Food Culture: GREEN PIONEERS
Restores Lost Connections To Soil
Interviewed, written & photographed by Denà Brummer
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Americans were facing a different problem of epic proportions: food waste. During the near-nationwide lockdown to stop increasing spread of the virus, residential waste volumes increased 30 percent. Simultaneously, plans for state and local composting programs, designed to reduce the amount of food waste occupying landfill space, were halted. Though many regarded this as a daunting and massive problem, Christine Lenches-Hinkel, a seasoned eco-entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to expand. In the blink of an eye, she shifted 301 Organics’ efforts to residential composting.
Pivoting isn’t new to Christine. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Christine mastered the art of reinvention when she rebranded and refocused her company, Waste Less Living, from which 301 Organics emerged. In 2016, she went from providing eco-friendly event planning services to managing zero-waste planning and composting initiatives for the Rose Bowl Stadium. This partnership allows 301 Organics to not only transform food waste into soil, but to also create environmental jobs and training for socially and economically disadvantaged high school students in the Pasadena area.
Born to parents from Hungary, Christine’s family upbringing contributed to her attitudes about food waste. With an uncanny knack for being acutely aware of the market’s needs and responding in a meaningful and impactful way, Christine continues to evolve her company into a vehicle that educates, empowers, and tackles some of our largest and most intimidating environmental problems.
Tell me about the evolution of your business Waste Less Living and how it got started? CHRISTINE: It was a long journey and it’s a bit convoluted. At some point in my corporate sector, the job of an environmental planner became cookie cutter. I felt like solid waste was not really getting the attention that it deserved. Nor was there any meaningful analysis or discussion disclosing the interconnectedness of solid waste and how it’s impacting our air quality, our water quality, our food quality, and overall human health. So I left my full-time corporate job to become an independent contractor. I’ve always been predisposed to calling out wasteful practices just on account of my Hungarian upbringing, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to do what I could in my own life to avoid such waste. We would have kid parties and I discovered that compostable paper and other organics like food scraps and green waste, if sent to landfills, were the source of pollution. Landfills are not composting sites and landfills do not produce soil or compost. Instead, the organic waste rots (unlike compost) and contributes to the leaching of toxins down and through to the bottom of the landfill where it in many cases seeps into the groundwater if not monitored. The rotting of the food and green waste results in methane, a greenhouse gas. I realized quickly that people would jump on the bandwagon of buying compostable products without ever realizing the harm they would be contributing to. I started to think “Oh, my gosh, how would any consumer or any typical lay person know this?” So with this new intel, I just couldn’t sit on it. I started brainstorming how I could get this information and message out to the masses. And it all boiled down to consumer education and trying to close the loop locally in my own circles. Within my network, I started to work with moms, who wanted to host Waste Less parties. I would walk them through it all and recover everything. Since I had already established my rapport with local landfill and composting operators, I knew how to approach them and spent a great deal of time educating the regional composters on these compostable party products that they didn’t even know were out on the market. So I was playing both sides.
So how did you evolve into 301 Organics? CHRISTINE: In 2014 everything kind of changed. Everything came to a head because my customers, those using us for party and event planning services, were asking me to pick up their compostables from their home. So we dabbled in curbside pickup service for the compostable goods we sold to our customers as well as their food scraps and transported the material to a regional composting facility willing to take in the material. We were fortunate enough to establish rapport with the facility operator and built trust over time as we consistently delivered clean and uncontaminated loads. Ultimately, we were positioning ourselves for the long term and our end goal was to “close the loop” by keeping food and green waste out of the landfill and instead put it towards their best use. So 2014 was a pivotal year because we were trying to educate city council members on the importance of food scraps as a resource (not as a waste material) while at the same time promoting the emergence of the organics and composting field as a source for green jobs.
To add to this, we almost went bankrupt under Waste Less Living. I started consulting on the side because I had a hard time keeping it together. By 2016, everything changed for the better because that is when the new laws for organic diversion from landfills took effect. I ended up choosing to change the name of my company and to start focusing more heavily on consulting for institutions that needed help complying with this new law. We did some feasibility studies for the University of LaVerne and Riverside City College. We were eventually hired by the Rose Bowl Stadium because the city was putting pressure on them to comply and they didn’t know where to begin. Now 10 years later, everybody wants to compost and garden, so we’re in a really good position.
How did you pivot your business model again during the early days of the pandemic? CHRISTINE: Our biggest contract is with the Rose Bowl Stadium and they agreed to honor our contract all the way through the end of June. But at the close of June, when we knew that there wasn’t going to be a fireworks show and all concerts were canceled, I took that opportunity to pivot and focus more heavily on training the high school students we had recruited for the season. Since we had already built a pilot commercial grade composting system, the students could learn how to compost both at home and on a larger scale at the stadium. It just made sense to utilize the stadium’s existing resources and strategically build a future workforce of composting technicians that could serve the stadium in the future — and even the community at large under the conditions of COVID-19. Currently, they are on track to service our growing number of residential customers and to help educate consumers on how to turn their food waste into compost in their backyards.
In the grand scheme of environmental issues we’re facing globally, how do you feel your company is making an impact? CHRISTINE: The tagline for my business is “recycling nature’s way”. I’m a firm believer that we can’t control nature. We should instead mimic nature in the way we approach our problems. We’ve got to be more mindful and respectful of nature’s way. We can’t recycle our way out of the solid waste problem that we’re in. We can’t engineer our way out of it either. Building new machines won’t fix our problem. We have to fix ourselves first. Change starts with us. We have to be confident enough to disrupt what is not working, stand up — do something different and against the mainstream.
At 301 Organics, we are proposing something very different and disruptive. We are offering a service that is not currently being offered by influencing and educating the next generation to be stewards of the environment by teaching them the science behind composting. Our business model is not predicated on consolidation and efficiency for the sake of benefiting a few. We promote local, distributed solutions and services by engaging our youth. In the work that we do at 301 Organics, we advocate for mindset change and a behavioral shift in consumption practices while offering services that are now in demand. The change we see is in the number of youth we have engaged with and the testimonials they share about working with 301 Organics. We believe that every pound we can record and log as diverted from landfill for any one of our clients and customers is evidence of the positive impact we are having on the environment and in our community.
What is the most rewarding part of the work that you do? CHRISTINE: I love talking about soil and composting to people who have never thought twice about soil. It is so rewarding to see and witness when the light bulb goes off in people’s heads when they finally make the connection of how important soil is to our livelihood. It is a great reminder for people; we’re not that disconnected from the natural world. I love being able to present it in such a way that it makes sense to people and then they’re moved to action, and then they get excited about it. Because that’s the real change.
What has been the biggest challenge that you have faced as a business owner? CHRISTINE: I think my biggest challenge has been lacking the financial backing to fight the big guys. If I had more capital, I could scale more quickly and would be in much better shape financially. But this is a new and emerging field so I really had to be strategic and patient. That’s not always my forte, or my strength, because I want to get things done quickly. So not having enough capital for marketing, human resources and infrastructure expansion has been the biggest challenge.
What are the biggest lessons you learned as an entrepreneur? CHRISTINE: You can’t do it alone. Even if you think you have a grand idea, you have to seek out others who share that bigger vision and delegate. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to trust in others. Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Looking back, I had a hard time asking for money and I honestly needed some hand holding and retraining around that subject. There were times I panicked and felt desperate. Overcoming the panic and desperation were the biggest lessons, but it also tested our resolve and commitment. I also learned that if you go beyond your comfort zone, you are able to realize your potential because you are forced to rise to the occasion. 301 Organics still has a ways to go, but our team is growing and we are of like mind.
Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.