Gwenn Nolan never quite fit the standard definition of a risk-taker. She didn’t grow up dreaming of owning her own business, and she already had a secure, challenging job in the investment world. Add in the fact that she had three children under 7 years old, and the idea of launching a startup was almost completely out of character—especially one that had her picking up other people’s garbage at 2 a.m. “It was a hard left turn for me,” she admits.
Nolan’s 2018 detour led to Mother Compost, a Narberth-based company that collects customers’ waste and transports it to a large-scale composting site at Linvilla Orchards in Media. Her company employs nine and has nearly 1,200 local customers and counting. All pay a monthly fee for weekly pickup. Mother Compost also works with schools and other larger clients. The overarching goal is to help reduce waste in landfills and incineration facilities, especially items that don’t decompose well and may throw off harmful methane gas when they do. “I was always environmentally conscious, but I have no environmental science background,” says Nolan, who grew up in Berwyn and lives in Wynnewood. “This is something that called me later in life, after I became a mother. I asked what the future will look like for my children.”
The Mother Compost process is simple. Customers fill between one and five buckets with food waste and things like pizza boxes, paying $20–$28 a month to have everything collected. There’s some sorting involved, but it’s hardly onerous, and the result is less discarded food going into the municipal waste system.
Mother Compost’s current footprint basically runs along Lancaster Avenue from the city line to just east of Route 252. Plans are in place for a West Chester launch in the first quarter of 2023. “We recycle as much as possible, but we have four kids, and we have a lot of food waste that was being thrown in the trash,” says Kevin Waterman of Berwyn, who’s been a customer for about a year. “This was a pretty easy thing for us. We just throw food in the bucket.”
Mother Compost hauls away an average of eight tons of waste a week, a number that continues to grow with each new customer. Nolan uses Instagram and other social media to promote the company and stay engaged with customers. Word of mouth also helps, as do people happening upon buckets waiting to be emptied.
Nolan wants to expand Mother Compost’s footprint, but she isn’t interested in the kind of rapid expansion that leads to problems with customer service and difficult conditions for the company’s drivers. There’s a real demand throughout the region, but Mother Compost remains a pretty lean operation. “Our intention is to deliver on service,” Nolan says. “I think that’s something people really appreciate and miss. If you communicate well and show up and do the thing you say you’re going to do, it’s amazing how surprised people will be.”
“I was always environmentally conscious, but I have no environmental science background. This is something that called me later in life, after I became a mother. I asked what the future will look like for my children.”
At first, Kaitlin McCartan was just helping out her friend. She’d graduated with Nolan from the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in 2001. When Nolan began Mother Compost, she signed on. “She educated me on the importance [of composting], and I thought I’d give it a try,” says McCartan, who lives with her family in Ardmore. “We’d lived in the city, and we couldn’t compost, but when we moved out here, I was amazed at how it reduced our regular trash amount.”
McCartan and her husband have four children, and though they’re not perfect when it comes to composting every possible item, they make a regular effort and hope to improve. “I guess we feel like we’re making a difference,” she says. McCartan works in the staffing industry and understands how difficult it can be to find motivated people to fill roles in businesses. That in mind, she’s impressed by the level of service Mother Compost provides. “Gwenn is a good leader and has a good mission,” McCartan says. “To get people to work, you need people to believe in what you’re doing. It’s hard to provide good service if people don’t believe in the mission.”
The night before every pickup, McCartan and other customers receive a text reminding them to bring their buckets to the curb. If the family is away or doesn’t have enough to collect, they can skip that week and receive a credit. Every spring, each customer receives a nice perk—two bags of compost for the garden.
The compost comes from the five-acre site at Linvilla maintained and managed by Chris Pieretti, a Drexel Hill resident who began Kitchen Harvest in 2010 and is something of a mentor to Nolan. Like Mother Compost, Pieretti’s company offers pickup service for customers within 15 miles of the orchard and uses the windrow system to turn scraps into soil-enriching product. Pieretti sorts the material into rows, adds in some leaves, woodchips and hay, and mixes it regularly. In six months, it decomposes into really nice material that looks like dark, rich soil.
Nolan consulted with Pieretti before she started Mother Compost. “She asked me if she was crazy for doing this,” he says.
After assuring her she wasn’t, Pieretti offered his services, for which he charges $60 a ton. “We’re trying to be a better solution at a fair price,” he says.
Unlike Nolan, who employs seven drivers, Pieretti is Kitchen Harvest’s entire crew. He’s part of a growing ecosystem of composters who hope that one day municipalities will understand the value and importance of the process and handle it themselves, much as they do recycling.
Does that mean Mother Compost could be a finite venture for Nolan? It does, but it’s unlikely that will happen soon. There’s a cost benefit to composting for townships and boroughs, versus trucking it to landfills and incinerating it. But that isn’t something they’re all likely to adopt in the near future.
Nolan plans to continue expanding and hopes to convert more folks to composting. “We see us growing,” she says. “I see us continuing to answer that need—and not only just for the infrastructure of getting food waste from people’s homes and businesses to a facility where we know it’s being managed and turned into compost. It’s also helping to create more sites to be part of how Pennsylvania begins to create a composting network.”
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Eco-Friendly Gardening