Talking trash

Local partnership could be a stepping stone for regional compost pickup

Tom Donovan and Steve Duque watch as a Castaway truck dumps its compost pickup at RT Donovan’s composting facility in Sparks.

Tom Donovan and Steve Duque watch as a Castaway truck dumps its compost pickup at RT Donovan’s composting facility in Sparks.


Castaway Trash Hauling, 342-2444,
RT Donovan Company, 11600 Pyramid Way, Sparks. 425-3015,

Tom Donovan of RT Donovan is tall, lanky, with a blond moustache, white-but-stained coveralls and a drawl that comes out of a perpetually smirking mouth. Steve Duque of Castaway Trash Hauling puts tobacco in his lower lip as they banter, talking of whiskey and an upcoming hunting trip. These multi-generation Nevada natives aren’t the stereotypical image of someone trying to kickstart a regional composting operation. But the pilot project RT Donovan and Castaway are undertaking could provide the data legislators would need before a mandate for compost pickup could be considered. And a mandate, the men reason, is what it will take to divert a significant amount of food and yard waste from Lockwood Landfill and turn it into something usable.

Every Wednesday, Castaway goes to local Walmarts, Scolaris and Sak ’n Saves to collect those stores’ composting scraps—produce, wax cardboard, even meat—from large blue bins. Then they haul it—about 50,000 pounds per week—to RT Donovan, where it’s turned into compost. After nearly a year of this, the compost should be ready for sale come spring.

RT Donovan is less noted for compost than for landscaping materials. They were actually trucking in compost from California to make soils for new construction. But with construction dropping off and more time on his hands, Donovan saw an opportunity for a compost experiment he may not have considered in better economic times. He already had the land and the machinery, and he knew of at least one built-in customer: Walmart. The big daddy of box stores has a corporate policy that says if there’s a composting facility within 75 miles of a Walmart, it has to send its compostable scraps there. Scolaris, which also owns Sak ’n Save, followed suit.

So far, the program extends solely to “preconsumer waste” places like grocery stores, and composting only accounts for about 7 percent of Castaway’s business, which also does large commercial and industrial hauls and some residential yard waste. As for offering compost pickup to residents and restaurants, Duque said, “You have to learn to walk before you can run.”

Run is what Donovan and Castaway hope will happen with composting in Nevada if the state can get a composting mandate on the books. Trying to get the public to buy into composting—which would likely raise waste pickup rates—during a bad economy and when one of the cheapest, biggest landfills in the country is just down the road and not due to run out of space soon, is a tough sell, says Duque. But for residential composting to be cost-effective, the collection volume needs to be high. Unless residents have to compost, Duque doubts that enough will participate—at least not without a major, long-term education campaign—to drive down the cost of the service.

“Recycling is a warm fuzzy thing, but are the people willing to pay for it?” asks Duque. “In most cases, businesses want the green title, but they don’t want to pay any more than they already do.”

Meanwhile, Donovan keeps track of everything having to do with the composting operation to see just how much it will cost to make and sell compost on a large scale, and how much they should charge for the service.

“You can’t make a decision based on heresy,” says Donovan. “You need some good data, and that’s what we’re trying to do now, [so we can say,] ‘OK, county commissioner, here’s what it will take.’ … They decided this in California 20 years ago, and we need to do it here.”