The start-up putting an end to food waste
There is little that immediately stands out about the headquarters of WISErg, a supplier of agricultural products in the US north western city of Redmond.
The building’s exterior walls are painted in two horizontal stripes of grey and cream, and its windows, which run along the ground floor only, are framed with a silver metal trim typical of so many of the 1990s office buildings that dot the fringes of America’s towns and cities.
But behind that unassuming façade, WISErg has spent the past decade working on a potential solution to one of the world’s biggest challenges to sustainability: how to process food waste.
Founded in 2009, the Washington State-based start-up uses proprietary technology to convert scraps from supermarkets – everything from fruit and vegetables that have passed their expiry date to meat and other organic waste – into high-quality, nutrient-packed organic fertiliser for the global agricultural industry.
Synthetic fertilisers disrupt nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, leading to degradation of long-term soil health. They also find their way into groundwater, causing pollution and disrupting aquatic life.
WISErg’s organic fertiliser boosts crop yields and promotes soil health in a sustainable and cost-effective way. Its products are used in local farms as well as across the US, Mexico and South America, improving yields compared with traditional fertilisers.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world’s total food wastage amounts to staggering 1.3bn tons of edible food, equivalent in weight to roughly 7.5m blue whales. The resulting carbon footprint is about 3.3bn tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases (GHG) every year, or about the same as the amount produced each year by all passenger road transport, according to Our World in Data.
The FAO estimates that the annual water required to produce that volume of wasted food is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River – or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Meanwhile, only a small fraction of food waste is composted, with most of it going to landfill. Methane emissions from such landfill sites is one of the single-biggest sources of GHG emissions from the global waste sector.
Transitioning away from this Wasteful, Idle, Lopsided and Dirty (WILD) economy towards a circular, lean, inclusive, clean (CLIC™) economy will inevitably produce winners and losers in the corporate landscape.
But companies that contribute towards a circular economy while understanding the need to incorporate Natural Capital - the stock of natural ecosystems on Earth including air, land, soil, biodiversity and geological resources – into the sustainability equation will be more likely to emerge as the leaders of tomorrow’s new economy.
WISErg, which was founded by former Microsoft executives and agronomists, and has received $69.8 million in nine funding rounds as of October of 2018, is aiming to do just that.
The starting point in WISErg’s process is its Harvester, a machine it has developed that begins the process of transforming transforms food waste into its rich organic fertiliser.
Launched commercially in 2014, Harvesters are installed on the premises of stores and facilities. In 2014, the company struck an agreement with Whole Foods Market, the US grocery chain, to use a Harvester at one of the Whole Foods’ Washington-State stores.
On site, store managers and employees input their unique user code into the Harvester’s keypad, using its touchscreen to detail the kind of waste they are putting into the machine. The data is then stored and can be used by the retailer to identify where most of its waste is generated – and therefore how it can fine tune its purchasing decisions to reduce future waste.
WISErg monitors the initial processing of the food scraps inside its Harvester machines in real time, allowing it to co-ordinate transport of the contents back to its plant and reduce the overall number of journeys required.
“The process really begins at the Harvester level, where we stabilise the food material at the store,” explains Sherin Rehmat, the company’s chief operating officer. “Once it’s brought back to the WISErg facility, it begins phase two of the oxidative conversion process, which is our aerobic bioprocessing technology.”
That phase two takes place in towering liquid or “broth” tanks where the Harvesters’ contents are subjected to the company’s proprietary biological process, which does not use any heat or added water and yet conserves the nutrients of the food waste.
The resulting liquid fertiliser, which is ready less than a week after it begins its life as food scraps, can then be sold in tankers or large vats for industrial use; or in smaller bottles that are often sold by the same supermarkets whose scraps form the fertiliser’s raw ingredients.
WISErg’s contribution to the CLIC™ economy is underpinned by the creation of a circular economy in which local agricultural producers can use its organic liquid fertiliser to grow produce that is then sold in the same stores that provide WISErg with food waste.
Natural Capital comes in many forms, including the food that goes to waste every year. It is this stock that forms the bedrock of the human economy, producing value – a value that WISErg, and the winners of tomorrow’s new economy, have already learned to protect.