I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
Poor harvesting, storing and transporting practices, combined with market and consumer behaviour, lead to an estimated 30-50% of the four billion or so metric tonnes of food produced per year going to waste, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ 'Global Food' report. Solutions to date have generally focused either on reducing waste levels, or on making use of the organic waste matter, for example to generate energy [see ‘Gas supply’]. One emerging solution does both.
The Harvester is a food-processing unit designed for use in supermarkets and already up and running in several Seattlebased stores. It uses oxidative conversion technology to break down all types of food scraps – including those not fit for traditional composting, such as baked goods, oils and animal proteins. What’s more, unlike composting, it retains the majority of the nutrients from the input material, converting food scraps into a nutrient-rich liquid stored in a holding tank: no sewage connection is required. Once collected, this is then further refined into the most nutrient-rich fertiliser approved for organic food production, packaged and ready to be sold locally.
Alongside the direct conversion of food waste into organic fertiliser feedstock, the Harvester offers a significant opportunity for data capture. Sensors and cameras inside each unit gather information which helps supermarkets, commercial kitchens and other larger-scale food outlets recognise trends in what is being discarded and when, enabling them to reduce ‘shrinkage’ (unnecessary inventory loss) and save money in the process.
“You need to understand the data before you can start to tackle the issue of food waste”, says Emma Marsh, Programme Area Manager for consumer food waste prevention at WRAP and Head of Love Food Hate Waste. “Obviously, the best thing that can happen to food is that it’s eaten, but for anything that can’t be used, then finding alternative solutions is much better than sending to landfill.”
The Harvester is a product of WISErg, a Washington-based technology company founded by two former Microsoft engineers. Having refined and trialled its technology, the company is now aiming for scale, with five Harvesters already in use in the Seattle area and a target of 74 to be deployed by the end of 2014. The space required for the Harvester, which is over 2.15m high and 1.2m wide, may deter some potential clients. However the smart technology offers organisations like PCC Natural Markets, a nine-store-strong member-owned co-operative, a significant opportunity to cut food waste and therefore disposal costs. The fertiliser produced, WISERganic, sells at all nine PCC locations. – Tess Riley