Everflux applied and was accepted into the San Francisco Startup In Residence (STIR) Program , on a challenge to build a dog poop digester in a city park.
Did you know San Francisco has more dogs than children? Yep, approximately 120,000 of them. And while many dog owners have learned the habit of cleaning up after their dogs, that dog poop ends up in plastic bags, in the trash can. Which means eventually it ends up in a landfill.
Seeing this as a huge public nuisance, and a brown splatter on the City of San Francisco's otherwise outstanding recycling record (the city has an ambitious goal of becoming zero waste by 2020) the Recreation and Parks Department included a challenge in this year's STIR program that called on a startup to find "a park-sized, affordable solution that could convert the methane from dog poop into electricity." We applied on a whim, thinking there was a small chance we'd be accepted. Well, good things often come by surprise.
But Everflux has been focusing on building anaerobic digesters for food waste. And the difference between designing a digester for food waste and dog poop is bigger than you might think. How then, would we pivot to dog poo?
When we began doing research, we discovered that a few other cities around the world have attempted to solve this problem with dog poop digesters, with some success. Actually, it turns out building a digester for dog poop is easier than food waste. Because dog poop is a relatively homogenous material, the digestion process is not prone to upset as much as with very heterogenous food waste. Remember the last time you ate something, er, "different," and your stomach didn't feel well after? That's because digestion bacteria have a hard time adapting quickly to new food.
The biggest challenge. as we realized, would actually be getting dog owners to participate in the program. So Eric and I devised a system of rewards that would give owners an incentive to scoop, and recycle, their dog poo. By scanning a rewards card, or an app on their phone, every time they deposited their dog poop in a digester (inside a biodegradable bag), they could earn points. Those points would eventually get them discounts at local pet stores.
We've been surprised at how much interest this idea has received. When I mentioned the project during a lightning talk at the Manylabs open house on June 5th, to my surprised I received a mini-applause. Apparently people in San Francisco are sick of stepping in dog poop... or maybe they see the potential for it to become a resource, rather than a nuisance.
A sleek, tall box the size of a refrigerator sits outside your back door. Every morning after breakfast you empty the leftovers into a drawer on the side of this appliance. You close the drawer and press a button on the touch screen that says "start." That evening you cook your dinner on a gas stove, fueled by a line that runs from the same machine that you emptied your breakfast into. After dinner, you retrieve a bag full of a soft, clay-like substance from the back of the appliance, and empty it gently around the plants in your vegetable garden. A few weeks later when you pick your tomatoes, they are a bright red and taste sweeter than any tomato you've had before.
If you haven't heard, the world, and especially America, has a food waste problem. 24% of all the food produced in the world never gets eaten, and in America its as high as 40%. The vast majority of this food waste ends up in a landfill, where it releases methane emissions that contribute more to climate change than all the fossil fuels burned in India.
But until now there hasn't been an easy solution to this problem.
The bulk of this food waste is created by consumers, especially in restaurants. But even though they are the biggest culprit, restaurants have the fewest options for recycling the food waste produced on their premises. While many of us might think composting is an easy way to recycle food scraps, its not quite so simple. Food waste is much harder for an industrial compost facility to manage, because it contains a lot of water - much more than yard trimmings, for example. That water makes it hard to aerate the pile, leading to the stink that comes from compost gone bad. It may surprise you to learn that, as a result, most compost facilities don't accept food scraps. For the few that do, their operations are more expensive, so they charge a higher "tipping fee." The only alternative for the garbage man, then, is to dump those food scraps in a landfill.
The Everflux ACU (Airless Compost Unit) changes all that. By making it user friendly and automated, the AC can be located at the site where food waste is produced, eliminating the need for a garbage man to pick it up. And although there is currently very little financial incentive for restaurants to separate their food scraps, doing so to feed the Everflux ACU will save restaurants up to 25% off their monthly garbage bill.
This isn't a fire sale. It's just a more efficient way of using our resources.
So why is it an "airless composter," you might ask? By putting food waste into an air-tight container, and heating it to 55 degrees C (131 F) we can induce a natural, biological reaction that produces renewable natural gas, or "biogas." This gas can be used for all the same things natural gas can - and is especially useful to a restaurant, where cooking and water heating use a lot of energy. It also produces an organic fertilizer with a much higher nitrogen content than regular compost.
Suddenly restaurants, supermarkets, and other large food wasters will become renewable energy pioneers, and producers of a rich organic fertilizer that will be readily available in large supplies for local farms, urban gardeners and greenhouses. The Everflux ACU could not only transform our waste disposal system, but it could also speed the adoption of more sustainable farming practices and build stronger relationships between restaurants and farmers; between consumers and their food. With the higher yields that an organic nitrogen fertilizer could provide, maybe we can feed the world with just organic farming after all.
