Why the Fort Worth Symphony Director Wants Your Trash

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director, puts his name behind a big passion, launching a start-up food compost collection service while the Fort Worth Symphony was on strike.

| story by Scott Nishimura | photos by Alex Lepe |

Miguel Harth-Bedoya is green. This isn’t difficult to discern. Take the compostable bags he carries to scoop up food scraps leftover from meals out – even during business meetings at the downtown City Club – and parties he attends. Or the compost buckets he keeps in his Fort Worth home and Honda Odyssey minivan, the slide shows about garbage he puts on for community groups, or the trash truck he followed to the landfill last year after first asking the driver if it was OK. “He said, ‘Sure,’ ” Harth-Bedoya says.

Then there’s the food composting service Harth-Bedoya and a partner launched in the fall after he followed the garbage truck to the landfill, didn’t like what he saw, then confirmed his concerns about local sustainability with city officials including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a neighbor. Harth-Bedoya, known widely as the white-tie-wearing music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, might seem out of place as a spokesman for recycling and avocational inspector of compost for contaminants like twist ties and plastic produce labels.

But to the contrary, Harth-Bedoya, who grew up in Peru, says his life’s “baggage” makes him the ideal voice.

“I come from a country that is embedded in mountains and oceans,” he says. “Lima, where I grew up, it never rained. You would not pollute, either intentionally or unintentionally, your water streams, because then you have 8 million people without water. You realize immediately in daily practice, if you don’t do something, you will get what you put back.”

Harth-Bedoya, his wife and their school-age children also live in Fort Worth, unusual for symphony music directors.

“Some music directors live thousands of miles away,” says Harth-Bedoya, who also directs a symphony in Norway and maintains a part-time home there. “But I live here. We have invested 16 years of our lives. Our children were born here. They go to public schools. We shop the shops. We’re part of this community like any other citizen. I’m involved in my city, but I’ve never made this cross between being an artist and a citizen. In this particular case, the environmental aspects of my interests as a citizen became bigger and bigger and bigger.”

So has customers’ interest in Cowboy Compost, the small service Harth-Bedoya and partner Johanna Calderon started after they collected 6,000 pounds of compost during a successful three-month pilot earlier in the year with friends, symphony musicians and staff, and a few restaurateurs.

While large waste haulers will transport big loads, say, of onions that failed inspection, to compost sites, Cowboy Compost is the only Fort Worth company that’s visibly competing in the so-called “post-consumer” market – food that has already been plated, from residences, restaurants, grocery store delis, and corporate cafeterias. Harth-Bedoya expects and welcomes competition at some point: Silver Creek Materials, the Azle company where Cowboy Compost drops some of its material, confirmed it recently signed a deal to accept food scraps, compostable dishes and utensils, and cups and napkins from the Facebook cafeteria in North Fort Worth.

Calls to the Cowboy Compost number, a cell phone Calderon carries, have taken off since it opened in September. The company has signed more than 40 residential customers to its twice-a-month subscription haul-off service, half from the Near Southside’s Fairmount neighborhood. Several commercial customers have signed up, including the new Whole Foods grocery at the Waterside development in southwest Fort Worth. Cowboy Compost in late February bumped up its commercial pickup service to twice a week and is trying to figure out how to take it daily, Calderon said in an interview.

So Much for Slow. This is not the sort of growth that Harth-Bedoya and Calderon, who sells embroidery machines from two Fort Worth businesses she owns, envisioned. Their plan: slow 2 percent annual sales growth, with enough profit to sustain the business and keep it locally owned. The Cowboy Compost model doesn’t contain a targeted margin, Calderon says. “This is something Miguel wanted to give to the community,” Calderon says. “Miguel and I don’t need the money.”

Handling the growth has been the challenge. Calderon’s husband, Peter Smith, who works in oil and gas, runs the operation without a salary. Two part-time employees drive the routes, pick up the food waste, inspect it for contaminants outside Calderon’s business, and deliver it to one of two sites in Azle: Silver Creek and Mayer Materials, which do the composting on materials they collect and resell it as compost. Harth-Bedoya and Calderon have also recruited Cheri Reynolds Howard, a veteran recycling manager, part-time to help run the business. “So far, so good,” Harth-Bedoya said during a recent interview at Mayer. “We’re only taking what we can handle.”

Scaling up efficiently and inexpensively to meet more growth is the next challenge. Harth-Bedoya and Calderon started the business using a Ford F-250 they’re still borrowing from Calderon’s husband. When the business grew, they added a trailer. Calderon says Harth-Bedoya has invested about $10,000 of his own money so far for the trailer and composting buckets.

Key to managing the company’s early growth will be filling in the route map to make it as efficient as possible, against his growing transportation costs. “He’s got to manage route density,” said Debbie Branch, a Code Compliance superintendent in the city’s Solid Waste Services unit and one of Harth-Bedoya’s primary contacts.
The city, which, like others, wants to find ways to divert as much waste as possible from the Fort Worth landfill, has latched onto Harth-Bedoya’s celebrity and the surprise aspect of his environmental interests. It has advised him and helped promote Cowboy Compost, including it in its online resource directory with other waste and recycling companies. Price is one of Harth-Bedoya’s fans, he says. “Honey, let’s take advantage of you on this,” Harth-Bedoya recalls the mayor saying during one conversation. “Miguel talking about composting is a lot more interesting than me talking about it,” Branch says. “It’s inspirational.”

