Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the spring issue of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. To view that issue and other special publications, go to leader telegram.com/magazines.
It isn’t easy being green.
Or at least that’s what a lot of people seem to think.
That concept was the impetus that prompted Jamie and Zacharious Pappas to start Earthbound Environmental Solutions, an Eau Claire company that offers an organics recycling service in addition to traditional garbage and recycling collection.
The couple want to make it easy for local residents to take their environmental stewardship to the next level by composting their food scraps and other organic waste.
Clients of the service collect their compostable items in a biodegradable bag made of plant material that Earthbound collects weekly and hauls to the 3½-year-old company’s composting site in Altoona.
“The program is so easy you really can’t screw it up,” Zacharious said. “It’s the next evolutionary step in the waste management process.”
The idea of offering curbside composting came about in part because the couple recognized that most people aren’t as vigilant as they are about pursuing all things sustainable.
That became abundantly clear a few years ago when they were living in a rental unit where they couldn’t pursue composting. But instead of abandoning the idea, they turned to worm composting and kept a bin of “red wigglers” in their apartment to do the dirty work of breaking down their food waste. But they quickly found the concept impractical for them and knew it would be distasteful for most folks.
The realization prompted them to think it would be great if someone offered curbside composting and, ultimately, to decide they could be the ones to fill that gap.
“We want to be green, and we want to have an impact greater than any one individual can have by composting,” Zacharious said.
Founding a company that helps other people divert organic material from ever-expanding landfills seemed like a perfect way to accomplish those goals.
The owners elected to collect trash and recycling in addition to organics because they quickly realized it would be easier for customers to get all waste collection services from one hauler, although some clients subscribe to only the composting service.
The company also offers seasonal yard waste and Christmas tree pickup.
Food scraps and yard waste together make up about 30 percent of what Americans throw away, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Jamie and I have two passions — environmental stewardship and supporting people with disabilities — and proceeding with this model allowed us to pursue both of them,” Zacharious said, noting that the pair both graduated from UW-Stout’s vocational rehabilitation program.
Jamie added, “We believe anybody has the ability to work, and we strive to offer employment opportunities to people with mental illness or other disabilities.”
Earthbound has five employees in addition to the two owners, who still get their hands dirty by driving routes and managing the compost site.
Making a difference
After several years of research and planning, the couple began offering residential organics recycling pickup in October 2015 and opened the service to commercial customers in 2016. The company has been gradually expanding its service territory, opening to all of Eau Claire and Altoona early this year and fielding inquiries from Chippewa and Dunn counties as well.
Earthbound collected 152 tons of organics in 2017 from residents and businesses in Eau Claire County but hadn’t compiled its 2018 totals as of press time.
Commercial clients, including restaurants, tech companies, engineering firms, government offices and churches, generate a majority of the tonnage despite accounting for only about 20 percent of the customer count, Jamie said. She estimated that the average person generates 26 pounds of compostable material per week.
The numbers offer a satisfying reminder to the Pappases that they are making a difference and spurring local residents to rethink the definition of waste.
Indeed, customers should generate very little regular garbage if they’re doing all the composting and recycling possible, Jamie insisted. An Earthbound pamphlet guides customers by listing a surprising number of nonfood items that are compostable, including coffee filters, cork, soiled newspapers and paper towels, vacuum cleaner contents, cotton balls and pet fur.
“Sustainability is not just the cool thing to do; it’s the right thing to do,” said Jamie, whose emails end with the slogan “From Curbside to Compost, Saving the World Has Never Been so Easy!!”
Once Earthbound hauls the organics to its compost site, workers use heavy equipment to mix the material and put it into mounds, located over a forced-aeration facility built by Jamie. The “cooking” process promotes microbial activity that, in essence, eats the food, she said.
Even in winter, the natural breakdown process generates temperatures of 150 to 180 degrees, keeping the piles from freezing.
“The piles are steaming out there even when it’s super cold,” Jamie said.
Eventually, the entrepreneurs said they hope to sell some of the resulting compost to landscapers or developers interested in the soil conditioner and also to donate some to the community garden program to help combat food insecurity.
Earthbound started as a tenant at Chippewa Valley Innovation Center, an incubator in Chippewa Valley Industrial Park on Eau Claire’s north side offering shared services for start-up companies. The company founders said access to loans and office space through CVIC and start-up advice through the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. and the UW-Eau Claire Small Business Development Center played crucial roles in helping Earthbound get off the ground.
“I think it elevated your professionalism to be accountable to stakeholders with high standards,” Zacharious said.
After three years at CVIC, Earthbound graduated in August and now operates out of a home office and its compost site.
“They just continued to work hard and use the resources available to them and now they’ve graduated to their own facility,” said Christina Wasson, the former manager of the incubator who now serves as project and marketing manager for the ECAEDC. “We’re very proud of them. They’re doing great.”
Wasson said it’s always satisfying to support a start-up that brings a new service to the community, providing residents with more options.
Green helping hand
Customers said they are grateful for the availability of a service that helps them live a greener lifestyle.
Trish Cummins, who lives in Eau Claire’s Third Ward neighborhood, said her family did some composting on their own but couldn’t use all of the material they produced.
“It’s such a huge amount of a typical family’s waste, and to put that into a landfill is so sad,” Cummins said. “We wanted to do what’s right for the planet, but we couldn’t deal with it all in our tiny little garden.”
Recognizing they could do better, the family signed up for Earthbound’s residential curbside composting service the first week it was available.
“It has made us better composters,” Cummins said, explaining the family collects food waste in a countertop bin and then moves it to a separate container that Earthbound collects. “They make it so easy.”
Blayne Midthun of Eau Claire also did some composting at home before enrolling in the company’s curbside program.
“Between us at home and Earthbound we compost pretty much all of our food waste, and that’s awesome,” Midthun said. “Sustainability and being environmentally friendly are very important to us.”
Living the dream
To support their fledgling firm, Jamie and Zacharious both continue to work additional jobs — Jamie at a long-term-care agency and Zacharious as a painter for a painting company the couple owns and operates.
“We just like to never sleep,” Jamie joked.
Despite the long hours and hard work, Jamie, 35, and Zacharious, 36, are happy to be living their version of the dream.
“The American dream is not about capitalism,” Zacharious said. “The American dream is about creating opportunities to have a business that fills a need in the community and makes the world a better place.”