With a turkey feast only days away and more holiday meals on the calendar shortly thereafter, it's easy not to think about what happens to that abundance of food after you've had your fill of leftovers. But with some 34 million pounds of food thrown away in the U.S. each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, now might be the time to start. 

All of this waste represents 21 percent of all food produced, harvested, and purchased--food worth an estimated $1.3 billion, at a time when one in six Americans face hunger, says the EPA. The typical family of four could save $1,600 a year just by cutting their food waste. 

For years, Larry LeSueur was aware of the problem, but wasn't quite sure how to solve it. With a background in software development and companies like Microsoft on his resumé, he didn't feel like the guy to change the economics of food. But with help from prominent grocers--plus 23 savvy engineers, software developers, and data scientists--LeSueur is aiming to build a disruptive startup that can help reverse this alarming food trend.

I decided to speak with LeSueur to learn more about WISErg, his startup that's turning food scraps into fertilizer. 

The Ultimate Lab Test 

LeSeuer had been out of the corporate world several years before the startup bug bit in 2009. It was the height of the recession and he was working in software development. Hungry for more stability, the former general manager of Windows Server Systems at Microsoft often thought of returning to the 9 to 5 grind with his former colleague Jose Lugo. But both had a nagging feeling they could do more in a down economy. "We saw this big waste issue and began asking questions like, Why are we wasting so much food?" LeSueur says. "If we could understand it, maybe we could do something about it." 

With help from PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, they began tinkering on what would eventually become WISErg, a Redmond, Washington-based startup that's taken $5 million in funding from private sources. WISErg does two things: it makes Harvester machines that enable grocers and food service providers to safely discard their food scraps, and it turns those food scraps into liquid fertilizer for organic crop production. 

In April 2010, LeSueur approached Diana Chapman, PCC's director of sustainability in Seattle, with a daring proposal. "We have this technology that allows you to convert your food scraps into a useful product--all we need is a working laboratory," she recalled him explaining. No stranger to composting herself, Chapman agreed to give the Harvesters a try. 

"We were actually a very good partner because unlike most conventional grocery stores, we have a much higher percentage of food made on-site," which creates more food scraps, she says. The stores were also a useful testing ground because of their focus on organic produce. Since those products turned over more frequently, "we could give [WISErg] any number of unique situations that they'd need to test." 

The first objective was to determine just how much food was going to waste. "Was there a better option for this product that was being sold at $8 a pound, or was it being thrown away as a cost of disposal?" LeSueur recalls thinking. "We needed to get data to help grocery stores avoid waste and begin to treat their high quality food as a resource. We didn't want to see it thrown away." 

Enter Big Data 

Four years later, Harvesters can be found at Whole Foods, Red Apple, and PCC Natural Markets. The loading unit resembles a double-door Sub-Zero and contains all the control and data-gathering centers. Next to it is the holding tank, "where all the biology occurs," LeSueur says. 

Using the Harvester is simple: Employees swipe a key or RFID so it knows who they are, then enter the category of food and why it's being eliminated (say, if it dropped on the floor). The door unlocks, they load the scraps, then close the door so it relocks.

From there, it takes about five to seven minutes to move the scraps into the biological tank, where the decomposing process of nutrients is halted so they can be used to enrich the fertilizer. The average size of a load is 120 pounds and stores will do anywhere from 10 to 25 loads a day, LeSueur says. The new unit coming in January could potentially double that size.

Throughout the discarding process, "we're capturing images of the food, plus its weight and temperature, and it's all going to the cloud, where we're doing business analytics on it," LeSueur says. "We're able to not just understand what the categories and weights are of the food, but why it's being thrown out, and we can compare between stores and industries."

This information is then relayed back to the stores, which they can access through WISErg's software. As WISErg builds up its client base, the hope is to show how stores compare to one another in the same region. "We see this playing out as real-time access to this information," LeSueur says. "A grocer would be able to set thresholds of waste streams they expect and when those metrics are exceeded, they can get real-time alerts, because this is a workforce that has the potential for high turnover (and requires lots of training)."

During the holidays, the data will be especially useful. "By providing better visibility, store managers can act on issues and take them more seriously," LeSueur says. And since many stores work with food banks over the holidays, they can use the data to see how quickly they need to send food before it spoils.

They may also find it's not worth it to purchase excess inventory. "We're hoping that by showing some of these stores the data, we can show them that just because you can buy more at a discount--think pumpkins at Halloween--it's not the best decision if their cost of disposal, including labor and time, is more," LeSueur says.

In other words, the true value of the data rests in how it will change grocers' behaviors, or more pointedly, employees' behaviors. "The vast majority of the problems are related to handling practices, and the labor one is the largest challenge because it's hard to monitor that on a daily and hourly basis." 

However, changes have happened. One store loading its Harvester with over 300 pounds of vegetables over the course of eight weeks eventually learned that its indoor HVAC was not kicking in on time. "The shelf life had diminished so quickly that it was creating that excess of food," LeSueur says. "There was no shame on anybody--it was just what the data showed."

A New Kind of Fertilizer 

After the nutrients are captured in the Harvester, they're sent to a lab where they're bottled up and made into WISErganic fertilizer. Some grocers choose to carry the product, while others opt for just the Harvester. For WISErg, the liquid fertilizer, which is suitable for lawn, vegetable, and flower gardens, represents another stream of much-needed revenue. "It's a game-changer," LeSueur says. "The easiest thing for us to monetize is the fertilizer." 

Since the fertilizer is comprised of organic food scraps, it's especially useful for farmers growing those kinds of crops. Currently, WISErganic's main fertilizer customers are large-scale growers overseeing a few thousand to 100,000 acres, typically dealing with "what we call the salad crops," LeSueur says.  

This year, WISErg began commercializing this product and released its third-generation Harvester. It also signed on with Whole Foods and started talks with another "big box" retailer. Next year, "the intent is to begin a national rollout starting with the West Coast," LeSueur says, and the company has 27 contracts for new Harvester installs. "We're two years away from truly delivering on what [national grocers'] needs are--mainly because this is a capital-intensive and highly regulated industry, on both the waste and fertilizer sides." 

Fortunately, the technology has a fighting chance. As more states like Massachusetts push grocers to redirect their uneaten foods from landfills, store owners wary of composting are going to need help. And WISErg will be there to offer it. 

Published on: Nov 24, 2014