How a Small Composting Business Got Bigger and Still Kept Emissions at Zero

Liam Donnelly and one of the WasteNot vehicles.

Liam Donnelly started WasteNot Compost in 2012 when his classmate helped him realize there was enough demand for a business. Since then, he has been trying to keep up with the rapid expansion of demand, but has kept emissions at zero by employing only electric vehicles for picking up the compost.

What is WasteNot?

WasteNot Compost is a local Chicago business that picks up people’s food waste from their home, business, or other organization, and composts it for them. Then, they turn it into soil and that soil goes back to the composters in the spring.

How it started

When Liam Donnelly was 15, he worked in a cafe not far from his home in Chicago. He liked the job, and valued how they made sustainability a priority with things like seasonal foods, but he thought one thing was missing.

“They weren’t thinking about waste,” Donnelly said.

But Liam had grown up composting, because that’s just what his family did. He didn’t really even think about the fact that most people don’t. So, he stepped up from his dishwasher job and took it upon himself to wheel home the food waste and compost it himself.

When customers saw that he was doing this, they wanted part of it, for their own homes.

“People were like, ‘We want the compost kid,’” Donnelly recounted.

At first, he told people no, until a classmate in his AP Environmental Science class told him, more or less, that he was crazy for not accepting their money.

So, with her marketing and his composting, WasteNot was born.

How it’s going

Fast forward seven years, and now Donnelly has a fleet of 12 electric vehicles for what started as an afterschool, one-wagon operation. Now, his business collects 20,000 pounds of compostable waste per week.

Donnelly says that, rather than trying to drum up business, he has mostly been trying to keep up with the demand.

Currently, WasteNot only operates in Chicago’s neighborhoods, but it may be expanding to more suburban areas in the future.

Donnelly thinks that the reason WasteNot is so popular is because Chicagoans want what he has to offer. His business was the first composting option in the city, and people were eager to take part. Especially in an urban area, people who live in apartments may have a harder time finding outdoor space in which to compost – people associate composting with pests, smells and think of it as dirty in general.

While the main focus of WasteNot is of course composting, Donnelly also wants to educate.

“Many kids don’t know what a landfill even is,” Donnelly said. “They think the trash goes in the garbage truck and that’s it.”

He believes that making sure more people understand what happens to waste is very important for Chicago.

Why electric vehicles? Why zero emissions?

WasteNot’s Fleet of vehicles.

One thing Donnelly wanted to make sure of was that the business never “backtracked” on sustainable progress. He explained that when the business started via bicycle, it ran at zero emissions, and he wanted to keep it as zero emissions as it expanded.

“I want to run this sustainable company sustainably,” Donnelly said.

So, when it became clear that bicycles were no longer a viable option for picking up compost, Donnelly decided to search for electric vehicles. He flew to California at age 17 and found a group of used electric vehicles for sale.

Specifically, he found e-Stars, believed to have belonged to FedEx or part of another larger fleet. He has been very happy with the vehicles since then.

“They’re the perfect vehicle for the city.”

They work for Chicago operations because they have a range of about 100 miles, and their max speed is about 45-50 miles per hour, which works for street and city driving. However, if WasteNot expands outside of the city, they may need to look at different EVs equipped for longer range.

One issue he has found is that the knowledge on repairing the e-Stars is limited, since their production was pretty limited in the first place. Even simple fixes on electric vehicles tends to spook some car mechanics, because there can be limited understanding of how the vehicles work. Some electricians are also unsure of how to equip his business to charge the fleet of electric vehicles.

So, Donnelly has been working to understand the vehicles so he can repair them when simple fixes are required.

For now, the vehicles are charged on site, inside the WasteNot building.

The future of WasteNot

Donnelly never intended to start a business, or for it to take over his life, but that is what has happened with WasteNot. He just finished up his degree in Environmental Science from Loyola University – Chicago, and is always learning and working to improve his business.

While the permits and zoning requirements can be difficult to follow, Donnelly is passionate about what he does and believes in it. It has become his life, but he is excited for the prospects of expansion and making Chicago greener.

“Now that I’ve been doing this, I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.”

By Linden O’Brien-Williams
Chicago Area Clean Cities


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