meet melissa: milwaukee compost entrepreneur

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

One of Melissa’s proudest moments was taking the kids from McKinley Elementary School on a field trip to Blue Ribbon Organics, where her food scraps and compostable materials turn into rich compost. The kids saw the mountains of compost in various stages, felt its warmth, got to touch it and play. ”They were so into it!” Melissa says.

“I’m not here to point the finger and tell people they have to change,” says Melissa Tashjian. “It has to be something they really desire.”

I appreciate Melissa’s perspective, as she scales up Milwaukee’s composting capabilities. Certainly I’d be fast to admit I wish there was a way to more quickly help people care. Composting, growing food, remaining on the cutting edge of true sustainability—and regenerativity—of our food system are several of the big things that drive my life and career, so I am especially grateful to get to share this week’s wisdom, Melissa Tashjian style.

Melissa, 35, launched Compost Crusader in April 2014 to give food waste and other residuals a higher purpose: creating compost that helps grow more food. She’s trying to close the loop!

Starting with five customers, Compost Crusader had 15 by end of its first year and 40 by the end of 2015. Now, Melissa helps more than 60 current customers—from local restaurants to national corporations including Harley Davidson, Kohl’s and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin—turn “trash” into earthly treasure, keeping it out of our increasingly overstuffed landfills.

People with Panache: I love seeing your Compost Crusader dumpsters across Milwaukee. After starting in the nonprofit realm, how did you launch your company?

Melissa Tashjian: I was a founding member of Kompost Kids, a Milwaukee nonprofit with community and neighborhood composting efforts. We were helping create a community garden in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and realized how expensive good soil was.

Another local nonprofit had space behind their building. They were doing some composting and gave us the opportunity to explore a community-based model. We learned and grew through the process for about 5 years but kind of hit a ceiling. More businesses wanted to come aboard than our volunteer-based group could manage. We wanted to scale up.

At that moment, municipalities across the country were composting, like San Francisco, Boston, and Boulder, Colo. They gave us a lot of hope for moving to the next level.

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

Have there been times Melissa has had to jump into the truck with a shovel to free stubborn food waste? “Oh yeah, our first truck was a dump truck that Matt retrofit to meet our needs,” Melissa says. “In winter, material would freeze between Milwaukee and Caledonia, and we’d be in there with shovel and pickaxe while it was up on an angle, trying to get it out.”

We won a $10,000 grant and tried to get private, established haulers—whether they were doing trash and recycling or organics—to make Milwaukee a focus to create composting infrastructure. But we couldn’t find an organization willing to do that.

I was at a crossroads: Either I can take the next step, because the vision is very clear to me, or sit back and wait until somebody is willing to do it. My boyfriend, who is a welder, a machinist and a mechanic, gave me a lot of support. With that I thought: What’s the worst that could happen? I fail, and at least I can say I tried.

PWP: Exactly! I’m so glad you committed and took the risk to try it. No matter how it went, your work would move Milwaukee toward figuring out the solution—and your plan seems to be working! As all of this has grown, have you also been working outside the compost realm?

MT: I always had a part-time job as a waitress. That’s been my predominant source of income for about 6 years—including at Transfer Pizzeria Café, our first Kompost Kids customer that later came aboard with Compost Crusader.

Until about 2 months ago, I wasn’t getting paid for Compost Crusader. The business is self-sustaining, which is great, but putting in my own funding at the beginning for this, I wasn’t  getting paid for my time. Your time is worth something! It’s taken a bit for me to put a value to my time.

PWP: Who works alongside you to make all this happen? How did you get connected with Blue Ribbon Organics as the next stop where your food residuals and compostables get turned into compost and soil mixes?

MT: When I was working with Kompost Kids, we had too much material and didn’t know what to do with it. Blue Ribbon Organics was interested because they were toying with involving food scraps, launching a composting operation. The owner, James, and I have grown our businesses at the same kind of moment. They’re really the only organization I know of in Southeastern Wisconsin processing this kind of material, like compostable bag liners, and I can’t speak highly enough of that.

I have one employee right now, and my boyfriend Matt Scanella has his own company doing metalworking. Matt is also a master diesel mechanic. We’re finally in a position to pay him for maintenance. He worked hard to start his company.

