If you fill up a new “food recycler” with food scraps, 24 hours later you’ll have fertilizer you can use outside.
“Our goal is to try to make it much more convenient for consumers to recycle food waste,” says Kelley Rich, a senior category manager in WLabs, the internal incubator at Whirlpool Corporation that developed the new appliance, called the Zera Food Recycler.
The company, best known for dishwashers, fridges, and laundry machines, wanted to address the problem of food waste–in particular, what happens when food waste reaches landfills. In the U.S., 40% of food is wasted. In landfills, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
While some cities offer curbside pickup for food waste–and municipal composting– the device is designed primarily as an alternative for people who struggle with backyard composting.
“We have a hypothesis that the early adopters of this product are either people who currently compost, and are frustrated with the process, or those who have tried composting in the past but have stopped due to the inconveniences associated with traditional composting methods,” says Rich.
Traditional composting can take six months to a year to produce ready-to-use compost; it also requires regular maintenance of the compost pile, and collecting scraps to take outside can be smelly and attract bugs.
Unlike most composting devices, which use heat to dehydrate the scraps, the new appliance uses a plant-based additive to help break food down, along with oxygen, moisture, heat, and agitation. “It actually was a huge technical challenge to make sure that we designed the mixing system and the additive correctly to provide consistent quality fertilizer every time,” she says.
The end result–a rich fertilizer–isn’t technically compost, since it isn’t made by the food decomposing on its own. But when it’s spread outside in a garden, it finishes the decomposition process. The device can even break down meat and dairy products, which typically can’t be composted in a backyard compost pile.
Of course, neither device–nor composting–can fully solve the problem of food waste, since much of the impact on the environment comes from producing and distributing food; it’s better to eat. One study suggests that people throw out more when they know it will be composted. Still, composting or using a device like the Zera can solve one part of the problem.
Traditional composting has some clear advantages–it doesn’t require electricity, and it’s free; the Zera Food Recycler will retail for $1,199. But the new device may attract a market that wouldn’t be likely to compost anyway.
On its Indiegogo campaign, the device sold out of its first price tier four hours after launching. “This really gives us a lot of confidence that there is a substantial market out there for in-home food recycling products like Zera Food Recycler,” says Rich.
The company will test the device in three markets later this year.