Erlene Howard knows how to turn trash into treasure.

Her Evanston-based food scrap collection service, Collective Resource, picks up kitchen leftovers and conveys them to a compost facility and a future as a landscape treatment rather than as landfill.

Ms. Howard’s belief in the benefits of composting is fundamental to her overarching philosophy of food and the environment. Five years after she founded Collective Resource in June of 2010, the business is thriving, in large part because she and her staff are committed to educating others about the importance of reducing landfill use by composting.

What began as a “Wednesday afternoon hobby – a cottage industry,” Ms. Howard says, has become her full-time job. From a customer base of three and a hauling capacity limited to the trunk of her Toyota Camry, Collective Resource has grown to more than 300 residential and 60 commercial customers; three trucks working three days a week with a fourth truck and day in the works; a web-based routing system; and the expertise to stage or facilitate zero waste events.

Customers from the South Loop to Lake Forest generate enthusiasm and some 11 tons of pre- and post-consumer food scraps each week. Residential clients keep their waste in a five-gallon bucket the company provides, picks up weekly or biweekly, and replaces with a clean bucket.

Collective Resource trucks the scraps to a commercial composting site that differs from a backyard compost pile in its capability to turn anything that was once alive – including meat and dairy products – into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. On a broader scale, Ms. Howard says, composting helps the environment by reducing the food waste that goes to landfills, where it creates methane and harmful CO2 gases.

As optimistic as she is practical, Ms. Howard was not at first so much startled to see her business succeed as she was surprised that it did not take off faster. “I thought everyone would want to compost,” she says.

Her own green journey may have begun with healthy eating, a 30-year habit formed when at the age of 26 she vowed to “change one thing in my diet at a time.” For starters, she quit downing full-sized candy bars at a sitting. She moved on, she says, to adopt a “clean diet” based on organic foods.

“Another thing that has fueled me is being Unitarian,” Ms. Howard says. “One of the seven principles [of the religion] is that we and nature are an interdependent web.” Belief sustained her while the business gained traction; she says, “Plenty of times it was scary enough that without faith, I might have stopped.”

Her first two residential customers were fellow Unitarians, and she estimates that “maybe 15% of my customers are religion-based.” Among the religious institutions that contract with Collective Resource are the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Church of Evanston and Temple Sholem of Chicago.

Food was the catalyst when, she says, the “light bulb went off” in October 2009. “I was teaching someone about raw food prep, and she asked for my food scraps to add to her compost bin,” Ms. Howard says. “Once I learned about composting, I was really drawn to making it work for me.” But she soon realized that living in a condo with no back yard was not conducive to the practice.

Getting people to compost, she reasoned, must be a matter of making it easier. “Looking at the big picture,” she says, “the piece that was missing was getting the scraps to the composting site.” She set out to make that piece her own –
to create a food-scrap-hauling company.

She took her idea to Chicago composting guru Ken Dunn, owner of the nonprofit Resource Center. Adding his wisdom to her business expertise, she was poised to launch the enterprise that now gives them reason to call each other “‘friendly competitors,’” she says.

Then in January 2010 Illinois passed a bill making it legal for the first time to divert food scraps, formerly classified as “toxic waste,” from landfills. Just in the nick of time, her business became legitimate in the eyes of the law.

So Ms. Howard had a fresh concept for a business – and a recycled name in reserve. Two years earlier, she says, she had incorporated the name “Collective Resource” for a professional service organization she envisioned.

That organization never materialized. But when the new incarnation of Collective Resource did, Ms. Howard says, “People who knew me were happy – but didn’t necessarily sign up.” Others, she adds, “thought I was crazy.”

The company experienced “slow and steady growth,” which she attributes to several factors: her belief in the mission, her past experience with business organization, her adult son’s joining the staff, and, she laughs, “my good credit. They don’t sell $40,000 trucks to just anyone.”

In April 2011, not quite a year after starting the company, she bought the first truck. “What got me through was thinking ‘if it all goes to hell in a hand basket, I can sleep in the truck,’” she says.

The same year she hired her son, Kevin – “as a stopgap,” she says. In just three weeks he had proved himself. He is now a company mainstay, a 25-year-old living on his own and “100% responsible for the customers on his route” and the maintenance of his truck, his mother says.

Three cargo vans, each holding 27 32-gallon totes and manned by a crew hired through Evanston’s Youth Job Center, start each work day with clean containers to be swapped for customers’ full ones.

Residential customers in Evanston received a discount when their number reached 100. They pay $10 for weekly, $15 for biweekly, and $20 for monthly pickups and will see a further reduction when they number 150. In addition, Ms. Howard says, “When people start paying attention to what they throw away, they will tend to save money by shopping more wisely.”

Collective Resource trucks carry their loaded buckets to a composting facility at 122nd and Stony Island in Chicago, and then drive the empty containers back to a car wash on North Broadway where they are scrubbed in a commercial dishwasher.

Ms. Howard directs the operation from a home office, assisted by two part-time administrators. Two independent “zero waste consultants” sell for the company and coordinate events using compostable disposable products and other earth-friendly practices.

Seeing “more people thinking in the right direction,” Ms. Howard says she is hopeful about the future of the planet and adds that she considers herself “part of what is evolving as a healthy food chain.”