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Grinding Up Grocery Waste

November 20, 2014

How a Washington company is turning supermarket food scraps into fertilizer.

REDMOND, Wash. -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion a year in unsold fruits and vegetables.

Only the best of the best makes it into the produce departments of American grocery stores. The rest is tossed out.  Credit: Katie Campbell

For many people, that might sound like a huge problem. But Larry LeSueur and Jose Lugo saw an opportunity. The two former Microsoft executives have been working on a new way to deal with grocery store food waste— turning it into a liquid fertilizer.

They began the Redmond-based startup WISErg and created what they call a “harvester.” It’s a refrigerator-sized machine that is installed at supermarkets and used to grind up any food that’s not fit for sale.

The ground-up food slurry goes to a processing plant where it’s converted into a registered, organic fertilizer. The fertilizer can be used on home lawns and gardens, and it’s showing promising results as a large-scale fertilizer at an organic herb farm in Duvall, Washington, called HerbCo.

“It turns out, it actually is quite a bit more effective than what we’re used to,” says Ted Andrews, one of the owners of HerbCo.

But the bigger value, they say, might actually be in the data that the harvester collects. Every pile of food that goes into the harvester is weighed and coded by what department it came from.

“As we looked at this food waste issue, we started asking the questions as why is this occurring. No one had the answers, no data, no metrics,” says LeSueur, the CEO of WISErg. “If we can capture the data behind this, we can alter behavior.”

The real-time data that each harvester collects shows supermarket managers exactly what they’re tossing out. And it can help them make better decisions about stocking their shelves.

Stickers need to be removed before fruit and vegetables can be composted. Credit: Katie Campbell

“The data we’re getting from the WISErg harvesters have tremendous potential for helping guide management decisions in terms of what we buy, how we use it and how we dispose of food scraps that we can’t use,” says Diana Chapman, sustainability manager at PCC Natural Markets in Issaquah, Washington, where one of the first harvesters was installed.

WISErg recently added Whole Foods markets to its customer list -- it’s their first supermarket chain that goes beyond the Northwest with stores throughout the United States. So it’s possible that in the next few years, harvesters could be popping up at grocery stores throughout the country.

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Made possible in part by

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

More stories by Katie Campbell

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