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

“Food scraps have a shelf life,” Melissa says, explaining that compost does need some regular TLC. “That’s really what we hone in on at Compost Crusader: We are reliable and consistent, and you are our priority. We are going to come up with every solution to keep composting possible for you.”

We’re growing slowly and want to keep a pace that’s healthy for everyone involved. Matt’s a one-man operation and makes all our dumpsters—we’re in this together.

PWP: People sometimes think they “donate” food to be composted, or don’t necessarily realize the necessity or value of composting, especially at your scale. How do you explain it?

MT: Whether you’re a resident or business, you’re paying to have your material removed, through taxes or contracting. I always refer Kompost Kids to organizations who don’t want to pay but are willing to do some work themselves. My whole purpose is to get people to divert organic material—whether it’s through me or someone else is beside the point.

PWP: What are you learning as your company grows?

MT: What we’re trying to accomplish here is really a habit change. So working with schools is something I take a lot of pride in. We’re helping change a habit from the very beginning: sourcing properly, composting, recycling, and taking that information and growing with it as an adult. They can demand it at their workplaces. Habits follow them through life.

I didn’t expect that we’d be part of that impact. When starting this company, I did it because I saw there was a need, the vision was clear, and I felt it was my social responsibility to execute. Now that schools were early adopters, that gives me faith. There is an opportunity to make major changes that will affect everybody in a positive way.

PWP: How do your composting partners find you?

MT: Everything so far has been word of mouth, grassroots, giving a solution to organizations really seeking it. It’s been awesome to see those in support of it.

I would like to do more to connect the dots of food scraps to being able to grow your own food—closing the loop. In Milwaukee, there are a lot of really strong local food movements and ordinances, supporting urban agriculture as careers and businesses. Composting will naturally evolve as part of that. It’s very common for waste streams to be identified and dealt with last.

Sustainability is such a focus for so many, but that word gets overused. To me, sustainability means closing the loop from all avenues, including the financial aspect. If it’s a lot more money for a business to do the right thing, is it sustainable? Is it worth it?

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

“How do you make sure you take care of yourself?” I asked Melissa, here hunting green beans with Bruno. “I struggle with that a lot actually,” She said. “It takes a lot of mental motivation to put the phone down and make time for yourself. As a woman, it’s tough to be a breadwinner, a nurturer, a planner, an organizer, and just you. I feel like we’re always wearing some type of title, hat, responsibility attached to every moment—and I’m not even a mother!”

PWP: “Closing the loop” is close to my heart as well, and I hope as you get on board with more companies both at the ground level and larger scale like Harley, you continue shaping the models of the future. What makes you feel the most fulfilled?

MT: Just being able to do whatever I want with my time. I’ve gotten spoiled being able to create my own schedule—like talking with you at 2 p.m. on my back porch. And it’s fulfilling being able to start planning for the future. We want to be able to live on a sustainable little hobby farm someday. To be able to work now for larger goals in the future is an exciting possibility. Learning is also a lot of fun!

PWP: How do you see Compost Crusader growing?

MT: A lot of people would like to see us franchise out. This is fun for me, and I like the challenges this company presents. It’s not about the money and probably never will be, but if I can share my knowledge with other cities and states and encourage others to accomplish what we have in our city, I will. Otherwise maybe we get big enough and get bought out, and maybe I can retire by the time I’m 50 and live on an eco farm and live our little life.

PWP: That sounds beautiful. And now your next big thing is Milwaukee’s residential composting pilot project. Tell me more!

MT: We’ll be serving 100 households minimum, targeting three more ecologically focused Milwaukee neighborhoods—the maximum we’d do is 500-600. We begin recruiting in September, and once we get 100 participants, we go live. Right now, everything we’ve been doing revolves around planning for this project: making sure we have robust infrastructure, extra equipment, truck maintenance.

For a while you’re so reactive, but now we’re at a good stage, more proactive, transitioning to logistics software to better manage customers, give them better data for diversion and to equate diversion to carbon dioxide emissions. We’re working on a compost app for residents, to help them get more engaged in the compost process but also help acquire data we need that the city will be utilizing. I’m not tech-savvy but it’s pretty wild to be in this digital era. I feel really legit.

Want to help Milwaukee graduate to the next level of composting prowess? I sure do. Watch Compost Crusader’s Facebook page for details about the upcoming pilot. Then, buy some compost to make your garden happy this week!

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