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No trash no dung

No trash no dung

Festivals produce up to 15 kilograms of waste per person, which is an average of 37 kg of CO₂ per participant. How can waste production be avoided? The company foom has developed the foom technology, which can be used to turn organic waste into valuable fertilizer on site. Is this the solution?
 

InterviewJens THOMAS

 

CCB Magazine:Hello Anike and Kathrin, fewer emissions, better soil, more biodiversity. The foom technology produces valuable fertilizer from organic waste. Can you explain exactly how your technology works?

Kathrin Weiß:Of course, with foom technology, organic waste is converted into valuable fertilizer on site. This happens with the help of a unique mixture of microbes that can convert waste 30 times faster than in industrial composting and thus significantly optimize the CO2 footprint. The problem so far is that most of the waste from events etc. ends up as residual waste. And the new thing about our solution is that the organic waste can now be composted together with the food waste.

CCB Magazine:In other words, this is exclusively the conversion of organic waste?  

Anike von Gagern:Exactly. Our technology accelerates natural composting processes in particular and uses them on site. Soil currently stores more than three times as much CO2 as the earth's atmosphere, but the proportion is continuously decreasing. We therefore want to use foom to improve the quality of our topsoil and reduce the use of artificial fertilizers. You have to know: Until now, organic waste could not be composted together with food waste because existing composting plants generally only take pure waste. And even with pure organic waste plants, the waste is usually still too mixed for the biogas plants to turn it into fertilizer - festival operators often drive around the plants to find a suitable biogas plant to dispose of the organic waste. But this is not only time-consuming, it also emits a huge amount of CO2. This is where we come in.

Kathrin Weiß: With foom technology, organic waste is converted into valuable fertilizer using a unique mixture of microbes that can convert waste 30 times faster than industrial composting and significantly optimize the carbon footprint

The foom team from left to right: Dr Kathrin Weiß, Stephan Thönnißen, Dr Anike von Gagern. Photo: foom.

CCB Magazine:How exactly does foom work?  

Kathrin Weiß:Our technology consists of three building blocks: firstly, the waste must be decomposed. To do this, a foom-proprietary mixture of natural microorganisms ensures the efficient conversion of a variety of different substrates - including food waste and compostable disposable tableware and cutlery made of wood, cardboard, palm leaf or corn starch. We use naturally occurring microorganisms that break down biowaste with enzymes under suitable conditions and make it usable for growth. This process is also known as microbial hydrolysis. In the second step, the foom reactor is used. This stirs the mixture. The reactor plays a key role in efficient hydrolysis, as it ensures the most intensive possible interaction between the microorganisms and the substrate matrix. Thirdly, the foom process control system drives the microbially driven decomposition process - this includes maintaining a certain pH value range, exchanging gases and preventing excessive fluctuations in the microbial composition. The supply of oxygen is particularly important here: the composting process only starts once this has been achieved, from which fertilizer can ultimately be produced. 

CCB Magazine:If I, as a festival organizer, were interested in your technology, how do we do business?

Anike von Gagern:Just talk to us. When our technology is used, your caterers must first use compostable disposable tableware and the audience must throw their leftover food, including compostable plates, bowls, cutlery and napkins, into the foom garbage cans we provide - backstage kitchen waste is added to this. All of this is then taken to our on-site container-based foom system. And after two days, the organic waste becomes fertilizer that can be recycled and ensures that the soil remains healthy.

CCB Magazine:Sounds simple. Why is your technology not yet being used across the board?

Kathrin Weiß:We are just getting started, our technology has only been piloted once. That was at the MediMeisterschaften in Obermehler near Erfurt - the festival lasted three days and 25,000 people attended. We are also currently working on a cooperation with a Bundesliga club, whose name I can't give yet. You have to know: Until now, organic waste could simply be disposed of in Europe without any consideration for the environment. From 2024, things will be different: Everywhere in Europe, it will then be mandatory to dispose of organic waste separately. That will of course play into our hands.

