How Boston Is Becoming the City Where Workers Rule

Every week, four waste-hauling trucks set out from a warehouse in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and head for 85 businesses across Eastern Massachusetts—hospitals, schools, colleges, nursing homes and large restaurants. CERO, an 80 percent minority-owned worker co-op, owns the trucks, which pick up food waste and transport it to farms around Massachusetts for composting.

Luna, a former human services worker, co-founded CERO in 2012 after growing frustrated at seeing laborers, including immigrants, struggle in the wake of the Great Recession. “We started thinking about what we can do to create jobs for the people that don’t have any opportunity,” she says. A former educator from the Dominican Republic who has lived in Boston since 1993, Luna had been a member of Dominican teachers’ consumer cooperative, and she saw co-ops as a way to build wealth and avoid economic exploitation.

At first, Luna and her co-founders searched for a place in the recycling market, but their research suggested, presciently, that the market might decline. Then they learned about a forthcoming Massachusetts environmental regulation that would require all companies generating more than a ton of food waste per week to compost it. They realized businesses needed a smart solution for rerouting it.

CERO launched its business in October 2014, the day the waste ban took effect. It’s grown from five clients in 2014 and revenues under $50,000 up to $700,000 in revenues this year. A $100,000 loan from the city of Boston helped them expand. The five worker-owners expect to turn their first profit this year. It’s a bilingual business: The name means zero in Spanish, as in zero waste, and it’s also an acronym for cooperative energy, recycling and organics.