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The Promises of the Home “Composting” Machine

Jun 03, 2023

By Helen Rosner

In the course of a week, my kitchen produces a shocking quantity of what we might think of as edible trash: apple peels, garlic nubs, a bit of gristle from a steak, Dorito dust, tea bags, the iron-hard heel of a loaf of bread that's been sitting out overnight. The meat scraps I feed to my dog. The bones and vegetable scraps I store in the freezer in gallon-size ziplock bags and periodically bung into a pot and simmer into stock. But even then, once the stock is made, and the chicken bones or onion ends are leached of all their flavor, I’m left again with edible trash—only now it's soggy. And then there are the times when the strawberries aren't sealed right and become fuzzy with mold, or the delivery sandwich turns out to be gross, or the refrigerator's compressor breaks and somehow we don't notice, or I’m just exhausted and overwhelmed and want everything gone.

I hate putting food into the trash, because food that goes into the trash is bound for a landfill, and landfills—dense, lightless, airless mountains of waste—are the worst possible place that food can go. In that nightmarish, anaerobic environment, organic matter produces the greenhouse gas methane with terrifying efficiency. Globally, landfills are the third-greatest human source of methane emissions, just behind the fossil-fuel industry and factory livestock farming. How much food we waste, and what we do with it, is both an urgent issue and—like so many facets of the climate crisis—one that feels entirely remote in the day-to-day. A large portion of organic matter in landfills (forty per cent by one E.P.A. estimate) comes from households, so on this front, at least, our individual choices do matter—even when it feels overwhelmingly as if they don't. Obviously, we should buy less, and we should eat more of what we buy; the weekly package of baby spinach that turns to goo in the crisper drawer benefits neither self nor planet. Cookbooks dedicated to minimizing food waste are a good place to find tidy strategies for salvage and reuse: puree the spinach glop into a green soup, for example, or take root-vegetable peelings, toss them in a bit of oil and salt, and roast at four hundred for twenty minutes to make superbly crispy little snacks. ("The Everlasting Meal Cookbook," by Tamar Adler, is chock-full of smart ideas like these.) Pulverizing eggshells into powder for a homemade calcium supplement? Brilliant, babe. Go with God.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking about what food-waste people call diversion, which encompasses all the places we can send scraps besides the large intestine and the landfill. It's a mistake to think that anything not eaten is necessarily wasted, that consumption is the only valid form of use. Take composting, for example: you really don't need to torture yourself by making and eating and claiming to enjoy a bitter carrot-top pesto if the carrot tops can simply be flung into a thoughtfully maintained organic-matter pile and, with time, be converted into fuel for further carrots, whose bitter tops you yet again will not feel obligated to eat. Admittedly, it's work: there's a lot more to converting unwanted vegetable matter into nutrient-rich fertilizer than just making a big heap and walking away. (This is, more or less, exactly how to make a landfill.) It makes sense that compost is the provenance of the gardener: in a way, it is its own category of cultivation, requiring care and consideration, a proper balance of dry and wet matter, regular aeration, attentive temperature control, and season-spanning patience.

For those who lack the space, the time, or the diligence to do such things, solutions must be found elsewhere—for instance, in a slew of new (and newish) consumer appliances that promise to help reduce food waste and its impact. One such appliance is the FoodCycler ($399.95), which is distributed in the U.S. by Vitamix, the same folks who make extremely expensive and effective blenders. It is hulkingly large, like a night-black bread machine. The Lomi ($449, or $359 plus a twenty-dollar-per-month accessory subscription), manufactured by a company that also produces bioplastics, is satin white and curvy, with the countertop footprint of an upright stand mixer. Both the FoodCycler and the Lomi are very heavy. (The two machines were recently provided to me as samples, without cost.) The function of each is mostly the same: a user fills a provided bucket with food scraps, inserts it into the machine, sets a lid in place, and presses a Power button. Then the machine spends several hours using heat and abrasion to grind down and dehydrate the food scraps. The end result will vary in color and texture based on the raw materials you started with, but it always comes out looking pretty much like dirt.

