Break It Down

While working at a local yoga studio, Melanie MacFarlane began to notice just how many cups were being thrown away following post-class tea—over 20,000 cups per month! Though technically biodegradable, the sugarcane bagasse cups were not being composted, and even so-called biodegradable products wind up producing methane gas in a dump. MacFarlane pondered an alternative.

After brainstorming with husband Jeff Paine, she thought they had found a simple solution: the couple would personally take on the task of composting the waste. Soon, the modest, learn-as-you-go, nonprofit endeavor, Break It Down, was born, and the couple began designing an inexpensive way for local businesses to compost products like sugar cane cups, cornstarch-based utensils, coffee filters, napkins, wooden stir sticks and fruit and grain waste.

Today, MacFarlane and Paine make office calls to haul off compostable waste to a temporary site in South Austin (a permanent site is in the works). The waste is piled into a long row known as a windrow that grows lengthwise. As one section finishes breaking down, it’s removed for the next step and room is made to extend the pile.

A multitude of wriggling co-workers is the key ingredient in what happens next. “We have a lot of worms,” says MacFarlane with a laugh. “I wonder how in the world I ended up in the worm business—I don’t even like to touch them. But the beauty of the compost we’re creating is that it will have worm castings in it.”

Long-term goals for Break It Down include setting up educational programs, creating a model that can be re-created throughout Austin and in other cities and establishing an on-site demonstration garden to reveal the value of compost. And while MacFarlane and Paine hope to grow their business, they intend to keep their efforts visible and within reach on a community level.

“What I’m passionate about is creating a method that is accessible and easy to understand,” says Paine. “Rather than composting being seen as a gross smelly thing over there,” MacFarlane adds, “we want it to be seen as a visible part of the food cycle.”

Find out more about Break It Down at