Interview with Clay Ezell from The Compost Company
Maris Masellis: Everyone Clay Ezell is here from the compost company. And I’m Maris
Michael Britt: I’m Michael Britt.
Maris Masellis: And that’s Michael Britt. And this is Zero Waste Trash Talk. And we are going to talk with Clay tonight about composting and different things in Nashville that are going on around that. But listen, I didn’t want to stop you from the story you were saying I was just like, this is the kind of fun banter I feel like people should get to know a little bit more about you and we’re just talking about clays awesome background so we’re all remote as normal. Michael is at his house. I’m at my house and clay is at his grandparents house or your wife’s. Is it your wife’s?
Clay Ezell: Yes. That would be my grand in laws? Grand parents in laws?. Yeah, that would be the way we say that yes. This house was built by Don Pierce, my wife’s grandfather in 1968. He was a he owned a recording studio called Starday Records and I would love to give you the tour because this place is country fabulous from exactly that era and it has remained a period piece. I mean, it looks exactly the same as it did when they first moved in.
Maris Masellis: I can only see a little bit of it and I want to see all of it.
Clay Ezell: So it would take the duration of this entire thing, but there’s some wonderful, wonderful stuff going on this little corner of Sumner county and on Old Hickory lake. It’s been our retreat and has been huge for our COVID kind of isolation.
Maris Masellis: Are you guys staying there with them?
Clay Ezell: Um, my wife and boys are have been here more than I have. This has been you know, this whole thing kind of took place right in the middle of our busiest season of the year. It’s when all of the material really goes out the door. You know what we take in and divert from landfilling, we process into finished compost and this is the time of year that it goes out to farmers and landscapers and home gardeners. And we’ve seen a pretty major uptick this year in residential delivery. Really, we delivered to homeowners and I think everybody was stuck at home. So this was the year that they finally were like, you know, that garden we’ve been thinking about for the last five years. It’s like it’s time to do it now. So we’ve seen a lot more stuff going into the hands of, of homeowners.
Maris Masellis: So it’s like seasons right? This is like the season where you’re dropping off everything. So how does that kind of work like throughout the year? What does that look like?
Clay Ezell: Spring is sort of the season around which our year revolves, at least on the product side of what we do. Because we do two things really. We we divert organic material from the landfill. And that takes place on a pretty steady basis all year long. That’s coming from restaurants and grocery stores and hospitals and schools and places like that. And in a normal year, which this one has been anything but, you know, that is a very steady flow that that doesn’t really have any seasonality. But the the time when people are using compost when they’re actually starting and maintaining gardens there’s a heavy focus on the spring, because that’s when everybody wants to get, you know, get going. Around the middle of February is when most people start getting going. And then we have some people who do some fall applications. So we have like one really busy outbound season and then we have one sort of smaller one in the fall.
Maris Masellis: And then everything the whole year is pretty much you’re always collecting.
Clay Ezell: Exactly. That never really knows seasonality. We’re always collecting food. But we stay busy
Michael Britt: Collecting and my mad scientisting. Is that a word scientisting. Because you’re like a combination between like a scientist and chemistry set out there and then your all your different various piles aging at different times is like aging bourbon in different barrels. When I visited to shoot video, I was very impressed with all the different levels. This one’s been sitting here for months and this one’s a newer pile and this one’s been sifted multiple times. This one’s organic and this one’s lettuce, mint and tobacco. It was interesting.
Clay Ezell: Yeah, it’s always coming in. We don’t always necessarily get a lot of notice for what we will get, you know. 10 hours of notice, if that and you know, I’ll say okay, distributor has a load that went bad on the truck? We need to bring it to you right now. Where are we like, Okay, all right, we can figure it out. We’ve had to develop a process by which doesn’t matter if we get in 40,000 pounds of spinach or sweet potatoes or, you know, broccoli or whatever it is, because those trucking companies they need to get it off that truck pronto. Because once it’s gone bad there their entire need is to have that truck back on the road hauling stuff again. So, it comes in a lot of different forms.
Michael Britt: So let’s talk about that for a second. Because when I was out there, you had one of those trucks full of I think it was lettuce and you had a tanker of chocolate that had gone bad. Something wrong with it and then some tobacco waste. Yeah, it was actually kind of an interesting smell. So most of the time when that happens, is it really ruined or is it just no longer Grade A grocery store quality because it got a little wilted and now they’re gonna dump it.
Clay Ezell: That is one of the sort of the sad things about it. In a lot of cases where as say a a truck has been deemed unacceptable by say the food packager a truck has been on the road from California, Arizona, Florida. If any of it spoils on the way, let’s say the guy turned the temperature down to too low and the top 50 pallets or top 50 crates out of 2000 froze. The whole load has to go. So it’s one of those things where it’s like you know, we’re happy that it has been being diverted to compos t instead of landfilling. However, there’s 36,000 pounds of produce that are perfectly good, but regulations require that the whole thing go. We’re working on ways and we’ve been talking recently with Jeannie Hunter from the Society of St. Andrew and some other like minded organizations about how we can possibly recover some of that
Michael Britt: I was just going to mention her
Clay Ezell: The regulations are broader about protections for diverting food for feeding hungry people then I think a lot of people realize. A lot of people are like, well, if it’s you know, if it’s even possibly deemed not acceptable for a food packager, then it can’t go to somebody else. But actually, if it’s done in good faith, and most of this stuff is pristine, it’s in good shape, we can divert it to them. What we’re trying to work through right now is the time pressure. Because, you know, we’re all outdoors, Michael, you’ve been there before, we don’t have a whole lot of places to store that stuff. So we need to get it into hands almost the moment it’s coming off a truck. So there’s there’s a lot of challenges there. But we’re we’re trying to work through some of those and see how that’s gonna go. Because we do believe that the first place food like that ought to go is into the hands of people who need it. And we recognize our place in the food hierarchy as kind of the last line of defense before it actually goes into a landfill and we can do something good with it. But there are higher and better uses than you know, ending up in a compost pile. But because of the way the food system works, a lot of it is going to end up in our direction one way or the other. So we’re trying to figure out ways within how we do things to get it to people like Jeannie and The Society of St Andrew.
