In Feat of Alchemy, Phoenix, AZ-based Startup Transforms Food Waste into Organic Produce and Profit
April 18, 2012 | Melinda Clark
What do you get when you feed a special ‘wine’ distilled from food waste to a giant sock filled with earthworms, seed and ground up coconut husks? You get a bounty of organic produce. This is not a joke, but rather a potential solution to address major worldwide issues related to food waste and food security. It is also the basic idea behind VermiSoks, a triple bottom line company that has developed a sustainable closed loop growing solution that converts food waste into a specially formulated liquid mixture used to grow organic produce.
The Virtuous Cycle
The amount of food waste generated in the developed world presents a major problem for the environment. As food rots in landfills it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that the EPA says is 20 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide. According to a USDA study, nearly 48 million tons of food waste is produced annually in the U.S.
Vermisoks’ solution, which it calls the ‘VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle™’, works to address this problem by diverting food waste into a circular, closed loop system in which it is liquefied and used to grow new plants (with the aid of earthworms). These new plants are in turn harvested and eaten, with any unused parts going back into the system.
Here’s how the Cycle works in practice: The company collects food waste from participating stores, hotels and restaurants, and takes the waste to its “wine cellar,” where it’s made into VermiSoks Worm Wine™. The Worm Wine is then transported to gardens or farms where third-party growers use it as an input to irrigate their VermiSoks – photodegradable mesh tubes filled with ground-up coconut husks and earthworms (see below diagram under the ‘grow’ heading). The earthworms in the mesh tubes consume the worm wine and the coconut husks and turn them into nutritious soil to grow organic plants – anything from tomatoes, squash and other veggies to herbs, flowers, cotton and wheat.
Miguel Jardine, the CEO and founder of VermiSoks, explains that traditional composting “takes a lot of time and requires a lot of space. With earthworms, you can speed that process up. That was the big idea behind VermiSoks. We liquefy it, and drip that down. Earthworms eat the liquefied food waste.”
He adds, “You get soil, you get your crop. Whatever is harvested, it goes to make something amazing. Invariably there’s waste associated with that.”
That waste goes right back into the system, starting the loop all over again.
VermiSoks further closes the loop because the growing platform can be implemented virtually anywhere. Since the VermiSoks growing platform rests on top of the ground and requires no digging or even water, places where it’s normally difficult to grow food – like the desert, or a parking lot (see picture below) – can be quickly transformed to grow fresh organic food.
At this point, the majority of Vermisoks’ customers are businesses, such as grocery stores that participate in the company’s ‘offsets’ program in which they pay VermiSoks to pick up their waste in essence purchasing a “bottomless green landfill,” as Jardine puts it. But, he explains, “We’re also going after the hospitality industry. We have a number of resorts in the Scottsdale area…What’s exciting there is their food waste that’s coming out of the hotel is going through this process, growing food that ultimately comes back to them.”
Jardine says that VermiSoks picks up about 16 tons of food waste per week. One of their “bigger and cooler” customers is Stone Hoe Gardens, which spent the winter testing VermiSoks on a large scale, with 500 socks growing 50 different varieties.
While it took a little while to convince people that VermiSoks was a practical and viable business, it’s starting to catch on.
“It’s been a challenge since it’s such a radically new way of dealing with: 1. waste; 2. local economics; and 3. growing food,” says Jardine. “It’s taken a little bit of time.”
It’s now starting to pay off, though. The worm wine cellar has been operational for about seven months, and is breaking even. Jardine says that based on their numbers, it’s expected to “spit off” off about a million dollars a year in profits, starting in 2013. It processes 20 tons of waste a day and provides employment to at least 10 people.
VermiSoks’ believes that everyone should have access to healthy food and the opportunity for well-being. But rather than just donating to nonprofits, Jardine has a more business-like approach; he says that rather than a handout, the company’s approach is more in line with what he calls an ‘ecology of collaboration.’
“We don’t look at nonprofits as recipients of donations as much as individuals that are providing a service, and can generate revenue that allows them to be self-sufficient,” explains Jardine. He gives the example of food banks and homeless shelters. “What we’re looking at is developing or training the individuals at the shelter to be growers. The garden that the resorts have, for instance, would actually be tended to by the individuals at the shelter. They would have a job. They would have that satisfaction of doing something useful for themselves. When the crop goes, there’s a portion of it that would be theirs, which they can eat…or sell it for income, starting that whole economic process.”
Though a fairly new company – Jardine launched it in 2010 shortly after receiving his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management – it’s already clear that one of VermiSoks’ biggest challenges in the future will be keeping up with demand.
“The challenge going forward,” says Jardine, “is going to be keeping up with the demand for the implementation of the Virtuous Cycles in as many locations as we’ll want it.” VermiSoks is in talks with the various convention and visitor bureaus throughout Phoenix about starting agritourism.
“The idea is that people around the world will come to Phoenix and see how we’re doing it,” he explains.
VermiSoks also plans to expand its worm wine cellars nationwide. “The first wine cellar that we have, we’re actually developing as a template for future wine cellars,” says Jardine. Whole Foods Market, a participant in the offsets program, is a main advocate for VermiSoks’ expansion. “Whole Foods is actually wanting us to put a wine cellar everywhere where there is a Whole Foods,” says Jardine. The next are planned for Tucson, Las Vegas and southern California.
Along with the benefits of the closed loop system, there’s another benefit to Vermisoks that shouldn’t be underestimated – its ability to bring good food to people.
Jardine relates an evening that brought this home to him recently. He explains that they’ve been doing chef tours, and that a busload of restaurant staff recently came to the test garden to taste and harvest.
“The snap peas were so sweet that they chose to turn them into a sorbet,” he says. “They made snap pea sorbet that was freakin’ incredible. They harvested a bunch of other stuff and made these delicious things…It’s full cycles. We’ll be taking their waste; they’ll get better ingredients that I ultimately get to enjoy. Everybody gets to eat and everybody gets to eat well.”
VermiSoks Video Overview: