The self-proclaimed Worm Queen of Palm Beach County is a dedicated environmentalist, an expert composter, a breeder of red wigglers and a certified permaculture designer. In braided pigtails and cutoffs, Melissa Corichi is the girl next door with a penchant for worm poop.
She is also an entrepreneur with a powerful rival ― the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.
Corichi’s eight-year-old start-up company, called Let it Rot, grew holistically from a college project to a business where she collected food scraps from paying subscribers. The scraps became compost for her worms to eat. The worms excreted castings, which are an organic fertilizer, that Corichi sold in 5-gallon buckets for $135.
But to the Solid Waste Authority, trash is money.
In April 2022, the 33-year-old got a warning from the SWA that her business violated the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act, which gives it sole dominion over the refuse created by the county’s 1.5 million residents. A cease-and-desist letter followed, which also noted rule violations Corichi was committing by operating what the authority said was a trash management facility.
SWA called some of Corichi’s business clients. What they were doing, they were told, was a no-no.
“There are a lot of people who believe that organic waste should be composted and turned into soil instead of landfilling it and burning it,” Corichi said. “I offered a service. I told (the SWA) it wasn’t waste, it was worm food.”
But after more than a year of dodging the SWA in hopes of finding a loophole, the worm queen shut down her $16-a-month organic waste collection service in August, disappointing customers who preferred her feel-good service to tossing their food scraps in the garbage.
“She would give us status reports about energy offsets and it made us feel great to think there was something easy we could do for the environment,” said Jupiter Farms resident Christina Givens, who was a customer of Corichi’s for about two years. “It’s a crazy thing to learn that somebody owns your garbage and that taking it is stealing.”
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Backyard composting is OK, doing it as a business is not
The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County was created by an act of the Florida Legislature in 1975. The act gives SWA the right to all of the garbage produced in and brought into Palm Beach County. It’s called “flow control.”
It’s the mechanism that ensures the SWA has a secure stream of garbage, which translates into a secure revenue stream.
“In the absence of flow control, waste could be diverted from the authority to a lower cost landfill, for example, that would not satisfy the recycling and resource recovery responsibilities of the authority,” the SWA said in a statement.
The act was also approved, in part, as a measure to protect the public health, safety and welfare, and prevent the spread of disease.
While backyard composting is OK, operating a food waste composting facility that collects outside scraps for a fee is not.
Corichi thought she was bypassing the constraints by operating a worm farm.
That’s not how SWA sees it.
The SWA, whose budget last year was about $345 million, said in a statement it doesn’t issue commercial permits for food waste composting because it has the capacity to manage that refuse in its Renewable Energy Facilities.
Those facilities incinerate garbage, creating steam that produces electricity. That electricity is sold to Florida Power & Light; in fiscal year 2024, that amounts to an estimated $45 million.
“The Authority does support and encourage backyard composting by homeowners of their own food waste on their own property for use in their gardens and landscapes,” the SWA said. “The Authority also supports and encourages institutions like restaurants, country clubs, and schools that generate food waste to compost on their property.”
The SWA is overseen by a governing board made up of the seven members of the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners.
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Let it Rot was founded in 2015 after Corichi took a class at Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College in Jupiter on social entrepreneurship. She won grants from FAU Tech Runway’s Business Pitch (formerly Plan) Competition and the Kenan Social Engagement and Entrepreneurship Foundation.
In 2016, she partnered with the Palm Beach County Food Bank. A year later, she was certified as a Safe Compost Operator by the United States Composting Council. She negotiated for work space with different landowners and businesses until she eventually secured a property to consolidate the operations.
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Composting and worm farming became a passion and, what looked like, a promising career.
Last year, she collected 86,000 pounds of food waste through her subscription service and business partnerships. At the height of the business, she said she had about 250 subscribers.
“I was so happy to be able to contribute to this so my waste wasn’t just going in the trash,” said West Palm Beach resident Carol Erenrich, a Let it Rot customer for about two years. “And now I feel so guilty when I put leftover salad or vegetable peels or even shredded paper in the garbage.”
Corichi reduced her customer base to about 100 after she was contacted by the SWA, and then shut it down late last month.
Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Maria Sachs, who is also chairwoman of the SWA Governing Board, said she wants to learn more about Corichi’s business and wants to look at whether there is a compromise that would allow it to continue.
“Sometimes when we try these new innovations they are disruptive and that’s a good thing,” Sachs said. “I think she is doing something that we could probably do on a grander level and help our organic farmers.”
For now, Corichi is working part-time at a plants and produce stand. She said she went back to school this past year and is considering selling health insurance.
Kimberly Miller is a veteran journalist for The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network of Florida. She covers real estate and how growth affects South Florida’s environment. Subscribe to The Dirt for a weekly real estate roundup. If you have news tips, please send them to email@example.com. Help support our local journalism, subscribe today.