Meet the Machine That's Turning Grocery Stores' Food Waste Into Fertilizer
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Larry LeSueur is used to former peers from the software world asking him, “What the heck are you doing?” It’s a reasonable question, considering the decidedly different turn he and his former Microsoft colleague Jose Lugo took in 2010 when they founded Redmond, Wash.-based WISErg, anxious to solve the growing problem of food waste in America.
That’s right—the duo went from high-tech to food scraps, hoping to address the fact that 40 percent of food in the U.S.—about $165 billion worth per year—goes uneaten, with most ending up in landfills, according to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Though the grocery industry recognized the problem, nobody could really explain why it was happening. “I said, let’s first and foremost try to understand why food waste was being generated. If I can understand it, we can figure out what we can do to alter behavior,” LeSueur says.
“We knew it was just horrible,” adds Diana Chapman, director of sustainability for PCC Natural Markets, which has 10 stores in Washington’s Puget Sound region. WISErg, she says, spent two years using a PCC store as a “living laboratory to understand how food waste is created in a retail grocery environment.”
In 2010 the WISErg team—with the help of biologists, computer programmers and engineers—developed a solution: the Harvester, a machine that, in six to 24 hours, turns food matter into a high-nutrient liquid that can be converted to organic fertilizer. It works with anything from fish scales and carrot tops to wine.
After food waste is converted, the resulting liquid is picked up by a pumping company and delivered to a WISErg processing facility (there’s one in the Pacific Northwest; two more are due to open this year). The final product, WISErganic fertilizer, is sold both to farmers and to consumers at the stores that scrapped the leftover potato salad in the first place. The company is processing 15,000 gallons of fertilizer per month.
The Harvester also delivers data to help stores cut down their food waste. “It’s not about just how much goes out the back door but why it goes out the back door,” LeSueur says. “My job is to make that product go out the front of the store so that you can get paid for it.”
The Harvester, which reached commercial viability in early 2014, has been installed in stores owned by four regional and two national chains, including Whole Foods Market. Its concept—and early success—has helped WISErg secure $14 million from investors, including $11 million in Series B funding in March.
For now, LeSueur and company are focused on grocery stores “because they’re large [and] have a high quantity of waste.” But they’re working to develop Harvesters that would fit in restaurants or homes, as well as “neighborhood-based solutions” that LeSueur says would work “in an urban setting where a grocery store may be on the bottom floor but they may share a facility with a couple of restaurants.”
PCC, meanwhile, is putting data culled from the Harvester to work to improve ordering and reduce shrink. As the software gets smarter, Harvesters will help markets parse down to the item level to figure out whether they’re tossing more cookies or muffins. That data—and the high-quality fertilizer—has turned Chapman into a WISErg evangelist.
“We will put them in as many stores as we possibly can,” she says. “And we are encouraging our friends in the business to do the same.”
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