WISErg’s composting solutions reduce food waste and yield organic fertilizer

Redmond-based WISErg’s business has been built with trash, and it was intended to be so. According to the state Department of Ecology, attempts by Western Washington cities to recycle or reuse food scraps and yard waste have been limited by a poor collections infrastructure. This has led to an overburdened compost industry that faces sanitation and odor issues as it tries to keep pace with demand.

That’s where WISErg (pronounced: Wiseerg) can help, CEO and co-founder Larry LeSueur says. WISErg takes food scraps from grocery stores and, with its patented Harvester machine, turns the waste materials into an organic fertilizer.

“The big ‘a-ha’ moment that differentiated us from what everyone else was doing was when we realized that we could actually stabilize and extract these nutrients at a high value when everyone else was just trying to make the problem, the food waste, go away,” LeSueur says.

That moment came in January 2010, but a few months after the deployment of the first Harvester machine to a local PCC Natural Market, LeSueur and his team had another revelation — the data produced by the Harvester were valuable to the customer.

“We originally collected data to understand our own internal processes and how we manage and stabilize the product for nutrient recovery, but then we realized we could extend the data and gain insights into labor and inventory management,” LeSueur says. “And that’s when we realized that it truly was more than just the physical material … it was data and information that was giving us insights into the business side of things.”

Data from the Harvester can be used to pinpoint factors such as food weight, temperature, and time of disposal, giving grocery stores valuable insight into when and why things are being thrown away. WISErg’s data can assist grocers in diagnosing waste habits and cutting costs.

Cutting grocers’ costs isn’t the end of WISErg’s process. The Harvester turns food waste into liquid fertilizer the company calls WISErganic. WISErg has created a closed loop system that has major growth and profit potential, but the biggest disruption of all may be how we dispose of organic waste.

Cofounder and CEO Larry LeSueur. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Cofounder and CEO Larry LeSueur. Photo by Rachel Coward.

The process starts with the Harvester machine. It is comprised of two units: a rectangular box that is a little bigger than a two-door residential refrigerator into which employees put the waste, and a tank that holds the resulting liquid. After the scraps are put into the loading unit, they are finely diced and water is added. The resulting slurry then goes into a stabilizing tank where it is held before it is refined into a liquid fertilizer. The unit then cleans itself with hot water.

Before dumping a box of food scraps into the Harvester, grocery store employees type in what department the waste is from — produce, deli, meat counter, etc. WISErg keeps track of all the data and can provide a report from which the store can glean information on how to change the way it orders or rotates food, further cutting down on waste.

WISErg remotely monitors their tanks and sends out a truck to drain them when they reach about 80 percent capacity, which saves grocers trucking and dumping fees and ensures the tank is only drained when it is nearly full. Some of the organic material is left in the tank to help start the next batch, not unlike a sourdough bread starter.

“The Harvester takes a lot less space. It’s clean, it’s odorless — that’s a big deal. It’s nice to have a waste facility that doesn’t smell or attract bugs or vermin. And, it’s actually helping us with physical safety issues,” says Tony D’Onofrio, sustainability director of Town & Country Markets, Inc. He explained that there’s little risk of employees lifting waste too heavy for them, as they were tempted to do with a traditional composter. Furthermore, the unit, which is leased from the company, “costs us about 15 percent less” than a traditional composter, D’Onofrio says.

When the stabilized liquid gets to WISErg in Redmond, it is refined into an organic liquid fertilizer through a proprietary oxidative conversion process.

Alan Schreiber, an experimental farmer with a Ph.D. in entomology and pesticide toxicology, has been using WISErganic organic fertilizer on his 100-acre organic farm north of Pasco.

“I knew there was something different (about WISErganic) … when I had a little trouble among the workers,” Schreiber says. “No one wanted to be applying the standard organic fertilizer, and everyone wanted to do the WISErganic product.”

Schreiber, who is the president of Agriculture Development Group, Inc., and a Washington State Farm Bureau member, says standard organic fertilizer smells “like a porta-potty the Sunday after a bluegrass festival. … It will literally make you sick.” In comparison, WISErg’s fertilizer has more of a musty, earthy smell, he says. In addition, “it looks like water or light syrup, just a little thicker than water, which makes application so much easier.”

Schreiber says organic liquid fertilizer usually consists primarily of fish byproducts, which not only smell bad but repeatedly clog up fertilizing equipment, costing a farmer time and energy.

“When we try to use other products on the foliage feed or drip system, it’s a nightmare for us,” he says. “I’ve actually lost a crop trying to use the conventional organic fertilizer, because (I’ve had) such a hard time administering it.”

Schreiber says WISErg’s fertilizer has a greater nitrogen content — 6 percent — than the other products on the market, which have about 4 percent.

The biggest challenge for WISErg has been regulatory. There was no precedent for the company’s operations, so regulators weren’t sure how to react. “They would say, ‘Here is an organic waste stream, which typically attracts rodents and birds, which are known to spread diseases.’ But then we come along and say it’s not a waste stream, it’s now a resource stream,” LeSueur says.

This was a radically different way for regulators to think about composting and waste disposal, and it took WISErg years of education about its processes and cooperation with local agencies to help overcome regulatory challenges. Now, the company has approval from the state Department of Health and Ecology, and the United States Department of Agriculture certified WISErganic as organic. When WISErg expands out of state, it will face different regulations, but the company is armed with its success in Washington.

The goal for 2015, says LeSueur, is to get big, fast. He’s looking to multiple areas for expansion, including Western Washington, Portland, and Northern California. LeSueur aims for national expansion by 2016.

WISErg relies on direct sales, but LeSueur plans to explore distribution options. He also is looking to get the Harvester technology into commercial kitchens. “We have to do a little more work to make sure we have a value proposition, but we believe we can get there,” LeSueur says. “As a startup, the key for us is focus. We have a concept, but we want to bring it to full fruition all the way through.”

Check out a video of the Harvester here.