but took the chance. Now, there are eight full-time people who work here as well as some part-time employees. We give health benefits and pay living wages to start. I don't even want to think of how much money I was making per hour of work and what I was putting in my bank account at the time. But, it's been an exciting ride. I wouldn't say we are a mature business yet, but we are still constantly maturing. It's been fun. I enjoy it more days than I don't. I was just dumb enough to not stop trying with this thing. We have gotten where we are by hard work and perseverance and the growing change of the way people see the world and the values that people have. If we started five years earlier, we would never have survived because it would have taken too long for people to be interested in the service and get into it. If I started it five years later maybe someone else would have been doing it already.
What are your thoughts on food waste?
Waste in general is not a good thing because they go to landfills. Food waste is a huge component of our waste stream and we don't have good systems to deal with it. Food waste is a decaying living material. When it's in a landfill it’s in a low-oxygen or no-oxygen environment. In these spaces, it’s releasing methane gas as a byproduct. It's a serious greenhouse gas with a serious impact (even more than carbon dioxide). It’s a byproduct of decaying food waste. Landfills are the third leading contributor to methane gas in the environment, which is why we are trying to combat that.
By composting, we are creating a new rich soil amendment which people can reuse on the same plots of soil again and again. It replenishes the organic material in the soil, so it's a way to reduce the impact from landfills and help the way we grow things organically. Your growing is using the nutrients in the soil and you need to replenish that.
Can you tell me a ballpark how much waste you have collected at Bennett?
I’d we keep about a million and a half pounds of materials a year out of landfills. We have kept at least seven to eight million pounds out in our life-cycle.
So I eat an apple… What does that process look like if I had a Bennett Bucket?
So you eat your apple, and then you have your core. Rather than tossing it in the trash you toss it into the Bennett Bucket container instead. The only real difference is you put it in a different container. Then put the container out for pickup once a week, similar to how you take out your trash. The day depends on the neighborhood you are in. We come by to collect it, empty the container, and leave it for you to fill again. Then, we take the materials to our site for us to work with. Some neighborhoods we do electrical bicycle pickups, while others we use small trucks for pickups. This all depends on things like the amount of hills, the volume of materials. Most routes have 150 stops--to do the pickups we are hustling out there to bring it back to our site where we do the composting.
That material is blended with a combination of wood chips and leaves, (carbon-rich organic matter) and food waste (nitrogen-rich organic matter). We blend it into a ratio. We use an aerostatic pile system for our process. If you were composting on your own you wouldn’t be able to use such a process, but for larger-scale operations, like us, it works. This involves piles mixed with food waste, wood chips, and leaves. They are covered with a thinner layer of finished compost and are built on pipes that blow air for thirty seconds every hour on them. This keeps oxygen levels in the piles high enough so that the microbes that naturally occur can work. This keeps it oxygen-rich rather than oxygen-poor. This process repeats for five or six weeks. Then it sits depending on the time of year, between three to nine months. Then we screen it and sell it as compost or a potting mix soil amendment. This you add to your existing soil to rebuild the lost nutrients. We also do some vermicomposting - composting with worms. We make vermicast, which is a fancy word for worm poop-- it’s basically compost on steroids. It’s super stable it’s extremely rich in micronutrients and microorganisms. This is great for plant health and growth and all that fun stuff.
I've seen the old fashioned manual way to composting, where people are rotating a tumbler. How is this different?
A tumbler is great for a limited amount of material. If you have space, it’s a great option to use on your own. It will help you mix the material which helps it break down faster. Since you are usually not putting more than a cubic yard of material into a tumbler, it’s not big enough that oxygen can’t naturally get into all parts of the pile. If you don't have someplace to separate the old and the new material, you won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of a final product.
Do’s and don’ts of composting?
If you are doing it yourself, limit what you're putting into the bucket to vegetable-based scraps. No meat, no dairy, and look out for things that are harder to break down (i.e. avocado pits). To make this simple, you want to have a 2:1 ratio of leaves to the food waste. If it looks like nothing is breaking down, maybe you add more food scraps. If it’s starting to get slimey or smelly, you add more leaves. Your pile will fix itself and find its balance if you are keeping an eye on it. If you are in a community group, it's not always well-kept with records and monitoring. This is key to make sure it’s working properly.
To me it sounds like you're making a sauce or cooking when you make a pile!
Sometimes I use the metaphor that you're making gravy. If it’s too thick, add a little more water. If it's too watery add a little flour. It’s really like cooking in some ways!
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start composting?
The best thing to do is to do it by yourself in your yard. But if you’re in a city, we know that it’s not the best space for it. If you want to DIY, you can look at small-scale vermicomposting with worms.
[Click here to check out a video on how to make a bin.]
