Meet the Machine That's Taking a Bite out of Food Waste

The Harvester turns food scraps into a rich liquid fertilizer—but will such technology curb food bank donations?

Could the Harvester Machine Limit Food Waste at Supermarkets?

(Photo: Paul Mansfield/Getty Images)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

America throws away roughly 35 million tons of food every year. That wasted food, however, could be turned into sustenance of another kind, transformed into plant food that could enrich soil on farms instead of being dumped into a landfill.

Although many conscious consumers have started composting at home, what’s keeping the technology that can convert food waste into fertilizer a standard in the restaurant and food retail industries is, as so often is the case, money. In Washington though, a few of those crunchy Pacific Northwesterners are trying to find a way to make this green solution to food waste work for all the stinky, drippy bits of rot generated by running grocery stores.

Two Washington state supermarket chains have investment in industrial-size machines that turn scraps—expired produce, moldy bread, and even raw meat trimmings—into a superrich plant fertilizer. The technology is taking off in Washington in particular because a Redmond-based company, WISErg,  invented and manufactures the machines, called the Harvesters.

Much like the vats of used grease that sit behind most restaurants and grocery stores, the Harvester initially stores food waste on-site, grinding up to 4,000 pounds of scraps per day into a “nutrient-rich liquid,” according to the website. That material is then collected by WISErg and refined, using a proprietary process, into liquid fertilizer.

Not only does the Harvester help deal with waste, but the fertilizer can be turned into profits for the grocers as well. PCC Natural Markets, which installed Harvesters in its Issaqua and Redmond stores in 2012, has been selling the WISErganic fertilizer in its stores, and its customers apparently love it. The Bridle Trails Red Apple Market, which will soon launch the Harvester technology at its Kirkland store, will also sell bottles of the fertilizer. Owner Lori Croshaw said in a statement in December that Red Apple Market bought the Harvester because of its commitment to being a good neighbor in its community.

“We wanted to find a sustainable way to recycle and/or dispose of organic materials that is safe, easy to use and would not create any unpleasant odors or messes that might impact our neighbors,” she said. “The Harvester is exactly what we need to contain our food waste in a responsible way, and provides us with valuable intelligence that we can use to better manage our perishable inventory and improve our bottom line.”

Journalist and food waste expert Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, says he hopes the new machines don’t impact supermarkets’ traditional commitment to donating food to local charities.

“Hopefully, Red Apple and others will continue to redistribute that food to local nonprofits while composting the inedible portion,” he says.

Food waste has become something of a hot topic across the nation, with cities and states passing legislation to curb a 35-million-ton problem. Bloom says that while he is heartened by supermarkets’ commitment to turning their waste into fertilizer, he would like to see more grocers commit to creating less waste in the first place. On average, Bloom says, a supermarket creates about 600 pounds of food waste daily.

“I'd love to see more supermarkets deal with their food waste problem, whether it's by creating less excess, donating more edible but unsellable food, converting their waste to energy, or committing to composting,” Bloom says. “I think we're going to see more and more retailers choose one of those options, because they are currently throwing away potential revenue through the food they toss.”

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