Michael Britt: That’s great that you’re aware of and working with her. So I was going to suggest that you hook up with them for food (gleaning), right, they go out into the farm fields and save produce.
Clay Ezell: That’s right. And gleaning is a very, you know, viable way to do it. It really is just a matter of getting all those people together in the same place when the farmer says, hey I’ve got all this extra stuff, right? The clock is ticking on getting it so in the case of say, a trucking company who has showed up at our place. every minute that that truck isn’t hauling stuff for them it’s not making money and therefore is a problem. So…
Maris Masellis: money, money and money.
Michael Britt: One more thing about that, this is a fascinating side of what you do, and I want to talk more about it but then I want to come back to I’m sure some of the people listening may not even be clear how composting works? We’ll just start back at the beginning in a minute. But this is fascinating because the other thing that happens is those produce trucks come loaded with the reusable plastic crates on them full of produce. And they just dump those and they don’t come back to get them. So they’re not really being reused once they write off the load. I bring this up because you were a rock star hero during the tornado recently, because several groups that we were working with needed boxes and they needed things to distribute goods in and I called you up because I remembered you mentioning those (crates). You delivered a huge cube van full of them to the Community Resource Center and then delivered about 100 of them to me to give out. You really stepped up and brought those in and and they were really put to good use.
Maris Masellis: Hats off to both of you guys for making that connection. Really, that was pretty incredible.
Clay Ezell: Well, you guys were so much deeper in it than we were. We made a delivery of a thing that we knew would get used. So hats off to y’all, you were all over it during that emergency. And it’s just amazing that something that significant seems to have like, not faded away by any means. But then suddenly COVID comes on the heels of that, and it was like…
Maris Masellis: Yeah, we were dumped on for quite a while, I feel like. But you know what, Michael, he does this crazy thing and he’s taught me a lot about sustainability. That being the key is just remembering where these types of things happen. Like you remembered crates that could be reused for this. And that’s the key to sustainability is just kind of remembering where these resources are and be like, wait, well, those aren’t being used. So why can’t we use them here and that’s really forward thinking to me. So I’m learning every step of the way, guys, I’m keeping tabs but back to the composting and what it is and if you’d like to explain it in your simplest form, would you like to tell our listeners what what Composting is?
Clay Ezell: Sure. At it’s most basic, the reusing of something that would otherwise be going into the trash in the form of organic waste. Organic waste is the number one largest single stream of material going into landfills today. It’s between 30 and 40% and most of this is food scraps, wasted food, wood, leaf waste, things like that. Anything that was once alive.
Maris Masellis: And I like to say whatever came from the earth goes back into the earth and that’s what composting is, if it came from the earth, you can put it back into the earth is that is that accurate?
Clay Ezell: It absolutely is accurate. The problem is we’re putting it back into the earth in a landfill, which is a deeply unnatural way to do that. Putting it back into the earth in the form of finished compost is a whole different ballgame compared to putting it in a big hole and stuffing it all down in there (landfill) which doesn’t really work out.
Maris Masellis: Let’s expand on that, which I think is interesting. I bartended at a party in in Franklin and I had a conversation with some people there because nothing that we were using was reusable or compostable. It’s all plastic products. And it was crushing my soul a little bit. And this older gentleman came over and we were talking about it and it was a really interesting conversation because I was not prepared for what he was about to say when I talked to him about what a landfill actually was. He’s like, well, yeah, everything is going back into the earth there. We’re just throwing it away into there. And isn’t that composting and I was shocked. We sat there and talked for another 10 minutes because he would not agree with me about where it went, and thought that the landfill was just as good. Like, that was a good thing. And, oh, I couldn’t really talk anymore. I was working.
Clay Ezell: Keep it out of the work environment.
Maris Masellis: But I really wanted to talk to that man on this podcast today and just tell him the landfill is not a good thing. It’s not we’re not putting things back into the earth in the landfill. It’s completely different than composting. From what I’ve learned is that we can take everything that we don’t eat and put it into soil. And that’s where you guys come in, and you and you grind it all up or tell me about that process. What happens there?
Clay Ezell: We do. Basically, we take a variety of different kinds of organic waste. And again, like you said, Maris, it’s like whatever was once alive and essentially what we do, depending on what we get in the day, we blend it into the right ratios. And generally it’s sort of carbon and nitrogen and we’d like to make sure that they’re blended in the right way so that they’ll process quickly. It’s a little bit like baking in a way we get the right recipe, the ingredients, there’s some very large piles, which we then set up on a on a pad that we have on our site. We used to do it where we were turning these very large wind rows and we had to turn them all the time. It felt like we were doing it constantly but now we actually pump air through it. And it helps us do a lot more on a quicker timetable and we can produces a better compost.
Maris Masellis: How long does that process go for?
Clay Ezell: If we’re doing everything optimally, it takes about 90 days from raw what we call feedstock. Which is, you know, Apple cores, banana peels, meat, bone dairy, you know, whatever it happens to be and wood chip primarily. We get a lot of that from tree trimmers and landscapers who are always looking for outlets to bring their stuff.
Maris Masellis: And that can be affected by the other stuff right the the other compostable products that they’re coming out with now that you’re that you’re having to deal with the different plastic looking compostable products.
Clay Ezell: Yes, compostable plastics. They’re made out of primarily a corn resin which is compostable. There are certain types of them that have some problematic after effects. But that’s a pretty deep in the weeds conversation. But we are noticing a lot more hospitality clients using more compostable serviceware, which certainly beat the heck out of you know, just a petroleum based plastic. So short story long there’s a lot of people who would argue against compostable plastics, but you know, it is a better alternative than what else is out there for single use.
Maris Masellis: But it doesn’t mess up the process too much like it since it’s not optimal. Like you were saying.
