Composting coop enriches the soil as well as our economy and democracy

By Roy Lincoln Karp

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems we are facing today. The earth is heating up even faster than scientists have predicted, income and wealth inequality is worsening, and democratic norms seem to be eroding. Even more disheartening, we seem to lack the political will to address these issues in a meaningful way.

While Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, the mid-terms also showed persistent support for Trump and Trumpism in large swaths of the country. Democrats can now block some of the worst policy proposals coming out of the White House, but they will still be forced to play defense in Washington.

Meanwhile, we cannot afford to sit around and wait while the polar ice caps are melting, working people are struggling to survive, and democratic muscles are atrophying. Real change must emerge from the bottom up, from ordinary folks joining together to challenge the political and economic paradigm in which we are living. We need to create new ways of working and living together that are more equitable, sustainable, and democratic.
That is precisely what is happening in Dorchester with the creation of cooperatively owned enterprises such as CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics). Founded in 2012, CERO is an award-winning commercial composting business that picks up food waste and transports compostables to local farms.

CERO’s founders saw a business opportunity when Mass DEP enacted a statewide ban on sending commercial food waste to landfills. By processing organic matter aerobically, they help minimize methane emissions, one of the major causes of climate change. Community partners like City Soil and the Urban Farming Institute then utilize their compost, which reduces the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere.

According to worker-owner Lor Holmes, “CERO was started by working class people in Dorchester and Roxbury who wanted good green jobs and valued people over profits.” The company has five worker-owners and five more workers are on a pathway to ownership, which they can earn after six months at the company.

To raise start-up capital, CERO utilized a unique form of fundraising known as a Direct Public Offering. They reached out to “regular community people,” many without any prior investment experience, who wanted to “invest in their values and keep their money in the community.” In less than one year, they raised more than $350,000 from nearly 100 community investors.

CERO also received a $100,000 low-interest loan with a 10-year payback period from the City of Boston. As Holmes points out, the city recognized their business model as an effective way of creating new, good paying jobs. Through its Employee Ownership Initiative, the Mayor’s Office offers trainings and on site technical assistance from advisors with expertise in employee owned businesses and cooperatives.

CERO grew out of work by organizers at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and the Boston Workers Alliance. BWA Board Member Tim Hall had helped form Roxbury Green Power, a waste vegetable oil recycling business that created an effective pathway out of poverty through what he calls the “green solidarity economy.”

Cooperatively owned enterprises like CERO, emerging from the grassroots and nurtured by the community, are growing a new economy in which wealth is shared equitably rather than siphoned off by a few multinational corporations for the benefit of the top 1 percent.

If there is a silver lining to the 2016 election, it is that Americans have gotten more politically active and less complacent. Many have started to question the underlying assumptions of our winner-takes-all politics and economics. Many are looking for ways to challenge the current system and replace it with something more healthy, sustainable, and equitable. That is exactly what CERO is doing, one green composting bin at a time.