Nothing Ever Really Dies: Saying Goodbye To Austin’s Compost Pedallers

Compost Pedallers
photo via the Compost Pedallers

Maybe you had seen them around town.

Riding along in those funny-looking bikes with the big trash cans in the back.

Except they weren’t carrying trash. They were making our planet a little bit better, one bike ride at a time.

They were the Compost Pedallers, one of Austin’s funkiest, weirdest, and most innovative businesses. And last week, they hung up their helmets and locked up their bikes for good.

Launched in 2012 by Dustin Fedako and Eric Goff, Compost Pedallers started out with a simple idea – to reduce the amount of waste that Austinites send to the landfill… by increasing their access to composting.

Seven years later, and Compost Pedallers has helped to divert 1.2 million pounds of waste, built a distributed network of community composting sites, and powered the whole thing with a fleet of cargo bikes (burning about six and a half million calories in the process). All in all, they created about 300,000 pounds of fresh compost and saved over $30,000 in fertilizer costs for local farms and gardens.

Quite a long way from just a simple idea.

Dustin first got the spark to create Compost Pedallers after answering a Craigslist ad as a door-to-door salesman for another compost company in town. Knocking on all of those doors gave him the chance to talk to a lot of Austinites and to learn a very important lesson – most people want to do the environmentally-friendly thing… they just have to be given the right tools.

At the time, Dustin was spending his days working as a door-to-door salesman, riding around on his bike a lot, and volunteering at local farms (in order to score some free and fresh produce on his limited income). Not wanting to create just another compost company that drives around in big, polluting trucks, Dustin decided to combine all of his passions into one business which is when he met Eric Goff… and just like that (and with a lot of hard work), Compost Pedallers was born.

In 2012, the idea of building a bike-based community compost company was pretty revolutionary. There weren’t many other people doing anything like this anywhere in the US. In Austin, the city had set the ambitious goal of diverting 90 percent of our waste from the landfill by 2040, but had only just instituted single-stream curbside recycling… curbside composting pickup was still not much more than an idea.

For just under $5 a week, Compost Pedallers starting picking up Austinites’ organic waste (food scraps, coffee grounds, etc) directly from their doors… and with a smile on their faces. Over time, the company developed a cult following of people who loved chatting with their friendly pedaller and knowing that their waste not only was being saved from the landfill, but was going to help local farms.

This combination of community-building and environmental impact brought quite a bit of fame (at least for a compost company anyway) to the pedallers. They were featured in National Geographic, New York Magazine, and CityLab. Pretty soon, socially-minded entrepreneurs from all over the world were calling Dustin and Eric, asking for advice on how to launch a Compost Pedallers-type business in their community.

Through it all, Dustin and Eric stayed true to their activist roots, advocating for the city to adopt a curbside composting program… despite what it might do to their business. In 2013, the City of Austin rolled out an initial curbside composting pickup pilot program, which ended up reaching 14,000 households. In 2017, the program was expanded to 38,000 more homes. By 2020, the service will be available to all of Austin’s single family households, a much larger scale than Compost Pedallers was able to provide.

“We’ve for years now seen this as a handing of the baton with residential composting,” Dustin said in an interview with AEN earlier this week.

Of course, just because all of Austin’s single-family households are about to gain access to curbside composting, doesn’t mean that everyone in the city is covered. Anyone who lives in an apartment or condo complex likely doesn’t have access (unless the property owner chooses to provide it). Dustin says that they thought about shifting their model to serve more apartments and commercial clients, but ultimately decided against it, citing a fear that it would force them to become a more traditional waste hauling company. (Think trucks instead of bikes.)

“We had started as kind of trying to see what could be an alternative to that…,” Dustin said. “Our unique strength was in residential composting and in bringing awareness to composting and we really feel like we’ve succeeded in that.”

For Dustin, he likes to see the role that Compost Pedallers played in Austin as similar to the role that plants at the edge of an ecosystem play. (For all you biology nerds, they’re often called pioneer species.) These plants live on the more severe edges of an ecosystem, helping to colonize and fertilize the land, allowing an ecosystem to grow in less hospitable lands.

“I’ve for a long time thought of us as that, and they don’t last very long,” Dustin said. “And they serve a specific purpose. So I feel like being able to operate as a sustainable business for 7 years as this funky little bike company is for me, a big achievement.”

So yes, the closing of yet another funky Austin business is sad, but for Dustin, there’s quite a lot of sweet to go along with the bitter. When Eric and Dustin published a farewell letter on Facebook announcing the closure of Compost Pedallers late last month, the outpouring of support was overwhelming.

Praise For The Compost Pedallers

So, what better way to say farewell to the Compost Pedallers than with their own words? Here’s the last little snippet from Dustin and Eric’s goodbye letter:

“Together we did what many said we couldn’t. And by rolling up our sleeves to take action, our work has inspired others around the world to do the same. Hundreds of people across dozens of countries have reached out to let us know how our efforts have motivated them to start or stick with a project in their own community.

If we have learned anything from our work in composting, it’s that nothing ever really dies. It just breaks down to fertilize what’s next, what’s new, what’s yet to come. This has been an amazing journey. Thank you all for riding along with us.

To the germinating seeds of change,
Dustin Fedako, Eric Goff, & the Compost Pedallers”

Dustin and Eric
Eric Goff and Dustin Fedako, the founders of the Compost Pedallers

 

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