Updated: Jun 10, 2021
In 2018, the United States sent to the landfill more than half of the food that it generated, over 35 million tons. If Micro-Sustainability has its way, a new kind of in-home composter will divert as much of that waste as is possible from landfills back into the environment.
The team of students from George Fox University, led by Ethan Smith and Christian Branton, studying mechanical and civil engineering respectively, wants to bring a composter out of the weeds and into the home, making it more affordable and accessible to people who previously had no solutions to fit their lifestyle.
“People who live on land, it's easier for them because they have a spot they can designate to composting,” said Branton. “But if you don't have that space, you're just not motivated to go to the local compost or to go somewhere far away.”
That’s the problem that Micro-Sustainability aims to solve. “People in apartments don't have an area to go dig a hole and dump their food waste,” said Brenton. “So our whole ideal is trying to bring the composting to the people who don't have availability, who can't compost, who want to have an impact on the environment but don't know where to start.”
The problem is urgent. Since the 1960s, food waste has steadily grown in two important ways. In aggregate, food waste has increased as the US population has grown alongside the explosion of farmland productivity following the Green Revolution. But also in proportion, albeit less than the 1960s when all food waste was sent to the landfill, which has not shrunk enough to prevent an overall increase in food waste.
There simply aren’t enough solutions. A small fraction is composted, but the overwhelming majority is burned or simply thrown away.
“There's a large amount of compostable food waste that does just go directly to landfills right now,” said Smith. “We're hoping to be able to repurpose that and use it for, you know, rich nutrient soil that can be used for growing other plants.”
Until now, composting programs typically take place on-site, at scale; beyond backyard composters, which are accessible only to homeowners or commercial operations, only municipal programs that offer a curbside compost service can help to address the food waste problem.
Micro-Sustainability envisions a different kind of solution: a compact, in-home, full-spectrum composter that allows people to convert their food waste into nitrogen- and phosphate-rich compost without spendy composting programs or the need for land ownership. It would even control the odor.
“One of our goals is to make it affordable so people can actually afford it in a way that is accessible to people of different demographics and living situations,” said Smith. “One of our goals is specifically that it's small enough that it is able to fit inside a house or inside of an apartment, maybe even using a kitchen.”
The impact that such an innovation could have is immeasurable: not only would it keep food waste out of landfills, it would encourage small-scale, independent farming, which improves food independence. It’s a win-win.
“Micro-Sustainability focuses on allowing individual people to have an impact on the greater environmental good,” Brenton said. “So it's really I think it's a matter of stewardship and empowering people to be able to have had a hand in that change in our world.”