Renew the Soil, Revive the Earth
With Closed Loop Systems, Jacob Fox ’16 is turning organic waste into a regenerative solution.
BY ANDREW WICKENDEN ’09
Topsoil is in trouble. Jacob Fox ’16 estimates that between farming and the built environment, “we have degraded over 60 percent of our global topsoil. And there are not many ways of replenishing that.” Beyond its utility for growing crops, the top 12 inches of earth is the site of organic activity with incalculable ecological benefits — filtering air and water, managing pollution and flooding, sequestering carbon and regulating the climate. As the World Wildlife Fund reports, sustainable land use can alleviate the impacts of agriculture and livestock, “preventing soil degradation and erosion and the loss of valuable land to desertification.” Fox, cofounder and CEO of Geneva, N.Y.-based Closed Loop Systems (CLS), says the challenge that comes with many sustainable solutions “is that they are only partial solutions.”
“Imagine,” he says, “if one day you threw 100 percent of your garbage in one bin, and that bin was taken to a local composting facility and turned into soil.” That soil, in turn, could be used to retain stormwater or aid in bioremediation at superfund and brown-field sites. This is the regenerative cycle that Fox envisioned when he realized that food waste is not only “the single largest piece of the municipal waste stream” but “a very valuable resource.”
Fox first started investigating waste solutions as a public policy major and sociology minor at HWS. He connected with John Hicks ’59, who owns Organix Green Industries, a large-scale vermiculture facility in nearby Seneca Castle, N.Y., where vegetable waste from local farms is broken down by worms and microbes into rich, fertile humus. After graduation — and a few months in Europe for professional soccer trials — Fox joined the company and soon realized he could apply the vermicomposting model to any food waste and “tie it all together in a holistic ‘closed loop system.’”
In 2017, Fox pitched the City of Geneva on a facility to help solve food waste challenges and divert waste from landfills. By late 2018, he had founded CLS with Hicks and Jim and Mike Nardozzi, who own Nardozzi Paving and Construction in Geneva. Together, the group has experience with vermicomposting as well as construction expertise and logistical capacity.
Fox sees Geneva as an ideal location to “disrupt” the waste management industry. Between the abundance of local farms and the large landfills within a 15-mile radius, CLS can offer soil and liquid amendments to farmers, mitigate the environmental impact of landfills, and work with local researchers to study soil health, carbon sequestration, bioremediation and the Soil Food Web.
After securing nearly $500,000 through state and county grants on behalf of the city, CLS opened the Geneva Resource Recovery Park in early 2021. The new facility is a waste management hub, where for a small annual fee, city and town residents can bring food and yard waste for vermicomposting. Soon CLS will expand its services with a recycling and disposal drop-off area. Metal, construction and demolition debris, bottles and cans, cardboard, landfill materials — the company plans to take it all. With a “pay-as-you-throw” system, residents only pay for the garbage they produce, giving Genevans “the opportunity to save money and divert their waste,” Fox says. A few months later, CLS customers can take home the compost that their organic waste has produced.
With an eye toward statewide growth, the company has already secured a grant to build a facility in Cortland, and Fox says they plan to build seven more by 2024. In addition to replicating the Geneva model in other communities, CLS has designed an agricultural model that would “handle manure and other farm waste, while also providing soil regeneration for the farm,” Fox explains. Similar facilities are planned for industrial clients with large waste streams, such as food processors, breweries and livestock operations. CLS also has designs to handle biodegradable waste from dining facilities and grounds maintenance at institutions like hospitals and colleges.
For Fox, the more attention paid to what’s going on beneath our feet, the better. “Soil carbon sequestration is our best chance to solve climate change,” he says. “All of our policies currently revolve around renewable energy, and that’s a problem. Solar, wind, industrial carbon capture and other technocratic climate solutions won’t solve our soil erosion and water pollution problems. We can have all the energy we want, but we will be doomed if our soil is gone.”