This company is turning food waste into a cleaning spray
Water is the first ingredient listed on most household cleaners. It’s also the most dominant ingredient, typically making up at least 90 percent of these products, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Apparently, household cleaners and food waste have that quality in common. Food waste is comprised of 75 percent water on average, according to Amanda Weeks, CEO and co-founder of Ambrosia, a food waste solutions company previously known as Industrial/Organic.
The fact that food waste contained so much water made Ambrosia wonder: What are some water-based products that it could make from the water — and acids and alcohol — it extracted from the food waste?
After some time and research, it landed on making a cleaning product, for which most ingredients — 97 percent — are made from the water, acids and alcohol from the food waste. In the summer of 2017, those revelations inspired Weeks and her team to begin research and development for a cleaning product called Veles. Between that summer and February, when it started shipping the product, Ambrosia developed, optimized and tested the cleaner with several third-party labs.
The Veles product was in production for two years before its release this month. It is just one of the solutions that Weeks began to explore with the Ambrosia team as a potential solution for using the food waste it was handling as a waste management company, six years ago.
"That is still very much part of our broader business model," Weeks said, noting that Ambrosia is an umbrella company with multiple business units under it, including one to tackle waste management and another for product development, making a nod to Google and Alphabet.
In the beginning, Ambrosia’s goal was to figure out how to recycle food waste — in a city, in a small space, rapidly and without odor. After tackling that issue, the team decided they wanted to do more, and the product development vision took shape.
Weeks said the waste management industry moves slowly as it is capital-intensive. As Ambrosia continues to scale that side of the business to handle municipal-level waste services, it plans to develop even more products from food waste, she said.
"You can't have a sustainable waste management solution without reliable end markets," Weeks said, so Ambrosia is focusing on product innovation to get those end markets in place.
Before coming up with Veles, the company considered using food waste as a fertilizer but deprioritzed that idea because that market was already saturated and hard to break into. "It was also difficult to raise venture capital around that because it's not something that venture capitalists are very excited about," Weeks said.
A household cleaning product, on the other hand, was something venture capitalists apparently could get behind. Ambrosia has raised $4 million.
While developing the product and assessing various manufacturing approaches, Ambrosia thought hard about ways to avoid negating the positive environmental and social impact that it wanted to make. That has meant sourcing the ingredients for Veles from locations near where it is made. Ambrosia, which has a facility in New Jersey, gets its food waste from RTS, a waste hauler that has customers ranging from office buildings to restaurants and supermarkets, primarily in New York City.
"This product came out of research and development for diverting food waste from landfills and by diverting food waste from landfills, we're taking trucks off the road, we're reducing methane emissions and then we're recovering all these resources," Weeks said.
Ambrosia also decided to use packaging that was refillable. Veles, which can be purchased online for $16, is packaged in a metal bottle and in the next four to six weeks, the company plans to launch refills that customers can pour into the bottle they've already purchased.
Additionally, the company wanted to the other 3 percent of ingredients — the fragrance and a stabilizer that would help all the ingredients work together — to be naturally sourced. Many household cleaners contain polysorbate 20 but Ambrosia didn’t want to use the known carcinogen. Weeks said that while searching for an alternative, the company was met with the response, "Well, there is nothing else. That's it."
In response, it formulated its own natural, plant-based stabilizer.
"Our product being mainly water has great advantages including being streak-free, but it also brings constraints such as the incorporation of the fragrance," wrote Emilie Benoit, associate scientist at Ambrosia, in an email response to questions.
"We did a lot of research on what was available to us, and essential oils were our best candidate to aim for a 100 percent natural, traceable fragrance."
Beyond its waste management and product development operations, Weeks said Ambrosia eventually plans to develop corporate partnerships — essentially helping other businesses create products made from food waste.
"What we're hoping with this product specifically is that we show that there's a demand for making products this way and for using ingredients derived from waste materials," Weeks said. "Hopefully much bigger companies that are able to make a much bigger impact by changing the ways that they manufacture will do so."
This article has been updated to correct several errors, including the amount of money Ambrosia has raised. It is $4 million, not $5.7 million. We also clarified the company's structure and its process for finding the stabilizer that it uses in Veles.