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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Residents and companies turn to composting machines to help battle food waste

UAE landed last on a list of 34 countries ranked on food waste by the 2017 Food Sustainability Index

“The crisis now is in the landfills, they are opening more landfills," said Amrita Shabla, the CEO of  SET- Sustainable Environmental Technologies. Victor Besa / The National
“The crisis now is in the landfills, they are opening more landfills," said Amrita Shabla, the CEO of SET- Sustainable Environmental Technologies. Victor Besa / The National

Elif Berkel loves to talk about her family’s garbage.

Particularly egg shells, meat and all sorts of bones, but also vegetable rinds and decomposing fruit.

That’s because she’s found a way to get rid of almost all of it without opening her trash can. And what’s left over? Well, just take a trip out to the mum-of-two’s garden and check out her sunflowers, which are two thirds bigger than they used to be. And it’s all because of a small box that sits on her countertop called SmartCara SET.

“I call it my miracle maker,” she says.

Worried about how much food her family was throwing away, Ms Berkel was on the hunt for a machine that could sterilise her domestic waste and turn it into compost. Although there are other composting options, she wanted something faster because the growing season in the UAE is so short.

She was browsing social media when she came across the Masdar-based company Sustainable Environmental Technologies (SET) and was immediately drawn by its SmartCara SET, which retails for Dh2,800. The machine now sits on her countertop, and in less than four hours, with no noise or odour, can reduce two kilograms of food waste to a small amount of “soil amendment”, rich compost that goes straight into Ms Berkel’s garden.

With more than enough to fertilise her bounty from the SmartCara, she’s been impressed with the way it’s reduced what her family throws away: from one and half garbage bins of waste every two days to one every three to four days.

“It’s a win-win,” she says. “It’s garbage to gold. Something that really can help you reduce your waste, your carbon footprint, and your garden loves you for it.”

The global environmental scourge of food waste is a particular issue in the UAE, which landed last on a list of 34 countries ranked on the issue by the 2017 Food Sustainability Index.

The SmartCara SET is based on technology and parts developed by individuals from Germany, India, England and South Korea. They met and collaborated while studying at chief operating officer Amrita Shabla’s alma mater, Brunel University in West London, deciding as a team to launch SET in the Middle East.

People living in the region really want to be able to segregate their garbage and throw away less, says Ms Shabla.

“The crisis now is in the landfills, they are opening more landfills,” she says. “You can’t divert it, people are not going to eat less and the population is not going to decrease.”

Although the soil amendment the SmartCara SET produces works as a garden and agricultural fertiliser, Ms Shabla uses it to produce waste that also feeds her two pet Maltese Terriers and neighbourhood stray cats.

There is no restriction to what can be put in the machine - meat, bones, eggshells, peels, even raw and decomposing food can be processed. Once inside, the used food is heated to 82.2°C, killing all bacteria. Moisture is turned to vapour and treated by activated carbon filtration, before the contents are ground and cooled. A little water added every 10 to 15 days, and the machine self-cleans.

SET's household varieties can process up to 20 kilograms. For industrial needs, the company builds bespoke machines designed to process from 25 kilograms to 15 tonnes of organic waste. That includes food and garden waste, sewage sludge and animal manure – using a different process involving high-end blades, heat transfer with naturally occurring enzymes built into the machine and aerobic digestion through oxygen – that takes from eight to 16 hours.

Due to its market value, the amount of byproduct produced industrially is dubbed “gold compost”, meaning it can either be sold or kept and used as fertiliser.

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However, while processing food waste into something usable is a worthy goal, restaurants typically throw away two-thirds of what they buy, says Marc Zornes, founder of Winnow. The London-based company offers technology to monitor and analyse food waste for restaurants and other large-scale food operations in 30 countries including the UAE.

Companies that also focus on prevention by using Winnow typically cut their food waste in half and save from 5 per cent to 8 per cent on food costs.

“If you think about all the energy it takes to get food to a hotel, get it cooked, put it out in service, and then the minimal amount of energy and resources you recover from composting that food on site, it is loss avoidance but it really isn’t solving in a fundamental way the biggest problem,” he says.

Since they quietly launched two years ago, SET has sold 65,000 of the SmartCara SET globally; in the UAE the product is in more than 700 hotels, resorts, corporate complexes, arenas, several palaces and more than 12,000 homes, says Shabla.

SET recently added an e-commerce site and this year has plans to expand to more stores – they are currently in Virgin Megastores, Jashanmal and Better Life – and publicise their products for the first time.

Of course, the SmartCara isn’t the only composting system on the market in the UAE. It is one of three systems My Green Chapter offers customers, says Leanne Dore, My Green Chapter’s operations manager.

The best-seller remains Bokashi, an indoor system that has been selling in the UAE for about five years. Requiring no electricity, costing Dh294, it uses a special bran to prompt anaerobic fermentation, producing a liquid that can be used as fertilizer or to condition drains and septic tanks. It takes about six to eight weeks for the food waste to be ready to bury in the soil. And there is Compostio C40, which sells for Dh1,800, an electricity-powered system that uses heat and oxygen to speed up the decomposition process, taking about two weeks. They company is also about to stock old-school composters designed to sit in the garden, which work much more slowly.

“In terms of what you get out of the system, Compostio is best,” she says. “In seven to 10 days you have soil.”

Tadweer, The Centre for Waste Management in Abu Dhabi, is working with SET to introduce it to local homes as part of a number of planned personal waste reduction social experiments, says Saeed Al Mehairbi, acting general manager.

“The amount of food we are throwing away has an impact on our environment,” says Al Mehairbi. “We are trying in every direction to sort the issue but it’s easy to start the issue from common sense, which is reducing the amount of food we throw away.”

SET has a waste management contract with property developer Meraas for Dubai Arena, a partnership with SBK Holding, and is now working with Dulsco, the Dubai-based waste management company, to build a machine for its cafeteria.

Aruna Narayanan, who is head of strategic initiatives and environmental solutions for Dulsco, treated herself late last year to the home-use sized SmartCara SET instead of an expensive birthday gift and is currently about to harvest her first batch of onions using its soil amendment.

The company also gave the machines to clients for its most recent round of holiday gifts.

“It’s important to walk the talk,” says Ms Narayanan. “You shouldn’t just be preaching to your clients about sustainability and not be doing it yourself.”

SET has two more waste-reduction technologies on the way in 2019. By the beginning of the year the company is planning to launch a machine that will recycle wood shavings used as animal bedding on farms. Farmers normally go through one bag of shavings per horse, per day; SET’s machine would reduce that to one per month.

By the end of 2019 the company is aiming to release a machine that will eliminate almost all waste – including diapers, glass and plastic caps – save for organics.