Anike von Gagern: Until now, organic waste could be disposed of in Europe without any consideration for the environment. This will change from 2024: Everywhere in Europe, it will then be mandatory to dispose of organic waste separately - which plays into our hands

Above: The foom containers. In the centre: The decomposition process by converting biological waste into valuable fertiliser with the help of a unique mixture of microbes. Below: It grows - waste can become fertiliser. Photos: foom.

CCB Magazine:Is there a certain minimum size above which the use of your technology is worthwhile?

Anike von Gagern:We wouldn't say that, our solution can be used practically anywhere where there is power and access to water. But it is particularly suitable for use when several festivals are planned in succession and implemented at one location. This is because it takes a few days for the reactor to become fully effective; the microbial environment first has to settle in, so to speak. Places with a relatively high number of visitors over a relatively long period of time are therefore particularly suitable. Museums or similar places with a high number of visitors throughout the year are also conceivable.  

CCB Magazine:And how much COcan be saved in the end?

Kathrin Weiß:It depends. In places like the USA, for example, with a large number of open landfills, we are talking about two tons of CO2 equivalents per ton of waste that can be saved with the help of our technology. That's the equivalent of 33 trees that have grown for ten years. In Germany, where there are many industrial composting plants, we are at around one tenth. Europe is somewhere in between on average.

CCB Magazine:And what does it all cost? 

Anike von Gagern:An event venue the size of a stadium would pay roughly the same as for the disposal of organic waste - the only difference is that you end up with fertilizer. With 80 tons of organic waste per year, this would amount to around 20,000 euros. Of course, this only applies to the current machine size, which can certainly vary downwards over the next few years. Regardless of the reactor size, however, the carbon footprint can already be significantly improved. 

CCB Magazine:The biggest CO₂ emitters at an event are mobility, especially the fans' travel, energy and food. Together, these account for around 90 percent of an event's total CO₂ emissions. Aren't we talking about a marginal issue here? 

Kathrin Weiß:We don't think so. After all, we are producing more and more waste. According to the World Bank, around 2.02 billion tons of waste were produced worldwide in 2016. By 2050, the global amount of waste is expected to be around 3.4 billion tons. And festivals already produce up to 15 kilograms of waste per capita. That is not insignificant. And we need solutions for this.

Kathrin Weiß: In places with open landfills, we can save over two tons of CO2 equivalents per ton of waste with our technology. That's the equivalent of about 33 trees grown for ten years 

CCB Magazine:Can you describe how the idea came about? Have you worked in related professions before?

Anike von Gagern:We are three founders and have a background in business administration as well as start-up and scaling experience. There are also six engineers on board - we need them to introduce specializations in the areas of bioprocess, data and software. And the idea came up when we were asked if we could help with the marketing of palm leaf dishes. We thought we'd love to. But we quickly realized that compostable tableware, like other disposable tableware, usually ends up in incineration or landfill - so we looked for a recyclable solution. We then turned to the TU Berlin, specifically to Prof. Neubauer's Chair of Bioprocess Engineering. And together with Prof. Junne, we set up a project to research the microbial decomposition of organic waste. Since then, we have developed what is now the foom solution - now with even more partners.

CCB Magazine:Are there providers that offer similar processes? And how do you stand up to the competition?

Kathrin Weiß:So far, there are no comparable providers. Of course, there are conventional waste disposal companies that dispose of biowaste in industrial composting plants or biogas plants. Due to the new EU regulations on the separate collection and processing of biowaste, it is also clear that these capacities must be doubled in the EU by 2035. But we do not see our solution as a competitor, but as a contribution to this doubling. On the other hand, there are already a number of rapid composters that operate with decentralized approaches. So far, however, there are only technologies in this area that are either designed for very small quantities, take a relatively long time, do not comply with EU regulations or have a poor carbon footprint.

CCB Magazine:How do you want to develop as a company? What are you planning for the future?

Anike von Gagern:Oh, a lot. First of all, we want to launch our first industrial machine in the summer with our pilot customer, the Bundesliga soccer team that has already been announced - and then grow within Europe based on this. For further scaling, we would then like to go to the USA, as the majority of organic waste there still ends up in landfills and thus exacerbates our climate crisis instead of helping to solve it. We have a lot to do. We'll just get on with it now.

Category: Innovation & Vision

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