food waste


Can sending your food scraps to this startup help tackle climate change?

Food wastage statistics are startling. Methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it first enters the atmosphere, is released into landfills as the majority of the world’s food production rots and is lost or wasted, accounting for approximately 1.3 billion tons annually.

Reusing food waste to make more food is one way to address those issues. When it comes to combating climate change, this option is even more effective than composting, but it’s not always easy to do at home. That’s why Mill Industries, a brand-new startup, wants to change that.

“I just started getting obsessed with waste. It’s like this problem that once you start thinking about it, you kind of can’t stop thinking about it. You just see it everywhere,” Mill president and co-founder Harry Tannenbaum says while wearing a tie-dye T-shirt adorned with a torso-sized smiley face in a video call with The Verge.

Last month, Mill came out of hibernation with a group of tech titans working to develop a consumer solution to food waste. Mill CEO and co-founder Matt Rogers was also a co-founder of Nest, which aimed to help homes save energy and reduce pollution with its smart thermostat. Tannenbaum served as a director at Nest Labs. Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital, Prelude Ventures, and John Doerr are some of Mill’s prominent backers.

Here’s the plan: To ensure that its members’ leftovers do not end up in a landfill, Mill will provide them with a high-tech bin. These leftovers are turned into food grounds by the bin. These leaves are sent to Mill by members, where they are turned into chicken feed. The objective is to reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution caused by crops grown for animal feed and decaying waste in landfills.

That might work in a perfect world. However, the reality is more nuanced. Members must adhere to Mill’s methods to the letter in order for the group to succeed, and Mill must recruit enough individuals to significantly reduce what appear to be enormous issues.

To begin, Mill must locate customers who are willing to tolerate and pay for an additional waste bin for food scraps rather than putting them in the same bin as the rest of their trash. Composting, which involves separating food waste to allow it to break down into a nutrient-rich, soil-like product, is something that many waste-conscious individuals do in a similar manner. When managed with care, composting doesn’t produce methane and helps keep food out of landfills. Therefore, Mill must persuade individuals that joining its membership will help the planet even more, and its response is an added benefit: that food scraps are basically transformed into more food in mill bins.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a “food recovery hierarchy” to put this into perspective. The various approaches to reusing food waste are ranked in an upside-down triangle, with the most beneficial ones at the top and the least beneficial ones at the bottom. Just above landfilling is composting, which is near the bottom. The advantages of making feed from crops, which may necessitate a significant amount of land, water, and energy, can be avoided by feeding animals from scraps, which merits higher priority.

“Turning [food scraps] into chicken feed will then kind of put it right back into the food system, and so you’re creating a very high-value product. Compost is lovely, but you know, it’s a low-value product,” says Brian Roe, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University. “It harkens back to time immemorial, households using scraps to feed livestock at home.”

Naturally, Mill’s endeavor is somewhat more involved. According to Tannenbaum, the business continues to “work through all of the scientific and regulatory processes to ensure that this is a safe, nutritious, and extremely delicious ingredient for chicken feed.” Additionally, Mill is looking for partners to purchase its chicken feed.

At least, the first step of turning scraps into food grounds is easier. According to Mill, the bin “dries, shrinks and de-stinks your kitchen scraps overnight,” It has a foot pedal and a lid that are typical of kitchen trash cans, but it plugs into a power outlet instead. Plate scraps, fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, and meat (including chicken) can all be incorporated. Members can keep adding scraps to the bin until it looks like fine mulch and is full of food grounds. The grounds can then be placed in a pre-paid return box and sent to Mill (the business claims to be shipping via USPS).

According to Mill’s preliminary assessment, going through that process can prevent half a ton of greenhouse gas emissions per household per year. The goal of that “life-cycle” analysis is to estimate how much of an overall impact Mill membership has on the climate. It takes into account how the bin is made, how it is packed, shipped, how much electricity it uses, and how the bins will be taken out of service at the end of their useful life.

According to the analysis, if the chicken feed had been made from scratch rather than from trash, the amount of pollution it would have caused to the environment and the climate would have been less than what the scraps would have caused in a landfill. However, this is based on some presumptions about how members act, such as whether or not they actually mail in a full box of food grounds.

Although it is not necessary to complete this step in order to become a member, it is absolutely necessary in order to make the desired impact on the environment. Members can choose to compost their grinds rather than mail them in if they become lazy. However, as a result, the potential emission reductions Mill anticipates from producing chicken feed from waste rather than fresh food are lost. The worst-case scenario is for members to dump their grinds in the trash, where they will eventually be dumped.

“We’re not doing a benefit if folks are buying our bin and then dumping the grounds into the trash can,” Tannenbaum says.

However, it’s possible that the expense of membership is sufficient to entice individuals to submit those grounds via mail. It costs $45 to make monthly payments, or $33 annually. That covers the cost of the bin, filters made of charcoal, food shipped via ground, and an app that helps you keep track of your impact. The service will initially be available in the United States, and prospective customers will be able to “reserve” a membership online.

This is a problem for consumer-based solutions to food waste and climate change. They impose individual accountability for resolving systemic issues. Instead of giving customers incentives to consume more food than they require, retailers and manufacturers can do a lot to reduce food waste. For instance, they might offer packages in smaller sizes. In addition, advocates are calling for standardised expiry labels to reduce confusion regarding products’ shelf lives.

“The reality is that we are wasting food up and down the food chain everywhere. Consumers and governments are throwing out a lot of money as a result,” says Roni Neff, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The EPA places the prevention of food waste at the top of its priority list when it comes to preventing food waste. The Verge was informed of that fact by Tannenbaum and other experts.

“There will always be something to put in the bin … so there’s always room for this,” Roe says. “But I do hope it doesn’t necessarily detract from people realizing that they could actually reduce the amount of waste that they’re creating as well, which means they would save money rather than having to pay money for a monthly service.”



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