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Glenville's BioSoil Farm transforms trash into treasure

Outlook

Glenville's BioSoil Farm transforms trash into treasure

Company develops process to turn food waste into fertilizer, synthetic fuel
Glenville's BioSoil Farm transforms trash into treasure
Chad Currin, president of BioSoil Farms, shows some worms in the company's Glenville facility, Nov. 1, 2017.
Photographer: John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor

When you eat a banana, do you ever wonder what happens to the peel after you toss it in the garbage? It won’t end up producing methane gas in a landfill if Chad Currin, founder and CEO of BioSoil Farm has anything to say about it.

Currin looks at waste bound for a landfill not as something that’s at the end of its life cycle. Instead, he sees it as material waiting to be converted into energy. And the more he explores, the more possibilities arise.

Currin started out as a backyard environmentalist – quite literally – at his Glenville home. When he realized how much he was spending on fuel in his now-weekend job as children’s magician Mr. Twisty, he decided to make his own biodiesel. He collected waste vegetable oil from local restaurants, brought it home in jugs, and processed it into fuel in a shed in his backyard. He even involved his two kids. “If they wanted a ride somewhere, they had to help me process the fuel,” he said.

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While he loves to eat, cook and garden, he is determined to not contribute to the methane gas in a landfill. So, he bought a composting machine and a bunch of worms. “I was absolutely hooked,” he said, noting that worm castings are excellent for the garden. He turned this into a commercial enterprise, and BioSoil Farm now produces a host of worm casting-based products.

Joining Currin at BioSoil Farm are two of his longtime friends, Andrew McCathy, who serves as chief engineer and CFO, and Ted Levy, its operations director.

BioSoil is a place of investigation, discovery and experimentation. For example, the company entered a cannabis growing contest using its worm castings. While it had great results for a little while, the plants ultimately failed. The question then became, what could he and his partners add to the soil make the plants' growth successful? They decided potassium was the key. With 40 percent of a banana’s potassium in its peel, they started thinking of ways to recycle this food waste, and this became Currin’s first real foray into food waste remediation.

Food waste, from social, economic and environmental standpoints, has become a major global issue. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 31 percent of domestically-produced food is tossed. In September 2015, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a national goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Supermarkets, restaurants, colleges and hospitals produce 250,000 tons of wasted food and food scraps per year. Food waste is the largest component that goes into municipal landfills, where the food rots and produces methane gas, accounting for 15 percent of methane emissions in the United States.

Currin intends to reduce this statistic.

JOHN CROPLEY/Gazette Business Editor
Chad Currin, president of BioSoil Farms, stands in the company's Glenville facility on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
JOHN CROPLEY/GAZETTE BUSINESS EDITOR
Chad Currin, president of BioSoil Farms, stands in the company's Glenville facility on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.

His company designed a food waste recycling center, the “fooderator,” as he calls it, that composts food overnight. The machine takes the bins of discarded food, which can weigh up to 300 pounds, dumps them into the fooderator, washes the bin, and then processes the food waste. After the food is composted and dried, it is vacuumed out and formed into pellets that can be made into fertilizer.

Currin describes the fertilizer as “beautiful, organic, sustainable liquid fertilizer” that uses very little energy to produce. “It’s one of the only fertilizers you can drink,” he said, as he dipped his hand into a drum of it to demonstrate its safety. “It tastes like fermented banana juice,” he said. A side benefit of the fertilizer is that it produces really flavorful food, noted Currin.

The company’s products that enhance the health and productivity of soil have become favorites of some commercial growers. “The early fertilizer results were just incredible—the size of the plant stems, the root ball depth and the yield were just incredible in our pilot studies,” said Jeff Frankel, a BioSoil board member and early investor in the company.

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However, Currin and his partners soon discovered that fertilizer wasn’t the only product that could come from the food waste pellets. BioSoil Farm consulted with the Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology to study what else could be done with the pellets. The results revealed something interesting, extremely appealing both environmentally and economically, and loaded with potential. The pellets could be converted into a synthetic gas that could drive a generator and produce electricity, all pollution-free. If you visit BioSoil’s facility in the Glenville Business and Industrial Park, you’ll see a mini model of this process.

The company sees big opportunities for this application. A university could potentially convert the food waste it produces into energy that drives its boiler system and heats its campus, an idea that is appealing to millennials. Currin sees college campuses as a good first testing ground for this idea, as students are pushing their colleges towards sustainable practices. “We started with colleges because millennials are starting to get that food waste can’t go to landfills,” Currin said.

Board member Bob Blackman sees great possibilities for the food waste recycling systems. They could be posted at a chain of restaurants and outside cafeterias at colleges and universities that produce significant amounts of food waste. The containers would be rat-, mice- and other rodent-proof. Within hours, the food waste would be composted and ready to be made into pellets that could be converted to energy. “On the larger scale, there’s potential to service landfills with larger models,” Blackman said.

JOHN CROPLEY/Gazette Business Editor
This centrifugal separator at BioSoil Farms screens out finished worm castings and separates them from worms, worm eggs and scraps.
JOHN CROPLEY/GAZETTE BUSINESS EDITOR
This centrifugal separator at BioSoil Farms screens out finished worm castings and separates them from worms, worm eggs and scraps.

New York lawmakers have already introduced legislation that will require municipalities to reduce the amount of food waste they send to landfills. “Our goal is to be able to convert 1,000 tons of municipal solid waste into electricity every day,” Currin said. “We hope to be there within a year or two.”

Another business and environmental opportunity that BioSoil discovered along the way involves the cannabis and hemp growing industries. The legalization of cannabis has come with its own set of problems for growers. After growers have processed the plant, they can’t just discard the leftovers. Regulations require that growers dispose of the plant’s byproducts in such a way that they’re not consumable. “Right now, there are a couple of ways you can do it—mix it with sand or bleach it, which is environmentally unfriendly,” Blackman said.

BioSoil responded with a sustainable alternative when it developed its Cannabis Waste Remediation and Recycling Center. This self-contained unit can compost 650 to 1,300 pounds of cannabis waste per day, reducing its volume by 80 percent. What’s left can be recycled into fertilizer and fuel.

Another opportunity for the company involves hemp, the fiber of the cannabis plant that is extracted from the stem and used in over 25,000 products commercially. In 2015, New York state launched the Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program in an effort to encourage the industrial hemp market in the state. “We know that our fertilizer will likely produce a thicker stem and a higher yield,” Blackman said. In addition, Blackman says that the company wants to look into rehabbing factories and unoccupied commercial building in regions around the state to promote the hemp initiative and improve the economies of those locations. “In this context, we would be looking to rehab dilapidated factories and buildings that could accommodate the growth cycles of hemp. This not only enhances the aesthetics of the building, but also drives employment,” he said.

In everything the company does, it has an eye on being organic and sustainable, as well as socially responsible. One of its products, “Doggy Green Up!,” designed to get rid of those yellow spots on the lawn where dogs urinate, is packaged by people with disabilities.

When you talk with Currin, you have to wonder what comes next. His passion for the environment drives his life. BioSoil’s latest endeavor shows that and is a testament to Currin’s creativity and vision.

“Garbage is just a resource that nobody has figured out how to use yet,” Currin said. Well, not nobody, not with Currin on the job. “I want to convert it to something good.”

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