Gardeners who have plucked a tomato from a homegrown vine or eaten herbs from a windowsill box know what little miracles such hard-won, slow-growing edibles are. It wasn’t until Rice University engineering student Andy Miller joined a campus agriculture club that he understood what it means when a fresh fruit or vegetable goes uneaten.
"It's getting crazier and crazier to me to think that this really high-value material that gets grown somewhere, gets shipped to your house and you pick it out by hand, to think that like 20 percent of it—which is still really good for some things—is then just being chucked," Miller told TakePart.
Unlike most home horticulturists, Miller and a team of like-minded engineering students at Rice—who came to call themselves (com)post haste—were in a position to innovate and do something about everyday food waste. They’ve invented the BioBlend, a motor-operated device that attaches to a garbage disposal. It separates food waste, wringing out any water, and stores it under the sink until it can be composted. A mechanical gizmo that can turn food disposal scraps into compost could make better use of organic waste and help divert some of the nearly 100,000 tons of food that go to landfills annually.
“Now is definitely the time to really try to think of a lot of different possible solutions,” Miller said.
Food is the largest single source of waste in the U.S., where we toss about $165 billion worth of groceries annually. That already sounds like a large bill before you consider what went into it: Half of U.S. land and 80 percent of freshwater consumed goes to grow it, and then 40 percent of what's grown is wasted.
The idea came after engineering students from Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen were told to find a way to affect user behavior. With $2,000 in seed money from NASA and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, they developed BioBlend.
“A lot of what drew me to the project was the open-endedness,” team member Ryan Yeh told TakePart. “It was sort of just to make something that would potentially attach to the sink and reclaim food. Basically that’s all we had to go with.”
To make the idea viable, the team thought about habit and usability. How could they encourage a behavior that could save some of the $165 billion worth of food Americans waste every year without making it seem laborious? What's good enough for a couch potato, they figured, is good enough for the home cook.
“It has running watch–style features,” Miller said, referring to the activity-motivating Fitbitsand Nike FuelBand, “meaning that it tracks how much food you’ve reclaimed and sends it to a website that you can access. It’s like a personal interest kind of thing, where you can see what your habits are. It’s this way of getting people involved in hopefully a non-boring and maybe even interesting way.”
During the first week of June, the students installed the BioBlend prototype on a sink with wheels at the HSB Living Lab. The purpose of the HSB Living Lab, a modular structure, is to create an idea generator and a collaborative testing ground for technological and architectural innovations.
Shea Hagy, the lab’s project manager, plans to take the BioBlend prototype into four apartments occupied by students and researchers for three-week stints. Following the test period, a team will interview the users to find out how the device affected their recycling and reuse of biowaste. The BioBlend can then return to the prototyping lab for updates based on the feedback.
From what he has seen, Hagy finds the endeavor promising—high praise from someone who studied ecological design at the University of Vermont under John Todd, a pioneer of wastewater and sewage treatment. “They went beyond what I had thought about,” Hagy told TakePart.
BioBlend operates on what you might call the “why not?” principle: People already put food down the garbage disposal. If a device that requires no extra work nudges them toward a positive behavioral change, they’re one step closer to a feel-good, conscious-consumer behavior—without having to make a move.
“It doesn’t really interfere with habits people already have,” Yeh said.
The BioBlend pulls the majority of levers that drive consumer change, according to the Harvard Business Review: Make it easy, make it rewarding, make it desirable, and make it a habit.
This is what makes a testing ground like the HSB Living Lab so unusual, Yeh said.
“That’s the basis of the project—this cocreation and working with the users and getting them involved every step of the way,” he said. “The point is a fast idea generator prototyping to see the interaction between the user and the technology in a real-life setting, not something that’s a few days in a laboratory. It’s actually in their homes.”
The BioBlend’s basic components are not as widespread in Sweden. While nearly half of all American homes had garbage disposals in 2010, they were nearly unheard of until recently in Sweden; just 40 Stockholmers owned them in 2006. Despite decades of promotion by leading manufacturers such as InSinkErator, the U.S. still accounts for more than three-quarters of global demand for disposals. Only 1 percent of Swedish household waste winds up in landfills.
Intense international attention on the environmental impacts of food waste could be what creates demand in eco-conscious countries. Some Swedish municipalities have encouraged in-sink garbage disposals to cut down on the amount of organic waste that is burned or transported by vehicle.
“We hope to have a small-scale under-sink biogas digester with this system to close that loop directly in the home environment,” Hagy said. With that innovation, the gas created by food waste such as eggshells could power the stove that prepares the morning omelet. “We would like to see if that direct benefit changes the way people use the system,” he said.
This is where NASA comes in—at least in theory, Yeh said. NASA hasn’t written any checks yet, but self-contained multitasking technologies that turn trash into soil and fuel are undeniably valuable. That would be especially true in space travel; astronauts can’t sort their recyclables and expect curbside pickup on Mars.
“Hypothetically, they want to be using devices that use as little waste as possible and reclaim as much useful stuff as they can, and potentially, something like this would be used on a Mars habitat where they can’t afford to waste any amount of food or water,” Yeh said.
Miller said he doesn’t think NASA is interested at the moment in buying the BioBlend. “I think it’s more looking at ideas and getting people to think about it,” he said.
Some on Earth are ready to sign on, and Chalmers has multiple innovation pipelines to test the BioBlend’s viability in the market. The Living Lab’s partnership with HSB, one of the largest housing cooperatives in Sweden, could prove particularly important if testing is scaled up into hundreds of thousands of Swedish apartments.
“I hope there’s a market for something like this,” Hagy said. “Personally, I want one.”
The students from Rice are optimistic about the feedback from the Swedish group using BioBlend during its testing period and the likelihood that it will be adapted in American households to boost composting and reduce food waste.
“It takes advantage of the fact that people really only put food down the sink. It doesn’t require that much of a change in habits from people who continue to put food down the sink,” Yeh said.
Miller agreed: “If they see this useful product coming out, they think, ‘Well why not just make a compost pile and see how that goes?’ ”