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A Closer Look E-mail the author

Organicycle
Justin Swan • 616-855-3377

—Justin Swan, left, and Dan Tietema, right.

Justin Swan, co-owner of Organicycle in western Michigan, said his location seemed to be the perfect place to launch an organic waste recycling business. “People in this area are willing to change what they do,” he said, which is what needs to be done to sort organic waste from the portion that has to be landfilled.

He said that the area has “a lot of sustainable roots” while at the same time his business is seen as innovative, since there’s no other company offering curbside composting. Unlike normal waste pickup, he said that his customers particularly like that “they can get something in return” in the form of worm castings that are sold to residents for their gardens.

The company also sells a variety of compostable products including trash bags, compostable cups, cutlery and lids to replace paper and plastic products.

“We sought out manufacturers to sell these products,” Swan said, explaining that it was difficult to source the compostable bags which would fit home trash bins and were sturdy enough. He said that he was lucky enough to find a local source of a quality product.

Organicycle services both business and residential accounts, and sends the material to another company to do the actual composting. But it’s not all about picking the material up. Swan said, “We do zero-waste events and provide our service, find a trash hauler and provide compostable products and bins.”

They also offer a lawn-and-leaf program to neighborhoods where the proceeds go back to the neighborhood organizations, and sometimes those proceeds are donated to local charities. He said that the neighborhoods appreciated that not only were the bags from Organicycle cheaper than from other vendors, but funds were coming back to the neighborhood after the events.

Organicycle was founded in 2011 by Dan Tietema, who brought Swan in as his partner. Swan described Tietema as “a good entrepreneur” who has “a knack for sniffing out the next service within industries.”

Before launching Organicycle, Tietema started bottling water before others in the area had thought of it, and he also started a business that picked up medical waste. When he saw an opportunity to start an organic waste recycling company, he called Swan and the company started targeting area businesses that already had a sustainable mission and wanted to be landfill-free.

To help fund their business, they worked with a local venture capital firm that invested $5,000 each week with a different company, and those companies created presentations which were assessed to see if they would be funded further. Organicycle was one of the companies chosen for further funding.

From the beginning, Organicycle handled residential organic waste, but Swan said they weren’t marketing it very much at first. In January, 2013, the company started its residential curbside programs.

The company wants to create turnkey programs that communities can bring in and implement easily, with an eye at expanding to other markets with the same concept. “You have to have an exit strategy or a growth strategy,” Swan said.

He explained that in the local area people are already used to sorting metal and plastic from the landfill-destined materials. “The idea of green and sustainability has pretty much stuck, if it is clean and easy to do. People want to be part of the change.”

Swan said that one extra sorting step that helps protect the environment is an easy sell, particularly when it also benefits the local economy by creating a product that can be resold. He called it “a simple step to a sustainable future” and said that soon it will be the new standard in recycling.

Right now, about 65 percent (by weight) of what is thrown away is compostable, 30 percent is recyclable and the remainder doesn’t yet have any use beyond the landfill. So there would be plenty of material diverted from landfills if composting became commonplace.

While Swan wasn’t the one with the idea to start the company, he has been very vocal in promoting it, making presentations and meeting with the community. And that community aspect has been embraced by both Swan and Tietema who believe that part of their responsibility as business owners is to give back to their community. “It is a key purpose in our business model,” Swan said.