High-Tech Recycling with The Internet of Everything
A look at how businesses are leveraging data from food waste with new systems that meet at the intersection of bio-tech and high-tech.
July 15 , 2014
The Internet of Everything is boldly going where it’s never gone before: into the dumpster. Thanks to a new high-tech recycling system created by a Redmond, WA startup, grocery stores and restaurants can not only conveniently recycle their waste, but track it, too.
The goal, says Larry LeSueur, CEO of the company, called WISErg (“wise” + “erg”, a unit of work), is to reduce inventory loss—known in the grocery business as “shrinkage”—by giving businesses insight into the root causes of food waste and preventing excess overstock. That could help cut down on the more than 40 million tons of food that is thrown away every year in the U.S.—and boost the bottom lines of food businesses.
A few years ago, LeSueur and his cofounder Jose Lugo, both former software engineers, were looking for a way to use their skills to make a positive impact on the world. Their conversation turned to waste. While composting is a good solution for organic waste, the fact remains that almost half of all organic waste still ends up in landfill. How could they find a way to avoid waste in the first place?
The result is The Harvester, a bio-tech meets high-tech “nutrient recovery system” that turns food scraps that might otherwise be destined for landfill into high grade fertilizer.
Introduced in 2011, the machine consists of a closet-sized garbage disposal attached to a cylindrical tank. It employs a proprietary oxidative conversion process to grind up organic waste and quickly turn it into a liquid that is stored in the tank and later refined into nutrient-rich fertilizer. Unlike composters, the machine can handle meat, fish and bones in addition to produce, coffee grinds and the usual fare, and captures nutrients before they break down.
But the real draw for commercial restaurants and retailers is the data the system generates. Employees punch in a unique code for their departments before disposing scraps in the Harvester. The machine photographs and weighs the scraps as they are being loaded, also recording the time of day and other data, all of which is uploaded into the cloud. Customers can then get monthly reports detailing their waste patterns, analyzing it by department or store or, eventually, benchmarking their waste against the broader industry.
The tanks, meanwhile are remotely monitored, so when they approach fullness, WISErg carts away the liquid, refining it at the company’s own facility into a nutrient rich organic fertilizer that the stores can resell.
Call it wired waste. Or urban mining, as LeSueur prefers to think of it, since the “waste” is actually a valuable resource that is being intercepted and upcycled. "It’s like urban archeology. We can see what’s showing up in dumpsters and the behavior going on inside the store that is creating the waste.”
Up until now, there have only been rudimentary measures of waste—typically based on tonnage reported by haulers and dump sites.
So far, The Harvester has been installed at a handful of Seattle area grocery stores, including three PCC Natural Markets, Whole Foods in Bellevue, and Bridle Trails Red Apple Market in Kirkland.
Red Apple Market installed the Harvester last year after a well-intentioned effort to compost its food scraps backfired. Everything had been going well until summer hit, and the composter began to smell. “It wasn’t pretty,” recalls Scott Croshaw, a co-owner of the fourth generation family-run grocery store. The market began getting complaints from residents of a nearby apartment complex behind the store, and the composter was scrapped.
Then the Croshaws came across the Harvester. The odorless, quiet machine has cut their waste pickup from once a week to every other week, and eliminated the need to pay a hauler for meat scraps, says Croshaw. And he’s excited about the potential for using the new data trove. “It’s a huge benefit for the store when you can monitor what you’re throwing out,” he says.
For example, if the café is throwing out breakfast food every day before lunch, perhaps that’s a sign they should be preparing less breakfast food or changing the menu.
On top of the cost savings, the Red Apple Market now sells the fertilizer to customers. “We’re reselling our waste,” says Croshaw. “We’ve come full circle.”
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