Here’s a concept long overdue – making fertilizer from food waste. Not by composting. The process is much faster, and emits no greenhouse gases. After all, when grown with conventional methods, it’s already contributed to the greenhouse gas problem. Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from tilling, fertilizing, and even irrigation practices are responsible for over 50% the emissions for this entire sector. More than cows and livestock, and their manure and manure management combined!

The EPA puts agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions at 9% of the big picture. If 40% of the food produced in the USA winds up landfills and incinerators, then roughly 3.6% of the CO2 emitted in bringing it to harvest was senseless. And now the same food waste will be adding extra methane and nitrous oxide to the carbon footprint created by it’s mere existence. The amount of greenhouse gases emitted from green waste in composting is 2-3% of the original carbon – the same amount as composting manure.(1)

The person reporting on this research figures that it’s only a problem with large-scale commercial composting facilities. And they didn’t pursue looking into how much CO2 is emitted from green waste compost. Even the EPA disregards the fact that it does contribute carbon monoxide to the atmosphere:

“The feedstocks used for composting are often residuals or wastes from a range of industries that are often diverted from the solid waste stream. Because these feedstocks are part of the short-term C cycle, the CO2 emissions from decomposing organic matter in compost piles are not considered as additional GHG emissions.” Greenhouse Gas Balance for Composting Operations, University of Washington(2)

Now, don’t get me wrong – compost is awesome stuff for conditioning soil. The point is – that this insane amount of excess is far more than fallen leaves, food scraps, and the odd peach that went bad before it could be eaten. It’s also not accounting for the amount of produce lost to shipping and storage damages from today’s global food system. The smashed outer leaves on the lettuce or cabbage. That 5-10% of the grape tomatoes in the clamshell purchased yesterday you found already had bad spots.

If only 10% of the produce we buy each year is waste because of transit, packaging, and shelf degradation, then the true amount of food waste is more like 50%. Before we ever start including potato peels, and apple cores.

Compost: A CO2 Emissions Source

It’s not like home composting piles give off lower percentages of greenhouse gases than big commercial operations. They’ve got the same stuff in those huge windrows that you do: food waste and yard waste. It’s just that some people have theirs picked up at the curb, and others compost in the backyard. Still, if you collected everyone’s home compost pile in one spot, how big a mountain would that be? Spread out, or coagulated… all of it is contributing to CO2 emissions after looking past the carbon offset nonsense.

Considering the big picture from this angle, a faster way of making fertilizer from food waste and yard clippings makes great sense. The carbon is still there for your soil. The soil microbes know what to do with it too since it’s nutrients from natural fixed sources. But by reducing the amount of time it takes to be a food-safe soil application to a matter of hours compared to weeks or months, the huge loss of carbon to the atmosphere disappears. As does the creation of methane triggered by microorganisms doing their job. With the number of people living on Earth today, and the sheer mass of compostable waste to process – the old way is no longer good for us, or the planet. Especially in big cities and large metropolitan area. Too many people, too much waste in a small area.

This isn’t about fertilizer from food waste using fermentation. That may be faster than composting, but the end product smells awful, and has high salt and fat content. Processing may be completed in a few hours, but the resulting material has to be further composted for 1-3 months. So, it may be better than a landfill or incineration approach to dealing with green waste, but it’s not an affordable, or sustainable solution.

There’s a much better way to make fertilizer from food waste. It’s faster, economically feasible, and uses heat and enzymes to rapidly turn green waste and animal manures into safe, organic fertilizer. It can also be used to make both liquid and dry fertilizers. The process produces fertilizers that are safe to use on cropland and garden soils right away.

But wouldn’t allowing microbes to do their job be more natural? Sure, but it stopped being safe for our environment a few billion people and several million metric tons of wasted food ago. There’s a form of speedily created fertilizer from food waste to fit every gardener’s and farmer’s needs. Besides, the process is no less natural than the one used to create fish emulsion. Every organic gardener knows that plants love fish fertilizer. The soil food web adores it too.

Compost-Free Fertilizer from Food Waste

The idea appears to have begun in Taiwan, where Yes-Sun Environmental Biotech(3) started working on developing more Earth-friendly ways of dealing with industrial, agricultural, and household waste in 1998. This Taipai company applied for a European Patent on the equipment and process known as Compost-Free Technology (CFT) using heat and enzymes to turn chopped food waste and other green waste into an organic fertilizer in 2005. The patent was granted and published in January 2012 (EP1557403 A1)(4). Yes-Sun also applied for a US Patent on the same invention and process was granted and published in May 2006 (US7041215 B2)(5). Thanks to Google, the detailed information in these published patent abstracts has been publicly available for years.

