Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Five Takeaways of Waste: Tom Szaky

The words “waste” and “garbage” have always had such negative connotations.  “You’re a waste of space.”  Schoolyard taunts about smelling like a garbage picker.  The phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which refers to something made with low quality materials that will also yield a low quality final product.

Tom Szaky, the 28 year old CEO of Terracycle, sees waste differently.  While he has brought garbage into his company, it seems that the outputs have been nothing short of valuable.  Szaky started Terracycle as a 19 year old Princeton student.  His idea?  Taking food waste from Princeton’s cafeterias, having worms digest it, and producing fertilizer on the other end.  The products were contained in old soda bottles.  After nearly going broke, he was helped out by an investor, which led to the company getting orders into two major retailers.

The worm poop became so popular that even some of the big guys began to feel threatened.  Terracycle was sued by Scotts Miracle Gro in 2007, of which Terracycle won the lawsuit.  In recent years, Terracycle has been focusing on aggregating various forms of waste from consumer packaged goods companies as raw materials, and selling them to different manufacturers to be upcycled.  Items such as juice pouches have been turned into bags, wrappers have been turned into kites, and the company has even been considering what product to turn cigarette butts into.

“There is no waste that can’t be turned into something else useful,” says Szaky.

Below, Szaky provides his five takeaways of waste.

1.  Waste doesn’t exist in nature.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste.  Let’s take leaves for example – if a leaf fell off the tree, it would fall on to the ground.  Provided that an animal or insect didn’t eat it immediately, the leaf would eventually biodegrade and provide nutrients for the soil, which would then in turn provide nutrients for the tree.  In that whole spiel, everything had a use, and there was no waste.  Contrast that with something like a takeout container.  It would be manufactured, sent to a restaurant, where you use it to take away your dinner for the evening.  Then, depending on the type of plastic it was, it would be thrown away or recycled.  In the throwaway scenario, the waste would be created immediately, perhaps left sitting in a landfill for thousands and thousands of years.  In the recycling scenario, this product would be recycled and recycled until the fibres were too short, and that in turn would turn into waste to be thrown into a landfill.

2.  Waste is something that has only emerged in the past 100 years.

“Waste is something that man created over the last 100 years – with the development of complex polymers, it created something that nature can’t deal with,” explains Szaky.

This explains things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and landfills.

“Excess consumption is also to blame – we consume more than we need to.  100% of waste can be attributed to the fact that we buy too much stuff.  By no means am I anti-consumption, and it will never go away – but we have to start buying more expensive, durable things,” suggests Szaky.

3.  Waste is the only commodity that has negative value.

“Waste is the only thing that we pay people to get rid of.  Why are you paying for something that you have to buy and then pay to haul away?  It makes no sense.  For example, why not turn your yogurt tub into a planting pot?” suggests Szaky.

4.  Ninety-nine percent of what consumers buy gets thrown away right away.

In addition to finding ways to reduce or reuse, what consumers buy gets thrown away very soon after its purchase.  Let’s use a pen for example.  The pen comes in a cardboard backed plastic container, which is thrown out.  You use the pen on paper.  The pen runs out of ink, and then the whole thing is thrown away.

There was also the waste that went into creating the product.  Szaky provides a sobering stat:

“For every pound of garbage, there was 60 pounds of waste used to make it.”

5.  Waste is riddled with systemic issues.

“The first problem with waste is the cultural issue of consuming more than we need to,” he explains.

“Second, recycling is fragmented.  There isn’t a Wal-Mart of recycling – garbage is mixed together, and very few waste streams are collected,” Szaky says.

“There also isn’t a collection system.  It is so fragmented that usually the lowest common denominator, or the lowest value items, aren’t collected,” he says.

“There is also a commoditized marketplace for waste.  For example, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic, because among other reasons, the demand is higher.  Recycling facilities permanently closed their doors when plastic prices dropped and petroleum went cheap,” explains Szaky.

With capacity reduced, this doesn’t help in the long term sustainability of waste facilities, who depend on revenues for selling the waste they have collected.

“And lastly the incentives to reduce waste are not there – why can’t we do in the US what governments in Europe or countries like Turkey are doing – a packaging tax.  Why not try it here?”

Find out more information about Tom Szaky at Terracycle, Garbage Moguls, and through his book, Revolution in a Bottle.

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The Five Takeaways of Olive Oil: Art Kishiyama

Olive oil tasting is a strange custom.  Beyond the fact that you’re sipping oil from cups, there is also all the noisy inhaling, sloshing, and sucking sounds coming from all areas of the room.

It was Art Kishiyama who initiated me into this strange practice.  Art is the owner and grower for Olio Nuevo, a farm that specializes in artisan crafted extra virgin olive oil in Paso Robles, California.  On Kishiyama’s farm, where he lives with his wife, he also raises a herd of alpacas.  Not surprisingly, the man with the colourful present also had a colourful past:  Kishiyama spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a Colonel, then spent 15 years working at Walt Disney, building theme parks and attractions.

So how exactly does someone go from the military to building theme parks, to olive oil and alpacas?

