Issaquah startup transforms trash into treasure at local grocery store

May 15, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

City Council President Tola Marts speaks at WISErg’s public unveiling of a food-scrap harvester at PCC Natural Market on May 8. By Autumn Monahan

The castoffs from daily activity in a grocery store — fruit peels from the juice bar, meat trimmings from the deli, discarded vegetable leaves from the produce section — no longer go to the compost heap at the PCC Natural Markets store at Pickering Place.

Instead, employees dump the refuse into a boxy structure tucked near the loading dock. The apparatus, a machine called a harvester, transforms the peels and trimmings into sludge — a building block for organic fertilizer.

Issaquah-based WISErg developed the harvester and built the prototype for the local grocery co-op. The company also uses the sludge to produce fertilizer, a tawny liquid no thicker than water.

Microsoft alumni Larry LeSueur and Jose Lugo founded WISErg in 2009. The startup venture is based across the street from Pickering Place. (The company name is a nod to the erg, a tiny unit of energy.)

“We all know the scraps headed for the Dumpsters are full of nutrients and value,” LeSueur said at a public debut for the harvester May 8. “The last thing we should do is landfill them and create more environmental and community headaches.”

WISErg approached Diana Crane, director of sustainability for Seattle-based PCC, and broached the idea of installing a harvester at a store.

“How exciting it is that the trash produced daily from our juice bar, deli, meat and produce departments that would otherwise be sent to landfills is now being offered in our PCC stores as a high-quality plant food,” Issaquah Store Director Debbi Montgomery said.

In Issaquah, the store produces 600 to 800 pounds of food waste each day. Employees already compost and recycle waste from the store, so the harvester made for a good fit, Montgomery said.

“Although we feel like we’ve always done what we could to minimize waste by donating to our local food banks and other organizations,” she said. “We recycle everything from cardboard boxes to bottle corks.”

Behind the loading station is a cylinder containing multiple tanks to convert food scraps into a nutrient-rich liquid. Inside the pea-green harvester, technology and anaerobic digestion — micro-organisms break down material without oxygen — turn trash into treasure.

The process includes the on-site harvester to grind the food scraps and, in a later stage at a WISErg facility, another step to transform the ground-up sludge into fertilizer. The state Department of Agriculture certified the fertilizer for use in organic farming, and PCC stores sell the brew.

The harvester project garnered national headlines in the days after the May 8 public debut.

City leaders used the event as a backdrop to tout economic development and sustainability initiatives in Issaquah.

“I’ve been involved with entrepreneurial business for 20 years, and I believe that you take companies like WISErg and you add in the partnership with the city of Issaquah through the Office of Sustainability that’s been doing this for 15 years, and then you add in the new initiatives that we have in the city for economic vitality, and I think that WISErg is the vanguard of the kind of entrepreneurship that you’re going to see going forward in the city of Issaquah,” City Council President Tola Marts said at the debut.

Proximity to agricultural centers along the Interstate 90 corridor made Issaquah a natural fit for the company.

“As we were looking around, we looked for opportunities where we thought we’d have a good growth of the business,” LeSueur said in a pre-announcement interview.

The harvesters cost from $40,000 to $55,000 apiece, plus $350 or more in service costs each month. LeSueur said the company initially plans to expand in the Puget Sound region.

Though the harvester attracted interest from people interested in a simpler alternative to at-home composting, WISErg does not plan to offer a smaller model for residential use anytime soon.

“There’s a lot of sophistication in this technology that just from an economic standpoint, we really can’t get it, at this point, down to a consumer level and make it affordable,” LeSueur said. “We’d love to get it there someday.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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