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A Passion for Farming Leads to Bike Composting

Earth Day - a movement that has powered a growing awareness for the environment around us and inspired numerous efforts to promote and sustain healthy environments. One local effort in Chicago is being led by Jonathan Scheffel a.k.a. Farmer Jon - a man who has made a business of hauling organic waste and food scraps by bicycle. Over the course of a month he pedals 500-600 miles and hauls 6000-7000 pounds of organic waste - all of it with a bicycle! And the business is growing, powered by a consumer demand for sustainable products and services.

Why Use a Bicycle to Haul Compost

Jon is deeply connected to an entire ecosystem of sustainable businesses. He was formerly a urban farmer for a restaurant with garden locations on the south side. He is also connected to a food production facility that recycles organic waste, maintains links to a mushroom farm and has been a farm manager for an aquaponic farm located in Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. ​

An avid cyclist that has hauled things in his small trailer, Jon was inspired by other businesses in the country (Gainesville, FL and Austin, TX) that do curbside organic waste pick-up by bicycle. He also has a strong desire to support a green ethos and is keenly aware of the impact every aspect of his business has on the environment. He points out the benefits of using a bicycle: it generates zero emissions and brings awareness to what he is doing. Almost daily people ask him about the business. Being on the bike makes those discussions easy.

How the Compost Business Works

Organic matter is collected and eventually turns into compost.

Individuals or businesses sign-up at HealthySoilCompost and decide how often they want a pick-up. For homeowners, Jon drops off a 5-gallon Home Depot bucket to contain the organic matter. The bucket is lined and includes a lid so there is no smell associated with the compost. It's up to the homeowner to decide how often they want a pick-up. Jon provides guidance on what items can go into the bucket. He charges $15 per pick-up.

After pickup, the contents are added to a larger bin on the bike trailer. Jon then hauls the waste to Natures Little Recyclers which is an earthworm farm on the south-side of Chicago. It's the only organic-licensed commercial earthworm farm in the city. Jon pays the farm to take the organic waste, which is eventually turned into compost. The soil is then distributed to urban farms in the city to support the growth of crops which are sold to consumers and restaurants. Food waste is then picked up by Jon to complete the cycle.

In addition to supporting homeowners, Jon also has commercial routes that include businesses such as restaurants and office buildings. He's typically pulling 400-500 pounds by the end of a route! Thankfully, Chicago has very few hills. He averages about 8 mph on the bike typically logging 25-30 miles/day on the bike.

The hitch on the bike connects a custom built trailer.

The low cost of using a bike enabled Jon to more easily start the business. He used the service Everyblock to gauge consumer interest in having a pick-up service. EveryBlock is a service to find out what’s happening in a neighborhood and connect with others who live or do business in a neighborhood.

Jon has a custom-built trailer from KannerKarts that holds multiple containers. And his bike mechanic is Adam Clark, Founder of Pedal to the People, yet another player in the sustainable ecosystem of local businesses.


The Bigger Picture of Composting

Before getting into farming Jon did not have much awareness or understanding of compost. He points out that food waste is really stored energy that can be recycled. And he explains that items like paper and napkins were once part of a living organism. Part of his motivation is to educate people about the benefits of composting. One of his techniques is to actually bring compost to meetings so people can connect with the environment by seeing the soil. One common misconception is that composting keeps food waste sitting around. Jon points out that the organic matter is already sitting in the trash can. By composting it's literally not wasted.

Many cities such as New York and Seattle as well as the entire state of California are mandating food waste collection. The goal is to avoid sending the organic waste to landfill. It's estimated that more than 60% of the matter sent to landfills is organic. This represents a huge opportunity to redirect waste and make soil instead of landfills. Jon believes that Chicago is not quite ready for such a big step since the infrastructure is not in place. He points out that some larger waster haulers are collecting organic matter but putting the waste back into far-flung landfills. ​

Looking to the future, Jon envisions a fleet of cyclists hauling organic waste since inner-city bike hauling is a very efficient form of transportation. ​He also sees the potential for using electric vehicles to haul larger waste loads. In the meantime, his business is growing and this coming July he will celebrate a year in operation.

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