And although we are starting with restaurants, my hope is to someday make that vision of the Everflux ACU in your backyard - powering your own self sustaining and nourishing lifestyle - into a reality. Please vote for Everflux in Tech.Co's Startup of the Year competition so we can do just that.
It started with a simple initiative: I wanted to start composting our food scraps at the Tufts European Center in Talloires, a quaint, sleepy town in the French Alps. The staff were producing lots of food scraps from all the meals we cooked. Maybe I was more inspired than usually by all the beautiful natural scenery around me, but for some reason I just couldn't stand to see them all go in the trash.
Ever since I was a kid I had hated seeing things go to waste. When I first started learning about renewable energy in Tom McKibben's (brother of 350.org founder Bill McKibben) third grade class, I drew an "everything recycling machine" that could turn garbage into energy. But despite being heavily involved in the renewable energy field for over a decade, I'd somehow never come across anaerobic digestion. This speaks to how little air time many promising technologies get in mainstream renewable energy discussions.
So I started training the European Center staff on how and what organic waste to separate from the normal trash, and began building a small compost pile in the backyard. When George Ellmore, an eccentric biology Professor at Tufts got word of my compost project, he began assailing me with great enthusiasm about the many benefits of compost. "Do you know how much energy those little digestion bugs can produce?" he said to me on one of these occasions. That caught my attention.
So I began researching energy from compost. Maybe it was because Google knew I was in the French Alps, but I soon came across the work of Jean Pain, a frenchman who used to live in the same region of the French Alps, and who in the 1970s had developed a famous method for turning organic waste into energy.
The "Jean Pain Method" as it's called, involved using the heat produced from a large compost pile to heat water for his home, as well as to heat and insulate an anaerobic digester at the center of the pile. The anaerobic digester would then produce biogas, which he stored in tire inner tubes, and used for cooking.
Jean Pain's work spawned an entire industry in Europe. Today, the anaerobic digestion industry consists mainly of large, centralized plants that collect organic waste from an entire city or a large farm, and convert the biogas produced into electricity, which is sold to the national grid. These plants are complex, expensive pieces of industrial machinery that require government subsidies to make them economical.
I founded Everflux Technologies in order to bring anaerobic digestion back to the human scale - and it's inherent simplicity, which Jean Pain demonstrated. Ultimately, to make anaerobic digestion work, all you need is a sealed container. Because of this, cheap, low-tech, distributed digesters are highly prevalent in India, where families turn their food scraps into biogas for cooking. But in colder climates, these containers need to be heated and insulated. And in order to make such a device easy enough for a commercial kitchen to use, it needs to be highly automated.
That's exactly what Everflux is out to create. Check out the Flux Omnivore and stay posted to learn more.
When I moved to Toronto a few months ago, I was looking for a fresh start. I've spent the last decade passionately pursuing entrepreneurial ventures involving sustainable technologies, from promoting community wind in New England, to organizing environmental events in Beijing, China, to scaling rooftop solar in California. This time, I was looking for a place where I could find the people and the tools I would need to develop a new technology that could turn food waste into renewable energy and fertilizer... without ever leaving the building.
Within a few weeks of arriving in Canada, I found Site 3 Colaboratory. It's one of the oldest member-run maker spaces and fabrication workshops in Toronto. Makers come to Site 3 from all over Canada to work on interesting and unusual creations of art and technology. It was the perfect place to start working on my project.
A few weeks after becoming a member, I discovered that the novel "incinerator toilets" that I'd been introduced to when I first arrived were not just someone's science project. They were a necessity at Site 3, because the building had no connection to the city sewage and water lines. The not-for-profit had been wanting to install a flush toilet for years, but the city was making it prohibitively expensive to do so.
It was then that I realized Site 3 had an actual need for my project. The technology I wanted to build, commonly called an anaerobic digester, has the ability to sterilize and reduce human waste, while turning it into methane gas and fertilizer. We could use this device to treat toilet waste without connecting to the city's sewage lines. Furthermore, we could collect rainwater to supply the system, and recycle the grey water that would be produced by having a sink.
In other words, we could design a sustainable, onsite waste management system that would never require a connection to the city infrastructure.
In addition to helping out Site 3, this project will also serve as a “proof of concept” for the new technology we are developing at Everflux, the Flux Omnivore.
Onsite waste management is nothing new, but it's rarely found in urban areas of Canada and the United State. Furthermore, this system will be the first in North America to incorporate an anaerobic digester inside a building, which will capture methane to generate renewable energy.
I hope you will join us in embarking on this pioneering project by donating to our Indiegogo campaign. I will continue to posts updates relevant to the project here as we move into construction of Phase 1 .
~Daniel Enking, CEO, Everflux Technologies
About the Author
Daniel Enking is the founder of Everflux Technologies. He is a life-long environmentalist and practical dreamer who is obsessed with resource efficiency and imaged an "everything recycling machine" at age 10.