“Society is consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate,” screams the text on the colorful homepage for NYC startup Industrial/Organic. “We’re closing the loop for a healthy and resilient future.” It’s a big promise, and one that founder Amanda Weeks intends on keeping. She and her team have developed a strategy to use anaerobic fermentation to more efficiently break down food waste, and intend to put the ideas into practice starting this summer at their first facility in Brooklyn. We reached out to Weeks for her thoughts on converting waste into resources, and for more details on her intriguing new company.
In your bio you state that you grew up near the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. How did this influence you subconsciously, or maybe consciously?
Growing up, I thought everyone had a giant landfill in their town that’s visible from space. It was a normal occurrence to me throughout childhood for everyone to hold their noses when we drove through it (the main highway in Staten Island literally went through the middle of the landfill). As an adult, I’ve noticed how people generally don’t think about what they throw away because they’re unable to visualize what happens to it. I try to save and reuse everything, but in a tiny apartment, my husband eventually insists we’ve hit our threshold for saving and reusing. Unfortunately, in a city, it’s very hard to avoid non-recyclable products (like plastic bags and most packaging) so I have to tell him to throw things away when I’m not there. I think we’ve been trained for 100-plus years to believe that items disappear once you throw them in the garbage, but I’m well aware that this isn’t the case in addition to all the ways that waste affects our environment and health.
How do you describe Industrial/Organic to friends and associates who you hope to educate about your mission?
It generally varies based on how much time I think I’ll have before their eyes glaze over! The most condensed nutshell I’ve ever been able to get it into is this: Industrial/Organic brings organic waste infrastructure to urban areas with a distributed network of modular facilities that are owned and operated by the company. What we do is not composting but an anaerobic fermentation that also differs from anaerobic digestion because we do not generate methane. This approach that we’ve developed over the past three years stabilizes and converts waste to valuable resources quickly, with less odor and emissions, and at a lower cost than other solutions.
You have a business and data background. How is Industrial/Organic using data to address the food waste problem?
We intend to use data in a few ways to provide greater value to both the input and output ends of our business.
First, we benefit the end customer (a restaurant, for example) by sharing data regarding their waste composition and helping them to order more efficiently. I’d love to integrate with an ordering software like Blue Cart. We can also share data regarding the second life of their waste, enabling our customers to create transparency regarding how they’re closing the loop and how that waste is being used.
“Honestly, food waste is one of the greatest opportunities we have right now to reduce landfill usage.”
On the output side, because we have a managed batch process, we have greater influence over quality control than the other distributed options for food waste. This means that we can create a library of the composition of each finished batch that can be stored for over two years. One of the reasons why organic fertilizers and agricultural products derived from food waste is the inconsistency. When you’re taking in a mixed food waste stream, you’re not going to get the same output from day to day. The objective of our library is that we can great recipes and targeted blends that are custom made for different agricultural needs, making us competitive with chemical fertilizers in a way the organics industry has not yet been able to achieve.
What’s your opinion on New York City’s efforts to combat food waste through home composting?
Programs like the NYC Compost Project promote awareness and education about composting, but the ultimate objective is to direct residents to utilize the greenmarket drop-off, volunteer to compost at community gardens, and/or participate in the curbside collection programs. In-home composting in a city is not really feasible unless you have a yard or roof garden. Some people are talking about putting anaerobic digesters in office and apartment buildings, but I don’t know if that will work.
Having invested so much time in this space now, are you hopeful about the prospects of reducing that daunting 40% of food ending up in landfills statistic?
Yes, honestly food waste is one of the greatest opportunities we have right now to reduce landfill usage and as a result, greenhouse gas emissions. It really is a low hanging fruit regarding climate change. I can tell you that this space is starting to get pretty competitive, so in the next 5-10 years, it’s going to become more commonplace to have larger processing capabilities to reliably and economically divert food waste from landfills.
Lastly, what are some resources you recommend to people who show an interest in reducing food waste?
Waste Dive and BioCycle are great trade publications for the waste industry. The Rockefeller Foundation has been doing a lot in this area regarding food recovery and hunger. Organizations like the United Nations and World Bank have put out many relevant reports that I consistently return to for statistics and insights. I think they are the leaders right now in quantifying this problem.