Closing the Loop, a Zero-Waste Sustainability Business
Chris Young’s mind likes loops. His way of looking at things is to make connections that all come together in a nice closed, efficient circle. And that’s what he does with his zero-waste sustainability business, fittingly called Closing the Loop.
Young started Closing the Loop back in 2011 while working in the apprentice program at Suzie’s Farm as a farm hand. It came naturally to him since he was raised on his grandparents’ orchard and dairy farm in Maryland. After graduating from the University of South Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship, he did his stint and then wanted to get back into farming. He tried growing mushrooms, but that didn’t take off, so he joined Suzie’s Farm.
When Young realized he wanted to get into recycling, he started as a food waste hauler, charging restaurants, homeowners associations and other places that have waste to get rid of and then composting it for use on farms.
The problem was that Young found all the state and local regulations daunting because local landfills are keen to protect their business. So he developed a different approach that would avoid the landfill bureaucracy and politics. Food waste doesn’t have to go to landfills because it’s not trash and businesses only fall under composting laws if the waste is heated to 120 degrees or higher. So he doesn’t heat compost. Because Closing the Loop is engaged in animal husbandry and making animal feed, Young said, it doesn’t trigger any issues.
So now, about a third of his business is food waste recycling from restaurants including The Red Door, Burger Lounge and USD’s cafes. Another third is regular recycling. The final third is inedible kitchen grease, or IKG, recycling. Instead of charging clients to haul away their IKG, he buys it from them or offers a credit to their recycling account. He then sells the IKG to biofuel manufacturers.
The food recycling process involves putting the waste in bins that have a drain. Young gets three products from this process: sludge—wet muddy compost that can be fed to worms, which he can sell to farms; methane gas—which he wants to bottle and use for energy generation or cooking; and clear liquid—which is filled with nutrients and is essentially liquid fertilizer and can be sold to growers.
“I’m always interested in bringing food back to the soil,” he said.
Another twist in the food recycling is the production of black soldier flies, a beneficial bug that helps the composting process. Young pulled back a section of tarp in the field he had been subletting from Suzie’s Farm. Underneath was a nasty pile of decomposing food. He pushed it around with his hands until he found what he was looking for: little worm-like creatures madly wiggling around. These were black soldier fly larvae. They have a six- to 12-week life span and in that time are ferocious eaters. Young has created a setup in which the larvae eat until their mass reaches about 40% protein—when they instinctively crawl out of the waste only to fall into bins he’s placed along the side, where he can catch them, freeze dry or dehydrate them, and sell them to farms across the country to feed to chickens or turkeys or other animals.
Closing the Loop has just moved from Suzie’s Farm to Recon Recycling in National City, which they took over. With 12,000 square feet, Young can now move the black soldier flies indoors to raise year round, using the methane gas to heat the space. He’s looking to hire people with disabilities, veterans (both he and his wife, Briana, are disabled vets) and trained compost workers from Donovan prison.
“Every year I try to add something new,” he said. “I’m also looking at recycling wax cardboard boxes into compressed fire logs, and maybe next year recycle mattresses. We’re moving into LA and Temecula, and next year into Phoenix, and I want to create a franchise model so we can expand.
“My goal,” said Young, “is to keep pulling things out of landfills. I want to help San Diego meet its zero waste initiative. We want to put the landfills out of business.”