Compost in 24 hours… Seriously!
The first time I met Jessica Marquardt was when she was an intern in the Master Gardener class I was mentoring. It was funny because I happened to be managing a hands-on station all about fertilizer during our soil class. Jessica came through and I thought I remembered her saying something about making compost really fast, and of course, I had no clue if she knew what she was talking about or whether I even heard her correctly.
It turns out Jessica did know what she was talking about because the next time we met was at the Food and Farm Finance Forum in Tucson. She was representing her company, reNature, which actually can turn food waste into nutrient dense compost in only 24 hours! Anyone who has spent months turning their compost piles, is going to wonder what the heck is going on here. I know I did! So I wanted to catch up with Jessica and have her explain a little more about what reNature actually does, and how it does it.
How was this technology discovered?
A group of students in ASU’s sustainability program were looking for a new way to reprocess waste into energy. They failed spectacularly, creating not energy, but a microbially rich liquid compost product. That happy accident is the basis of our company.
What is a microbial bioreactor?
Our bioreactor creates the ideal environment for microbes to break down organic material, similar to your own digestive system. We have created a mother batch which I like to call my “sourdough starter” which has a known density and diversity of microbes that we have cultured and trained over time from batches of vegetables. Each day we fill half the tank with our mother batch and the other half with new vegetables. Our bioreactor heats the mix while continually mixing and aerating it so that the microbes have everything they need to quickly and efficiently break down the introduced organic material.
How do you make compost in only 24 hours?
Microbes are amazingly efficient workers! If you provide them the ideal environment, they will rapidly break down organic material. In fact, it actually only takes us about 12 hours to break down the material. The other 12 hours are spent filtering, settling and bottling the product. 🙂
So is the compost you make as good as the slow-cooked version we make in our gardens?
Our product is super charged compost. Pound for pound, we have more good stuff from vegetables in our product than traditional compost, broken down to a microscopic level.
There are definitely different uses for our product than traditional compost. We filter our product down past 150 mesh so that you can run it through a drip irrigation line or spray it on your soil. So, if you’re looking for the benefits of a physical cover crop, we may not be for you. That being said, because we’re local, we do custom filtering for our clients and a couple farmers prefer what we call “reNature Heavy,” – the solids product that comes out of the reactor.
20% of the arable land globally experience significant yield loss due to salinity alone.
The most amazing thing I read about your product is that it reduces soil salinity! One of our biggest issues in the desert is salty soil, so this could be a huge help to gardens and farms. Tell me about that.
I could write a book on salinity and why it’s so critically important to food security around the world. 20% of the arable land globally experience significant yield loss due to salinity alone. Our product has three different active ingredients which attack salt: organic acids, organic matter and microbes. These work together to immobilize salts, pulling them away from the root zone. We’ve done a number of commercial and academic trials and seen on average a 53% reduction in salinity in two months.
Because we can train our batch, our researchers have analysis on the compost, and isolated and encouraged microbes proven to reduce soil salinity. A good analogy to traditional composting would be picking and choosing to use coffee grounds or not based on the PH of your soil. This allows us to increase the impact without putting any additives of any kind in the product. It’s pretty cool.
I know that food waste is a pretty big portion of what goes into our landfills, can all of this food waste be sent to bioreactors to produce compost?
Yes! I highly recommend checking out the website REFed.com. There is a whole movement looking to reduce food waste. Bioreactors are a big part of the “Long Tail” solution, which means the “everything else,” but there are companies looking at reducing food waste at every step, from farm to table to landfill. Different set ups of bioreactors can process meats, waste from grocery stores and restaurants, etc. The process is slightly different based on what food inputs you’re working with, but there’s room for all of us to really make an impact on the food waste problem in America.
Where do you get your food waste?
We partner with The 3000 Club. They are a food recovery organization that accepts food which can’t be sold either because it’s not “pretty” or there’s not space on the shelves. The 3000 Club partners with food banks nationally to get the edible food in the hands of hungry families and we take the inedible food and turn it into our product. It’s a win-win-win. Farmers save money by donating food to The 3000 Club. The 3000 Club gets to accept an estimated 4 tons of extra food for every 1 ton we take, and we get a steady stream of inputs for our bioreactor.
Do you just create compost? Is this considered fertilizer?
You could call us a fertilizer and because the US is really bad at regulating biological products*, our license to do business technically labels us as a fertilizer, but our N-P-K numbers are comically low at our current concentration.
We are putting together a grant for equipment to take our solids and press out the remainder of the water to create an organic granulated solid which can be used to aid in water retention and add organic material to soil. This will significantly increase the parts per million of N-P-K in that product and it could absolutely be used as an organic fertilizer, but right now, it’s just sludge. We donate it to help remediate land very low on organic material south of Gila Bend.
*If you’re interested in how regulation is evolving in the rest of the world to allow non-chemically derived products to enter the market, there is some great dialog about microbial products going on in Europe right now. I highly recommend the EBIC website.
How much food waste can one bioreactor handle? How many bioreactors would be needed to handle all of the US food waste?
This is a fantastic question. Bioreactors are only limited by the size of the tank. I just toured an abandoned waste water treatment plant last month with 200,000 and 1 million gallon tanks ready to go with minimal modification! reNature is part of a group of businesses already looking at this space to make it a hub for a number of biological products – compost tea, vermiculture, algae production, etc. There is a growing group of us in the AZ area focused on creating a suite of products that take waste and make it into locally-derived, organic inputs for farmers and gardeners. Together, we have the capacity to capture all of the food waste running through Arizona and repurpose it for good!
What kind of difference would that make in our environment?
Repurposing food waste reduces greenhouse gas emissions, frees up space in landfills and avoids “wildcat dumping” or the dumping of food waste on our protected desert lands. However, it isn’t just good for the environment. By taking something like waste and giving it a new life, we are creating jobs in rural communities – warehouse operators, lab technicians, truck drivers, etc and promoting economic growth where it’s most important. We also are diverting edible food back to food banks, increasing the amount of green food available for the hungry, increasing food security. “Waste” has so much potential. I’m thrilled to be able to work in this space.
Together, we have the capacity to capture all of the food waste running through Arizona and repurpose it for good!
Who gets to use your products? Do you sell them at nurseries?
Right now, we are selling product per acre wholesale through our distributor, Desert Chemical. We work primarily with farmers and landscaping professionals. That being said, we can absolutely do individual sales. You can reach out at Contactus@renatureinc.com (or on our Contact page on our website).
What else do you want to tell us about reNature?
We do tours! We are based in Tempe, AZ and we love showing our facility to farmers, garden groups, school groups, etc. If you would like to set up a tour, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.