Long fascinated by the biology of our ecosystems, and an avid recycler since “way before curbside pickup,” Erlene Howard initially came to composting by way of her organic diet.” I was teaching someone about raw food prep, and she asked for my food scraps to add to her compost bin. Once I learned about composting, I was really drawn to making it work for me.” Though the theoretical part came easily, living in a condo without a backyard made the practical application more difficult. “I thought, ‘more people would do this if it were easy.’”

Erlene shared her vision for a residential compost pickup service with Ken Dunn at The Resource Center in Chicago. She drew on Dunn’s knowledge of composting and her own experience running small businesses to create Collective Resource, Inc.

As CRI’s owner, Erlene wears many hats. Though she manages operations, equipment, crews, bookkeeping and marketing, she says she enjoys the education piece the most. “When we started this in 2010, not too many people had been exposed to composting. They didn’t really know what it was. I have had a lot of conversations about what composting is and why it’s important. It’s important to reduce landfill use, because food waste in landfills creates methane and CO2. It’s important for air and water quality. People call us and want this information.”

Erlene finds herself educating in many different settings. “Anytime I’m talking about the company, I’m educating about composting. It happens casually, socially, and at zero-waste events.” As a result of her efforts, Erlene was awarded the Walter Lucansky Environmental Stewardship Award.

Erlene is delighted with the way CRI has grown. “In the beginning, it took us six months to divert our first ton. Now we haul 20 tons every week.” That volume continues to grow, in part because of the attention CRI receives from the media. “There has been a lot of interest from newspapers and Medill journalism students, she says. People want to tell our story.”