Break It Down: Waste Company Finds Success with Ethical Values

13 Aug, 2012

Not long ago Jeff Paine and his wife, Melanie MacFarlane, of Austin, Texas, were concerned about the amount of non-recycled waste that was occurring, and they had a better idea. Today their compost and recycling company, with the extremely cool name—Break It Down—accepts more types of waste than any other company in the Lone Star capital. Instead of being solely profit driven, their business model follows this strict guideline: anything they do must benefit the environment, their clients and the company.

“Three years ago my wife was working for a yoga studio in town, and they served drinks in cups during class,” Jeff told Organic Connections. “They had just switched from cups that weren’t decomposable to a compostable sugar- cane cup—but they were still just throwing them away because they didn’t have any option to compost. They asked if we could find an option for them. We looked all over town and found no one offering composting, and we thought, `Hmm, maybe we could offer composting.’ We started as a pilot and picked them up, then added a second account and then a third account. It became our full-time occupation.”

Diverting from Landfills

After Break It Down began to achieve some success, Jeff and Melanie became more aware of their competition—and realized that in order to survive, they had to differentiate themselves. First, they found a way to take certain items for recycling that other recycling companies—including the city—would not. “Our warehouse is totally different from the industry standard; we separate everything by hand,” Jeff explained. “Because we operate this way, we offer the ability to recycle as many things as possible. We’ll take bags of plastic, bags of clean Styrofoam and bags of packing peanuts. We can take milk cartons, aseptic [commercially sterile] packaging, and any kinds of metals. We can take coat hangers and wire, the type of stuff that gets caught up in an industrial system. We can take any kind of hard plastic, because we can differentiate plastic by hand a lot more easily than a machine can.”

Operating in this fashion has meant more customers and a higher rate of diversion from the landfills. “Instead of maximizing profit, our goal is to maximize our client list,” said Jeff. “This has resulted not only in clients but also in approximately a 99+ percent diversion. We bring in about 100 tons of material a month and we end up having to throw out maybe a half ton a month in trash. Larger companies will brag when they are over 95 percent diversion rate, and we just blow that away.”

Break It Down’s service-oriented approach extends as well to their compost collection. “We really try to tailor the service to everyone independently,” Jeff continued. “That has caused us to offer as many different options as we can. We use 55-gallon barrels for a lot of food waste. But we have clients who don’t generate enough to need one of those, so we also have a small 12-gallon roll cart for some of the food trailers in town and also for residents. The area I’m most excited about with these is that we set them up indoors in office commissaries.”

The Greatest Good for All

The company’s attention to service has certainly paid off. “We’ve had a good response,” Jeff said. “We don’t even have signage on our trucks right now, and we’ve been growing at pretty much full capacity for a year and a half. Local small-business owners constitute 99 percent of our clients, and word of mouth in the local small-business community has been particularly helpful.”

The future for Break It Down is planned the same way as the company began: the greatest good for all concerned. “We’re going to continue to grow our core compost and recycling business,” Jeff concluded. “Beyond that, I think there is a huge potential to divert compost to livestock production. There is a small group of people here that we’ve been talking with about a food recovery effort too, to divert the best quality food waste to human consumption—specifically food banks, soup kitchens and that kind of thing. Some of the quote ‘food waste’ we pick up is completely edible and it’s just that the expiration date has passed.

“This is the kind of thing I love because our ethical values about waste are in full alignment with our economic goals. Any new program that comes out of here is not only better for the environment, it’s better for our bottom line too. I don’t know if it was by accident or just because that has always been the goal from day one; but it’s really nice to not have too many opportunities come up in which we need to either ‘do what’s right’ and lose money or `do what’s wrong’ and save money. It’s very gratifying to just have those factors in alignment like that.”

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  • Jim Di Blasi

    It is nice to see that they care about what happens with our waste and how can it be reused for other things. The not care attitude has blemished the oceans and land and we’re suffering from that. I’m old enough to remember the commercial “You Can’t Fool Mother Nature”. How true that is. We pay for our mistakes, deliberate or not. We need to make a conscious effort to do the right things, not place it in someone else’s hands. You are what you ate, but you are also what they ate. What is feed to the cattle, chickens, veggies and fruit is what will make up your body too. Eat Nourishing Foods not processed. What and how we throw things away comes back to us. Dr Jim Di Blasi

  • kat

    You guys are awesome!!!

  • Mrs Green

    such an inspirational story; I love how people see an issue and decide to become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Thanks for sharing!