“The simple answer – it was the first time we had acreage, and we wanted to grow something.  Since I was entering retirement, I chose not to do grapes as with all my neighbours and friends, although if I was 10 years younger, I would’ve done it for the challenge!” he laughs.

There was also a business reason.

“Olive orchard farming is much less intensive that vineyard farming.  There is an abundance of vineyards in Paso Robles wine country and in California. Our domestic demand for olive oil is growing in double digits and nearly all of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported.  What it boils down to is, there is a growing demand for high quality, locally produced olive oil.”

Art Kishiyama provides his five takeaways of olive oil below.

1.  There are hundreds of types of olives, however three are best for oil.

“Olives have been grown since 3,000BC in Syria, and since then hundreds of varietals have evolved, adapted to specific climates, usages, and taste.  Some do best as table olives and others do best as oil, and then some are good in either way.  In California, the most common varietals are Ascolano, Sevillano, Mission, and Manzanillo, for canning.  Mission and Manzanillo olives are also used extensively for oil because of their high, mostly over 20%, oil content.  More recently, super-high density farming techniques have favored Arbequina for oil,” explains Kishiyama.

“However, it’s hard to say what is best – it’s like asking what fruit you like best, apples, oranges or bananas?  Or alternatively, what wine do you like – Syrah, Pinot, or Chardonnay?  It’s strictly a matter of taste, preference, and usage,” he says.

2.  Olive oils can be like fine wines.

There are several ways that olive oils can be like wines.

First, is the environment in which olives are grown, which is much like wine grapes.

“You need a ‘Mediterranean’ climate – warm and dry days, cool nights – identical to wine grapes.  You also need good water, and the absence of hard winter freezes.  Generally, soil doesn’t have to be too fertile – olive trees seem to thrive in poor soils,” explains Kishiyama.

The taste of olive oils is also measured similarly to wines.

“The taste of good olive oils will strike a balance between fruitiness or the aroma, bitterness or the taste in the mouth, and pungency, or the peppery finish.  And, like a wine, it makes certain foods taste better, and will push the natural flavours of food such as fish or vegetables, without being intrusive,” says Kishiyama.

And lastly, olive oils, like wines, can have some health benefits.

“Good olive oils have a lot of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, or anti-oxidants, that the body needs for nourishment.  Last year, we analyzed our olive oils for polyphenol content and found that it had about 288 mg/kg of caffeic acid.  Compare that to blueberries, which average around 225 mg/kg, and typical olive oil, which is usually around 150 mg/kg.”

Such high scores can be attributed to when Kishiyama picks the olives.

3.  Within the very involved process of creating olive oil, the timing of the harvest matters most.

“The key is the timing of the harvest, or the relative ripeness of the fruit.  Our olives are hand picked by a picking crew, which is really hard work.  The greener the fruit, the more intense the flavors, or rather, the riper and softer the flavours.  Also, the greener the fruit, the higher the anti-oxidant content, since the polyphenol content peaks well before full ripeness.  Immediately after picking, the fruit begins to oxidize, so the faster it is milled, the better your oil will be,” says Kishiyama.

The rest of the process is pretty involved, and Kishiyama explains below.

“The milling process goes something like this – first, the stems and leaves are separated out.  Then the fruit is washed and then milled into a thick paste with the skin, seed and fruit all together.  After that, a process called ‘malaxation’ is done – this is where we stir the paste until the oil begins to separate and the aroma builds.  Then, we move it to a horizontal centrifuge where the liquid oil and water are separated from the paste – the solids are removed as compost.  Then, the liquid is moved to a vertical centrifuge, which separates the oil and the water, and the water is discarded as waste, and the oil is captured as extra virgin,”  he explains.

“There are usually small pieces of fruit, skin and seeds suspended in the oil, but it naturally settles out in the transport drums, and the oil is transferred into stainless steel containers called ‘fustinos’ for long term storage, and then it is bottled on demand for freshness,”   he says.

In a year, Kishiyama will produce from 500-800 gallons, or about 6,000 to 7,200 bottles per year.

4.  Olive oil is a great substitute for butter or margarine in baking.

Kishiyama likes to substitute butter or margarine in baking with olive oil, which is a healthier alternative and adds some flavour.

“I’ll usually make cookies or cakes using this equivalent table, which is at a 4:3 ratio for butter/margarine to olive oil,” he explains.

Of course, just be careful not to put a really strong tasting olive oil in foods where you don’t want that flavour, such as icing.

5.  The mass-produced olive oil you get at the grocery store could be quite old, or might actually not even be olive oil.

“An article in the New Yorker in 2007 about olive oil fraud really caused a big stir in food and food safety circles, and raised awareness of the issue,” he says.

“Some of the olive oils you can get at the grocery store could be two or three years old, or it might not even be pure olive oil.  Some packages have misleading information such as, ‘bottled in Italy’, but actually contain inferior oils from Tunisia or Morocco.  In some cases, extra virgin olive oil has been ‘cut’ with refined vegetable oils and sold as extra virgin olive oil.  ‘Light’ olive oils or ‘olive-flavoured’ oils are usually the product of such labeling.  In California, that’s the reason why a certification process is so important,” says Kishiyama, who gets his olive oils certified.

More information about Olio Nuevo can be found here.

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