By Muriel Vega/Hypepotamus
Sustainability seems to be the buzzword of the year — from consumer brands to heating your home. But sustainability goes beyond simply recycling your paper and plastic. Every year, the U.S. population creates 34 million tons of food waste.
Forty percent of our country’s food is going uneaten.
Agriculture thrives in the South, with our rich soil and warm climate to nurture big crops of peanuts, peaches, wheat, and more. Urban farms are popping up near metro areas, and farmer’s markets brim with vegetables and fruits grown a handful of miles away by small farms. In Georgia, for example, organizations like Georgia Organics connects farmers to local families to provide them with better food options. However, while our choices for quality food expand, our food waste increases.
And food waste is one of the top creators of methane, the main greenhouse gas affecting our atmosphere.
“Here in Atlanta, we as consumers have no responsible way of disposing our food waste — aside from composting ourselves, which many of us choose not to do because it takes a lot of time, knowledge, and space,” says David Paull, CEO of Atlanta-based Compostwheels, a startup that provides curbside composting services. Think of it like an outsourced composter.
Generally, 30 percent of what we throw out from our kitchens can become compost, an organic material that can be added to the soil as a nutrient. From vegetable peelings to coffee grounds to eggshells and even twigs from your front yard, this material can help your garden or local farmers grow new food.
“Many people think that composting is waste management — stinky, not fun, etc. At Compostwheels, we believe we are in the business of nutrient recovery,” says Paull. “Composting is one of the most important ways we as a city and as individuals can be more sustainable. Many sustainability issues that we talk about can actually be linked back to our food system. Composting and the use of compost in agriculture reduces waste and builds soil, all the while building a more vibrant food system that is more localized, equitable, and sustainable.”
Compostwheels does the dirty work for you by providing a compost bucket for an affordable monthly fee. They pick up the bucket weekly from your home, school, or business, turn the compost into nutrient-rich soil and deliver that soil to local farms to continue growing sustainable produce.
Paull, an alum of the Savannah College of Art and Design, became passionate about urban agriculture during a college gig at a farm. He set out to devise a way to make a dent on inefficient processes. Composting, one more to-do in a farmer’s long day, is labor- and time-intensive, he says.
Now, the company is using technology to allow customers to view how many pounds of material they have diverted and turned into finished compost on an easy-to-use dashboard.
“This gives them the ability to interact with the impact they are making and share that out to their community,” says Paull. “We have a really passionate and growing customer base. This is a movement not just a service and our customers love to be a part of that.”
Food waste doesn’t live only in your kitchen. It can be seen in a city’s public parks, backyards, abandoned industrial buildings, and even along interstate ramps through neglected fruit and nut trees. Another Atlanta organization, nonprofit Concrete Jungle, harvests those neglected trees to gather fresh produce for food-insecure groups in the city.
Currently, 19 percent of adults in Atlanta are food-insecure, or skip at least one meal a day to save money.
“Our goal is to increase fresh-food access to food-insecure groups throughout the Atlanta area,” says co-founder Craig Durkin.
The nonprofit has identified and documented more than 2,800 fruit trees of over 20 different varieties on an interactive food map. However, as the map grew increasingly “fruitful,” map, it became more of a challenge to keep track of the trees’ production and fruit ripeness, and then dispatch volunteers to the right areas at the right times for collection. With no monitoring system, Concrete Jungle was losing fresh fruit and nuts to rot.
The Concrete Jungle team, which also includes co-founder Aubrey Daniels and director Katherine Kennedy, turned to the promise of technology. They enlisted Georgia Tech’s School of Digital Media to devise ways to automate the harvest process and monitor thousands of trees remotely. Some of the ideas they brainstormed included drones, mechanical sensors, and embedded tree cameras.
One of the most promising solutions detects specific gases that emanate from fruit as it ripens. Ethylene is often present during the ripening process; it also sends a signal to the rest of the tree to induce ripening.
“Ethylene is the reason you can ripen tomatoes by putting them in a bag with a banana,” says Durkin.
Right now, the team is working with $2 hydrogen sensors to try to sense meaningful signals, as actual ethylene sensors are expensive and large. With this method they’ve seen good results with persimmon and apple trees.
They’re still working on pear trees. With those, they are hoping mechanical sensors will help in detecting the ripeness of pears based on the branch’s angle, but weather may get in the way.
Even without a perfect solution, Concrete Jungle has shared and donated more than 50,000 pounds of produce.
Two Georgia Tech graduates, cousins Sean Warner and Patrick Pittaluga, are tackling food waste from a different perspective — with bugs. Their startup, Grubbly Farms, provides a more sustainable protein- and fat-dense animal feed to farmers by feeding black soldier flies pre-consumer food waste — a technique already in use by pioneering organic farms, such as South Georgia’s White Oak Pastures.
The flies eat the food waste and convert it into quality fertilizer. The larvae the flies produce is also harvested, dehydrated, and turned into treats for backyard chickens. The non-invasive flies are considered the piranhas of the insect world, according to Durkin, since they are very efficient at breaking down organic matter.
But how do these flies reduce food waste? It’s all about the medium — flies instead of fish.
“Schooling fish are more or less directly processed into fish meal and fish oil, which are the protein and fat ingredients for a majority of aquaculture and livestock feeds,” says Warner. “Over the past few years, due to overfishing and an increase in price for other resources, the cost of fish meal has increased in price by about 200 percent over the past eight years or so. Our goal is to develop an alternative protein source that has a sustainable aspect to it, but to undercut the price of fish meal in the future so that we can continue producing feed at a cheaper rate, and in turn, continue producing meat products that are affordable.”
The duo, who started their business from a laundry room, has moved from Kennesaw State University’s greenhouses to their own facility in Doraville. Next month, they’ll open an 18,500-square-foot facility on the Westside trail along Atlanta’s BeltLine, where they hope to partner with the area’s upcoming breweries and distilleries. For example, they could help Monday Night Brewing recycle spent brewery grains. They are already recycling Atlanta juice brand Arden’s Garden leftovers from the juicing process.
The thing the young entrepreneurs need most? More bugs. Through a partnership with Georgia Tech, Grubbly Farms is developing their own fly breeding system to increase the efficiency of raising black soldier fly larvae.
Food-waste innovation has also garnered attention from university systems. Clark Atlanta University recently received $400,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program to fund an urban-farming project called CREATE. The project will be working with organizations and entrepreneurs to build healthy local food systems, especially in so-called food deserts.
Over the next three years, CREATE will work with local urban growers to product-test and implement food-tech innovations like purification units that push clean city and storm water to agricultural use, water-level sensors, and miniature biofuel heaters for raised beds.
Ruwan Subasinghe, founder of food tech startup Replantable, agrees that local urban farming stands to play a big role in reducing food waste. His startup creates “nanofarms,” solid bamboo contraptions that house seed-filled plant pads, so you can grow food on a countertop. You fill the tray with water, add a plant pad, and wait for fresh produce.
“Many people are surprised to hear that over half of all fruits and vegetables harvested in the U.S. end up in the landfill. This is because of the long supply chain that most produce goes through to get to your local grocery store,” says Subasinghe.
“Even once the produce is in your home, it often goes bad in the fridge before you can use it. Zero food miles means fewer carbon emissions, and less waste means less damage to the environment caused by farming. We hope that technology like this can alleviate food deserts in Atlanta and other areas that lack distribution of fresh produce.”