Can sending your kitchen scraps to this startup tackle climate change?

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The food waste figures are staggering. Globally, about a third of the world’s food production is lost or wasted — about 1.3 billion tons a year — and most of it ends up in landfills, leaking methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when used for first released into the atmosphere. .

One way to address those issues is to reuse that food wastage, so that more food is made from it. It’s an option that’s even more effective than composting when it comes to tackling climate change, but it’s not always easy to do at home. So a newly launched startup called Mill Industries aims to change that.

“I was just getting obsessed”

“I was just starting to get obsessed with garbage. It’s like this problem that once you start thinking about it, you really can’t stop. You just see it everywhere,” said Mill president and co-founder Harry Tannenbaum while wearing a tie-dye T-shirt emblazoned with a torso-sized smiley face in a video call with The edge.

Mill came out of stealth mode last month and had a roster of techies on a quest for a consumer food waste solution. Tannenbaum was previously a director at Nest Labs, which aimed to help homes save energy and pollute less using its smart thermostat, and Mill CEO and co-founder Matt Rogers also co-founded Nest. Mill has secured funding from major backers, including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital, Prelude Ventures and John Doerr.

Here’s the plan: Mill will send his members a high-tech bin to toss their leftovers into so it doesn’t end up in landfills. The trash can turns those leftovers into food scraps. Members mail those grounds to Mill, who turns them into chicken feed. The goal is to reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution that comes from decomposing waste in landfills and crops grown for animal feed.

In an ideal world, that might work. However, the reality is more complex. Success depends on members following Mill’s methods to the core and Mill attracting enough people to make a significant dent in what amounts to huge trouble.

For starters, Mill needs to find consumers willing to accept (and pay for) an extra food waste bin instead of throwing it away with the rest of their waste. Many waste-conscious people do something similar through composting: separating food waste to break it down into a nutrient-rich, soil-like product. Composting already helps keep food out of landfills and does not generate methane when carefully managed. So Mill has to convince people that they can do even more for the planet by signing up for his membership, and the answer is an added benefit: that Mill bins essentially turn leftover food into more food.

To put this in context, the Environmental Protection Agency has a “food recovery hierarchy.” It’s an inverted triangle that ranks different ways to reuse food waste, starting with the most beneficial approaches at the top and the least useful at the bottom. Composting is done almost at the bottom, just above the landfill. Feeding animals with leftovers is a higher priority because it can avoid the disadvantages of making feed from crops that may consume a lot of land, water and energy.

“Turn [food scraps] in chicken feed it will then more or less go back into the food system, and so you create a very high quality product. Compost is wonderful, 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 leftovers to feed livestock back home.”

Of course, what Mill is trying to do is a bit more complicated. Tannenbaum says the company is still “going through all the scientific and regulatory processes to make sure this is a safe, nutritious, and extremely delicious chicken feed.” Mill is also looking for partners to buy his chicken feed.

A kneeling woman pours leftover food from a bin and into a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside.

Households should return food scraps to Mill to get the most environmental impact from membership.
Image: mill

If anything, the first step to turning leftovers into food scraps is simpler. The bin “dries, shrinks, and sanitizes your kitchen scraps overnight,” says Mill. It mimics the look of a typical kitchen trash can with a foot pedal and lid, except it plugs into an electrical outlet. It can absorb plate scraps, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, and meat (even chicken). Members can keep adding leftovers to the bin until it is full of food scraps that look like fine mulch. Then they can empty the lot into a prepaid return box to send to Mill (the company says it’s working with USPS for shipping).

Going through that process could save half a ton of greenhouse gas emissions per household per year, according to Mill’s preliminary assessment. That “lifecycle” assessment attempts to estimate the overall impact of Mill membership on the climate. It takes into account the process of making the bin, carbon filters (to prevent bad smells), packaging, shipping, the electricity consumption of the bin and finally decommissioning the bins at the end of their life.

The climate pollution from all that turns out to be less than the amount of pollution the scrap metal would have created in a landfill and the resulting chicken feed would have created had it been made from scratch instead of waste, according to the analysis. But that’s based on some assumptions about member behavior — that they’ll continue to ship a full box of leftover food.

That step isn’t required for membership, but it’s critical to achieving the environmental impact Mill hopes to have. If members get lazy about sending those grinds, they can choose to compost them instead. But that then erases the potential emissions reductions Mill expects from using waste instead of fresh food to make chicken feed. In the worst case, members throw their gravel in the garbage only to be taken to a landfill anyway.

“We don’t do well when people buy our bin and then dump the coffee grounds in the bin”

“We don’t do well when people buy our trash and then dump the trash in the trash,” says Tannenbaum.

Nevertheless, the cost of membership may be motivation enough for people to email for those reasons. It’s $33 per month paid annually or $45 for monthly payments. That covers the cost of the trash can, carbon filters, ground shipping of food, and an app to track your impact. For starters, the service will be available in the US and potential customers will be able to “book” a membership online.

Consumer-based solutions to food waste and climate change run into this conundrum. They place the responsibility on individuals to solve what are actually systemic problems. There is much that manufacturers and retailers can do to reduce food waste rather than encourage customers to consume more than they need. For example, they may offer smaller packages. And advocates are pushing for standardized shelf life labels to minimize confusion about product shelf life.

“The reality is that we waste food all along the food chain. Consumers and governments throw away a lot of money as a result,” said Roni Neff, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The number one priority when it comes to preventing food waste — at the top of the EPA hierarchy — is preventing it in the first place. That’s what Tannenbaum and experts have all told you The edge.

“There will always be something to put in the bin… so there is always room for this,” says Roe. “But I really hope it doesn’t necessarily stop people from realizing that they can actually reduce the amount of waste they create, which means they’d be saving money instead of having to pay money for a monthly service.”

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