Co-founder and president of AgRecycle, Inc., one of the oldest composting companies in the country.
This former lawyer tells us compost can change the world and she just might be right. Carla Castagnero is co-founder and President of AgRecycle, Inc., a composting operation headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1991, AgRecycle is one of the oldest composting companies in the United States with clients such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Zoo. We’re honoring Castagnero as one of our Organic Pioneers on September 14th, 2012, but we caught up with her in advance to chat about how composting can change not only our soils, but our eating habits, too.
Tell me a little bit about your back story. How did you get so deeply involved in compost?
In my former life, I was a lawyer and did environmental safety work for the U.S. steel mining industry, so I understood the value of refurbishing depleted soils. A friend of mine, Dan Eichenlaub, who owned a landscaping construction company came to me years ago and said, “I have an idea. Help me hatch it.” That is how AgRecycle was born. You know, the world views us as an alternative way to treat waste, but our emphasis at AgRecycle is on what the finished compost does. We consider ourselves producers of a high-value finished product. Dan also understood the value of these products. And my background meant I knew how to get through the complicated regulatory process to make it happen.
Composting is the only kind of recycling that creates a product different than what it came from. We are literally taking organic trash and making fertilizers and organic amendments out of it. We use no virgin products in our manufacturing. We add nothing to the compost except what comes to us as waste. When we were young and in our more hippie stage, we used to say the only things we added were sunshine and rainwater!
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced working in the waste stream industry and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
In the 90s, we nearly starved trying to keep AgRecycle alive. Dan turned into an investment partner and his support really kept us afloat. The problem was no one got it. You think you have this wonderful vision and the world would jump right on board, but they didn’t. We are such a huge disposal society. But we understood that this is the way things should go.
For a long time, people thought environmental issues were social concerns and not business issues or real production issues. When people began to understand that sending less stuff to the landfill is good business and not just a social nicety, AgRecycle started to bloom. But there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into it. The reason there is an industrial composting permit in this state is because I drove back and forth to Harrisburg for three years to get it. There is a lot of elbow grease in this.
There are a couple things that happen with AgRecycle now. When people see their neighbor’s garden or lawn dramatically out-producing and out-greening theirs, they wonder what is going on. They start to ask, “Why is my neighbor’s lawn twice as green and lush?” And the answer is that they’ve planted it and cared for it with compost. People can very simply and on a very real level understand the power of performance in organic soils when they see it for themselves. It can be that simple. Pennsylvania has approximately 700,000 acres of brownfields. Instead of doing all these costly mitigation efforts, why aren’t we using compost?
I have two pictures of the old Jones & Laughlin steel mill building I use when I do presentations. The first picture is of the contaminated brownfield site. The next is of a lush green lawn in the same location. They tilled a coarse grade of AgRecycle compost into that soil that had over a century of toxins in it and we got grass to grow on it in just nine weeks.
People still don’t thoroughly understand that organic debris is a resource and not a waste. But that is changing and improving every day.
How has the awareness level of your potential customers changed over the last 10 years in regard to our so-called food waste?
It has changed dramatically. We make spectacular finished products since 100% of all our profit is on the sale of that finished product, and we sell to some very sophisticated customers, like golf courses and nurseries. If you send a customer an inferior product, this man or woman could lose their job. We don’t want anyone to lose a job because they made the decision to buy from us.
There is a very bad statistic released a few years ago that the majority of composting facilities go out of business within five years. But I think people just haven’t figured out the economics of composting. If a watchmaker buys an ounce of silver and makes a watch, they still have a watch that contains an ounce of silver. When I get a tractor trailer full of food, I only get four to five wheelbarrows of finished compost. It is a seven-to-one ratio for yard waste. Plus, the process takes time and infrastructure and marketing.
We need to make sure what is coming out as finished product is super high quality so we can make up the cost of the reduction ratio. Many compost facilities get into trouble because they let people drop off anything at their facilities. Poor-quality ingredients make for a poor-quality product.
We also make it easy for people supplying us with the organic debris, which makes them more willing to do it and do it well. AgRecycle was the first composting company in the U.S. to put out front load containers and have separate trucks for just hauling food waste.
What is your personal vision? What drives you—gets you out of bed every day?
I love my job. There is no blueprint for us to follow, so it can be challenging to find the right path. However, it also means that I get to be very creative in solving problems. When we started, I spent 18 months of my life figuring out how we could service food scrap customers efficiently. At Whole Foods, one day’s worth of organic material removal would fill approximately 36 traditional totes. Where would they store all those totes until pickup? We figured out how to work with Whole Foods, yet we still have options for the mom-and-pop shops that want to divert food materials from their waste streams.
AgRecycle provides an environmental solution to get rid of everything from basic tree trimming and branches to manures and food waste. And we manufacture products that actually change the soil profile of the country. I do believe the carbon sequestration issue will be solved by composters, and that’s exciting.
Plus, composting is bucking the waste trend overall. It teaches everyone, whether they are buying the finished product or bringing the food waste in, that food waste has value. And when you start diverting food waste, it also is easier to quantify how much we’re throwing away because you can see it in a separate container. It has changed the way people buy food.
Some composting programs have even changed the eating habits of our teenagers. A lot of the schools have gone tray-less as part of their composting initiatives. So rather than paying one set price for a meal, loading up a tray with a pile of food and only taking one or two bites of each item, students can only take what they can carry. Schools have seen a huge difference in how much is thrown away. There is an abhorrent statistic that says for every meal served in the cafeteria there is 3/4 of a pound food wasted. Composting can change this.
The other really inspiring thing about AgRecycle is that, with most of our clients, we are a second-tier recipient of food because they donate as much as they can within the regulations. I love working with them because they believe if food can be used to feed a person, it should. And if it can’t feed a person, then it should feed the soil.
Were there any organic pioneers who inspired you when you were starting out?
Jerry Goldstein was my mentor. He made me realize that while the world thought composting was a second-tier industry, it wasn’t. He believed that it was worth devoting your life to this business, to work at it day in and day out. And he treated me like I was the smartest person in the world even when I didn’t know anything! To have someone like that encourage you is priceless. He was, by far, the biggest inspiration in my career.
On a very real level, my mother was also a huge inspiration. She was an avid vegetable gardener her whole life and we had a huge garden growing up. She was the “buy local” poster child before the buy local movement even started. She would pack us in the car and drive over to buy Rhode Island Red eggs from one farmer, but his chickens didn’t taste as good as another farmer, so we headed over there to get meat. My mother gardened because that was just what you did. We ate in season because that was just what you did. It was common sense. When you had beets for dinner, you also had beet greens. It was just that simple. My mother was a product of the Depression and we just didn’t waste.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
Low-heeled shoes. It is such a girly answer, but it is true. No matter what I’m doing as part of my job, it is somehow spectacularly inappropriate to wear heels–and I love that! In the back of my car are always office shoes and true boots, but my collection of low-heeled shoes is definitely the tool I can’t live without.
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