Composting trend delivers food waste solution and business opportunity

One third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is wasted every year. Start-ups are starting to reduce that figure

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Climbing the stairwell of a high-rise office building in central Amman, Lianne Manna eagerly leads the way to a door that opens onto the building’s sun-drenched rooftop. In the middle stands a blue plastic drum mounted on a metal frame. A small team of people in their early twenties are busy organising bags of food scraps, flowers and used coffee granules around the contraption, amid a flurry of excitement.

The group belong to Ecope, a social start-up in Jordan on a mission to raise awareness about food waste while creating an ecosystem to tackle the issue, and this is the rooftop where their headquarters are housed. Today is the launch of their first composting prototype – an experiment they will harvest in a few weeks’ time.

Ecope is the brainchild of twenty-two-year-old Ms Manna, who was inspired to launch an initiative to tackle waste during her product design bachelor’s degree in the UK.

"During my studies I realised the product design industry produces so much waste through every part of the process in terms of energy, materials and so on," Ms Manna tells The National.

She says she began seeing the industry she had once been so excited about as a “monster”. Instead, she wanted to use her product design skills to help protect the planet and set about creating a system that could turn organic waste into compost.

“Three million tonnes of municipal solid waste are generated in Jordan per year and more than 50 per cent of that is food waste that piles up in landfills, which is a major source of harmful gases,” says Ms Manna.

Each year, one third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is wasted. The organic waste sitting in landfill sites generates 4.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases – directly contributing to climate change.

In 2017, as part of her studies, she began working on a model based on responsible production and consumption, waste segregation, organic waste collection and management, a marketable compost scheme and awareness building. She began building her team in 2018, turning her concept into reality, eventually leading to the development of Ecope’s own composting technology – the prototype being launched today – which uses solar thermal heating to speed up the break-down process.

Unique to Jordan in terms of the scale of its ambitions, Ecope is still in its early stages but intends to offer flat-packed, modular composting machines fitted with sensors to monitor aspects such as temperature, to allow local companies to take responsibility for their own food waste on-site. The project has so far been self-funded by the team of five who work on a volunteer basis – some of whom are managing to commit time to the project despite still studying. Now, Ecope is looking to attract investors to turn this inspiring initiative into a fruitful business venture.

Momentum around the importance of food waste management is building in the UAE, however the country still has a long way to go, according to Ryan Ingram, founder of environmental consultancy TerraLoop.

"I started out three years ago and I'm still the only food waste consultancy in the UAE. There are food waste tech solutions but no one doing what I'm doing," Mr Ingram tells The National.

TerraLoop provides waste management solutions by measuring businesses’ waste and delivering a plan which counters food waste at the starting point – in the kitchen where it’s being prepared – while also building a system that composts food waste on-site and organises recycling.

Originally from South Africa, Mr Ingram is passionate about the work he does - he has to be because the issue of food waste is so ingrained in daily behaviour. “It’s taken a lot to get the message out there and to get people to buy into the services but a shift is beginning to take place,” he says.

“The UAE is one of the most wasteful countries per capita in terms of food,” says Mr Ingram.

“Food waste being sent to landfill sites leads to large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is at least 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide,” he adds.

Through TerraLoop’s consultancy services, Mr Ingram has been able to reduce the waste management costs of a Ras Al Khaimah all-inclusive hotel from Dh400,000 to 90,000. The hotel is now able to turn its food waste into water on-site which is then re-used for irrigation purposes. It also has a recycling system in place and can monitor its waste in real-time through a set-up in its kitchen.

“As soon as you understand how much you are wasting you’re able to take measures to tackle that. And it’s essential that we tackle it,” he says.

TerraLoop has set up three food waste treatment centres operating out of shipping containers in Dubai’s Sustainable City which process all food waste from the markets and malls in the community. Another arm of the business provides waste management education in schools and the consultancy also provides food tours with a focus on zero waste awareness through a collaboration with Frying Pan Adventures and JLT Dining.

Meanwhile, Lebanon is in the midst of a waste crisis which makes the work of Beirut-based social enterprise Compost Baladi more crucial than ever. Founded by Marc Aoun and Antoine Abou-Moussa in 2017, the aim of the project is to champion decentralised waste management while also demonstrating dealing rubbish can be lucrative.

"The country has been facing a waste management crisis for the last three years," Mr Aoun tells The National. "My business partner and I saw a gap in the market and a chance to really change things by making businesses and individuals accountable by pushing this idea of being responsible for their own waste and being conscious of what they generate."

They initially started out as a blog offering people free information online but quickly realised there was an appetite for more tangible support. They offer what they call an "earth cube" which can process up to 50kg of organic waste per day and is sold to schools, homes and offices. However, the duo knew the real change could only come if they began working with municipalities. They can provide authorities with waste management solutions that deliver between 30-60 per cent reduction in waste disposal costs. “This has a huge impact on the municipality’s balance sheet because between 30-40 per cent of its budget is allocated for waste disposal,” says Mr Aoun.

“One of the most important aspects is the lobbying we do; we’re very involved in government strategy development. We’ve learned that for us to have impact we have to start at policy level to achieve what we want on the ground.”

Compost Baladi was initially launched with a $25,000 investment. In its first year it generated $40,000 in revenue with around $10,000 losses and around $350,000 revenue is expected in the third year with similar losses. Its focus is on investing that revenue into research to develop and widen waste management action, and to be a part of the green industry's expansion.

“We are for-profit but our main aim is impact. We want to thrive - without this we cannot prove the success of our model. We want to do it through having a high impact rather than high margins. It’s about being able to create jobs through a green sector – in other words profitability,” says Mr Aoun.

The social enterprise is also developing a market for the compost generated through its various partnerships by working with farmers to promote the benefits of soil management, as well as collaborating with Carrefour as an outlet to sell their product.

Mr Aoun says they have ambitions to expand further in the Arabian Gulf in the next five years and are developing their composting technology to be more affordable.

“We’re trying to push this idea in Jordan in the hope of a ripple effect and we're currently looking for a local partner to help us with this ... It will be interesting, that’s for sure.”