Jed Oelbaum — New and Improved
Outside the agriculture world, composting tends to be the province of only the most environmentally dedicated and green-thumbed among us. Those with backyards or gardens dote on their precious, rotting piles, carefully layering grass and leaves, and handling wriggling little worms. City dwellers store stinking freezer bags of onion skins and eggshells, hauling them to collection points at parks and farmers markets on weekends.
Turning organic household trash into valuable soil and fertilizer seems like a no-brainer for consumers looking to reduce landfill waste and offset consumption. In America, between 30 and 40 percent of all food is wasted, according to the USDA. Not only does this figure account for billions of dollars in lost resources, but discarded food waste also makes up the single biggest component of landfills, where these materials generate massive amounts of methane, a major contributor to climate change.
There are understandable reasons why composting is not yet as integrated into our culture as recycling glass, paper, and metal. Though a few municipalities have begun experimenting with curbside compost pickup, in most places, the required space, effort, and stink of decomposing food still keeps most people from picking up the practice.
Machines for processing organic waste at home—like the Zera Food Recycler, a new device the size of a kitchen trash can that wouldn’t look out of place in any modern residence—seek to solve some of the inconveniences that can make repurposing food waste so frustrating. Leftovers and scraps are put into the top of the machine, then heated, aerated, and stirred to create a self-contained, sped-up version of the composting process. One active cycle in the Zera machine—a 24-hour operation from power-up to finished fertilizer—digests about a week’s worth of food trash (including meat and dairy waste) from an average family of four.
WLabs, an incubation program at appliance giant Whirlpool Corporation, introduced the Zera via a February Indiegogo campaign, which raised over half a million dollars—more than 800 percent of its original funding goal.
There’s a “huge wow factor,” Kelley Rich, a senior manager at Whirlpool’s innovation program, says in a phone interview. “To a consumer that’s used to having to wait three, or four, or even six months to make compost—and they have to haul it to the backyard and do all the work associated with maintaining that compost pile—to be able to actually recycle food in their own kitchen, to get usable output in 24 hours, that blows people away.”
Tony Gates, a project lead at WLabs, tells me his team started off with the goal of designing a product that would help families keep their food waste out of landfills.
After settling on composting as an existing way to divert food trash from the waste stream, Gates’ team then began asking people what was keeping them from composting, and what could get them to start. “There were a lot of [people] that said that ‘we tried composting, it didn’t work out,’ or it didn’t fit their lifestyle, or they just didn’t know how to do it, or they weren’t doing it right,” says Gates. “In many cases, they’re in a [cold] climate that doesn’t really work well for it.”
Addressing those concerns and others that WLabs heard from consumers, the Zera—unlike outdoor compost projects—performs consistently in any season or clime, doesn’t require constant attention, and won’t attract unwanted wildlife. The air-sealed and -filtered container stores meal leavings throughout the week (so users can accumulate enough food waste to make a cycle worthwhile) without stinking up the house. And its ability to process meat and dairy also gives the Zera an edge over most backyard composting projects.
But WLab’s invention, despite its advantages, has some limitations. For one, though the machine vastly accelerates the breakdown process by controlling heat, humidity, and movement, it still can’t produce the exact same results in a 24-hour cycle that months of composting can. This is why Zera’s creators called it a “recycler” and not a “composter.”
“Basically, what comes out of the Zera Food Recycler, it’s not fully developed compost,” says Rich. “I guess the best way to think about it is immature compost, so we call it ‘fertilizer.’” Like completed compost, the machine’s finished product is dense in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. But traditional compost is also usually also left to “cure,” a process in which the compost becomes more chemically stable. Gates says the Zera additive and the system’s relatively high heat help to stabilize its fertilizer and make it safe to use on plants right away. And according to Rich, the Zera’s output will eventually complete the composting process after it’s been spread on lawns and garden beds.
While outdoor composting requires space and labor, the Zera comes with its own costs: Users have to regularly buy packets of Zera additive (a formula that includes pelletized coconut husk and baking soda) and replacement filters to maintain the machine. And most importantly, the Zera itself is currently quite expensive for many potential users—the device, along with a month’s worth of supplies, costs upward of $1,000.
Rich stresses that this is a complex machine, which right now is only being made in very limited quantities, leading to its steep price point. Gates says balancing price with demand is “a chicken-and-egg kind of game,” explaining, “You need volume for cost reduction, and you have to have cost reduction to get volume.”
Whirlpool will start test marketing the Zera at a handful of retailers in Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, and Dallas later this year. Rich says aside from generating advance sales, the crowdfunding effort granted WLabs “a direct relationship with our early adopter consumers,” most of whom “either currently compost and are kind of frustrated with the process, or [are] people who have tried composting in the past, but have abandoned it.”
Until the Zera is more widely available, we’ll have to wait to see if this kind of sleek, indoor kitchen unit can convert people without an existing interest in composting. And there are still questions that remain regarding broader adoption. For instance, will apartment-dwellers in dense urban areas, who might not actually need the machine’s output fertilizer, find the Zera worthwhile?
At the time of publication there are fewer than 20 Zera devices still available through WLab’s ongoing Indiegogo offer. Rich says that while for now the Zera is only available in U.S., compost-friendly consumers all over the world have contacted WLabs regarding the appliance.
“The other thing we learned,” she says, “is we have commercial interest in the product as well. So we’ve had restaurants and schools and office complexes contact us just interested in this new technology.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that all kinds of consumers are excited about a product like the Zera: Gardening is on the upswing in the U.S., especially among young people. And according to Pew Research, most Americans are now on board with environmental issues, with three-quarters agreeing the country should do “whatever it takes” to protect the planet. “There’s been a growing trend of consumers who want to do their part to help the environment,” says Rich.
We all got used to recycling bins; it’s not hard to imagine a near future in which separating our food waste for municipal pickup or home composter feels commonplace. Especially for those that garden or have lawns, scraping potato peels and fish heads into the Zera after preparing a meal seems eminently doable. Even for those that don’t need fertilizer, demand for products like the Zera could pave the way for similar technology, like kitchen biogas digesters, which could use our food waste to power our homes.
The most direct way of addressing the household food waste problem is, of course, changing the way we consume, by shopping for, storing, and using the contents of our fridges differently. But no matter how efficient we get, unless we start dining on bones and apple cores, we’ll always generate some amount of organic garbage. And spoilage and food distribution problems that lead to waste have thus far proved pernicious. That’s why whether it’s a fleet of county composting trucks, backyard piles, or home devices like the Zera, for now we’re going to have to find ways to keep that waste out of landfills. Last year, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research predicted that by 2050, 10 percent of all global emissions could come from food garbage. And unlike other climate threats, the mountains of food waste piling up around the world are a problem every single one of us can do something about.