When he was working to get the nonprofit NOLA Green Roots up and running a few years ago, Joe Brock kept hitting a barrier.
Although the facility where he taught local and out-of-town groups how to build community gardens was a success, Brock inevitably would find himself with a shortage of compost to use in the garden beds.
“As fast as we’d make it, we’d use it, or it would sell out,” he said.
Today, Brock owns and operates the Composting Network, a for-profit company that collects discarded material from local businesses and institutions for a fee, processes it on a large scale into compost, and then sells the product online and through garden centers.
“Please don’t call what we pick up ‘waste,’ ” Brock cautioned. “It’s a natural resource, not waste. It’s organic material that can be processed or ‘cooked’ into something really valuable.”
Brock has even developed a computer program to track the materials his trucks bring to his facility and how much output it yields. In 2014 alone, the Composting Network picked up more than 300,000 pounds of “natural resources” from its partners.
“The credit for the success of this business really needs to go to the chefs and the organizations who do sign on, because they are the ones who realize how much it benefits the environment and the quality of the food that’s available,” Brock said. “Plants and vegetables that are grown in good soil amended with compost are higher quality, and the chefs know it.”
Brock has an impressive roster of partners who pay his company to pick up discards, including Tulane and Loyola universities, the New Orleans Convention Center, the Sheraton Hotel, Whole Foods Market on Veterans Boulevard and Federal City.
Smaller outfits include PJ’s Coffee and Tea, Restaurant August, Peche, Cochon, Del Fuego and French Truck Coffee. Most recently, Metairie Park Country Day School became a client.
“Our partners get 48-gallon bins and can choose to have them picked up once, three times, or five times a week, depending on how much they generate,” Brock said.
When Brock signs a new client, he meets with its staff to talk about composting dos and don’ts.
“We explain what can go in the bins — vegetables scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, peels, nutshells, even paper towels. And we explain what shouldn’t go in — mostly fats and meat products and also animal waste,” he said. “We work with them until they’re comfortable.’
Not long ago, Brock’s business moved from its former home in Mid-City to an eight-acre site on Old Gentilly Road.
When trucks carrying contents of the compost bins arrive at the new facility, the contents undergo a process that Brock hopes to get patented.
“Using the process we use, we can take 9,000 pounds of organics and reduce it to 1,800 pounds,” he said. “And we can do in six months what takes some places a year to do.”
The network also has equipment on site to test carbon dioxide and ammonia levels in its products, but relies on the LSU AgCenter to test for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium levels to ensure the right balance.
Although the composting process that Brock has developed relies on the same basic principles as backyard composting (microbial action and heating the materials to 135 degrees to 185 degrees Fahrenheit), it differs because of the very large scale needed to efficiently handle the volume.
Local vendors — including Perino’s, Harold’s, Jefferson Feed and the Healing Center — carry Brock’s compost, which is immediately recognizable in its bright yellow bag with the Composting Network logo on it.
“We also sell it online, along with compost tea and a soil mix for gardeners who don’t want to or can’t physically mix the soil and compost in the correct ratios,” Brock said. “Delivery in New Orleans is free.”