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Stories focused on energy & environment topics throughout the state of Kansas.

Wichita Curbside Compost Service 'Nudges' Customers To Reduce Food Waste

Hugo Phan
A bucket of food scraps ready to be composted.

While getting his master’s degree from Wichita State University, Jesse Marks wrote his thesis on food insecurity.

Along the way, he discovered that food waste is a major problem, too.

He learned that a typical American family adds more than 500 pounds of food scraps to landfills each year.

Marks thought that if people were more mindful about what they threw away, maybe they might have a better sense of the food ecosystem overall.

“A lot of us are … very fortunate and food isn't something that we have to worry about too much,” Marks said. “But that doesn't mean that that's the case for everyone.

“So it's more awareness of food-related issues, whether that's insecurity, waste, the effects of our trash on our environment and things like that.”

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Nudge Compost founder Jesse Marks next to his truck.

From that idea, Nudge Compost was born in 2018. (The company is a financial supporter of KMUW.) Marks hopes the curbside compost service will “nudge” people to take a small step toward helping the environment, which might lead them to take even more steps in the future.

“I think the thing that we have found is that when people start to pay attention to where their food scraps are going, they feel a lot better about it,” Marks said. “They're not just throwing things away and then .. the trash man comes in, it's just gone.”

Marks said he has about 200 customers, both residential and commercial. For $20 a month, Marks will pick up the scraps that you deposit in a 5-gallon bucket the company provides. If you want to drop the material off yourself, the fee drops to $10.

Compostable items include everything from food scraps to egg shells to coffee grounds to flowers to newspapers.

Marks takes the material to a transfer station on South Oliver and then to the Wichita Dirt Company. There, it begins the 8- to 10-week journey from food waste to compost.

Nutrient-rich, organic compost is prized by gardeners. Not only does it improve the health of soil, it helps it retain moisture and reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

More importantly, composting keeps food waste out of landfills, where it produces methane — a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change — as it slowly breaks down.

Compost ICT offers a similar service in Wichita. It was founded on Earth Day in 2016 and also has curbside pickup for commercial and residential customers.

Leslie Coffee Company is a Nudge Compost customer. Owner Sarah Leslie said her business tries to be sustainable at many levels, from using biodegradable cups and packaging to working with Marks. “It's nice to know that we're diverting some of that into the compost pile instead of putting it in the trash,” Leslie said.

“I think stuff like this … you have to be committed to it kind of regardless of cost. But I think at the end of the day, it's worth it because it shows our commitment to the environment and to our community.”

In addition to compost, Marks also sells worm castings from the worm farm he has built at his transfer station on South Oliver. He said he feeds the best scraps to the worms, which can eat close to twice their body weight in a day. (And yes, castings are what you think they are.)

“The worms can process the food really quickly,” Marks said. “It's essentially their manure that you eventually screen out and use as plant fertilizer.

“And that's kind of how worm castings as a name came out, instead of saying … manure. Like, ‘Oh, we'll call these castings.’ Makes them more palatable.”

Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW
Customers fill their buckets with food scraps, and once a week Marks picks them up and takes the material to the Wichita Dirt Company, where it begins the journey to become compost.

Marks said the company has turned more than 200,000 pounds of waste into compost in its first two years. He’d like to hit 1 million pounds.

He also would like to sign a large commercial customer.

“That to me is kind of the goal for the next year is to get somebody that's a really big name in Wichita that is looking to improve their perception as, ‘Hey, we are big and sustainable, and we put some value into that,’” Marks said.

In the meantime, he'll continue his role as entrepreneur and stay-at-home dad to his three kids. And he'll deal with the challenges of running a small business — some of which are unique to his line of work.

“Most compost companies would tell you that the bane of their existence is produce stickers,” Marks said. “Because even I, in my home bucket, don't always pick them off cause it's a pain.

“But they are absolutely impermeable to the composting process. So, we have to deal with those a lot.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.