The numbers sound crazy when you first hear them. New York City is spending $180 million annually to deal with food waste. How much waste are we talking about? Twelve thousands tons of it are clogging landfills. For a while, it was being loaded on barges and shipped off to China. Today, capacity is still an issue as NYC food waste is shipped off to neighboring states. There are commercial storage facilities to help out, but there’s still a lot of food waste with nowhere to go. Tinia Pina thought there had to be a better way. Her startup Renuble has joined the list of innovators who are recycling food waste into organic compost, as a soil amendment.
When you think of food waste, you might think of the scraps you scrape from your plate or the food that restaurants throw away but there is also food waste created when food is processed, even before it makes it onto your plate. Wholesale food distributors buy directly from farms and re-package food to sell to schools or restaurants, they often throw out the stuff that’s less than perfect. Food waste is 75% liquid. A company called Industrial Organic can go to your processing facility, draw out the liquid, digest and sterilize the food waste, leaving you with organic fertilizer. In another approach, Misfit Juicery, based in DC, is sourcing food waste all the way from New York City and turning it into a cold pressed drink. In LA, Pulp Pantry is using the post-juice pulp from your favorite juice bar and turning it into fiber-rich granola.
Soil is lost at a rate of 10 to 40 times as fast as it can replenish itself. Conventional farming is stripping soil of carbon and nutrients and 70% of the earth’s topsoil is vanishing, because of erosion. To feed the world that soil has to be replaced, that’s where fertilizer comes in. Jonathan Bloom wrote in American Wasteland that about 40% of the food we produce ends up being thrown away. The annual cost of that, he says, is $100 billion.
- Buy groceries according to your needs. Supermarkets buy produce based on projections. If you find that you’re buying more than what you actually need and wasting about 20% of it, then that waste also is translated upstream to the supermarkets.
- Plants like good dirt. Crops need organic fertilizer to thrive, instead of the chemical “junk food” they often receive with industrial farming. Turning food waste into nutrient-rich organic fertilizer helps solve the waste problem and also helps the plants that feed us.
Listen to my conversation with Tinia Pina about how she is changing what happens to food waste and building a better story for food and the supply chain that feeds us all.
Click the podcast player in the header to hear the whole episode, or in the interactive transcript below, click on any play button to hear that part of the conversation.
— Lee Schneider
Tinia: We were working with pre-sorted, pre-consumed food waste that isn’t really subjected to contamination, often found in post-consumed waste.
Lee: They use a unique process, that allows them to liquefy it, sterilize it, and stabilize it to turn it into a liquid nutrient, as well as a dry, granulated fertilizer.
Tinia: And this is intended for both indoor controlled environment agriculture, as well as the traditional soil-based ag.
Lee: Tinia, welcome to the podcast.
Tinia: Oh, thanks for having me, Lee.
Lee: Now, I was reading on your website and elsewhere, and tell me if I have this number right, but 12,000 tons of food waste is produced annually in New York City. First, do I have that number right?
Tinia: You know, it’s the most recent that we’ve found. I mean, we do know that New York City spends $180 million annually and…
Lee: Those numbers were mind-boggling. Twelve thousand tons of food waste would take 800 fully loaded garbage trucks to remove. And the city of New York is spending $180 million a year to get rid of it?
Tinia: It’s a lot.
Lee: That’s literary a mountain of food waste. Now, what’s happening to that waste now?
Tinia: When we first got into it in 2012, a lot of the food waste was being diverted to landfills that had the capacity and services, Pennsylvanian, Virginia, and China even. Now in today, there is the Staten Island landfill that has been revamped into a park. There is a commercial scale composting facility in Long Island, that has been increasingly been diverting a lot of the food waste to organic recycling, just into traditional compost, as a soil amendment. And there is smaller food waste processors that are turning it into other types of value-added products.
The beautiful thing about food waste is the synergies that happen with the microbials, where the roots are.
// Tinia Pina
Lee: When you think of food waste, you might think of the scraps you scrape from your plate or the food that restaurants throw away but there is also food waste created when food is processed, even before it makes it onto your plate. Wholesale food distributors buy directly from farms and re-package food to sell to schools or restaurants, they often throw out the stuff that’s less than perfect. Food waste is 75% liquid. A company called Industrial Organic can go to your processing facility, draw out the liquid, digest and sterilize the food waste, leaving you with organic fertilizer. In another approach, Misfit Juicery, based in DC, is sourcing food waste all the way from New York City and turning it into a cold pressed drink.
Tinia: New York City has definitely put the mandate out for, especially industrial scale and commercial scale, food service providers and food…food waste generators, I should say, to find a better solution to landfills, but it is not 100% diverted yet and that’s just expected, given the scale.
Lee: Let’s bring this back to your company. Why did you start it, what inspired you to get going on Re-Nuble?
Tinia: Our whole vision which remains today, and still a lot more R&D needs to be invested in, which is how can we truly source all the nutrients from food waste, so that no supplements are needed and therefore the cost, as well as the process, as well as the footprint involved with sourcing these nutrients from locations outside of the immediate vicinity of the food waste, doesn’t create a large carbon footprint. So what do I mean by that? Truly it’s a vision of allowing a plant to be productive and to be healthy while truly sourcing all of its nutritional needs, just from food waste alone.