Clay Ezell: It’s not but we’ve optimized our process to incorporate those. There’s a lot of composters out there that don’t accept them. But for us to work with people like Vanderbilt and some of our restaurant clients and hotels and things that rely on a lot of grab and go type service. That was one of the ways that we can make the process work for them on their end, because otherwise it would require a lot of sorting that would have to go on and people, especially people in crowds are pretty bad at it. Even well meaning people who want to do the right thing. But if you give them a whole lot of choices, it can be confusing. I mean, even for me, who’s in it all day, every day, if you laid out 10 different service items and told me, you know, without any branding on them … well, I’d be pretty good at picking them out.
Michael Britt: Oh, wait, what’s our next segment? We’re gonna ask you to pick. No, just kidding. We talked about how it’s impossible to tell unless you look at the little tiny labeling. You have to turn your cup upside down and read it. Who would expect doing that?
Maris Masellis: I have one right here. I just got some food from Wild Cow and they gave me some free cookies cuz they’re awesome.
Clay Ezell: We love Wild Cow
Michael Britt: Is the lid compostable?
Maris Masellis: Yeah, pretty sure. Let’s see. Oh, wait. This says compostable biodegradable on the bottom. And then the top says, actually it says PPE number 5 so I guess not, the top is plastic.
Michael Britt: Yeah, that’s what I thought it was. Yeah. So I want to get back to the difference here because we’re we are talking about restaurant to go containers. We talked about it internally and externally a lot. But especially now everybody’s getting everything to go you know, it’s takeout that’s the primary way we’re all getting our food. And, and one of the things that we’ve mentioned before is that people don’t understand that if a restaurant is paying extra and providing us with compostable plastics and compostable materials, it doesn’t do any good to throw them in the trash. We have to send those to an industrial facility which we’re lucky enough to have here being Compost Company and what you do. And the reason for that is back to what you’re saying where you have the air shooting underneath the piles correct, you’re able to heat these piles a lot hotter than we can at home. So it breaks down those materials.
Clay Ezell: Right? And it’s also a question even, you know, our process is always one part of it just volume, like your average homeowner isn’t going to create a pile that’s big enough to keep and maintain the kinds of temperatures that are required for breaking those things down. Because it does require heat, and it requires time and it requires a lot of manipulation. And so, I mean, I’ve tried it at home and I have tried it really, really vigorously. And, you know, a (compostable) fork or a spoon, or that cup is going to take a dreadfully long time, I had one that lasted almost two years but in in our process where we’re grinding it and we’re getting it up to, you know, our piles shoot up to 180 degrees inside of about 48 hours once we really put them all together. And so that that’s what’s required is that kind of volume and temperature.
Michael Britt: And that’s the way we’re talking about the different being that a landfill is anaerobic where it doesn’t get oxygen and composting is aerobic, is that correct?
Clay Ezell: That is correct. And that is the reason why organic material doesn’t belong in that environment. If you throw an apple core on the ground, in an aerobic environment, it’s going to break down correctly with almost no environmental impact at all. I mean, nature has evolved for that kind of apple to fall off that tree and animals and bacteria and microbes and everything, make it go back from whence it came right back into the soil and it’s a very virtuous loop. If you throw that apple core and 10 million like it into an into a landfill environment, cover it up every day, it’s deprived of that oxygen making it an anaerobic environment and it then produces a significant amount of methane which is one of one of many detrimental environmental impacts that landfills have is production of methane.
Michael Britt: Now, can I stay on this technicality for a minute too? Because the other question I have is there are good anaerobic processes as well, right? There are bacterial ones?
Clay Ezell: There are. Those are the ones that where it’s actually enclosed and and you’re actually capturing any of that methane and burning it for energy. You know, we didn’t pursue that avenue forward just because they’re pretty expensive to build. And, you know, our process gives us a lot of flexibility about what we can take. In really dense urban environments. If you need to put something within a city, an anaerobic digester type of thing is a popular choice, especially where you’ve got a lot of political will to spend $10, $20, $30 million dollars to actually build one. New York is a great example. San Francisco is a great example where they have spent an enormous amount of money to build these things because they’re spending it otherwise just to ship trash out of town. New York (spends) something between 500 million and a billion dollars a year just to get trash out of dodge. They used to just haul it out into the ocean and dump it. I don’t mean to laugh. It’s just like, washing up on the beach in New Jersey, I mean, this was in like the early 1900s. And then they started landfilling it and then they filled up Staten Island and that became untenable. But they they’ve run out of landfill space in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware and all these places. It’s now going on trains primarily to South Carolina, and I think to Arizona.
Maris Masellis: out of control
Michael Britt: The math there. It’s doesn’t add up. We’re gonna ship all this waste away and a good portion of it could have been composted and kept in our cities and in our environments and reused, but we’re going to pay more money. It’s short sided thinking that we’re just going to keep shipping trash as far away and filling up landfills and not worrying about the future bill for that. It’s crazy.
Clay Ezell: It is, it’s ludicrous. They finally said, alright, wait a minute, building the $90 million facility to do it here now does make sense because all of these other states, I mean, you know, Pennsylvania used to take it fairly cheaply, and that was the sweep it under the rug option, and it’s no longer an option. So that’s how we handle most of our waste. I mean, whether it be hazardous or not,
Maris Masellis: Does anyone know who came up with a landfill idea? Who came up with this idea? Was it a toddler because you just want to sweep it under the rug like you said and and pretend it’s not there that just seems so silly.
Clay Ezell: Or if you’re nomadic, you just leave it all in a pile and move and go. Unfortunately, I think it’s been a problem for a long time. Archaeologists love studying trash piles…
Maris Masellis: As we create more materials, yeah, there has to be somewhere for it to go. So we have to start thinking in the beginning of the process. That’s what we’re learning is that we have to reverse it all somehow.
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Michael Britt: Hey, before we get back to the interview, I wanted to tell you about a new feature on our website. A lot of listeners have given us feedback that we talked about a lot of things in an episode and some of it goes by pretty fast. So we created a web page for each episode with a full transcript and links to everything we talked about at ZeroWasteTrashTalk.com check it out.
