You Can’t Get Blood From a Stone, but You Can Make Water out of Food Waste

Researchers at Miami University have figured out a way to get some of the wasted resources back from trashed fruits and vegetables.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sep 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Thanks to a technological feat of near biblical proportions, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has invested in a machine that can turn cafeteria food waste into water.

“Food waste is always an issue,” said Tina Rotundo, executive dining manager and a member of the university’s sustainability committee. “Before, we had pulpers and dehydrators to try and reduce the mass and the quantity of the food.” Food waste processed in the pulper still went to the landfill, and the dehydrating system was labor- and resource-intensive. It gulped electricity over a 24-hour processing cycle, and the compressed food waste had to be chilled in a cooler before it could be hauled in an organic Dumpster to a facility 100 miles from campus, where it received further treatment to be compostable.

In late August, the university’s Garden Commons dining hall adopted a low-touch method of food waste management—call it transfiguration. The waste travels through a garbage disposal and directly into a gleaming silver EnviroPure system, which churns away at leftovers. Naturally occurring bacteria in the food interacts with a proprietary additive called BioMix to accelerate decomposition, effectively masticating any form of organic waste, including chicken bones, meat, fruits and vegetables, coffee grinds, and eggshells. Out comes gray water, which is then sent to the local water treatment plant. For every 100 pounds of food waste “digested,” EnviroPure generates about 10 gallons of water.

The technology is attracting college campus fans across the state like an indie darling band. “We talked to Ohio State University, and they absolutely loved theirs,” Rotundo said. “The University of Illinois had four and two more on order. They absolutely raved about it.” If deemed successful, EnviroPure will be installed in other locations on campus.

It’s another sustainability initiative from a university that already sources 26 percent of its food locally, some of it coming from farms and dairies owned by alums; Miami University also hosts an all-local “Cultivating Community” dinner showcasing only foods from local farms.

(Photo: Courtesy EnviroPure)

The average college student generates 142 pounds of food waste a year; Miami’s efforts to deal with food waste are happening in conjunction with other schools across the country. The University of New Hampshire has run its compost program since the early aughts, capturing 200,000 pounds per year from the dining halls, student union, and on-campus greenhouses and redistributing it to the university’s 350-acre agronomy research facility, Kingman Farm. Other colleges are taking what would be waste out into the community, bridging the gap between on-campus surplus and off-campus food insecurity. The 150-chapter-strong Food Recovery Network collects food and distributes it to charities, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Even adopting simple changes, such as tray-less dining, has resulted in less food waste on campuses.

It’s not just trending interest in the environmental and social justice impacts of food waste that’s driving these efforts—it’s the bottom line. A report from the University of Western Michigan found the cost of managing the 3.6 million tons of annual waste on college campuses was skyrocketing and would continue to increase. Sustainability efforts at Miami University have resulted in a five-year financial gain of $28.3 million.

There could even be an economic advantage to smartly handling food waste. This week, three Philadelphia-area universities released the results of their experiment with a value-added model for surplus food, part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge. Drexel University culinary arts and food science students developed products and recipes around commonly wasted foods, which could then be served or sold at profit. It’s an initiative that encourages a mental shift about what waste is, explained Jon Deutsch, director of Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. “If I offered you a bruised banana, you probably wouldn’t be interested. But what if I offered you some banana ice cream on a hot summer day? I bet you’d find that a lot more appealing,” he said in a statement.

That gets at a subtlety underlying the larger issues of an ineffective food system, one that a global force of “food waste warriors,” like the ones on college campuses, are fixing by shifting an old paradigm, said Cinda Chavich, author of The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook. “I hope food waste will someday become like littering or dumping garbage into a river—simply not acceptable,” she said.

Students are helping to drive change, challenging universities to think more about sustainability efforts. “We have a really good relationship with our students,” Rotundo said. “They bring ideas to us on a regular basis. They’re very conscientious.”