The first day that I had the Lomi, I happened to come into possession of a somewhat ridiculous quantity of leeks. In the interest of science, I cut off their fibrous, dark-green tops (which I’d normally save for stock) and stuffed the machine's bin up to the fill line. The Lomi has three modes, one of them meant for conserving microbes for eventual composting (it runs for a long time, at low heat), and another for breaking down bioplastics (it runs for a medium-long time, at high heat). I processed the leeks on the third mode, "eco-express," to which the machine is preset; it runs fast and hot. Five hours later, what had started out as a football-size clump of dense vegetable matter had turned into about a half cup of dark-brown, crumbly dust that smelled faintly—though unmistakably—of burned onions. It was thrilling. I had made—well, not compost, exactly, but something that was much smaller and easier to dispose of than what it had originally been.

During the next few weeks, I continued to process food waste in the Lomi, and later on I switched to the FoodCycler. I’d often run the machines overnight, and then giddily peek in the next morning. Twisting off their lids felt like taking a nickel to a scratch-off ticket: Would the new crop of dehydrated muck be pale tan? Chestnut brown? Wispy? Chunky? Dirt-like? Mossy? For a period, I found myself cooking with more vegetables than usual, just to have material to feed the machine: potato eyes, wilty, green carrot tops (my nemesis), perhaps a larger chunk of the root end of a shallot than my fussy dicing habits might otherwise have allowed to remain. I put in shrivelled tortellini that had stuck to the sides of the pot and—goodbye, five-second rule—crackers that had fallen onto the floor. Leftovers were no longer just for eating or throwing out. A container of week-old pho need not elicit guilt when you find it languishing in the back of the fridge; simply feed your FoodCycler a snack of soup-logged sprouts, onions, noodles, and herbs. Sure, you could probably get the same net effect with a blender and a low-temperature oven, but it would smell worse. At one point, I left town for two weeks without emptying the Lomi, and returned to a kitchen smelling like absolutely nothing: these machines have activated-charcoal filters that trap seemingly every single molecule of odor.

Using the machines was fun; they made disposal feel like creation, not waste. But is that a good thing? Many proponents of traditional composting find products such as the Lomi and the FoodCycler galling, because, despite what a person might infer from how they’re marketed, they do not actually create compost. They have blades or shears, to grind, and heating elements, to dehydrate. What emerges, at the end of a process cycle, is not the nutritious black gold that results from a proper compost system but, rather, an organic fluff of nicely cooked, thoroughly dried-out stuff. (The FoodCycler's manual dubs the end product "RFC": Recycled Food Compound; the Lomi just calls it dirt.) "It's like the exact opposite of composting," one Reddit user wrote, in response to someone's query about the Lomi, but that's not exactly true, either. Even throwing your dehydrated food scraps straight into the trash is, if not a net good, then at least a net better: a round in one of these machines leaves would-be trash both lighter and smaller, lessening its landfill impact. Even better, the end product can be disposed of through community composting—it provides a useful fibre layer—or added to the soil in gardens or houseplants, where it still contributes trace nutrients. You can also buy add-on probiotic tablets that reintroduce all the microbes that the dehydration process has burned off, but this, to me, seems almost farcical: if you’re equipped for the compost process that follows the reintroduction of beneficial bacteria, why are you buying one of these machines in the first place?

Mill, a startup that promises an "entirely new system to prevent waste," is not just a device but a service. Mechanically, Mill's "kitchen bin" functions almost identically to the Lomi and the FoodCycler—dry it out, grind it down, catch the smells—but it is several times larger and is designed to sit on the floor. For thirty-three dollars per month, customers lease the machine and are provided pre-labelled boxes so that they can mail the end product back to the company. (I was loaned a sample machine for a few weeks, before the device was made available to the public. It's now popular enough that there's a waiting list.)

Unlike its competitors, the Mill machine runs its cycle nightly, on its own governance. Each evening, at 10 P.M. exactly (the precise timing can be adjusted in the accompanying app), mine would sense that there was food to digest and begin to emit a purr so gentle that it disappeared into the ambient noise of the rest of my life. The experience seems designed to encourage you to think of the machine as a living creature. During setup, the app prompts you to give it a name. (I went with Ammit, the ancient Egyptian devourer of souls.) A lighted Lock button on the lid brightens and fades with a breath-like cadence. Step on the pedal and it opens hungrily, like the mouth of a humpback whale. I never thought I’d refer to a trash receptacle with personal pronouns, but I found myself saying things like "I think she's about to lock for her processing cycle" and "I gave her that stale bagel that's been on the counter for three days" and "Do you think we’re allowed to give her chicken?"

