ORLANDO, Fla. – One man with a truck and a pitchfork — that’s how Charlie Pioli described O-Town Compost when he started the business a little more than a year and a half ago. Now, he has a team of workers and a workspace in an Orlando warehouse.
O-Town Compost is a subscription service where Pioli and his team give customers a bucket lined with a compostable bag. The customers then fill that bucket with their food and organic waste. O-Town Compost collects the bucket for composting and leaves a fresh bucket in its place. Twice per year, the company delivers a 20-pound bucket of compost, which Pioli calls “black gold,” back to their customers.
“We have one composting site out in Winter Garden that can handle a significant amount — may be eight tons of food waste per week. And then we have a composting site being constructed on the 4Roots Farm Campus and that also can handle a similar volume,” Pioli said.
Part of O-Town Compost’s growth comes from Pioli’s partnership with John Rivers and his 4Roots nonprofit. Pioli and Rivers met through a business accelerator program at Rollins College, which the composter enrolled in during the pandemic. Rivers served as a mentor to Pioli. The warehouse the O-Town Compost now operates out of is owned by 4Roots and also houses its Feed the Need food pantry program.
Since then, Pioli has been able to add a handful of workers to his O-Town team. With the addition of those workers, Pioli has also been able to expand his service area and he has grown to about 350 subscribers.
“Our service area reaches all the way up to Sanford, south to The Florida Mall — and we’re looking to hopefully expand to Lake Nona soon — and then we go east to UCF and we service as far west as Apopka and Winter Garden. So we have quite a far reach,” Pioli said.
So what does O-Town’s growth mean for its mission of diverting food waste away from landfills? According to its website, the company has composted 179,582 pounds of food scraps. That’s nearly 90 tons.
According to the studies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, wasted food makes up the biggest portion of material that goes to municipal landfills and that’s just wasted food. The doesn’t even include things like food scraps such as potato peels, apple cores and all that other leftover material people tend to throw out.
“That’s exactly why I decided to focus on organic wastes in the first place. Unlike standard recycling — cans, bottles, paper — it’s way more of a problem. It’s way more significant and we don’t have programs in place that can actually do something with that material,” Pioli said.
Pioli is originally from Portland, Oregon, which has its own municipal composting program similar to several other major municipalities across the U.S.
“We’re changing the culture. We’re really focused on getting Orlando where cities like Austin, Texas, Seattle, San Francisco — these cities who have been doing it for a decade now — it’s time for the city of Orlando and the whole Central Florida area to really come up to speed and come up with a better solution for organic waste,” he said.
Pioli recognizes that there is a bigger challenge in bringing community composting to Central Florida, including education about what can and cannot be composted.
It’s an issue that is already a problem with recycling in the area. In 2019, the city of Ocoee said that nearly 100% of its recycling ended up in the dump because of contamination. The contamination issue is actually seen all across Orange County.
Contamination is definitely a concern for Pioli, but he said, so far, he has not seen a big problem with the majority of his customers.
“Most of our customers are residential and, of the residential subscribers, we have less than 1% contamination rate,” he said. “Most of our contamination comes on the commercial side with restaurants —like food prep gloves that are made of latex, we see a lot of those. But we have steps in our process to take those out and we even sell compostable food prep gloves. So if we can get people to convert to the more sustainable, compostable service wear — that’s mitigating that problem.”
There is one contaminant that does keep popping up in Pioli’s compost: produce stickers.
“I can’t expect our subscribers to remove every single fruit or vegetable sticker, but they do not compost. They always end up in the finished product,” he said. “I think, eventually, we need to start a campaign — and hopefully bring together a coalition of all the community composters around the nation — where we can petition these grocery stores and food manufacturers. We need to come up with a better solution for reading a barcode on produce items. And if you look at Sweden, they have organic imprints, like stamps on the produce, that (are) essentially just a barcode without having a physical sticker.”
Pioli said his next step with O-Town Compost will be to grow his commercial business. He’s already nabbed two bigger clients, servicing Rollins College’s dining hall and Valencia College’s East Campus.
“We’re growing this business very slowly and carefully. We’re not taking any shortcuts that might lead to more contamination (or) undermining our principle, compost without compromise,” he said.
Pioli has been petitioning Orange County to allow his company to lease property on the county’s landfill.
“That site would make the most sense for having a large (composting) facility because; one they already are composting residential yard debris,” he said. “The second reason is because it’s the landfill — it’s unusable land, but it would make a great composting site.”
While that remains a long-term goal, Pioli plans to focus more on education.
“(We’ll be) going to pop-up events, farmers markets, places where we can (get a) table and actually engage people on why it’s so important to keep your food scraps out of the landfill, and how it can become a resource.”
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