Maris Masellis: Composting is actually something I just started this last year. I’ll be honest on my journey I was always really intimidated about composting. When I heard composting I thought, Oh, that’s a little too advanced for me. You know, that’s a little too much for me. And then when I started doing it, I realized how easy it is. And I’m sure that you talk to many people about how easy it really is to do it, and what kind of feedback do you get? Or what kind of excuses Do you hear from different people? What’s the biggest intimidation with composting?
Clay Ezell: Well, it comes in several different ways. I mean, we get it from either the homeowner side, that is, you know, do I really need to do this in my backyard aren’t I gonna attract pests, isn’t it a lot of work? What am I going to do with the finished compost when I have it? You know, I can only do vegetables, right? So what do I do with all the meat I might as well just throw it all away. But then we also get it from the commercial side, because primarily the people that we collect from our commercial producers, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. And we do that because they don’t have the option to even do it in their backyard. In a perfect world everybody takes care of their own doorstep, right?
Maris Masellis: In a perfect world,
Clay Ezell: In a perfect world. But we at least offer the option for those who don’t have that option aall in for form of places, you know, the Hilton Hotels and we work with the city (Nashville) and on that end it’s mostly about, well, it’s gonna cost more it’s gonna smell it’s gonna attract pests. I mean, there’s a lot of crossover. Our sole mission is to prove to people that it not only doesn’t cost more, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t attract pests and with a with a vigorous program, you can make a humongous impact. Fortunately we’re seeing a lot of national brands like Hilton and Marriott and things. This was mostly pre-COVID before a lot of the wind got sucked out of the hospitality sector
Maris Masellis: Really? That’s a big cut into your compost that you collect. That’s if the hotels and restaurants aren’t creating any organic waste then…
Clay Ezell: Exactly that’s been that’s been the biggest impact we’ve seen right now. We have seen however an increase in the amount of stuff that we’re getting from industrial producers like food manufacturers to packagers, you know, the the General Mills of the world are going strong because grocery stores are doing well and people are eating more at home. So it’s been a big shift of where it’s coming from. But back to your question about the barriers, there’s a ton of them and I think most people, once they see whether they do it at home, whether they do it in their place of business, if they can, if they can just take the first step, nudged or otherwise and it can pretty quickly be proven that it is not a humongous hassle. It’s like beginning recycling at home. Once you kind of get over the mental hump. Generally speaking, I find that it is one of the smallest of habit changes and it can be done in such a variety of ways. You don’t have to be a pro gardener to want to use the finished compost to do it. You can just divert it for diversion sake.
Michael Britt: Yeah. And like, you know, that’s so easy. I’ll just talk about my path to this for a minute because being able to keep the wet materials in my freezer, the bottom drawer of my freezer is where I put all of my scraps all of my food scraps, and nothing is smelly. Nothing’s gross. There’s no bugs, no rodents, I have two big akitas.
Maris Masellis: And, by the way, Akitas are dogs
Michael Britt: Two big dogs. And if I had a pile in my yard, they’d be getting into it. The rats that fall off the train, which we do see rats falling off the train of the train. Oh, yeah, they they kind of love compost piles and stuff. So there are issues here and the fact that we have city composting. Now granted, we have to take it to the convenient centers where you guys pick it up (from). But that’s a really awesome thing for us to have. And I don’t think people realize in this country, how few resources there are like this. When I started doing research about this only 3% of all composting facilities in the country accept food waste,
Clay Ezell: Correct. And that is because it’s difficult, you run into a lot of challenges that require extra care. And most most composting takes place, you know, green waste lawn and garden waste, wood waste, that kind of thing, because it’s relatively hassle free. You can make a lot of product without running the risk of creating a big smell. We being fairly mission driven wanting to attack that problem. From the get go we wanted to address it and wanted to accept food waste, because we knew what a giant portion of the waste stream it was. We designed our system to accommodate that and there is more risk involved. But, I mean, if you do it right, then I think we’ve proven over the course of our history. We’ve been able to do it without becoming a nuisance and without stinking up Cheatham County, which is where we’re located. But (we are) aiming at a higher at a higher ring.
Michael Britt: When I compost, I feel so much better about that than recycling. I don’t have to worry that that’s going to end up in some foreign country. I know that I’m taking this out of the waste stream and it’s actually going to be reused. I feel great about it. It’s funny, you’re talking about your backyard compost filling up and being so huge. How we have to have huge piles, I make a lot of compost. We cook a lot. We we have tons of dog hair. It’s a ton of compost.
Clay Ezell: That’s your dog hair? I was wondering where all that dog hair came from.
Michael Britt: Are you serious? You’ve seen it. Have you seen it in the compost?
Maris Masellis: He’s just messing with you!
Clay Ezell: No it’s just part of the larger pile but I’m now gonna keep my eyes peeled.
Michael Britt: When when COVID started, the first thing they (Nashville Metro) did that I want to ask you about, is that they shut the convenience center down. And that was a little crazy. It opened up one day a week after that and then we weren’t allowed to compost. It had been piling up here so I started distributing it to my neighbor’s compost pile filling it to the brim. And so there was a one week period where I was like, I’m gonna have to sign up with Compost Nashville for pickup. I’m gonna have to find somewhere to do this. And just for one week, I stopped composting and it made me physically ill to throw coffee grounds, banana peels, that kind of stuff in the trash. I was just devastated. Maris, you had the same experience, all of our freezers were full.
Maris Masellis: Yeah, I live in an apartment. I’m like, can I throw it in the woods? And you know, it’s better there than it would be in the landfill. So…
Clay Ezell: Agreed. First thank you for even thinking about it while there’s this cloud of everything hanging over the entire world, it warms my heart. Yeah. And, you know, we hated to see that interruption. In the convenience centers, we’re thrilled that Metro is wanting to offer that to citizens and we’re further thrilled that anybody actually will go to the effort. Like y’all will actually take it over there. But I mean, we’ve seen a great response out of that program, so we’re thrilled to be doing it for starters, we hated to see it stop. We understood it was temporary, we’re back up and running now. Thankfully, you know, everybody was a little I think gun shy about what does this mean? How can we do this? Is this going to spread something? The research pretty quickly came out that the composting process kills viruses that are a lot scarier than COVID very quickly. We have to go through a rigorous process of science…
Maris Masellis: Scientisting
Clay Ezell: Yes, it’s part of our scientisting. I think we need some light brown lab coats now. Thank you. We’re gonna do the next uniform.
