Startup Pioneers New ‘H2H’ Process to Efficiently Convert Supermarket Food Waste into Liquid Fertilizer
February 6, 2013 | Noelle Swan
Food waste is an enormous problem in the United States. An estimated 40 percent of all food grown here never nourishes anyone, but instead rots away in landfills. What if those nutrients could be captured, before they started to rot and returned to the soil, all in a matter of hours? That’s exactly what Daniel and David Morash say they can do at California Safe Soil, convert wasted food into a nutrient-rich soil additive. Sound like composting? It’s a similar concept but the Morash’s say that their process is faster, safer, and more effective. They have teamed up with researchers at UC Davis to try and prove it.
The concept is not entirely new. The idea of using digested food to fertilize plants is nearly as old as agriculture. Farmers have been applying manure and compost for thousands of years. Both are forms of digested food used as fertilizer. Manure has been digested by an animal, and while beneficial, only contains the nutrients that the animal was not able to use. Compost relies on microbes, fungus, and worms to digest food waste in a process that takes several months. Both can become a breeding ground for bacteria and pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella.
However, California Safe Soil’s Harvest-to-Harvest, or H2H, retains nearly all of the nutritional value of the original food waste, can be processed in a matter of hours, and after passing through a pasteurization tank, is free from the pathogens and bacteria associated with food-borne illness, says Daniel Morash.
The Break Down
At California Safe Soil’s 4,000 square foot pilot plant in West Sacramento, California, large machinery typically found in food processing plants converts more than 16,000 pounds of food waste every week collected from four area grocery stores into a liquid food hydrolysate, a water-based suspension containing broken down food particles that can be applied to plants and soil. Steel teeth grind up solid food before pumping it into the belly of a ribbon blender. There, heat, stirring of the blender, and enzymes, similar to those living in the human gut, go to work, breaking proteins down into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into simple sugars.
“Think about it as a mechanical version of human digestion. It’s what happens when you have your lunch.” Daniel Morash explains.
The result is a liquid fertilizer perfect for feeding the organisms that live in the soil. The Morash’s believe that by nourishing the soil, farmers will need fewer fertilizers and fewer pesticides, simultaneously reducing farm overhead and the amount of additives ultimately lost to runoff. Morash predicts that farmers should be able to reduce their use of conventional micronutrients by as much as 50%, which in turn could cut runoff of nitrates by two-thirds. He also suspects that by enriching the soil, Harvest-to-Harvest could improve water retention, reducing irrigation needs and improving drought tolerance.
That’s where University of California, Davis professor of nematology Dr. Edwin Lewis comes in.
Connecting with farmers through the UC Cooperative Extension program, Lewis completed an initial field trial last fall and is preparing for another dozen trials this spring. Over the course of three years, Lewis and his research team are analyzing the impact of Harvest-to-Harvest on soil health and water retention benefits. Currently, Lewis and Morash are seeking additional farmers to participate in field trials examining cost savings and runoff reduction.
Taking a Bite Out of Food Waste
According to a National Resource Defense Council report on food waste released in 2012, retail stores threw away 43 billion pounds of food in 2008. The USDA estimates that supermarkets toss $15 billion in unsold fruits and vegetables every year. Customers expect to find supermarket displays and shelves fully packed at any given time. Waste is an inevitable result of that expectation. As a former President of Trader Joe’s told the NRDC, “the reality as a regional grocery manager is, if you see a store that has really low waste in its perishables, you are worried. If a store has low waste numbers it can be a sign that they aren’t fully in stock and that the customer experience is suffering.”
Morash believes that California Safe Soil can help return some of those nutrients back into subsequent harvests while performing a valuable service to supermarkets. Supermarkets are responsible for disposing of whatever food they are not able to sell. That often means large piles of food sitting in the back of the store or in dumpsters, attracting vermin, and developing odors. CSS provides participating grocery stores with double walled containers to collect discarded food. Every other day, CSS picks up bins from inside the store and replaces them with cleaned and sanitized containers. So far, four major supermarket chains including Safeway, Inc. and Nugget Markets, Inc. have agreed to participate in the pilot program, each installing collection bins in one local store.
While California Safe Soil has started relatively small, Morash sees enormous potential in the technology. He’s not sure how the model will evolve, if California Safe Soil will seek expansion into other states or if it will simply serve as a model to be replicated locally. Either way, he’d like to see the model take off nationally. “There’s no reason why every supermarket in the country shouldn’t be engaging in a process like this, to make the most out of the value of the organics,” Morash says.
Video via California Safe Soil: