Erlene Howard calls herself a treehugger with an interest in health for both body and planet. She combined her skills and interests to found her own company, Collective Resource, Inc., to help others understand the importance of composting as a big step forward in helping the environment.
With many traditional waste locations nearing capacity, and the country as a whole trying to figure out what to do with all its garbage, Howard wants people to understand that it is not all garbage, and that we are literally throwing away our future by not composting those materials which can be re-used.
Howard's company will be among those exhibiting at the Chicago Green Wedding Alliance "Committed: An Avant-Garde Wedding Event" Sunday, Feb. 26, noon-4 p.m. at the Greenhouse Loft, 2545 W. Diversey. See greenweddingalliance.com .
Howard, 52, an Evanston resident who identifies as bisexual, was a business administrator in previous careers, so when she started to think about opening her own composting service, she knew she could use those skills to strengthen the business.
"As my food evolved, I started to teach people a little more about raw vegan food preparation," Howard said. One student collected the food scraps to take to her compost pile, and this inspired Howard to learn more about the other end of the food cycle.
"As a condo dweller, there was not really any space for me to compost. Some people can set up a bin, but I didn't have anywhere to put a bin," she said. For a while, she gave her food scraps to the former student, but by October 2009 she was inspired to create a service for other people who would compost, if it was accessible.
She researched the idea with friends, and Howard eventually modeled her company after The Earthgirl from Vermont, www.earthgirlcomposting.com . Then she researched where in the Chicago area she could take the composting she would pick up from clients.
In April 2010 she met Ken Dunn, who became her mentor. He runs the Resource Center, www.resourcecenterchicago.org, a 35-year-old non-profit environmental education organization.
Dunn helped Howard "close the loop" on the composting process, introducing her to Land and Lakes, www.land-and-lakes.com, the company that she now uses to compost all of her clients scraps.
"I feel the whole concept has been a real giftand it was interesting timing as far as what Illinois was doing," Howard said. "The waste hauler industry had gotten food scraps classified as toxic waste. They did it so nobody else could take garbage. So, until January 2010 when Illinois SB 99 passed, it was illegal for residents and restaurants to separate food scraps. So now it is legal."
Senate Bill 99, proposed by state Sen. Heather Steans, simplified the permitting process for food waste composting. Previously, food waste composting facilities in Illinois "were regulated like solid waste facilities, which means they [ were ] almost as expensive and complicated to permit as landfills," according to BioCycle magazine.
Howard said the law was successful in part because municipalities are running out of landfill space.
"It's really important to have the nutrients from the food scraps go back into our soil for lawns and gardens," Howard said. "It's really bad to have the food scraps in landfillthey need an environment to break down naturally. If they are in a landfill, and all of them are just packed in, then the scraps do not have the air and water and turning, natural turning, to have them decompose naturally, so that's why it creates methane.
"There are some healthy ways to speed up the process of composting food scraps with bio digesters, but they also create methanebut then it can be captured and used for good like for heating or running equipment. Methane has good uses if is captured.
"Land and Lakes, they use a wind row processthey let in air, sunlight, water and turn it, they let it break down naturally."
While Land and lakes does take lawn scraps, Howard focuses primarily on food and other compostable items.
Howard's first haul was in June 2010. By August 2011, they had their first one-ton week of hauling. Now, they haul an average of two tons a week from across Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette and Chicago. Last December, they hauled one ton in just one day.
Howard has 80 residential customers and eight restaurants, including Tweet, and the client she is perhaps most proud of is the Academy for Global Citizenship, www.agcchicago.org, a Chicago Public Charter School, located on the Southwest Side of the city. Their mission is "to empower all students to positively impact the community and world beyond."
"They cook breakfast and lunch, and it's all home-cooked food, as local as possible," Howard said. "It is all served on plates and with silverware that get washed and re-used for every meal. They produce 32 gallons a day of food scrapsand we pick up once a week."
In April 2011, Howard hired Mary Beth Schaye, a client, to consult with other clients about "zero waste" events. Schaye is a Green Committee chair at her daughter's elementary school "and with the help of Collective Resource has been instrumental in transforming the school's community events from events that generated bags and bags of garbage to nearly zero-waste events. Mary Beth has signed on with Collective Resource to help other schools and organizations to make this same transition," CR states on its Website.
"Mary Beth Schaye works diligently to green every party she is invited to," Howard said.
Howard has one truck, and her son Kevin Macica, who is 22, is now employed to help with the liftingalthough in the beginning, he had to work up to his mom's level of strength, since she was already building her muscles through the early months of hauling.
"My mission is to compost for any company or any household that wants to do it," Howard said. "But that has to be within my geographic areaI can't be driving too far for so little. But my goals are kind of endless. There are very open-ended and organic. But for now, I see us easily increasing to being able to haul five tons a week and continuing partnerships with residents and restaurants and communities that want to reduce their landfill use.
"I would not have to buy another truck or anything to get us to five tons a week. The truck is a 2008 Dodge Sprinter cargo van. We pick up containers, and don't tip them until we get to the facility."
Howard charges her clients a fee based on the bin size they use, and gives discounts for multiple pickups in a small geographic area. She pays a tipping fee at Land and Lakes, and then that company makes money reselling the final product.
"I would like to emphasize this is a win-win-win of it being composted and put back into the soil; there is a lose-lose-lose of it going into the landfill," Howard said. "For the most part, what it costs people to throw their stuff into the garbage is minimal. But it will get more expensive when we run out of landfill. So this is a paying it forwardif you start separating and encourage your neighbors now, we will pay less in the future."
Part of the job of Collective Resource, and Howard and Schaye, is education. It isn't just about hauling scraps. They attend green events and expos, and will speak to just about any audience that wants to learn how to be environmentally conscious.
Schaye especially focuses on "precycling," planning ahead at your events to have a zero-waste result. This means using any number of beautifully looking disposables. "We do pancake breakfasts for 300 people, and end up with less than a jewel bag full of landfill," Howard said.
Precycling, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precycling, "is a brilliant way of bringing consciousness to it," Schaye said. "It starts in the storeyou can make choices. Consumers really have a lot of power. If you don't have the means to compost in any way, avoid certain things. Glass and aluminum are better than plastic. At the very least, try to buy things you can recycle in your town. Try not to buy things you can't recycle.
"You are more aware of how much waste is created when there are more people together at onceat weddings, community events and at schools. Because I have an interest in parties and party planning, I'm also very interested in the types of products that are compostable, and I am finding out about new ones all the time."
Schaye said there are many price levels, and that being good for the environment doesn't have to mean it is expensive.
Schaye also said that "something is better than nothing; diverting some of your food scraps is better than nothing. Every little bit counts. I don't want people to take zero waste so literally, that they feel like they don't want to try. If the best you can do is not buy Styrofoam, than do not buy that. We do talk to restaurants about thatmost that want to hire us are already far down the road, buying the compostable things."
Howard sums up their business nicely: "It is not garbage. It is nourishment for the planet."
Collective Resource's pickup area includes Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette, and Chicago's North Side and Chicago from Howard Street to Ohio Street and the lakefront to Kimball Avenue, but contact them to see if they can fit you into their schedule even if you are outside of those areas.
See www.collectiveresource.us .