Maris Masellis: Christmas gifts!
Michael Britt: Hashtag scientisting.
Maris Masellis: Dirt science. I like that.
Maris Masellis: Well, Michael and I were talking about the recycling system and all the issues that we keep running into with the plastics. And of course, we’re huge supporters of compostable products. I worked in the restaurant industry for years and felt pretty helpless for a long time but to learn about all this stuff, it seemed so mindless to me like of course we need to use those and I think I even spoke to you there when I was working for the restaurant here in Nashville. We got to get composting guys. And a few times we did. We tried some products that just our food’s really greasy and the food at the restaurant I was working at and watching all the recycling go into, well, we don’t know, actually where it goes. And that’s what Michael was kind of touching on is it’s refreshing to know that we know where the compost is going. We know that it’s getting taken care of the right way. And you guys have this mission and I think I read on your website already 50 million pounds diverted.
Clay Ezell: Um, we’re probably approaching that figure. We are probably do something in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 million this year. So I think we’re probably…
Maris Masellis: on schedule right on schedule, but
Clay Ezell: we weren’t too far off.
Maris Masellis: We were talking about recycling system in our previous episode and Michael had this idea. You want to explain that
Michael Britt: Well, the idea is that if recycling is broken, and people rely on it yet, it’s not working at all. If it was a business, if you think about it, even if we were generous and say 10% of it is working, that means that 90% of their mission is a failure. But then everyone is kind of convinced that it’s okay to keep buying plastic because we put it in our bins, and we don’t have to worry about it because it goes away and gets made into other stuff. And maybe, I mean, my thought processes, and I think we’ve talked about this briefly before, is that we should just scrap recycling for the moment. I know that’s hearsay for an environmentalist…
Maris Masellis: Maybe just the plastic side of it
Michael Britt: And maybe well, curbside maybe we shouldn’t even offer curbside pickup recycling we should pick up composting instead. It will be more effective. I mean, am I way off base or is it and let me preface it with the fact that there is an example of that here in Tennessee in Sevierville. Have you seen their facility? Do you know anything about that facility out there? T
Clay Ezell: They have recently redone that facility in a fairly major way. But I’m aware of it. I have not toured it but I’m I know a couple of the people that are involved with it, and what their sort of mission is…
Michael Britt: Which is basically to take all the trash and put it into the big composting machines, and then filter out anything that’s not compost. So they are the opposite.
Clay Ezell: They dump everything and they take all of the trash that basically they refer to as MSW that’s generated in severe county and it’s basically a volume reduction, which they’re extremely successful at taking something that is, you know, enormous and doing a lot of volume reduction on that.
Michael Britt: Is that something that could be applied here Nashville. I mean, could we scale this up to to the way you’re doing it or some combination of anaerobic aerobic and the hybrid method and scale this up in a quick way? Is there any way to do that quickly?
Clay Ezell: You know, I mean, quickly, probably not I mean that that facility has been there since. God. I mean, they were they were way out ahead of it. I mean, I think it’s been there for 25 years.
Michael Britt: I think it started in 1991
Clay Ezell: I’m not exactly sure what the genius of why they elected to do that in 1991, before anybody in the region was ever thinking about an alternative trash (system). It may be the terrain and landfilling was difficult or it may have been the fact that they were already a hospitality hub in generating incredible amounts of refuse. I don’t know enough about the history of it. There would probably need to be some sort of a combination of what they’re doing and sort of traditional composting, um, what what is coming out of that facility, I don’t have any experience with, the actual finished compost. And so, um, it’s kind of hard to say,
Maris Masellis: let’s just think of this simple idea. Basically, I think what Michael is trying to say is, is, is it too outlandish to think that we could focus more on organic waste in the city, instead of trying to mess with all this plastic stuff? You know, we have you, we have this industrial size facility, so close to where we live, and it’s just kind of daunting that we don’t take full advantage of it when the rest of the country doesn’t have that.
Clay Ezell: I would love to see more emphasis put on this because it’s the number one thing going into the landfill and because we’ve seen that a lot what we’re doing with other portions of the recycling stream, you know, aren’t working. And you know, that entire industry was based on shipping it overseas and making it somebody else’s problem. And that was a symptom of our consumer economy. Basically, ships were coming over loaded with plastic goods. Then when we were finished with them, it was really cheap to send all that stuff back in the form of garbage so that they could recycle it. And that was good enough for everybody for a long time, even though it was revealed that there were a lot of problems with that. And now we know that system probably was never working all that well. Until there is real infrastructure here to actually utilize a lot more that kind of waste, it’s probably going to be challenging to feel great about what’s going on. There are some communities, and I know that Metro is doing everything they can to make sure that it’s working well, fighting against budget constraints and all sorts of other things.
Maris Masellis: Money, money, money, money
Clay Ezell: Always. Without the political will, which I’d say this as a proud Southerner, we don’t have a ton of that sort of baked into our DNA yet to be out in front of issues like these like they do in other parts of the country. I mean…
Maris Masellis: right. I feel like we’re getting there.
Clay Ezell: Absolutely we’re making huge progress. And I think that is both a combination of people waking up and also an influx of, you know, new talent, so to speak.
Maris Masellis: And this Podcast! We’re trying to educate everybody, you know, sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.
