Better data helps WisErg solve the food waste problem

Two ex-Microsoft engineers are applying their backgrounds in enterprise technology and business intelligence to the problem of managing organic food waste at grocery stores and food service operations.

Their concept is coming to life in a new system called Harvester, which looks like a massive refrigerator or furnace that is access-controlled by a security keypad.

The technology being used in several grocery stores in the Seattle area leverages an oxidative conversion process to break down food scraps — up to 4,000 pounds daily — turning them into a "nutrient-rich liquid" that can be collected and used as the feedstock for organic fertilizer. At the same time, the system also uses cameras and sensors to generate and collect all sorts of valuable data, such as the sorts of materials being added, the times of day the system is used most frequently, or when the unit is full and needs to be emptied.

"We realized that data is really the key toward understanding what is being produced and what is being thrown away," said Larry LeSueur, co-founder and CEO of the company behind Harvester, WisErg of Redmond, Wash. "It is an appliance that allows us to understand what is being discarded."

The data created by the sensors and cameras used in each unit are transmitted and aggregated into a database hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud service. Reports can summarize trends at specific locations or produce aggregated information, so that a grocer with more than one location can pinpoint places where improvements might be made or best practices shared. As more stores are added, the company will be able to mine that information for valuable seasonal or regional trending information.

Simplicity matters

LeSueur and his co-founder, Jose Lugo, started and bootstrap-financed the organization in 2010. They debuted their technology in 2012; the company hopes to have 10 systems in place by spring 2014 and already has several in the field.

Conceptually speaking, using the Harvester is pretty straightforward. "This was part of the design. The goal was to require no more than three levels of detail. As a result, not only are we seeing the courtesy clerks use them, department managers want to participate, too," LeSueur said. 

Here's how it works: Employees are prompted for an access code whenever they add food scraps, which can include animal proteins. Photographs are then taken both of the substances being added and the person making the deposit. After the scraps are processed, they are transferred to a holding tank. Once the liquid is collected from the units, it is processed further at a different facility to create organic fertilizer, which is packaged for sale in local stores.

One early adopter, PCC Natural Markets, an organic grocery that has nine stores around the Puget Sound region in Washington, adopted the technology as a more sustainable way of handling the waste created by its extensive food preparation processes, said Diana Chapman, director of sustainability for PCC.

She figures that PCC produces about three times as much as a typical store in its delicatessen, meat, seafood and produce departments. "We like the idea of being able to get rid of the waste onsite," she said.

At this time, the store doesn't use it for compostable materials collected in its public areas. But the Harvester can process everything already mentioned plus baked goods, coffee grounds, floral items, compostable paper, fats and oils, as well as most compostable utensils. Chapman estimates that PCC stores add between 300 to 400 pounds per days, after ensuring that anything edible is donated to food banks or comparable organizations.

PCC embraced the technology as a means of reducing its tipping fees, which are variable depending on the store location, and in order to create a "full circle" process for managing food scraps and waste. It also sells the liquid fertilizer that WisErg creates from the liquid collected from its systems, Chapman said.

Last year, WisErg sold about 2,000 units of the fertilizer packaged for retail sale (not just to PCC), LeSueur said. One local grower purchased 5,000 gallons weekly during the growing season. "Last year, we were very focused on validating the technology. Now we are focused on validating the scale," he said.

Viable candidates

One potential hurdle that WisErg will face as it scales is the space needed for the Harvester unit: It is modular, but the typical size is 85 inches high by 48 inches wide by 44 inches deep. Each installation also needs at least one water and one power source, although it doesn't require a sewage connection. There's also a holding tank for the liquid. 

The company estimates the installation time at one week, and those costs are included in the monthly service fee, which includes maintenance and collection. WisErg doesn't really discuss those fees.

"I know I need to be competitive with the hard costs," LeSueur said. "My goal is to be on par, but to offer a better service and a higher value."

For one thing, because of the data it collects, Harvester helps identify and eliminate the chief causes of food waste, including expenses related to overstocking. PCC, which has invested in multiple units, expects its Harvesters to pay for themselves within five years, when tipping costs are considered as part of the calculation.

Food waste photo by Vorobyeva via Shutterstock