The same CFT Fertilizer Machine they invented and sell can make fertilizer from food waste or livestock manure using the same method. It can be applied to crops wet upon cooling, or dried for storage. A paper authored by Dr. Chiu-Chung Young from National Chung Hsing University published in the journal Nature in 2007 sharing both the Yes-Sun CFT Fertilizer Machine invention and process with the world(6). They’ve got some really interesting information you can check out via the links at the bottom of this post.

I, for one, would LOVE one of their DIY CFT Fertilizer Machines. But the freight on a single machine from Taipei City would probably cost far more than the equipment :(.

It’s very inexpensive to make with last year’s cost per kilogram at $0.19 USD made in a 100 kg fertilizer batch. But this product is not quickly or easily applied to large crops, especially after spring planting. It’s more like a soil amendment and fertilizer in one, giving the grower humus and plant nutrition. An excellent concept, especially when the bagged “manure and compost” products we can buy today are just freshly harvested peat moss and some bark or sawdust mixed in with composted chicken or cow manure. And if the manure in the package is not explicitly identified on the label – it could be human manure from sewage sludge.

Liquid Fertilizer from Food Waste

In the past few years, 2 different companies in the United States have begun making fertilizer from food waste using the same basic method invented by Yes-Sun. Both of them say that their process is proprietary, which leaves me wondering how this is so. Still, a flower that is just slightly more red, or has a few more petals than it’s parent can be patented as a new invention in this country. So, all the next person would have to do is change the compost-free process enough to be able to claim it is unique from the original. And in this case, Yes-Sun stopped the patented process short of turning it into a liquid fertilizer. Let alone one that will work for irrigation or hydroponic system applications.

Interestingly, both of these companies found their ‘breakthrough’ in 2012.

Hydroponic Nutrients from Food Waste

Re-Nuble describes their products as “a non-toxic, organic-based liquid nutrient solution with yields comparable to existing chemical alternatives.” Once they get their organic certification, growers who use their recycled fruit and vegetable waste nutrients will easily be able to have their harvest certified. Until then, it’s just natural hydroponic nutrients made without animal waste or synthetic ingredients. And as with any hydroponic nutrient, even backyard gardeners can use them to fertilize both flowering and vegetable plants too. Excellent news if you find this who concept intriguing, because its the only way to get your hands on small quantities of food waste fertilizer in the US. Unless of course, you’d like to help me gather enough people to order one of those Yes-Sun machines to make the shipping reasonable ;).

Naturally, they offer both a grow and bloom formula, as well as one called Booster Shot with extra micro-nutrients, and humic and fulvic acid. Re-Nuble’s organic nutes seem competitively priced.(7) A little digging around for some feedback from hydro growers who use it left me empty handed. I did come across one other person wondering if it’s good stuff. No chatter after a year of it being available? Suprising, especially when it’s both vegan and organic. However, it’s certainly worth trialing to discover it’s viability.

They’ve invested years of work and a good sum of money into perfecting the Re-uble product line. Initially, the funding came from personal savings, but ran a successful IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign(8) last year to raise more capital. And in case you’re curious, they have a patent pending on the process.

Crop Fertilizer from Food Waste

Last, but not least, we have California Safe Soil, a startup that’s making both standard and organic farm fertilizers from food waste. Their products are also liquid, and their process is patented. They may have started out working strictly with farmers in the Sacramento area several years ago, but it’s spreading fast. Their Harvest-To-Harvest fertilizers are screened to remove particles larger than 74 microns with an average of 25 microns to ensure it can be used through existing dripline and drip tape irrigation systems. They’ve been working with the University of California at Davis for testing and experimentation of the ‘food hydrolysate’ usage in farming.

Last year CSS was a finalist in the Silicon Valley Group and Forbes Magazine ‘Thrive Accelerator’ program started to motivate smart farming innovations.(9) They also raised $5.9 million in equity crowdfunding to expand their production capabilities. Now they’ve licensed national production exclusively to KDC Agribusiness(10), and collaborated with Toyota on a Man Made innovation feature. Lots of press. It won’t be long until it’s as commonly known as Cargill, who just happens to be on the CSS board.

This will definitely make a huge dent in the amount of food waste that is contributing to the CO2 problem. It’s aimed at big farming, which goes through an incredible amount of fertilizers annually, and will help to reduce the amount of pesticides needed by restoring carbon and natural fixed nitrogen to cropland soil. They’ve discovered that crops grown with Harvest-to-Harvest thrive on 25% less water, produce more resilient plants, and a better harvest. Definitely a step in the right direction. Beginning with bringing life back to chemically-dead soils.

References:

  1. Truth About Composting
  2. University of Washington paper
  3. Yes-Sun website
  4. Yes-Sun patent – Europe
  5. Yes-Sun patent – USA
  6. Yes-Sun research & journal paper
  7. Re-Nuble organic/vegan nutes
  8. Re-Nuble campaign
  9. Startup of the Month
  10. KDC Ag

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Callie

Callie

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.
Callie