Clay Ezell: Exactly. Awareness is coming. I would love to see more emphasis put on it. I think a lot of people assume that the only things that are recyclable and also the thing that makes them feel okay about their levels of consumption that they’re used to are the sort of the Big Three, cardboard, plastic and metal. Then number four glass and then we’re sort of way down the list on anybody’s…
Maris Masellis: we believe in you clay, you believe in you guys and we and we really appreciate what you’re doing. And we’re just trying to learn as much as we can about the process and how to make it easier for people to start it and how to support you because we want more people to compost. We want more people and more business for you so we can take on this dream because that’s the only way it’s gonna happen. We have to start making those big changes and the more people composting the better off so yeah. You know what, it’s kind of weird to jump to this now but I’m so interested to know how you got into compost. Like how did you, what’s the story behind you getting into this?
Clay Ezell: I was, let’s say, this was 10 or 12 years ago, I was living in New York, my little brother was here and actually worked for Metro and the Department of Metro beautification. And I was very smugly griping about the state of recycling in Nashville. I think he’d been on the job for six months and was sort of like, yeah, you know, we’re gonna make all the changes, we’re gonna do all this stuff, and it’s gonna be great. And we started talking about why isn’t the state of recycling in Metro better? And he was like, well, you know, we’re really trying, we’ve got monthly pick up now. It’s improved a lot in the last five years. But really, it’s infrastructure. We started talking about those challenges of collecting the stuff, packaging it putting on a boat and going over there. And so our bright idea was alright, let’s get into it. Let’s do it here. And so we started looking at those avenues aluminum glass paper. And we were lacking the gazillion dollars you need to start say, an aluminum processing plant or a paper mill. We started looking at other areas of the waste stream because we both wanted to do something that had an impact. But we also wanted to, make a living doing it. And so we started looking at other areas of the waste stream and that’s when we realized, wait a minute, the majority of what goes into a landfill everyday is organic material. Well you don’t really need that much to start composting. You just need some land and maybe a small piece of equipment and you know, off you go. And you can scale up, Yeahaw! So as we were kind of researching this thing, we got a little bit more excited about it. That was the mid aughts, I guess. And then we did our research and we came across a guy who is now our business partner Ed Wansing, this was in 2013, or 14, he had an early start in this and we were talking with him and I don’t know, in 2015, we all partnered up and we’ve been able to really kind of get going in a meaningful way.
Michael Britt: So let me ask you this, because, you know, we put ourselves out there, you’ve come to one of our live meetings. We get people together to talk about what’s waste issues
Clay Ezell: Which is awesome I and can’t wait to be live and in person again. There’s so much fun.
Michael Britt: Yeah, that was that was pretty cool. I’m in contact with people from lots of different cities and are in contact routinely with the people from places like Pittsburgh where they have the No Plastic Please Campaign and we’ve talked to people in Indiana. One of the questions that that comes to me occasionally is hey you know we don’t have the facility like you guys have so how do we start one. I was wondering if maybe compost company could be the franchisee and start spreading the information and the the business model out to some of these other cities that are really wanting to do this. Is that even on your radar?
Clay Ezell: Expansion certainly is. As you know, the the salty old garbage guys say while chopping on their cigars trash is a local business and it starts to make less and less sense if you’re carting this stuff, you know, hither and yon all over the place and then suddenly, you’re where we are with the recycling industry where it’s worth going all over the place. And that just doesn’t make a lot of sense for organic waste, especially because it’s got a pretty distinct timetable. You want to get that stuff processed quickly. So doing it locally is the answer as far as we’re concerned, and we would love to do that. And now that we’re at least five years old since Jeffrey and I have been involved with Ed, you know, we feel like we’ve gotten to a point where we’re repeatable and we know what our process is, we’ve got our legs under us really well. And we’re solid enough to do that. We were feeling some pressure a couple years ago, we better go do this now. And I’m glad we didn’t because we probably would have gotten out of our skis a little bit. But we’re, we feel pretty good about where we are now. And we think we could do that. I think it makes abundance of sense, you know, in Memphis and Louisville and Birmingham and Atlanta. There are cities that do have these, but very few of them have adequate capacity in the way that they do in San Francisco or Seattle? I mean, those are the two big…
Maris Masellis: Where are we compared to them? Are we babies? Little mini’s?
Clay Ezell: We are newborns in comparison. We’re still in the incubator. The last estimate was we were composting something like 6% of what is produced, which is probably high.
Maris Masellis: And what would you say they are doing?
Clay Ezell: Total waste diversion in, you know, a place like San Francisco is approaching 85%. So extrapolating out even around the fact that they have they’ve been doing it for a long time. Their solutions aren’t exactly perfectly local. I mean, they’re going 75, 80 or 90 miles out into the Eastern parts of California to perform all of that. And that’s a system of urban density requires that they do that but they do have some more solutions that are in town like we talked about earlier the anaerobic digesters and things that are taking a portion of that but to do it on on large scale requires some space. But, you know, Seattle’s doing a great job of it and Portland and a lot of the places you’d expect. And the Northeast is starting to catch up. Denver has got some good outlets that are taking care of a lot of organic waste and there’s a few of us in the South that are doing this kind of thing, but we got a long way to go.
Michael Britt: Do you feel that the landfill companies and some of the trash hauling companies consider compost competition and discourage it politically or behind the scenes or do you think everybody’s just going hey, we need to solve all these problems?
Clay Ezell: In some of the top tier markets they have started to get into the game. And they tend to discourage entrance as if the barriers to entry weren’t steep enough. And they kind of say, Oh, we were getting ready to start doing that right here in Nashville. Nobody better open up a company like this because we’ve got space to do it and it’s gonna be great. But I just don’t know that they’re sufficiently interested. Because in a lot of cases, they’ve got a great big hole in the ground and their business model is predicated on preserving that model.
Clay Ezell: over time, it’s good. We need like a button that just says like,
Maris Masellis: Money, money, money! We should have a sound effects. Michael
Michael Britt: I’ll work on that.
