Utah company cashes in on recycled leftovers

A new business on the Salt Lake Valley’s west side is helping stores sell what they used to throw away by transforming spoiled fruit and vegetables into compost sweet enough for a vegan to love.

The company, EcoScraps, is the brainchild of former Brigham Young University English major Dan Blake, who founded the company a year after he grossed himself out at an all-you-can-eat French toast binge two years ago in Provo.

He had gone back for seconds but couldn’t eat all the food he’d heaped on his plate. He saw that many other diners had done the same. Blake felt guilty. Then, being of an entrepreneurial bent, he wondered: How can I make money on this?

"As a culture, we are so wasteful," said Blake, 23, who dropped out of BYU to create EcoScraps, along with two fellow students.

Blake did a Google search for "food waste in America" and found an Arizona State University study that showed Americans waste 30 million tons of food each year, enough to fill the Pasadena, Calif., Rose Bowl every three days with nothing but food garbage.

"I’ve been to the Rose Bowl," Blake said, "and know how big it is."

Experiments ensued with food scraps salvaged from large garbage bins. Blake chopped and blended the thrown-away food in his kitchen and composted the slurry in garbage cans set out in the parking lot of his Provo apartment building.

Once Blake found a good formula, he and his EcoScraps co-founders, Craig Martineau and Brandon Sargent, moved their operation to a dilapidated building in Provo. From there, they moved to an industrial building west of I-215 in Salt Lake City. But at the rate EcoScraps is growing, Blake said, they’ll probably have to move again this fall.

It works like this. Either EcoScraps sends trucks to pick up spoiled fruit and vegetables from retailers, or garbage haulers drop off the food; the retailers avoid the cost of disposal and the haulers avoid landfill tipping fees. EcoScraps mulches the former food with sawdust, then piles it indoors, where it reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit during its conversion.

The result is either compost or potting soil certified for use in organic gardening, free of chemicals, blood meal, bone meal or horse, cow, chicken, bat or any other type of manure. Blake says the compost, bagged and sold under the brand names Harvest Plenty and Clean Earth Soils, undergoes weekly testing for its certification as suitable for organic gardening.

Food waste in the United States, Blake said, is the source of at least 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane, which is far more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. He calculates that the production of 1 cubic foot of EcoScraps compost mix reduces greenhouse gas emissions as much as not driving a car for a month.

On a warm May day, mounds of smashed melons and previously frozen black bananas lay piled in the EcoScraps industrial yard, where the scent of vinegary coleslaw left on the picnic table way too long wafted on the breeze.

And no wonder. Dump trucks had just unloaded boxes and boxes of chopped cabbage that would have been KFC salad if it hadn’t spoiled too fast. Costco had sent the bananas; not too long ago, the Utah Food Bank donated 30 pallets of strawberries too far gone to distribute.

But EcoScraps and its contributors make a point of not getting between grocers and the Food Bank, said Bret Gallacher, marketing director for Fresh Market.

Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Fresh Market is one of the largest suppliers of the Utah Food Bank, Gallacher said. The company, he said, "made the conscious decision" not to take food from people to turn into compost.

Fresh Foods and Costco so far are the only EcoScraps suppliers who also sell the compost under the brand name Clean Earth Soils. "It’s a great business and a great concept," Gallacher said. "There’s no downside. It is selling well. The more we’re able to let people know exactly the story of the product, the more we’ll sell."