Chris Broadbent rides his bike through Kalamazoo’s Vine neighborhood, towing a trailer loaded with buckets. He pulls up behind an apartment building, takes a bucket up the stairs to a back porch, and swaps it for one filled with food scraps. He’ll make a couple more pickups around the city this afternoon. The peels and trimmings are destined for a bin in his backyard.
Broadbent has a growing business collecting food waste for compost, and he does it by bike. It’s his attempt to go not just “carbon-neutral,” with no net contribution to climate change, but “carbon-positive” – helping to reverse the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
“What I’ve started to do is call it Compost United, this idea that together more people can be composting and like let go of the ego part of it that like, ‘oh yeah, everybody has to be composting through my business,” he said.
“What we need to be doing is having more people composting however they can, however they want to, in order to be fighting climate change.”
When food waste breaks down in a landfill, it generates greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming. But properly managed composting does the opposite. It helps carbon stay in the scraps as they break down. And studies have found that soil with compost in it holds more carbon than untreated land. Experiments show that adding compost to farm and ranch land could help turn them into a major carbon sink.
Broadbent started collecting food waste for compost at the farmer’s market, sometimes making several trips to bring it all home. As he gained customers, Broadbent saw a demand for porch-side collection. Now he has about 13 clients for pickup, including a few businesses. Many are in the city; one is in Texas Township.
“I think the cars are being really nice to us today so far!” he says as he rides near downtown Kalamazoo. “I would have expected to get honked at already.”
Sometimes Broadbent wears four sweaters to keep warm, but today it’s over 40 degrees so he’s only wearing two.
“I constantly come up against, ‘Oh yeah, well, I could go big time and get a vehicle and start moving all over – moving a ton of dirt,” he said. But he’s disinclined to do that.
Food scraps are heavy. You could say it’s impractical to haul them on two wheels. But Broadbent sees a future where people can no longer take today’s economic structure for granted.
“To thrive in extreme conditions, or minimal resources, you know is maybe potentially not just the sci-fi book and video game and movie way of our future, and present, but maybe there is some truth to that,” he said.
If so, he added, “composting and growing food and bicycling and repairing bikes could be you know really valuable skill sets to keep leveling up.”
Broadbent also just likes to ride. He enjoys the slower pace.
When he stops at a house near Burdick Street, it looks like a bust. No one’s home and there’s no bucket on the porch. But then a car pulls up. Elizabeth Chiaravalli is one of Broadbent’s customers, and she goes inside to get the bucket.
She was composting in her yard, “but kind of grossly,” she explained.
“Mostly the dog would eat it before,” she laughed. “And now my dog eats slightly less compost.”
Chiaravelli’s with a friend, Amelia Stefanac, who has her own route picking up scraps in her neighborhood. She also has a composting worm bin.
“I’ve got the second layer of the worm bin going, so they’re all migrating up,” she told Broadbent when he enquired after the vermiculture.
Broadbent says he’d like to see more people start compost routes, even if it means that he’ll never be the local food scrap baron.
“The compost newspaper syndicate, you know, James Bond villain of compost in Kalamazoo – no, no! We’re not getting to that level, but we’re doing it by bike.”
He plans to continue pickups through the winter.