NORWAY — With its riders on mountain bikes and studded tires and equipped with a custom-built 12-foot trailer, Spoke Folks has launched its community business of hauling trash, recycling and compost in Norway and South Paris.

Spoke Folks uses a 12-foot bicycle trailer to provide trash, compost and recycling transport in Norway. Supplied photo

Spoke Folks is a cooperative enterprise that was started as a project of the Center for Ecology-Based Economy, its official launch delayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. When COVID-19 restrictions kept people at home during the spring, Spoke Folks outfitted bike trailers with coolers to provide home-deliveries for the Fare Share Market, local food pantries and the Progress Center and some neighboring restaurants and sandwich shops.

While it continues deliveries for Fare Share, last October Spoke Folks returned to its original mission of hauling waste and recycling. It now serves about a dozen clients in the downtown Norway area, including municipality-owned street side trash cans and dog waste stations.

It also services Main Street businesses like Café Nomad, Brick & Mortar and Fiber & Vine. And it hires out for general hauling – as long as cargo can be transported by the new trailer, which can handle a weight volume of up to 350 pounds.

“We got the trailer in the summer,” said Spoke Folks’ co-owner Justin Bondeson. “It came from a company called Bikes at Work in Iowa. They make a variety of different trailers for bikes.

“It was purchased by CEBE, which currently owns it. Spoke Folks is a project of CEBE and we are still working on our start-up capital.”

Co-owner Jess Cooper explained that Spoke Folks is modeled after a similar service operating in Northampton, Mass., Pedal People. Annie Doran of that cooperative worked closely with Cooper, Bondeson and their partners Lu Brown and Scott Vlaun as they prepared to launch their service, helping them fine-tune routes and develop efficiencies for sorting recycling.

The riders of Spoke Folks in Norway. From left, Jess Cooper, Lu Brown, Justin Bondeson, Scott Vlaun. Supplied photo

“Annie gave us a rundown on how to organize so it takes the least amount of time at each stop,” Cooper said. “Pedal People have been around 15-16 years. They have more than 25 riders serving about 20 customers a day. They ride seven days a week and have hundreds of clients.”

Cooper said that as far as she can find, Spoke Folks is currently the only business offering green waste and recycling hauling services in Maine.

Bondeson and Brown are the principal riders for Spoke Folks, going out on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Their business plan is to expand to 60 customers by the end of 2021.

“Between Lu and me, we have capacity for so many more customers,” Bondeson said. “We do five to six each, and our runs usually take less than an hour.

“Our first customers were people who knew we would be ready to go in the fall. By November we began picking up more. We started getting customers who had heard about us, or seen us online and were interested in learning more, and then signed up.”

Spoke Folks also offers a Friday sweep route to collect at places that may have missed the regular pick-up or need bins or other tools dropped off.

“We ride three days,” Cooper added. “But we do admin work every other day, answer the phone, return messages and emails and all that.”

The riders transport the waste and recycling to the Norway Transfer Station. This winter they are leaving the compost there for Agri-Cycle pick up to process, but once the snow melts Spoke Folks will bring it to the Alan Day Community Garden to be used there, as well as in Solidarity Gardens that CEBE works on.

“It’s important that we take that food waste out of the waste stream,” said Bondeson. “When it goes into trash landfills it doesn’t break down properly and it contributes to greenhouse gas. Composting it helps build [garden] soil.”

“Our customers have been excited to know that we compost and that we’re teaching the community how to recycle,” Cooper said. “People are excited about recycling and they want to know how to do it.

“One person told me that other local businesses they’d contacted for trash service don’t do that [handle recycling] or that the town of Norway does not recycle. That’s not true at all. That’s been interesting to hear about.”

One of the biggest questions Cooper and Bondeson get is about winter riding.

“We are still getting our processes down but there haven’t been any real problems with riding in the winter,” Bondeson said. “I use my mountain bike that I got from a friend. We put studded tires on it and it has worked fine on ice and snow. Wearing enough layers, we stay pretty warm.

“Our policy is that if the schools close and the [school] buses aren’t driving we don’t ride. But otherwise we’re going for it.”

Spoke Folks’ first priority is establishing its own customer base in the Norway community, reaching at least 60 clients and utilizing the bike trailer at full capacity. It intends to add additional riders as it is able.

Multiple riders could share use of the trailer in shifts throughout the day. As more people are hired, the number of days it  hauls on will increase.

“The transfer station is closed Monday and Thursday only,” Cooper said. “So there is capacity not only on the days we’re already riding, but on others too.”

Cooper said that Doran of Pedal People helped them determine how their scale up will look. The benchmark they’ve set is for each rider to take care of 20 customers per day in less than four hours, including break and cool-down times.

Once Spoke Folks in Norway has solidified its procedures and operates at capacity, Cooper and Bondeson can see expanding the business model to other communities.

“First, we’re focused on building our cooperative,” Bondeson explained. “We, as workers, own the business. And we have the idea to [then] find people who want to start their own, and we’ll support them. Cooperatives tend to follow certain principles, which include supporting other cooperatives.”

“We’re going through cooperative training right now with CEBE,” Cooper added. “We’ll get the know-how to build up Spoke Folks [and] that will help different regional hubs. It would be great to see one around Lewiston/Auburn. In communities all around us, but that’s two or three years down the road.”

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a green waste processing business is also a rewarding one – that of educating the public that change is good.

“It’s hard for people to go from a lifetime of not separating that stuff if no one has ever taught them about it or to value it,” said Cooper. “Part of it is educating people. We want it to be voluntary and for them to feel good about it. If you don’t have it built into your schedule or routine, that’s where the challenge comes from. We want to make it as easy as possible for it to be in their daily routine.”

“Starting out, our customers are environmentally minded,” said Bondeson. “Pretty much everybody who signed up has done so because they are concerned about environmental issues. That’s part of what we offer, a regenerative way to haul trash, that’s not fossil fuel-based.”

Each Spoke Folks customer receives a compost bucket and three recycling totes when they sign up. They set their compost and separated recycling curbside, with their trash in bags.

“Some sort better than others,” Bondeson acknowledges. “There are subtleties to it. Brown and white cardboard needs to be separated. If you’re really good, you’re rinsing and flattening out your cans, you’re taking the lids from bottles and jars, rinsing them and crushing your #2 plastic. Not everyone does all that.”

Cooper looks forward to Fridays, when she gets time to engage customers.

“Fridays we pick up where people forgot to put their trash out. It’s when we drop off new totes,” she said. “We meet our new customers and get to know them. We can educate them on sorting their recycling. We hand out information sheets to help.

“For us, it is trash pickup, recycling and compost. But we want to know our customers, feel our community and feel our part in it.”

“The reason we’re doing this is to change the way people think about trash,” Bondeson said. “It’s a really big problem. It doesn’t just go away. Anything we can do to reduce the environmental impact of trash, is why we exist. And to educate customers on why we [should] do it.”

Spoke Folks serves businesses and residents in the immediate Norway and South Paris communities. Its website includes an interactive map that details the areas it can serve, which is basically within two miles of Main Street in Norway.

“If you live in the flat areas around Norway and South Paris, you’re in our area,” joked Bondeson. “If we sign anyone up on Pike’s Hill, we’d have to start the run of the day there. We could do it.”

They encourage anyone – within or beyond their service area – to reach out if they have questions or ideas about green trashing hauling or if they want to get involved.

“They should go to www.spokefolks.me to learn more,” Cooper said. “We will have a link to a GoFundMe campaign if they would like to support our efforts to expand our services and purchase equipment like e-bicycles.”

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