Clay Ezell: But you know, as long as they are able to site and operate landfills, they will be able to keep that cost pressure on landfilling, being the easiest way to do it. And as long as that’s the cheapest and easiest thing, a good portion of people are going to choose that. But as we’ve been able to grow, we’ve been able to bring our cost much more in line and in certain cases below what it costs to landfill. And the day that I can across the board say it’s absolutely cheaper to compost than landfill my job and getting new people to do it is gonna be so much easier. I can’t wait. But we’re, yeah, we’re almost there
Michael Britt: That’s gonna be a lot easier when this landfill, our current one fills up and they’re trucking stuff up to Kentucky or wherever because no one wants another landfill in Tennessee, then you’ve got to pay the shipping charges and freight and fuel. So I imagine you’ll be a lot cheaper then.
Clay Ezell: And like we were talking about with the New York example, once once their waste had to start going to Ohio, they were like, wait a minute, let’s build the huge thing and let’s do it locally. You know, once it has to go past 100 miles it really stops making sense in any way. So hopefully in that case we’ll start seeing a lot more of it going to alternatives such as ours.
Maris Masellis: Amazing. This has been so much fun clay, you have a great podcasting voice by the way, very vibrant, you know, great voice for this. So, to recap on what we learned, we learned what Composting is, and basically if it came from the earth, it can go back into the earth. And we also learned that Nashville is extremely lucky because we have the Compost Company that you started five years ago our our baby business. Which is going to be booming and amazing soon, because everyone that listens to this is going to go straight into their kitchen and they’re going to make their dinner or whatever and any scraps that they have, they’re going to take an old cardboard shoe box, which is what I use if you don’t have a backyard, And you’re going to put all of it in there, and you’re going to put it in the freezer because that’s what me and Michael do so there’s no excuses. My poor roommate, we don’t even have any freezer room because it’s all compost, but we learned that you can do there’s all sorts of things that you can do if you don’t have the resources in your backyard and we have Compost Company, we have Compost Nashville that picks up residentially and goes directly to you guys…
Clay Ezell: We love compost Nashville, they make it extremely easy, especially for anybody who doesn’t have the freezer space are, you know, I understand it’s a challenge to take it over to a Convenient Center or to drop it off at our place if you happen to be near Ashland city. So, avail yourself of that resource please. You just want to divert it from the landfill. Those guys (Compost Nashville) grab it and they bring it to us and we process it and you get a little bit of our finished compost back couple times a year.
Maris Masellis: That right. And as we know, we also learned about the compostable products and how confusing that can be. So hopefully if you’re listening all the way to the end here, you realize that there’s a lot more that goes into this, that recycling is still not working. And there are other options out there. And you should try them because it’s not that hard. And if you go to our website, there’s a video on composting that Jess and I star in and Michael produced and it’s our first video ever so you can kind of see the energy. We’re so excited to do compost and I learned what dry and wet compost is. I didn’t even know there was a difference. And like you said, there’s all sorts of things that can go in there. And if you do have questions, I’m sure you could probably follow them on Facebook, follow Compost Company or Compost Nashville or us, Zero Waste Trash Talk.
Clay Ezell: Follow them ALL! And get all your questions answered.
Michael Britt: You hand them the card you’re like here’s the frequently asked questions card. I used to want to carry that when I, Maris did you ever met Kona, my giant Akita. I had an Akita that people thought was a Direwolf from Game of Thrones. When he put his paws on my shoulders, I’m five nine, he stood almost a foot over me. He was over, he was probably six foot three, six foot five, long and tall.
Michael Britt: So anyway, when we walked around downtown Los Angeles, people always ask how much does he eat? How much did he poop? What kind of dog is he. It was always the same questions so I was going to make a baseball card with all his stats on it, so I can just give it out to everybody. We need that for compost.
Maris Masellis: Oh my god. And you just, you just brought up another topic that I love that we’re just briefly gonna talk about because this is something that we talk about all the time. Can we put dog poop in a bag in the compost?
Clay Ezell: Now I know why you were so interested in it Michael. Because you have a metric ton of it (dog poop) produced every week.
Michael Britt: okay, I do have a lot here but I also work in dog rescue as well. And actually we branched off from an emergency shelter that a group of us are working at. And we wanted to take it to a more full time kind of thing. So I’m on the board of a new rescue called True Rescue. The people I worked with I’ve converted, they’ve come to our meetups, they have seen the light and they want to be more sustainable. We go into these houses with the hoarders and the pets and all that and they get it now that it’s all kind of tied together. They know the climate and environment, animals, all of it. So anyway, one of the concepts that we’re putting out there is called Poo Rescue. And we want to be able to compost the animal waste from the shelter and take it from other shelters and maybe make electricity. I think that’s going to be in an anaerobic process, right?
Clay Ezell: It certainly could be if you if you want to convert it to electricity that’s kind of how it has to be. It off gases and you burn the gas to create electricity.
Michael Britt: But is that the best way to approach this because right now it seems like even you guys were like, oh, you can put some dog poo in there but don’t tell everybody because you know, you don’t want to be inundated with it. The city says Oh, yeah, you can flush dog poop but they don’t want everybody to do it because then waste treatment is gonna be overflowing
Clay Ezell: Well that and most pet waste, especially cats, for some reason and I’ve never talked to a vet about why this is but apparently cat waste is highly pathogenic. We have to go through a process what we call PFRP, the process for the further reduction of pathogens. And basically, it determines where we have to keep temperatures for a certain amount of time to kill off whatever scary things might be in there. E coli, salmonella, COVID-19, whatever. And there’s a threshold where just about anything will die off that is viral. And so apparently, pet waste is just rife with all kinds of different things, but one of the big ones beyond that is antibiotics. Because apparently, a lot of people are giving their pets drugs, which I didn’t know was really a thing. I’ve been like a mutt owner my whole life. There’s a lot of persistent antibiotics and things and I don’t think that those would show up in any kind of meaningful thing and our, you know, we could take three tons of dogshit every week and it would be a pretty small fraction of the total. So I’m not that worried about it. But TDEC is and so we kind of have to draw a line on that, unfortunately. They are our overlords and so we have to make sure you know, I’m sure they have a good reason for it. We love you TDEC.
