New program turns table food scraps into gardening black gold

A plant in Kathie Armstrong's garden flourishes in soil mixed with local compost. Photo by Rebecca IsenhartA plant in Kathie Armstrong's garden flourishes in soil mixed with local compost. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Kathie Armstrong stands in her front garden, one of several she fertilizes with compost from Empire Zero. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Gazette Reporter
NISKAYUNA — Kathie Armstrong has a secret ingredient that helps her extensive flower gardens grow: her leftovers.
Not directly, of course.
Armstrong is one of a small, but growing number of people in Schenectady who keep their unused food items out of the landfill by participating in a residential composting program run by Empire Zero, a young company that recycles food waste.
Armstrong dedicates much of her time to environmental projects: she sits on the board of Schenectady’s Environmental Clearinghouse, or ECOS, and recently had a suite of solar panels installed on her roof. But because her Niskayuna housing development has small yards and strict land use rules, she is unable to build her own compost heap.
“It’s ideal,” she said. “You save it, they pick it up, it’s very inexpensive and you’re doing a good, green thing.”
To join the composting program, homeowners request a special bucket with compostable liners and an airtight lid. Leftovers go into the bucket, which is picked up either weekly or biweekly, depending on the resident’s preference.
“They just lift the bag out and leave your bucket and give you a new bag,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s an idea whose time has come.”
After a few weeks of participation, the company’s drivers return the waste in the form of compost to be used for gardening. Weekly pickup costs between $18 and $22 per month for one bucket, and a biweekly option is also available.
Tyler Holloway and his father, Phil Holloway founded Empire Zero in April 2012 when they wanted to compost, but realized they were on their own.
“About two years ago, my father and I decided to start diverting food waste from the landfill. We saw that there were no companies in New York state doing any sort of food pickup, even though there was a need for it,” Holloway said.
The residential branch of the program launched in July 2013 and has more than doubled its participation during that time to include 75 private partners. Already, including corporate accounts, Holloway estimates the company recycles between 30 and 40 tons of compost each week.
Empire Zero’s residential director, Kyle Lanzit, expects the operation to expand rapidly in its next few years.
“I think it’s going to be mainstream eventually,” he said. “It’s no more burden than recycling.” Lanzit noted that on the West Coast, where composting is already popular, companies that use it often see a significant cost savings because recycling food waste is typically cheaper than sending un-separated waste to a landfill.
Jeff Corbin, a Niskayuna resident and professor of environmental science and ecology at Union College, said the potential for waste reduction with composting is surprisingly great. Corbin began composting on his own years ago, but switched to the residential program when it became available earlier this month because his personal compost heap was limited by weather to the summer months and, he said, sometimes smelled a bit unpleasant.

A plant in Kathie Armstrong's garden flourishes in soil mixed with local compost. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

A plant in Kathie Armstrong’s garden flourishes in soil mixed with local compost. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

“What I really noticed in terms of the impact is our trash now is probably half of what it was,” he said. “In terms of what we wind up putting out at the curb for weekly pickup, it feels like it’s reduced it by half in weight.
“That really told me what we’re transporting to the landfill, not only me but all of us, is something that could be taken out of garbage trucks,” Corbin said. Although leftovers and other food waste such as paper and greasy cardboard, all of which are accepted by Empire Zero, are biodegradable, Corbin explained the landfill environment prevents necessary breakdown.
“Because in the landfill you wind up burying it so quickly, every day’s garbage ends up piling on top of yesterday’s garbage and the breakdown process needs air. In a landfill, there’s no oxygen, so no breakdown,” he said.
Alternatively, the composting process involves turning the material to expose it to oxygen. “It winds up being a wonderful addition to your garden,” Corbin said.
Lanzit noted that while composting is an opportunity now, it just may be a requirement in the near future. Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have all banned or are in the process of banning food waste from landfills.
But he doesn’t think anyone will mind adding composting to their recycling routines. “Once you start doing it you find you want to do it more and more,” he said.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.