The chicken question is an important one, because the gimmick, with Mill, is that once you’ve mailed the company your end product (which it calls Food Grounds™), it turns around and processes those scraps to be used in chicken feed, which it sells to poultry farms. Can chickens eat chicken? The answer, at least in the United States, and also according to Mill's in-app list of what is and isn't O.K. to put into the bin, turns out to be yes. The company thus cleverly resolves the problem of what we should actually do with the matter our machines produce. All my desiccated food scraps were cleared away, from both my kitchen and my conscience.

Do these devices actually Make a Difference, in the scheme of things? A useful metric is the "break-even point": How many times do you have to use this machine (or this cotton tote bag, or this reusable coffee cup, et cetera) before it earns back the energy and carbon costs of its own existence? Mill and Lomi both publish detailed impact reports, taking into account manufacturing, shipping, the (fairly marginal) energy usage of the machines, and, in Mill's case, the impact of their chicken-feed operation. The process of tipping over into net climate beneficial depends on how much a person uses the machine, and what kind of energy grid her home runs on. According to Lomi's analysis, if you send the machine's output to the landfill instead of adding it to soil or compost, you will break even approximately never.

One evening, during my weeks using the Mill machine, I was struck by an eerie sensation as I closed down my home before bed. My kitchen bin hummed away happily on the floor, chewing up pizza crusts and fennel fronds into eventual chicken feed, while on the counter directly above it sat another device that, years before, I had purchased in an attempt to feel less alienated from the natural world: an all-in-one hydroponic AeroGarden, whose purple-pink grow light would shine all night over a thicket of Thai basil and flat-leaf parsley. My sanitized, fuss-free, apartment-friendly garden plot and my sanitized, fuss-free, apartment-friendly compost heap: not a farm, just a simulacrum of a farm. Both machines plugged into the same outlet, neither meaningfully contributing to the other, no shared cycle save inescapable samsara.

And yet there was something nice about it all, about this pleasant little illusion in which I, a twenty-first-century city dweller, could participate in a virtuous cycle of responsible consumption, if only I bought the right machines. It feels good to grow my little tangle of herbs (and sometimes tomatoes!) on a countertop, especially during the long, dark nights of winter, especially with the automated assist of a machine that lets me know that I need to add more plant food, or top up the water reservoir. It feels good to dispose of my food scraps in a way that bypasses the oblivion of the trash can or the landfill, without having to worry about fiddling with pH levels or insuring that I’m raking and stirring for proper aeration. A countertop hydroponic garden and a food-waste minimizing machine appeal to a part of me that has a primal urge to grow my own food—to experience the natural processes of growth and decay, to revel in the fecundity of both life and death—while also appealing to the part of me that is impatient, antisocial, and lazy. With the hydroponic herb garden, at least, those rewards are tangible enough to garnish a salad with. What a person gets from using the Mill machine, the Lomi, the FoodCycler, and their cohort is, in contrast, just a feeling: the pleasurable, bourgeois satisfaction of having done the right thing without working too terribly hard at it. Food-waste processors neatly produce lighter-weight, lighter-footprint waste, but that's not their primary purpose: they are machines for the efficient alleviation of guilt.

Before my experiment in at-home devices, I had been in the habit of bringing packages of food scraps to the "smart compost bins" that the New York City Department of Sanitation (D.S.N.Y.) have been installing throughout the city since 2021. Before that, I would bring bags of ends and peelings to my local farmers’ market. There, GrowNYC, the nonprofit that manages the city's greenmarkets, maintains one of their forty-five compost-collection sites. (The organization reports that these booths cumulatively diverted more than thirteen hundred tons of food scraps from the landfill last year.) This is my very favorite thing to do with food waste: give it to someone else to deal with it for me. Community composting, whether handled municipally or through neighborhood organizations, is to my mind the most unadulterated good thing in our whole horrible food cycle. Mayor Eric Adams promises that curbside compost pickup will roll out citywide before the end of 2024. In the meantime, D.S.N.Y.'s bright-orange receptacles are bolted to sidewalks like hi-viz mailboxes. The phone app that manages access to the bins is glitchy and frustrating; I’ve arrived at my local one only to find it locked, and presumably full, and the ground around it strewn with food scraps. The bins themselves—as objects, and as a program—almost certainly have an astronomical break-even point. But, scaled to the size of a city, a program like this could have a truly awesome impact: thousands and thousands of pounds of organic material collected each night, distributed among various large-scale compost processors, and eventually put to work nourishing parks and gardens that, in turn, nourish us. ♦