The climate-friendly local business collects compost throughout the Santa Cruz area via bicycle.
The climate-friendly local business collects compost throughout the Santa Cruz area via bicycle.
(Provided by Hard Core Compost.)
City Life

Hard Core Compost receives grant from CalRecycle to improve site

The worker-owned Hard Core Compost recently received a grant from CalRecycle to expand its operations — as the state mandate for composting goes into effect. Lily Belli takes us on a tour of the bicycle-powered group and how their work is improving the local environment.

The wind rips across the Westside as Kumi Maxson, a worker-owner at the cooperatively run Hard Core Compost, guides me around tarp-covered piles of decaying organic matter. The ten or so knee-high piles lump up from an otherwise empty field off Shaffer Road next to the Homeless Garden Center.


Maxson, who uses they/them pronouns, lifts up a corner of a tarp to show me how the kitchen scraps the six-person team collects from a few hundred customers every week are mixed with straw and wood chips, aerated regularly, and eventually break down into compost over the course of four to six months. They kneel down by a pile that has finished this cycle and show me a handful of the dark finished compost—what gardeners everywhere call “black gold” for its value as a nutrient-rich soil additive.

Hard Core Compost’s business model is about as “Santa Cruz” as it gets. The worker-owned composting company collects organic waste using bike trailers from about 330 customers in five neighborhoods throughout the city of Santa Cruz. The worker-owners, most of whom identify as queer, bring the waste to their site next to the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, where they manage it until it completely breaks down. Every month, they return a bag of finished compost to their customers that they can then use in their garden or donate to local garden and land projects. The cost to each client is $30 a month on a sliding scale.

Hard Core Compost's site on Shaffer Road is about to get an upgrade with the help of a grant from CalRecycle.
Hard Core Compost’s site on Shaffer Road is about to get an upgrade with the help of a grant from CalRecycle.
(Lookout Santa Cruz)

The carbon footprint may be minuscule, but the effect is mighty. Between Hard Core’s home collection, drop-offs at their site and pick-ups from nonprofit organizations, the cooperative collects around 3,000 pounds of organic waste every week that would otherwise end up in landfills. While the city of Santa Cruz will be rolling out its own composting service this spring, in compliance with a statewide mandate, Maxson says they plan to work alongside the city while continuing to serve the community as they have for the past three years.

Maxson points out that Hard Core Compost collects some materials, like paper, that the city won’t allow in its composting program, and city residents will be able to dispose of cooked meats and oil with the city that Hard Core cannot collect. And, Hard Core’s customers have the added benefit of receiving compost to use in their own gardens.

Dave Bolger, a green structural engineer, lives in Santa Cruz and has used Hard Core Composts service for five years, at which time it was owned by Ivy Young and called Santa Cruz Community Compost. While he and his family enjoy growing kale, squash and herbs in their garden, they don’t have the time or space to manage a compost heap.

Bolger is an enthusiastic supporter of the local company and its climate and worker-friendly business model. It’s important to him that his dollars stay in the local community and support good jobs.

“It’s not trivial that they’re a bicycle-powered worker-owned collective,” Bolger says. That’s really what we need to be moving towards in order to offset climate change, supply chain issues and gas and fuel shortages.”

Hard Core Compost collects 3000 pounds of organic material from more than 330 customers every week.
(Provided by Hard Core Compost. )

He says he will continue to use Hard Core Compost’s services despite the compost service that will be offered by the city. He sees a greater benefit to having his food scraps used to make compost rather than as a source for biofuel or animal feed, as Santa Cruz plans to use the scraps they collect. And, he appreciates how kind and professional the Hard Core team is.

“I would use them if they were total jerks but that’s not the case,” he says. “I have a warm feeling towards them unlike most municipal utilities I’ve had to communicate with.”

Hard Core Compost recently received a $9,000 grant from CalRecycle, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, to create infrastructure at the site and expand their community impact through workshops and classes. Peter Disney has worked with the company for a year and is helping create grade-level, age-appropriate curricula for school-age children and workshops for customers on composting and their worker-owned structure. “We want to share the wealth of knowledge that we’ve built up over time with the community.”

nutritive-rich compost, what gardeners refer to as "black gold."
Over the course of four to six months, the organic refuse deteriorates into nutritive-rich compost, what gardeners refer to as “black gold.”
(Lookout Santa Cruz)

Disney says they hope to break ground next month on improvements to the site, which is currently undeveloped, like paths and an outdoor classroom area. This summer, he’ll reach out to schools and hopes to host classes at the finished site starting in the fall. For Disney, who also works for the local environmental nonprofit Save Our Shores, not enough people know about how vital composting is to our food systems.

“It’s so fundamental to our daily life,” says Disney. “It’s food, and it’s part of the food cycle, but often it goes in the landfill. Things don’t decompose very well there because there’s not enough oxygen.”

Composting benefits the soil, biodiversity on a macro and micro level and reuses the energy that went into creating the food in the first place. It touches on environmental sustainability, food sovereignty and other systemic issues. “We want to highlight that and bring that home.”

Both Disney and Maxson feel that the worker-owner structure of the business has both increased their investment in the company and taught them invaluable lessons about business ownership.

They and the majority of Hard Core Compost’s worker-owners identify as queer, and they also feel the equitable system allows them to be themselves in in a way traditional workplaces might not.

“A lot of times queer people don’t necessarily feel as though they’re able to fully be themselves in their work environments,” says Maxson. “There’s a lot of systemic barriers to people who exist outside of the traditional way of moving through the world that prevent them from owning businesses. And so, within our worker-owned structure, it really gives a lot of room for everyone’s needs to be heard, and be advocated for, and for us to create a space where people feel really comfortable.”

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