‘The Compost Kid’ leaned on hobby for profitable career in sustainability

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — A man whose passion composting as a teen led him on a path that shows you can be sustainable and profitable.

Liam Donnelly, 24, has been running WasteNot Compost for nearly a decade.

“This really started by chance. I grew up composting in my Lincoln Square backyard, but it was pretty small,” Donnelly said. “I was doing this on a bike with a trailer, for me that was the only way I could do it. I couldn’t drive. And this sort of became the icon around the neighborhood.”

Dubbed by neighbors as “The Compost Kid,” Donnelly said he was just doing the right thing in 2012 while working at a local café.

“I found myself throwing out hundreds of pounds of coffee grounds every week, I thought it was pretty strange because I grew up composting in the backyard,” Donnelly said. “I didn’t think other people didn’t do it.”

So with his use of his parents’ backyard and the café offering to pay for the service, Donnelly began hauling food and coffee waste to compost. As word of mouth spread, his business began to take off.

By his senior year, Donnelly, with the help of a friend, began to focus on expanding the business. He quickly realized he would need to make some changes.

“I was biking six to seven days a week at least 12 hours a day. It was what we call the most sustainable WasteNot’s ever been and the least sustainable I’d ever been,” Donnelly said. “‘Cause it wasn’t gonna last.”

With a mission to be purely sustainable, Donnelly took a leap in 2016 and purchased a used electric truck.

“That was a huge milestone. We had started this company with zero emissions model out of necessity,” said Donnelly. “But then it became a mission.”

Today, he has a fleet of 20 electric trucks and serves more than 5,000 customers out of his North Side garage. Last January, WasteNot was named best overall compost company by Treehuggers.com. It is the first zero emissions compost service in the city and possibly the country.

College Tristyn Von Berg said sustainability is Donnelly’s sole focus.

“He lives by the motto ‘compost without compromise,”‘ Von Berg said. “Making sure our forklift, our chainsaw is electric, we’re a fossil fuel-free warehouse.”

Donnelly said that although composting reduces waste in landfills, his primary goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The biggest benefit for the environment that composting offers is the fact that it has direct correlations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Donnelly said. “A very harmful greenhouse gas.”

From the company’s inception, Donnelly has methodically planned for sustainability along with service.

“We bring it back full circle, not only contributing to food waste that would otherwise be sent to landfills, but they are getting the finished product, the organic soil and finished compost back,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said he never thought he’d be running a composting business, but is happy he was able to follow his passion for sustainability.

“We had this dream and we ran with it,” Donnelly said.

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