Harth-Bedoya, 48, filled the rest of his “baggage” early on, living in big cities like Philadelphia and New York, where he obtained a master’s degree at the Juilliard School, and then moving to Eugene, Oregon, where he says he fell in love with the landscape, and then New Zealand, which, as an island nation, caps the amount of waste individuals and entities could generate. Moving to Texas, Harth-Bedoya found no such laws and ordinances.

“And the reasoning from our officials is that it’s a civic duty to do this; if you’re a good citizen, you will do this,” Harth-Bedoya says. But awareness is lacking, he says. “If you’re not presented something, you would not realize what you’re contributing to is this big issue.”

In Fort Worth, for example, a consultant that ran a 2014 city audit of 400 garbage and 400 recycling carts found 21 percent of the material in the carts, by weight, was food or other waste likely to decay.

Dog Catches Truck. Harth-Bedoya’s interest heightened after he followed the trash truck from his home in southwest Fort Worth’s Tanglewood neighborhood to the landfill, which turned out to be 10 miles away. “It’s the one thing all citizens of Fort Worth have in common,” he says. “I wish it would be music. But it’s garbage. All of our garbage goes to this one landfill.”

Harth-Bedoya, whose wife and children try to generate as little waste as possible, set an appointment with the landfill manager, who told him space was finite and filling. “You can only bury so much as you have space,” he said.

Harth-Bedoya decided to put on a pilot test after the meeting a year ago to gather data on how much food waste people would set aside for compost, if given the opportunity. He reached out to the owners of compost facilities and other experts for advice, learning about the process and what kinds of materials could be composted – and what couldn’t. “One of the biggest wastes in this country and world is food waste,” he said. “There’s a huge percentage of food waste everywhere, from production to distribution, retail, the home. Because we are blessed that we can acquire.”

At Mayer, co-owner David Mayer taught his new student how to protect against contamination and educate consumers to screen for twist ties and food labels. Over lunch later at the City Club downtown, Mayer urged Harth-Bedoya to consider putting his name on a branded compost product that Mayer would produce. That could help generate the kind of surplus profit that Harth-Bedoya says he wants to divert to the symphony, which returned to performances New Year’s Eve after a three-month musicians’ strike. Before the lunch was over, Mayer watched as Harth-Bedoya produced a compostable bag from his backpack and scooped his guests’ leftovers into it.

“He has a great product, a great platform,” Mayer said in an interview. “He has a lot of social currency he could cash in. I hope he’s looking at the end product. The real money is in the end product, not in the collection process.”

At Silver Creek, owner Robert Dow has major composting contracts with Lockheed Martin (paper towels), Bell Helicopter (wood products from crates), and pre-consumer food products like produce. Facebook is the first deal, other than the one he’s done with Harth-Bedoya, involving post-consumer food, and Dow said he’s building a sales team around getting more composting accounts.

Dow has been more than happy to work with Harth-Bedoya. So far, neither he nor Mayer have charged Harth-Bedoya the fees they charge people who drop materials. “Not only is he an iconic name and people listen to him, he is promoting our business,” Dow said one afternoon, as he maneuvered his pickup on a tour of the company’s massive 600-acre facility.

Some people Harth-Bedoya contacted knew who he was and were surprised. Others, like Mayer, didn’t recognize the Fort Worth symphony conductor. “And then he invited me to the symphony,” Mayer says.

The Pilot Program. For three months, from April through June last year, Harth-Bedoya and Calderon, who, to that point, was a longtime family friend, ran a pilot program with 30 people – family, friends from households similar to theirs (“people who like to cook; we cook all the time,” Harth-Bedoya said), musicians and staff of the symphony, and a few restaurants.

“Little by little, we started adding elements,” Harth-Bedoya said. “Soiled napkins, pizza cardboard. It can’t be recycled because of the grease, but they can be composted because it’s an organic matter.”

Harth-Bedoya purchased 50 airtight buckets as large as 7 gallons for the residences in the test and 21-gallon carts for the restaurants. Calderon loaned the pickup. People with the buckets brought them to a parking lot before the symphony performances or to a designated neighborhood spot. Harth-Bedoya and Calderon inspected the material outside Calderon’s business. Soon, they developed a “swap” arrangement, under which they traded an empty bucket for a full one at the drop sites. For his home, Harth-Bedoya has two 7-gallon buckets and three 5-gallon buckets, which he fills over two weeks.

The collected material was relatively clean, Harth-Bedoya said. “People that do this have good intentions, so they’re not going to throw a plastic bottle” in. “The things that you don’t see: rubber bands, because some produce comes wrapped up in it; the tree ties; the labels on fruits and produce.”