Michael Britt: We’ll actually talk to talk to them about that. We have friends there so…
Maris Masellis: Yeah, we do we can get them on the phone too. That’s a good question because I have a dog, Michael has dogs we all have dogs and we’re like what is the best way to get rid of this stuff? I thought well if my dog ends up pooping in the bushes and off the beaten path, which he does. I’m very lucky, I don’t normally have to pick it up. Michael’s like no because of the bacteria, if everybody’s dog pooped everywhere and we didn’t pick it up, it would be awful. Where does it go?
Clay Ezell: It goes running off into the nearest storm drain and then into the nearest waterway which would then cause lots of problems in the nearest river. The Cumberland River Compact is very concerned about non-removed pet waste. I understand that and those are some of the same reasons that we can’t take it (dog poop). Our water runoff on site would be affected. And then we might not be able to reapply that to the compost for moisture control. And it just it’s a whole…
Maris Masellis: Yeah. So even with these compostable bags that you’re seeing now. Does it even matter because it’s going into the landfill and not being composted.
Clay Ezell: And the greenwash thing keeps rolling on its merry way. I mean, yeah, probably the majority of compostable serviceware never sees a composting facility because most of it leaves the place where it was being generated, and then ends up in somebody’s home garbage pile. It doesn’t necessarily find its way to an industrial compost facility even though it’s labeled (as compostable). A similar thing happens with a lot of compostable bags. I mean, again, it beats people making those things out of petroleum.
Michael Britt: Yeah, I think that’s the only upside because they’re still encapsulating it in a plastic and burying it for 1000 years.
Clay Ezell: It doesn’t break down like it’s supposed to in a landfill and just becomes another banana peel, say, that’s not really living up to its potential, which is kind of how I think about it. If you’re gonna make the compostable cup, like, that cup wants to be on stage man, it wants to sing for the people. And if you throw in the landfill it never gets that opportunity. Whereas if it comes to a composting facility, maybe it’s ready for the Grammys. That’s where it’s meant to be.
Michael Britt: That’s a great soundbite. We’re gonna use that. The ground is being broken on the new shelter so I’ll give you a call and we’ll talk about what we should be doing at least for the one facility for now. But I see that we can start a business model, it’s not a business because it’s a charity but a model of a sustainable rescue.
Clay Ezell: We need to get you all together with Mars Petcare because they generate an incredible amount of that stuff down in Franklin. And it’s gotta be usable somewhere. I don’t know where it is, or if we could get a special dispensation for you know, making piles out of nothing but pet waste and capturing the stormwater runoff because that’s where the rubber really meets the road. It’s what happens to the water that has contacted that stuff in a landfill environment which they call the leachate. In our environment they call it contact water and that stuff generally has got elements of whatever it’s touched in it. In this case, pet waste and pathogens. So if there was a way to keep it all in one spot, and not have it running off into the nearest creek and then river, I’m sure that would alleviate a lot of the concerns of TDEC.
Michael Britt: This is why we talk about this stuff. We’re talking this out, we’re coming up with ideas, who to get involved with…
Clay Ezell: Sure. I mean, Mars is a big one, and that’s a huge problem for them. It’s gotta be. Because we’ve talked about doing lots of different things with them. And we do compost a fair amount of the meat material that comes out of their pet food production line. But the waste was one thing that they asked about and we couldn’t do anything for them.
Michael Britt: Is there a way we could set up a meeting where we could, sit down and talk about it.
Clay Ezell: Yeah, they use a waste broker now. A lot of a lot of waste is now a brokered commodity which I find kind of hilarious. Finding the cheapest and potentially greenest alternative is the commodity, not the waste itself. They’re just looking for the for the best place to put it. But a lot of big companies that have facilities all around the country don’t necessarily want to have every plant manager dealing with that independently. So they get a waste broker. I had no idea before we got into this, how many of those people there are, but there are lots of them. And that is…
Michael Britt: Is that also why everybody says, Oh, yeah, we can’t tell you where the recycling or the waste goes. We don’t know. It goes to whoever’s bidding on it. It seems to act like this blinder or insulator for the people that should know where it goes. Is that kind of what’s happening or is that the cynical take on it
Clay Ezell: In a way, they’re like, well, somebody else handles that. In a way that some other third party financial advisers helped the Senator who got the Coronavirus information first sell off all the stock in Disney and Marriott Hotel.
Maris Masellis Right?
Clay Ezell: Maybe that’s convenient, but you know the head of say “insert giant food company here”, probably spends little time thinking about it other than let’s get green let’s get somebody on that. Then that trickles down through the ranks and then finally they get to the the people who are in charge of that and they they hire somebody to carry that out for them. And so there’s lots of well meaning people in that thing, but there’s also lots of different definitions for waste diversion. If you’re just going zero waste to landfill, you can still fulfill that goal by just sending it to an incinerator which is not the exactly the true meaning
Maris Masellis: not our favorite. No,
Clay Ezell: It’s not going to landfill if you just dump in the nearest river, which obviously is illegal, thankfully but there are lots of different ways to handle it that maybe aren’t necessarily the best. But there are lots of people also out there that are working hard to make it better. It’s just a it’s a big old ship we’re trying to turn and a lot of ingrained habit and you know, the bigger the ship, the slower the longer the arc, but it’s happening. It’s just not happening as quickly as any of us would like, but…
Michael Britt: Well, COVID shows us that the whole place shut down and things can happen differently. Like the world can look differently and we can react and as a society, literally stopping dead in our tracks to figure something out.
Maris Masellis: Right, exactly. That’s a good point, Michael, that’s a really good point.
Clay Ezell: It’s one of the few times ever, that we’re going to be handed an opportunity to really stop, have some time to rethink and then then then restart. We don’t know how long this is gonna go on, and it really could affect the way we do things going forward. Hopefully positively
Michael Britt: Yeah, we’re gonna not just hope for it, we’re going to talk about it and put it there out so that we can make the world one we want to live in.
Maris Masellis: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Bam!
Clay Ezell: Michael. Thank you for the invitation. I’m always pleased to talk with y’all and talk about composting. Much appreciation for everything you’re doing.