Mill Creek market’s new machine turning food waste into liquid fertilizer

MILL CREEK — Grocery stores throw away a lot of food.

Lemons get spots. Apples get bruises. Sushi starts to smell a little too fishy. If the customer doesn’t want to buy it, then it gets thrown out.

While many stores compost, the Central Market at the Mill Creek Town Center is trying a different tack. They’ve entered into an agreement with Redmond company Wiserg to turn food waste into liquid fertilizer.

“The average grocery store throws away anywhere between 800 pounds to a ton of food waste a day, and most don’t even know how much,” said Larry LeSueur, CEO of Wiserg. “Most of these guys are focused on the front of the store.”

His company has installed a machine they developed called The Harvester at the back of the Central Market at 15605 Main St.

The Harvester includes a hopper with a large tank and tablet built in to track food waste. Store employees throw food into the hopper, it gets munched up and then pumped into the tank where microbes turn it into a black liquid. When the tanks fill, the company will suck up the liquid and resell it as fertilizer to farmers. “This will cost a little more upfront, but it’ll pay for itself in four years,” said Tony D’Onofrio, Central Market’s sustainability director.

He was charged with running the numbers for the Central Market chain. He said the reduction in how much they pay to haul away the spoiled produce to composters like Cedar Grove makes up for what they will pay Wiserg.

Wiserg — an “erg” is a measurement of energy — started as a company nearly four years ago by what LeSueur jokes is a couple of ex-software guys dumpster diving. The idea behind their Harvester is twofold. One, it is more efficient at getting rid of food waste than throwing it a landfill or even composting it, LeSueur said.

The Harvester can consume not only produce, but also meat, bones and other items. The process also captures most of the nutrients in the food waste where composting releases nutrients into the air, LeSueur said.

“It’s going up into the air as a warming gas,” LeSueur said. “It doesn’t just disappear.”

The liquid fertilizer is sold to farmers.

“It’s about soil health,” LeSueur said. “Farmers are starting to understand that.”

The second part of the business’ mission is to prevent inventory loss by helping grocery store managers understand how food is being wasted.

The Harvester weighs food scraps, takes digital pictures and helps grocery store managers reduce waste. Employees enter the type of food being thrown away and the reason into a tablet built into the Harvester.

“It has to be simple and easy for them to use,” LeSueur said of the tablet.

The company has installed Harvesters at the PCC Natural Markets in Issaquah and Redmond and Bridle Trails Red Apple Market. The company is scheduled to install another one at the Edmonds PCC in April.

Being able to track why food is being thrown away is one of the benefits of the Harvester, D’Onofrio said.

“If something looks out of whack, then we’ll be able to address that,” D’Onofrio said.

His company decided to go with Wiserg, because their Bainbridge store has very little space on the docks behind the store. They wanted to get rid of the massive trash compactor, and the Harvester is much smaller.

“One of the advantages is the tank can be anywhere,” D’Onofrio said. “It can even be on the roof.”

He said they’ll keep the compactor behind the Mill Creek store for some refuse. “It’ll take a while for it to fill up,” D’Onofrio said. “Hopefully it’ll take a month.”

He also likes the fact that the Harvester doesn’t smell like the compactor does during the summer.

“It can get pretty bad smelling and disgusting,” D’Onofrio said. “You don’t want that foul smell of a compacting system wafting into the grocery store.”

With the Harvester, there are no bad smells.

“You can see how clean it is,” D’Onofrio said. “It’s like a dishwasher inside.”

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