It’s similar to gardening--you have to pay attention and make sure you are feeding the worms the right stuff. The closer you are to the stuff, the better. But if you don't have space or just don't want to mess with the worms, you are not alone. Someone like you could maybe join a community garden that has a program or sign up for a pickup with us. If you're in a community garden you share the responsibility. The best part about our business-- we do all the dirty work for you and you don’t have to worry about it.
Have you thought about other cities?
Our main focus right now is with the residential market. We used to get about one person a day reaching out, but now that number has increased exponentially. We work with over 2,700 households throughout Philadelphia. We work with 75-80 commercial customers. We do everything from cafes like The Kettle Black, to larger customers like the Phillies. We are starting to work with office buildings but the logistics can be tricky. We want to expand eventually to more of the commercial consumers, and also expand things on a product-end. We are trying to constantly make soil and compost, and determining who we can sell product to. This product is great for urban gardeners. We are working with the Weavers Way farm. We make a potting mix blend for them and they use it as a seed starting mix for the plants on their farms.
I don’t in the short-term see us moving outside of Philly. We recognize as a team that is value in a company that is rooted in Philly and don’t want to get away from that. We just see more and more people everyday interested locally. There’s something special about keeping it local.
You are directly changing the way that people are creating and using waste. What do you think about that?
When you are the only person who does it you’re a weirdo. Then one or two people start doing it-- those are the super green people. Then a couple more people do it, and a couple more, and then that’s the normal. Once people start composting they don’t want to stop. Once you are not putting things in the trash, when you go somewhere and you can't compost, it almost feels wrong. It’s really cool that we can change people's behavior.
Do you have any ideas of how to better integrate composting in the world? Do you thnk it would need to be from a policy or legislation change? How do we get people on this bandwagon?
All of it. There are people like us who are picking up stuff and trying to find ways to better the process and make it easy for people. We believe that people in general want to do the right thing and make responsible choices. Too many times we ask them to make big grand changes to do so. So our thoughts are around how do we make it easy, fun, and so people actually want to do it. We don’t want composting to be seen as a pain or a chore. We want to show people that it’s easy and natural to incorporate this into their lives. That’s our role as a business.
Then there’s people like you, Sustainable Millennial, who are responsible for showing people what’s out there and spreading the word about it. Your role is to let people know about these things because maybe there isn’t someone in their direct circle doing it.
There are big-picture policy issues that come into play for sure. How do we give incentives to people to do it? How do we make it economically make sense for people? We need to make it easier for people to do, businesses to do.
[I just want to say, Bennett is such an incredible idea--it’s just such an interesting, simple concept. I want to see these buckets lining my street, and I don’t understand why they aren't outside of every house. I think it should be the norm. We want to let people know. There's a lack of awareness in everyday households and we want to change that. Especially because people are already eating more whole foods and healthier, which aligns perfectly with the scraps you are collecting]
Anything else you want to discuss?
I would encourage your readers to do something. If it’s not composting, think about what else it could be. What other first step can they take? The first step is the hardest. Once you take those first steps it gets easier. Any behavioral changes are like that. Think if you start working out for the first time, the first few weeks SUCK. You ask yourself, Why am I doing this, I haven’t seen changes in how I look, what’s the point! If composting seems like too much to start right now, maybe change something else. What can you get started in so you can start building those environmental muscles? People underestimate how good doing good makes you feel. In the case of composting, people get a benefit from it and a joy from it. It’s the joy of watching how little trash they make. Our customers tell us that they used to throw away two giant stinky bags a week, and now are down to half of one a week. Now they are looking for other things to do to reduce their impact by seeing what they can adapt into their lifestyle by seeing what works for them. Little things make a big difference.
Some of you may say think after reading this, that hey, I could compost on my own, why should I do it with you? You are so right, you could and you SHOULD compost on your own if you want to do so. Hell, you can make your own beer, and sew your own clothes-- there are a lot of things you can do. Whatever you can do, you should go and do. However, you can't do everything on your own so that's where we come in to help.
Also, don’t beat yourself up if you forget your water bottle one day or if you're somewhere that you can't compost, and you throw something in the trash. You’re not a terrible person and it doesn't cancel all of the good stuff you are doing. Just do your best and learn and grow. Just do SOMETHING no matter how small.
You are so right, little things can make a huge impact! And that’s why we are here, we want to encourage you to make small lifestyle changes that can have a major positive impact. Are you living in Philly and interested in composting after reading this article? Try out a month of Bennett completely FREE! Please remember to mark that you were referred by Sustainable Millennial when you sign up. Send us pictures and if you enjoy the service, continue the trial for a year membership! Also, if you love to garden, check out their online shop! Follow them on Instagram while you’re at it too.