By Audrey Perelshtein

What started out as a non-profit group hauling five-gallon buckets of fruit and vegetable trimmings to create compost for the soils of community gardens turned into almost 1 million pounds of waste being diverted from landfills last year.

After five years of working tirelessly as a non-profit to only divert 10 percent of a restaurant’s total food waste, Melissa Tashjian decided more had to be done.

Tashjian, an organics diversion enthusiast, founded Compost Crusader in April 2014, with the goal of keeping food waste out of landfills.

The main goal of Compost Crusader is to help businesses reduce the waste they send to landfills by collecting “organics” from their customers, such as food scraps and other compostable products, and paying for that material to be recycled into the nutrient rich soil amendment that is compost at DNR certified compost sites.

According to the EPA, food waste makes up over 25 percent what is in landfills and that waste is also the top producer of methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas.

“From an environmental standpoint, being able to keep food waste out of landfills is really important,” Tashjian said. “There are things we can be diverting from the landfills and valuing them as a resource versus a waste.”

In 2015, Compost Crusader’s first full year of operation, a modest net profit was reported and 856,729 pounds of materials from 51 different customers was diverted from landfills. These numbers show an increase of 657 percent of hauled materials from 2014 and an increase of 333 percent of new customers.

The most common way businesses dispose of food is by throwing it in the trash, however a significant amount of businesses say they will compost if it’s as easy as recycling and costs as much as regular trash removal.

Compost Crusader provides commercial grade outdoor containers, comparable to ones used for trash service, to their clients. The company sells compostable bags that are used to line the already existing receptacles inside the businesses so organics can be easily taken to the outside container.

By making it efficient to dispose of compostable material, customers are able reduce their use of existing trash services to offset the cost of doing business with Compost Crusader.

Compost Crusader services smaller businesses that their competitors often overlook due to a focus on large-scale customers. Many large waste haulers that can be seen as competition do not offer compost options, which is what sets Compost Crusader apart.

The major costs for Compost Crusader are maintaining trucks and dumpsters, as well as paying the three part-time employees that make the operation run. Tashjian hopes to raise $25,000 to $50,000 from investors to improve her company in a variety of ways.

Tashjian mainly wants to utilize the money to expand her operations and invest in new equipment. As of now, Compost Crusader stores their trucks outside and its equipment in Tashjian’s garage, so the company wants to obtain an overall storage facility to house these items.

Tashjian also wants to use the money to put the company logo on the trucks, ideally with a mural contribution from the children at the schools with which she works.

“I hope to be able to help all businesses in Milwaukee compost any type of food waste or organic materials they have,” she said.

Compost Crusader is focusing on businesses that produce food waste, particularly restaurants, in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Waukesha counties for the first five years, according to Tashjian. It was a semi-finalist in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which culminates June 7-8 in Madison.

Perelshtein is a student at UW–Madison in the Department of Life Sciences Communication.