It's a topic everyone talks about all the time, and for good reason: we're wasting so much food. Every day, every week, every year.
However hard we try, food waste is still occurring, at both a household and industry level. So, what do we do?
Well, a new Melbourne-based company, Circular Food, has come up with a simple yet genius way to put large-scale food waste to good use.
"We turn food waste into fertiliser," Circular Food founder Steve Morriss told The Huffington Post Australia.
Circular Food started in November 2015 and recently won a spot in TDi's $150,000 Investment Readiness Program. Their philosophy is simple: give back to the environment.
Before Morriss started Circular Food, he saw two great problems, the first being the issue of mass organic waste, which largely ends up in landfill.
"What do we do with organic waste? That was problem number one," Morriss said.
"Then I joined that together with problem number two, which is the rapidly degrading quality of our soil, globally. Knowing that one universal principle of life is that you give back in direct proportion to what you take, we needed to give more input back to our soil."
Just like our bodies, soil is a living system, and we need to treat it like that.
"We need to manage the microbial or living part of the soil better if we want to feed 9 billion people by 2050," Morriss said.
"Combining those two together, I did a fair bit of desktop research and called everyone I know and respect in the waste management industry to have a look at what is the best technology for converting food waste into a fertiliser that can be reapplied back to our paddocks, pastures and soils.
"What kept coming up was the humble earthworm. The earthworm is nature's answer to recycling organic waste."
But it's not as simple as feeding organic waste to the earthworms and obtaining fertiliser. The challenge was to do so at a large scale.
"[Earthworms] produce a very high quality fertiliser that includes enzymes and plant growth hormones, as well as loads of beneficial bacteria. But the problem has always been, how do I commercialise that on a large scale? That's what we've done here," Morriss said.
"We built a prototype plant in downtown Melbourne and it is Australia's largest urban worm farm. We have developed and patented innovative technology to overcome the problem of commercialising worm farming."
I love innovating, I love new technology and I love novel solutions, particularly if they're helping us become more sustainable as a species.
The key to Circular Food's successful fertiliser is the worm starter culture they produce.
"We feed them a patented super food, which is a blend of food waste and other ingredients," Morriss said.
To make the worm super food, Morriss and the team take food waste and dehydrate it.
"The reason why we dehydrate is because we need to make sure there are no pathogens from food that are taken across to worms," Morriss explained. "We dehydrate to remove the water (which we also use later down the track), then blend that dehydrated food waste into a fine powder."
The dehydrated food waste powder is then blended with mushroom compost and rock minerals, and emulsified into a fine paste, which is then fed to the worms.
"That's what we call our worm super food," Morriss said. "Then we get the worms to produce a starter culture, which is a liquid fertiliser, and then pump that across to a bioreactor and we grow that microbial fertiliser a bit like you would if you made yoghurt or sourdough bread.
"That enables us to produce large volumes of high quality fertiliser at low cost."
The second part of Circular Food's process is worm castings. By consuming organic material (the food waste), the worms macerate the organic material through their gut, adding microorganisms as it moves through the digestive tract.
"Then when it's excreted, the finished product is a worm casting, which is a really rich blend of humus, microorganisms, enzymes and plant growth hormones," Morriss said.
Pretty cool, huh?
"It is a very scientific path. There's a mountain of scientific literature reviewed information available both online and through academic databases on vermiculture. What I had to do was sift through what's known, find the gaps and apply our own thinking and resources to solving those problems and taking another step forward," Morriss said.
"I love innovating, I love new technology and I love novel solutions, particularly if they're helping us become more sustainable as a species."
Not only does this large-scale worm farming process effectively use food waste, it also gives back to the environment, soil and farmers.
"Essentially, we take food waste, turn it into fertiliser by modifying the form and feeding it the worms, which they then produce a casting and liquid fertiliser, and then those fertilisers are packaged and applied back to the farm to improve the soil quality and increase the yield of the food," Morriss told HuffPost Australia.
"Thinking farmers know that if you manage your soil carefully, then the soil looks after the plants and animals. One way that all farmers manage their soil is to encourage earthworms. The application of these fertilisers, which we call BIG BIO, attracts more earthworms to your farm."
And it's not just about improving this year's yield for farmers.
"It's a great cycle to get into. Even though these products will help guarantee this year's yield, it's about a 3-4 year program of applying these beneficial microbes to build the quality of your soil for long term sustainability of the farm."
The next step for Circular Food is to raise capital and take the fertiliser products to market.
"Under the BIG BIO brand, we've got two products -- a liquid fertiliser and a solid casting -- and we aim to distribute those products through a network of nurseries and garden supplies," Morriss said.
"The midterm strategy is to develop this business into a franchise prototype and work with entrepreneurs all around rural and urban Australia to duplicate the model and manufacturer fertiliser products where they are needed."
Keen to start your own worm farm at home? Here are tips for composing in small spaces.
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