Back to Earth

Compost Montreal Is ‘A Different Kind of Business Model’

Photo Simon Liem

There is a company that values your trash.

Soon after Charlotte Cumberbirch signed up with Compost Montreal, the company thought that leaving a bucket of compost on a busy street was too risky.

So they bought her a bike lock to secure the pail to a tree to make sure her kitchen scraps would not get nabbed.

Compost Montreal, a private business, offers a door-to-door composting service for residences and commercial outfits around the island. Every week it picks up rotten fruit, egg shells and leftovers from your doorstep.

When the bike lock story was mentioned to an employee of the company, Matthew Bruno, he remembered Cumberbirch by name.

“I think they’re a pretty friendly group of people to deal with. I think if they were jerks, I would be less inclined [to do business with them],” laughed Cumberbirch.

“The human aspect of this business is the best,” said Bruno. “It’s a treat to work in a place like this.”

Stephen McLeod started Compost Montreal in the summer of 2007. He began by towing a garbage can behind his bicycle, collecting compostable materials from neighbours to bring to a city-run compost site.

McLeod says he always had the intention of making money, but that he has to operate within a “grey area” between keeping true to his environmental ideals and running a successful business.

“I felt like I had to make a living and contribute positively to the world,” said McLeod. “People have to show proof that you can make money doing positive things.”

The company operates out of the top level of a rickety duplex in St. Henri. The apartment’s warped floors are covered by a jumble of kitchen tables that serve as computer desks. The office is as much a workplace as it is a home, as employees often come to the kitchen to cook and make preserves together.

The company has about 10 employees, five of which are full-time. It has grown to serve around 1,000 homes and over 50 businesses on the island. The service costs $5 a week per household and varies for commercial needs. At the end of a season, a bag of high quality compost is delivered for no extra cost to any customer that wants it.

“They give good service,” said Haim Shoham, owner of Le Panthère Verte, a chain of two restaurants that serve all organic vegan food. The company outsources Compost Montreal to put its composting into a larger compost system.

Composting seemed like a logical step to fulfill Shoham’s ideals. Like Compost Montreal, he says that he started his restaurants with the intention of trying to create “a different kind of business model.”

Though he feels they provide a necessary service, Shoham noted that “it’s a bit on the expensive side for [small businesses].” Shoham wishes that the city would offer a similar service or subsidize businesses for their green practices. He thinks that would encourage more to get involved.

Municipalities have approached the company to help foster local composting programs. Montreal West councillor Elizabeth Ulin collaborated with Compost Montreal to start a community compost system for the town, which started on Earth Day last year.

According to Ulin, it was too expensive to implement a door-to-door system, so she sought out Compost Montreal’s help. Now families can drop off their organic waste at any one of the 10 bins around town.
“It has been terrific. We’re pushing 200 families,” said Ulin.

A Montreal West official estimated that it directed approximately 15 tonnes of waste away from landfills since the program began. The town hopes to expand the project to merchants, in addition to residences.

From its inception, Compost Montreal has also worked with the South West borough, using its composting site. Pierre Bochu, an official with the public works department, said that the rich organic material provided by Compost Montreal make for high quality, “agricultural grade” compost.

The company collects waste twice a week, usually filling up two truck beds with kitchen scraps from homes and businesses. Bruno estimates they haul about five tonnes per week, total. Surprisingly, a truck full of leftovers does not smell much different from a citrus-laden bag of trash, but it does get more rank as temperatures rise, said Bruno.

The site in the South West borough is well maintained, so it does not smell much either. What is noticeable about the site is the amount of heat coming out of the one story hills of compost. As microbes break down organic material, they generate heat. A good pile of compost can get up to 60 degrees centigrade. In the winter, the mounds of dirt give off steam and ooze “compost juice,” looking like tidy piles of giant horse droppings.

Compost Montreal is sustaining itself financially, but will have to find new ways to take on more customers.

The current dumpsite can only take so much waste. The company has to find other locations if it wishes to expand much further.

Last year, McLeod formally incorporated the company. Now, he has to follow stricter regulations to qualify for the necessary insurance. He feels that the regulations are “anti-entrepreneurial” and wishes that they could be eased for small businesses. The new requirements have cut into profits, said Bruno.

The priority for them is still to make sure composting is accessible to people in apartments in the middle of the city. This is what keeps their customers so satisfied.

“I respect their intentions,” said Cumberbirch. “I don’t see them as a business. I see them as having integrity and not wanting to profit from this.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 29, published April 5, 2011.