Curbside Composter: Breaking Down Naturally

Photo by Curbside Composter

Did you know that on July 1, 2020, Vermont banned food scraps from trash and landfills? To some, that might sound bizarre—maybe even unreasonable—but to most who compost, it makes a lot of sense. If you haven’t visited the Dane County landfill, all I can really say is it’s gross and heartbreaking. There’s a lot of food waste in that landfill, and food waste that decomposes in landfills produces the infamous greenhouse gas methane. As recycling wasn’t really a thing until the 1970s, today’s world needs to put composting at the forefront of people’s minds.

For a dollar a day, Curbside Composter has been providing Dane County residents the opportunity to partake in composting for almost 14 years. Owner and founder Derek Fry noted his frustrations with the City of Madison’s struggles in installing a long-term food-waste program (their current program does not pick up from restaurants and ends for the season October 31). In his mind, there are no excuses. “The county used to compost all the yard waste, and they kind of had a big battle with the city with the rates and stuff like that. They lost the contract and sold all their equipment.” I don’t know the whole story, but whatever the reasons, getting a compost program going that includes everyone in the area is integral to addressing climate change with the added benefit of aiding farmers and boosting our own backyard gardens.

Photograph provided by Curbside Composter

Derek’s passion for getting as many people and businesses to participate as possible stems in part from the immediate benefits of composting he often sees firsthand. “I work with farmers to get compost at their location and also feed chickens, which is all USDA approved. … It saves them money on feed. Chickens are super healthy eating such a variety of minerals and food. They eat bananas, rice, couscous, and watermelons instead of just corn and soybean or whatever’s in their chicken feed.”

He’s also motivated to end environmental sufferings. “We’ve been warned. Landfills are filling up too fast. We don’t have much longer, yet we’re still sending all this food waste to the landfill en masse. Think about all the stuff the restaurants don’t compost. They just keep filling their dumpsters full of waste, and then it goes right to the landfill.”

Hurdles are ubiquitous when it comes to running a compost business—the largest being a general lack of education. Even today, people misuse recycling bins, so to expect everyone to get it right when it comes to composting might be wishful thinking. But the opportunity to create the composting habit at an early age exists in our schools. There’s a lot of food waste happening there. Suzy doesn’t want her apple—garbage. Timmy sneezes on the mashed potatoes in the cafeteria—garbage. These same kids might be quick to tattle when a piece of paper finds its way to the trash instead of the recycling. Why not get them thinking the same way about food waste?

Photograph provided by Curbside Composter

Derek has made a part of his mission easing the individual effort required for composting. We’re not yet wired to take the steps needed for efficient and effective composting. For example, you can compost cardboard, but not grease, so people throw away pizza boxes instead of tearing away the greasy parts and composting the untouched cardboard. “I’ll take your pizza boxes,” says Derek. “You don’t have to tear them up even. Just set them under your bucket, I’ll take them with me, and they’ll be compost.” And if you have any questions, he’s always a phone call away.

With multiple certifications in composting and education in climate change, Derek understands the importance of scale. He barters with businesses to ensure their food waste doesn’t end up in the garbage. “All these restaurants, they can’t afford to pay full-price compost fees from, like, Sanimax.” Addressing the major sources of potential food waste is instrumental in making as large an impact as possible. Everyone has to be on board.

The same logic applies to when we go all out celebrating the good times. Birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries, they all warrant a party, and with a party comes planning. Derek’s composting services could be part of those plans. “I do weddings, events, stuff like that. If you want to have a zero-waste wedding, get all compostable cups and plates and silverware, we’ll just get compost bins around the location for the evening.”

Photograph provided by Curbside Composter

COVID-19 changed things a little bit for Curbside Composter, but in what might prove to be for the betterment of Derek’s operations moving forward. “COVID-19 hit and forced me into making a decision about not having these buckets in my house anymore, so I went to biobag compostable bags. I just pick up the bags now.” With an ever-growing customer base, though costing him money upfront, the bags cost him less in the long run when it comes to space and process.

Nobody wants new normals to be the new normal. Bringing mindfulness to our ecological footprints is a habit some people in Madison work daily to create. For them, composting isn’t something so earthshattering, but for others, it isn’t something they’ve ever really sat down and thought about. We can’t be blind to others not partaking in environmental stewardship whether because of cost, ability, or unfamiliarity. Thanks to Curbside Composter and other local efforts to aid in eliminating food waste, the reasons for resisting to adapt are shrinking, and the means to making a difference are more accessible.

Derek offers composting options for individual households, apartments, restaurants, and events. Go to to learn more.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Dane County.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Curbside Composter composts:

• All left over fruit and vegetable peelings
• Any meal scraps
• Small quantities of meats, bones, and cheeses
• Egg shells
• Nuts
• Breads
• Cereals
• Coffee grounds
• Paper towels
• Napkins
• Non-coated paper plates
• Shredded paper

Please no:

• Large quantities of meats, bones, and cheeses
• Plastics
• Metals
• Food stickers
• Packaging material
• Oils
• Medications
• Soaps
• Chemicals of any kind
• Rubber
• Styrofoam
• Any non-organic material not listed previously