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How can composting become a viable waste management solution?

compost truck

A compost truck with Quito in the background. Image courtesy of ANUNA.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

I became obsessed with municipal solid waste (MSW), or "trash" while living in London and working for a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. My eyes were wide opened when I found out that most of the trash a city generates is organic, that current methods to deal with it are highly impactful to the environment, and overall, unnecessarily wasteful. 

So I went down the composting rabbit hole and started my own pile with dry leaves collected around Notting Hill and my food scraps. Watching the transformation of the pile, from food scraps into beautiful black soil, was mesmerizing. Since then, I have been convinced that the impact compost can have on society goes far beyond its simplicity.

In 2017, I came back to Ecuador after being away from home for 11 years. With a good friend from high school, I started Kaaru, a dairy business that has since grown to be the No. 1 brand of Greek-style yogurt in the country. Yet, my passion and commitment to solving the organic trash juggernaut remain my most intense obsession. 

Kaaru

ANUNA’s composting beds use aerated static piles. We added Kaaru’s logo as a recognition of our first corporate sponsor. Image courtesy of ANUNA.

In Quito and other cities of Ecuador, organic waste represents at least 65 percent of MSW. This trash type generates enormous amounts of methane and nasty leachates when buried in landfills. For those that don’t know, leachates are contaminated liquids that percolate through a solid waste disposal site and originate as a consequence of the high water content of organic waste. We are not only running out of space in municipal landfills (in Quito’s case, the municipal landfill is estimated to have a leftover capacity of fewer than 12 months), but we are throwing away valuable nutrients and massively adding to greenhouse gas emissions. In short, the status quo is senseless.

Creating value where others see waste

At the end of 2020, I started ANUNA, a free pickup service for organic waste focused on households. To date, the service has grown to reach about 1,500 families with an approximate total population of 6,000 people. ANUNA’s van traverses many of Quito’s neighborhoods every weekday, bringing back valuable resources to the composting site. Located in the Botanical Garden of Quito, ANUNA’s operation is placed in the urban heart of the city, making it one of its kind.

I believe ANUNA’s cumulative impact already shows tremendous potential. Our current monthly "recovery rate" is north of 60 metric tons, and as of June 30, our van has picked up and our composting site has processed about 600 tons of organic waste. This is equivalent (based on the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator) to the carbon sequestered by 19,000 tree seedlings grown for 10 years. We have also sent back to farmers more than 150 tons of compost and about 30,000 liters of compost tea. Although ANUNA’s work only manages to recover about 0.001 percent of the organic waste produced in Quito, our approach views cities as efficient "resource recovery centers" supporting the project’s scalability potential.

Nature’s designs and processes are very powerful blueprints. Embedded in them is an inalienable principle of circularity — nature produces no trash. The way cities currently deal with MSW is linear and even hinders circularity. In profound contrast, ANUNA is conceived around circularity as an indispensable requisite, resulting in a change of process from "trash collection" to "resource recovery." 

Compost is made from the combination of four essential ingredients (nitrogen, carbon, water and air) and the power of nature. In the context of Quito’s MSW, nitrogen (food scraps and organic waste) and carbon (garden waste) are being treated as trash and sent to landfills. At ANUNA, we recognize these items as valuable input resources and Quito as an ample generator of them. The reason ANUNA’s composting operation was established in the Botanical Garden — itself situated inside one of the biggest municipal parks of Quito (Parque La Carolina) — is to demonstrate how a city can be transformed from "consumer" to "regenerator."

Let’s go back to the compost recipe to see how. The Botanical Garden and Parque La Carolina produce hundreds of square meters of garden waste (carbon) every week. These tons are treated as trash and are a heavy economic burden to both operations. In contrast, ANUNA can’t service more homes and collect additional organic waste (nitrogen) without securing enough carbon for our compost mix. By operating close to a recurring carbon source, ANUNA effectively turns what is now considered waste into resources. This symbiotic relationship can be replicated across the city, addressing 65 percent of the waste type Quito generates and recycling valuable nutrients through compost. This "city compost" is then used by agricultural operations, demonstrating the power of circularity.

A creative approach to financial success

ANUNA’s free service has attracted a lot of attention and built substantial goodwill with our household base. Although we do sell our compost and compost tea, the operation still runs at a net loss. I, as the founder and financier of the project, strongly believe that offering a free service creates a powerful and committed network and attracts positive attention from regulators. However, this means I need to think creatively about ways to make ANUNA financially viable. In this context, ANUNA has identified three main revenue channels: corporate sponsorships/carbon credits, municipal tipping fees and compost sales.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

Corporate sponsorships and carbon credits are the channels I am most excited about. I believe this avenue most intimately links the environmental impact of organic waste and the monetization of ANUNA’s unique and committed network. As an example, ANUNA is experimenting with integrating product samples such as new flavors of a yogurt brand or new versions of a toothbrush into its household service route, charging a delivery fee to the sponsors while maximizing the existing routes. Although carbon credit sales are still not regulated or available in Ecuador, ANUNA is working to get its carbon footprint certified so that it can be ready when the regulation advances.

My long-term vision for ANUNA is to become the largest organic waste operator in Ecuador. This road is no doubt filled with many challenges, some of which are unique to this country, others that are global and shared with all. Yet, given organic waste represents the biggest proportion of MSW in most cities around the world, I am convinced there is no other way to solve our trash issue without starting there.

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