Even for a college student, Liam Donnelly pulls a lot of all-nighters.
The 20-year-old junior at Loyola University Chicago is carrying a course load that has him on pace to graduate early, but he isn’t burning the midnight oil cramming for exams. And he’s definitely not partying.
As cyclist-in-chief for WasteNot Compost, the company he founded at age 15, Donnelly spends the overnight hours biking across Chicago’s North Side, trailer in tow, to pick up his clients’ buckets of waste. Four, sometimes five, days a week, Donnelly wakes up at noon and heads to class in the afternoon and early evening. Then, while most of the city sleeps, he sets out on his collection routes, serving nearly 500 residential customers and 40 to 50 commercial accounts. He crashes at 7 a.m., grabs some shut-eye, and repeats the cycle.
“It’s the only way I could work [the company] with school,” Donnelly says of his nocturnal rides. “If I could get more sleep, I’d have a lot more fun. Right now I’m in school to get a degree. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and get done as fast as I can.”
“I keep telling him, you’re missing the college experience,” says Liam’s father, Cook County circuit court judge Tom Donnelly. “On the other hand, he gets such joy out of what he does. … [He] has big dreams about what we could do with the waste stream of our country.”
Liam, the third of four brothers, came out of the womb an entrepreneur, according to his dad. Liam can’t really explain his drive, other than he loves business and he’s always loved to work, whether running lemonade stands or babysitting. As a third grader, he launched a snow shoveling business, locking customers into monthly contracts with a vow to have sidewalks cleared by 8 a.m. The promise was one part marketing pitch, one part necessity.
“The reality was, I had to get to school,” says Donnelly.
While still a student at Queen of Angels elementary, Donnelly started hanging out at Beans & Bagels cafe, near his family’s Lincoln Square two-flat.
“He would come in after school, around three o’clock, and he would be our honorary door person. He kind of became part of the woodwork,” Beans owner Adam Snow recalls.
Donnelly eventually talked himself into a job as Beans’ dishwasher and that gig changed the course of his young life. The coffee shop had a reputation for its eco-friendly practices, including banning Styrofoam products and encouraging customers to bring their own mugs. Due to Donnelly's upbringing, composting was second nature to him. So when he started working in the kitchen, he began salvaging coffee grounds and food scraps “out of guilt,” he says, schlepping them home to his family’s backyard compost pile. When Snow offered to pay Donnelly for his services, a light bulb went off—maybe other people would pay him too, Donnelly recalls thinking, and WasteNot was born.
Beans & Bagels signed on as Donnelly’s first client and in Snow the youngster found a mentor and kindred spirit in sustainability, the kind of pal who would take him to events like a composting workshop at the now defunct Chicago Center for Green Technology.
“Here was this 16-year-old kid and he’s taking [composting] on himself,” Snow says. “I think he’s a really special part of the community.”
For Donnelly, WasteNot is more than a business, it’s a mission, a moral imperative to alter behavior in order to benefit the planet.
"Food waste is the No. 1 contributor to methane in landfills. It’s crazy, it’s such a problem,” says Donnelly, who’s enrolled in Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability.
Composting converts organic waste into soil nutrients with little to no methane as a by-product, but the process can seem intimidating or laborious to individuals and small businesses. WasteNot simplifies things by essentially taking the composting out of compost. Donnelly provides customers with containers to hold compost’s raw ingredients—egg shells, carrot peels, coffee filters, napkins, etc.—and swings by every week or two (depending on the frequency clients have selected) to swap out filled bins with empty ones.
Donnelly handles all the grunt work: lining containers with compostable bags, washing the buckets after every use, and composting some of the waste himself while handing the remainder off to gardens and farmers. His dream? Building his own composting facility one day.
Ravenswood resident Frances Thompson estimates that 60 to 70 percent of her household’s compostable waste is being diverted from landfill through WasteNot. “The only thing that goes in our trash bin are bones and packaging you can’t compost. I wish everyone would do it,” Thompson says. Addressing a common concern about compost, Thompson notes, “The bin doesn’t smell—you can shut it tight.”
For commercial customers—WasteNot counts Radio Flyer and Logan Square Farmers Market among its clients—Donnelly provides a thorough assessment of the company’s waste stream and can also help source items such as compostable utensils and serveware. Though Donnelly’s youth may give some potential clients pause, his depth of knowledge and work ethic tend to carry the day.
“I feel like I learn something new from him every time I’m around him,” says Kathleen Williams, operations manager for Green City Market, a WasteNot account. “[Liam] was there every Wednesday and Saturday at 7 a.m. as a 19-year-old. He never missed a pickup, because it is so important to him.”
The company’s client list continues to mushroom, both from word of mouth and the marketing efforts of Lauren Kaszuba, a junior at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Kaszuba and Donnelly bonded in an environmental science class while students at St. Ignatius College Prep and Donnelly relies on her analytical skills to prioritize WasteNot’s goals.
But growth has its limits, as Donnelly is learning. To accommodate increased demand, Donnelly is transitioning WasteNot’s base of operations—storage for all those bins and buckets—from his parents’ garage to a leased office in Ravenswood. As for those gruelling collection routes? Donnelly may have maxed out physically. Pulling a 100-pound bike trailer loaded with 300 pounds of waste is taxing, even for a super fit 20-year-old under ideal conditions. Then there’s road construction, potholes, less-than-friendly motorists, and weather.
Switching to a non-human-powered mode of hauling—the only way Donnelly can realistically expand his range and capacity—is also fraught with complications, given Donnelly’s insistence on operating WasteNot as a zero emissions business. The alternatives carry a hefty a price tag, and—having bootstrapped WasteNot up until now—Donnelly is wary of taking on debt or crowdfunding a purchase.
It’s this tendency of Donnelly’s to shoulder every burden and sweat the smallest of details that’s both his super power and his Achilles heel.
Bouts of burnout and more than one professor pulling him aside to essentially say “smell the roses” prompted Donnelly to take his gift for identifying problems and developing solutions and apply it to WasteNot, or, more accurately, himself.
He has, of late, given himself permission to prioritize his own life. Maybe that means not responding to every customer text within seconds. Maybe that means not accommodating every client’s individual demands. Maybe that means earning the occasional four-and-a-half instead of five-star review.
“That was an important shift,” Donnelly says. “The business was running my life versus me running the business.”