When Justen Garrity began asking Maryland businesses about collecting their food scraps five-plus years ago, he was slightly shocked by the pitying looks he received initially. Some assumed he was begging for day-old bread for a homeless shelter.
Far from it.
The longtime Marylander had returned to his home state in spring 2009 after fighting in Iraq and found the country mired in a devastating recession. Jobs were close to nonexistent, especially for those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Garrity created his own jobs with a startup he christened Veteran Compost.
His company’s tagline “From Combat to Compost” captures his twofold mission succinctly: Hire military veterans to mold and market the region’s consummate compost. He doesn’t just haul leftovers, he supervises their transformation into a soil amender.
A line of idling trucks driven by gardeners and farmers waiting to dig into Garrity’s small mountains of black gold is evidence that his formula is a tour de force. The mounds rise on a 30-acre farm tucked next to an Aberdeen subdivision 36 miles northeast of Baltimore.
“It’s not like I come from a hippie family,” the 33-year-old president says with a laugh about his venture during an on-site interview. “I still own a pickup truck and eat steaks.”
Though he’s quick with a joke, his enterprise is no lark.
Not only did he spend six months researching the art and science of composting, he also studied the ins and outs of waste management while earning an MBA from Penn State Great Valley in May 2011. He launched his business in 2010 with his savings and received a boost two years later with a $5,000 grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation.
Garrity’s methodology is meticulous. Food scraps are his bread and butter. He eschews yard waste and manure because he can’t risk pesticide or herbicide contamination. Instead, he mixes bread, bones, peels, cores, rinds, oyster shells and everything else with woodchips he purchases from a local mulch company.
“Being chemical-free makes us stand out,” he says about customers’ willingness to pay $35 per cubic yard for a premium product. “People know what they’re getting.”
A network of buried pipes aerates the piles so they don’t need to be turned. The massive heaps generate enough heat to break down all things organic and eliminate pathogens. Screeners separate the “fine stuff,” which can be sold, from the “big stuff,” which needs more time to “cook.”
“It’s basically an eighth-grade science experiment,” he says about converting castaways into restorative dirt. “We can process all of this food waste and not ruin the neighborhood with a terrible smell.”
His teams collect 10 to 15 tons daily from a cornucopia of Baltimore- and Annapolis-centric clients including the M&T Bank Stadium where the NFL's Baltimore Ravens play, spice maker McCormick & Co., investment management firm T. Rowe Price, as well as hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants, universities and public schools.
Leaders at the Washington-based National Waste & Recycling Association are especially impressed with Garrity’s preciseness. At hospitals, for example, he collects food scraps only from the main cafeteria, not patients’ rooms.
“He doesn’t want to risk getting needles in his compost supply,” says Chaz Miller, NWRA’s director of policy and advocacy. “Justen runs a really neat program. He really cares about the quality of his product.”
Garrity, who employs about 20 full- and part-timers, wants his undertaking to remain nimble. Expansion plans call for opening two additional composting facilities by year’s end. He’s already selected a farm site in Virginia’s Fairfax County, near Washington, D.C.
Another goal is to double his annual compost yield to 10,000 cubic yards. That jump in volume would allow him to sell year-round, instead of just meeting the spring and autumn needs of gardeners, landscapers and construction workers.
A key challenge is finding employees willing to follow through on mandatory training and stick with a program that isn’t as simple as it seems to outsiders.
For instance, Garrity knows he has a keeper in part-timer Jeffrey Madison. The District of Columbia-based Air Force veteran aced his tryout period by selling bags of Veteran Compost in the city. That inspired Madison to propose a food scrap collection program geared for D.C. homes. First, he had to attend a week of composting classes and pass a tough written exam that certified him as a compost facility operator.
Madison and his wife, Maude Windsor, now serve close to 1,000 D.C. residences and offices with the offshoot they initiated in summer 2013.
“Many home gardeners feel composting is something that’s easy to do,” Madison says. “When you understand the science of it, how regulated and consistent you have to be at this level, what you find out is there’s composting and then there’s good composting.”
Garrity is a disciple of cleanliness. Whether a client needs a seven-gallon bin or a 64-gallon rollout cart, his workers always swap the full one for a spotless, empty vessel.
Awareness of composting awareness seems to have skyrocketed recently, but that alone doesn’t guarantee a company’s survival. Five percent of food waste was composted in 2013, a tiny bump from the 4.8 percent in 2012, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And Garrity well knows that economics, technology and siting are all factors contributing to food waste comprising 21 percent of the 167 million tons of trash that ended up in landfills in 2013.
Composters in the mid-Atlantic offering only pick-up service have been scrambling since last fall when Peninsula Compost Co., a repository in Wilmington, Del., was ordered closed by state authorities.
That Garrity’s full-service model has survived five years is a tribute to his discipline, ability to adapt and think strategically—traits he attributes to his military experience.
He was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant after earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship. That eventually led to a 15-month deployment in Iraq.
As well, diversification gives him an edge. Customers also can order compost tea bags, worm poop (vermicompost) and a gardening mix of compost, peat moss and coarse vermiculite.
Garrity has high praise for programs such as sports events geared for wounded warriors. But as an entrepreneur and a member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, he is committed to guiding veterans toward work on the land that is meaningful and rewarding.
“For me, the alternative to this was being a mercenary in Afghanistan,” he says about the overseas contracting work he rejected. “This is much better.”