In the meantime, Harth-Bedoya had also been collecting plastic bottles and other recyclables that his program participants left with him and took them to a Fort Worth drop-off station for waste. The station happened to be near the field his son’s Little League plays on, so Harth-Bedoya organized plastics recycling with other parents at the field.

“Thousands of bottles we collected just by telling them, just leave it there, and we’ll take it across the street,” Harth-Bedoya said. “Across the street!”

No, Don’t Stop. Program done and his data presented to the city, Harth-Bedoya contacted the participants in the pilot test and asked for the buckets back. “Everybody who was participating didn’t want to stop,” he said.

Harth-Bedoya turned to Calderon. “He said, ‘You have a business degree; figure it out,’” she said. “We figured it out. We started asking the people with the buckets if they would like to pay for the service. They said, ‘Yes.’”

The market they found as they launched the company: busy professionals without the time or skills to create their own compost at home. The residential pricing proposition: $15 enrollment fee for an 18-gallon bucket, with the price increasing for a larger container, plus $14 a month for two pickups. The commercial pricing varies by size of container and number of containers at a location. Cowboy Compost offers containers of up to 96 gallons.

The company put up a Facebook page, and demand quickly took off. Two dozen symphony musicians – not counted among the 40-plus residential customers who have signed up – have paid $5 per bucket and bring their compostables to a central drop site every two weeks. Cowboy Compost in turn is making donations to the symphony. “I’m able to raise money through garbage,” Harth-Bedoya said. “Instead of keeping it for me, I give it to the symphony.”

In the Fairmount neighborhood, one homeowner helped lead sign-ups. John MacFarlane, an environmental protection specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, wrote posts for the Fairmount Neighborhood Association Facebook page, website and email blast. Twenty Fairmount residents, including MacFarlane, had signed up with Cowboy Compost by early March.

“We try to live as sustainably as we possibly can,” said MacFarlane, who also promoted Cowboy Compost in Ryan Place, where he formerly lived. That includes his 8- and 4-year-old children. That includes recycling, energy-efficient appliances and cloth diapers.

MacFarlane had tried his hand at composting but was unsuccessful. “I bought a rotating compost system from the city several years ago, but I don’t have a big yard,” he said. “I had nothing to put in it.” To work, composting needs nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. Nitrogen can come from fruit and vegetable scraps and grass clippings. Carbon can come from leaves.

MacFarlane is also aiming to bring Cowboy Compost into his son’s school, Daggett Montessori in Fairmount, and met with Harth-Bedoya to pitch the idea. Cowboy Compost is planning to start a pilot program at a Benbrook school this spring. “We hope to have enough data to bring to the new principal at my son’s school,” MacFarlane said.

On the commercial side, besides Whole Foods at Waterside, Cowboy Compost also has accounts with the new Tom Thumb store on South University Drive, Farmer Brothers, Happy Tomato restaurant in Fort Worth, the corporate offices of the Simpli.fi digital advertising company in Fort Worth, Texas White House bed-and-breakfast on the Near Southside, and the Z’s Café caterer. At the Whole Foods, Cowboy Compost created collecting stations in the bakery, meat, produce, and deli departments.

Contacted by Central Market about composting, Cowboy Compost has a proposal into that company to serve all stores in the Metroplex. The company also served the Cowtown Marathon earlier this year, collecting banana peels and other compostables.

In early March, Cowboy Compost bumped up the frequency of its commercial service to twice a week from twice a month. “We’re going to find a way to do it every day,” she said. “If we have more supermarkets sign up with us, we’re going to have to do it daily.”

Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. The company as of early March had collected about 25,000 pounds, Harth-Bedoya said. The pace is about 3,000 pounds of material per week, Calderon said. That compared to 1,500 pounds collected for all of December. “If we continue like that, we’re going to have to buy a truck,” she said, adding that will likely occur by the year’s end.

The company may consider raising its prices, but Harth-Bedoya and Calderon are also concerned about resistance from customers. “It’s only like raising ticket prices for the concert to sustain itself,” Harth-Bedoya said.

“If we make it profitable, then our customers are not going to pay for the service,” Calderon said. “We wanted to make it local, social and sustainable. It’s about people that care about the environment.” Local means not driving the waste long distances to a drop site. “You can’t drive organic waste 50 miles,” Harth-Bedoya said. “It defeats the purpose.”

Calderon added: “Miguel and I work for free. It is sustainable. This is our hobby. This is our land that we are going to give to our children.”

Harth-Bedoya considered pursuing nonprofit status but said decision-making is faster as a small company. “Here in the state of Texas, it’s much more efficient to have a business model take action on things. Not-for-profits, it takes much more work to set up. Decisions are made by a group.”

He figures Cowboy Compost can also pursue grants, either as a for-profit or nonprofit. “There are grants for businesses that do this,” he said.

Harth-Bedoya likens the decision-making at Cowboy Compost to “many things I do at the symphony. Is this a leap of faith? Do you jump? Yes, I jump a lot. But I kind of need to see how far the jump is. I can handle this jump, or, if I can’t see bottom, I can say maybe I can’t handle this jump because I’ve never done this jump before. Right now, we haven’t had this issue yet.”

Who Else is Composting?