Lee: If you’re a plant, unprocessed food waste is of low nutritional value. You want the stuff that was around your roots, in the soil.
Tinia: The beautiful thing about food waste is that the synergies that happen with the microbials and what happens underneath the root or underneath the plant where the roots are at in the microbiome in the soil environment, for instance, that plant matter or that humic dead plant-based matter that’s still in the food waste, is really beneficial. So it’ll do things like enhance the flavor profile or enhance the color spectrum that you can’t get from just a mineral salt or synthetic fertilizer.
Lee: Soil is lost at a rate of 10 to 40 times as fast as it can replenish itself. Conventional farming is stripping soil of carbon and nutrients and 70% of the earth’s topsoil is vanishing, because of erosion. To feed the world that soil has to be replaced, that’s where fertilizer comes in. Jonathan Bloom wrote in “American Wasteland” that about 40% of the food we produce ends up being thrown away. The annual cost of that, he says, is $100 billion. What would be your recommendation for just the average person, who is just concerned, what should they do?
Tinia: I’ll describe it in two ways. I think if you’re an average person, and I’ll just kind of make that distinction, that is a near a farm or you’re fortunate to be in that ecosystem or around it, I think there is collaboration definitely to be done or to be had with farmers that, you know, at the farm they have a lot of waste because a head of lettuce is, you know, let’s say 43% actually spoiled but there’s still a good amount that can be harvested from that. Try to identify opportunities to turn those items of food waste at the farm into value-added products. And the USDA actually has a grant program that can do that. Those items of food waste or crops that have been wasted at the farm before distribution, and turn that into a product that can be sold downstream. Whether it’s cooking it at the site or turning it into spices, for example. The other part of it is at the consumer level with meal planning, you know, I really try to only buy when I am absolutely certain of how much I need.
So it’s really being, I think, true to oneself and just trying to be more…the word I think would be deliberate maybe so that we’re conscious of how much we’re spending on food and really buying according to our needs. Because if you think about it, you know, supermarkets buy produce from farms or from suppliers based on projections. So if you’re buying and you find that yourself that you’re buying more than what you actually need and wasting about 20% of it, then that waste also is translated upstream to the supermarkets because they’re buying 20% more than you actually need. So just being more mindful of your purchasing decisions. And I’ll go back to what we do is, you know, just trying to be creative with food that could go bad soon but, you know, just try and incorporate into our meals at home.
Lee: The supermarket connection is really interesting. Because I’m in an urban environment and most people probably listening to this are in some kind of urban environment. So that means the farmer thing would be great, you know, they might have access to farmers’ markets and farmers that way. But most of the time it’s this kind of see-saw relationship between what they’re buying, what the supermarket is stocking, what they actually eat, and what they actually throw away. This complex, I can’t even begin to diagram it in my mind, but this complex relationship between really comes down to planning. You know, the way that you would decide what you’re gonna eat each week and how well you would use those materials. It seems that that’s a pretty big factor here, yes?
Tinia: Yeah, and I think it’s kind of like you said, like, a systemic issue and I think people just don’t think about the larger impact on it. But yes, I would agree with you on that.
Lee: What kind of infrastructure needs to be in place for food producers and food distributors, to address this problem? Where can they start?
Tinia: There are more companies providing infrastructure such as BioHiTech America, Food2Water in New Jersey is another example. But I think there is more research transparency to be done on really, like, what is the ideal solution for each food service provider or food producer or distributor in this case, because there’s not a best solution for all.
Lee: I just wanna be sure that I have the origin story right. I mean, this was a very specific thing for you to go into. And I haven’t heard, “Well, my parents were always into recycling.” Or, “My big brother…” You know, I haven’t heard the typical origin story of why this, why you.
It’s really being true to oneself and deliberate so that we’re conscious of how much we’re spending on food and really buying according to our needs.
// Tinia Pina
Tinia: It was a couple of things that kind of drove me in this direction. The one that people see and hear most is I used to be a prep SAT teacher in Harlem, and on Saturdays, the kids would…that we would teach, we’d start at, like, 8:00 in the morning, we’d end around 2:00 or 3:00 and I could see very immediately how what they were bringing in the morning, Dunkin’ Donuts, whatever was around that two block radius which was not, let’s say, better options that were more nutrient dense. Even at the grocery stores, you never really saw organic. And I’ve always felt that if they had better options, they would be able to retain the information better and that really’s gonna impact the type of career outcomes they could have.
I feel like this is my purpose and in addition to the experiences that I’ve had, it has supported my dedication to it. So I’m a huge environmentalist and just, kind of, as hard as agriculture can be, I really feel like this has kind of been just something that I’m here for and that’s why I kind of remain dedicated to it.
Lee: Tinia, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.
Tinia: Any time, Lee. I was a pleasure.
Lee: This has been The Future of Food. Go to futurefood.fm and you’ll find transcripts of all shows, articles that build on what we talk about in the shows and you can subscribe and never miss a podcast. That’s futurefood.fm. I’m Lee Schneider.