I know you've been an entrepreneur for most of your life, and I know it hasn't been easy. What inspired you to take this path?
I know you've been an entrepreneur for most of your life, and I know it hasn't been easy. What inspired you to take this path?
Being an entrepreneur is part of the DNA that is called to by most people who are creative. However, to go into sustainable technologies, that's something that really hit me hard when I was 18 years old. I was on an Outward Bound trip through the rainforest, and I realized that our cheap hamburgers were resulting in the rainforest being clear-cut. So I decided at that point I would go to college and study environmental science combined with finance, out of the desire to create businesses who can bring ecological and economic change. Because just protecting the rainforest and chaining ourselves to trees is not just how we can save the rainforest.
So you are originally from Belgium. How did you end up in Austin, Texas?
So I grew up in a small town with 3,000 people - fifteen boys my age - and 20,000 pigs. Handzame. It means "hands together." And I wanted to get out of there and see the world, so an opportunity presented to me to study in the United States on merit scholarship, and I took it. I haven't really been back to Belgium since, but in the meantime, I've lived in the most amazing places like Hawaii. I've been able to look through the world for environmental solutions. My favorite was being able to work with the USDA in Hawaii for six years, trying to tackle island sustainability and resistance. This was before GrubTubs was incorporated, and mostly to do with the fact that Islands have tremendously high feed costs versus the mainlands, because everything has to be brought by ship. And they have tremendous waste costs, because there are limited places to put stinky stuff. But I was called back to Austin, because they were doing something completely radical - a progressive policy agenda that wanted to go zero waste very quickly, including an aggressive stance against food waste. And it was because of that that I was able to switch back to Texas, with the idea of providing a food waste solution for about 6,000 restaurants here in Austin, and that was something I couldn't get in Hawaii. And it's when you see progressive policy take a stance that technology can be groomed in order to create the necessary progress that we seek. And that's why I'm now in Austin, because the political climate was created in order for a startup like mine to thrive. Startups need help.
How did you get involved in the world of agriculture?
Ever since we stopped being hunter gatherers, as a society, we have come to depend on the backs of farmers.
Many times, farmers have been exploited so we could build pyramids, finance armies, and conquer the world.
Yet the inequality and the hardship that farmers face every day does not give justice to the fact that they hold our health in their hands.
As I have spoken with farmers, who are very proud to BE farmers, many times only after a few drinks did I get to understand how farmers are struggling in this country. It was out of that desire to do something for farmers that I realized that we might be able to save the rainforest. Because current agricultural practices want to keep our farmers uninformed, assuming larger amounts of debt, and work their entire life for very little reward - because if this farmer doesn't grow it, we'll find a poorer farmer in a poorer country to do the entire thing. So if you want to not rely on cheap food that cuts down the rainforest, we need to first and foremost help the farmers in our own country.
So are we a nation that exploits our farmers, or can we be a society that puts good food at the center of our success, of our health, of our progress? The only way to do that when facing agricultural giants like Monsanto or Dow is to create an entirely new set of agriculture. Good agriculture that taps into one of our greatest untapped resources - waste.
By not growing proteins, but recovering proteins, and preventing them from going to waste, there's a new wild west in agriculture waiting to be explored. Yet it has to take place at the doorsteps of our cities, and we cannot transport waste all the way to the Amazon to bring good food back. It has to happen at home.
And that's why I got the bug!
As you came up with the idea for GrubTubs, what are some common myths or misconceptions you had to tackle? For example, are there certain foods that just don't work, like tons of onions?
There's a bigger picture here. As I came up with the idea for GrubTubs, I realized that if we found a way to solve and repurpose food on a large scale, that then automatically the rest of the stuff we throw away would become SO much easier to recycle. So you have to find a food waste solution that can take all types of food waste. And the thing is, nature had already figured that out, over millions of years, using millions of grubs and insects to eat anything within 24 hours.
And why feed animals? I 100% endorse that if our food can fed to other people, that should be our primary goal. But not everything that is food waste can be put on a plate. Or should be put on a plate. However, it's PERFECTLY fine for animals.
A good saying here? "If it grows, it goes." Our biggest obstacle is to ask people to not put plastic waste or forks in there. However, we've overcome a lot of that.
If the trash doesn't have food waste in it, it becomes so much easier to recycle the plastics and other items in the garbage.
Some of the crazy things we've gotten are layers and layers of wheatgrass from juice bars, pure tubs full of coffee grounds from Starbucks (which grubs go CRAZY for), an entire tub full of meat trimmings from a Texas BBQ place. All of these things absolutely shouldn't be going in landfills. We get fish waste from a grocery store or restaurant that's preparing fish, heads, tails, everything. Not everything is eaten within 24 hours by the grubs, but they decompose within our insect feedlots pretty quickly.
How big of a problem is food waste for both restaurants and landfills?
Here's the thing: we spend about 5 to 8 billion dollars each year sending 50 million tons of food waste to landfills. We pay for that. That shows a big scope.
When farmers are going broke in this country.
So we don't need to grow millions of acres of soy and corn to feed animals when there's 50 million tons of food going into landfills.
A landfill makes money by burying valuables that we haven't found a way yet to extract. And many times, we've gotten so dependent on that landfill, because it's all one container. Yet those containers are not made for containing food waste. That food starts to smell, and it's feeding the rats in New York City and all of our major metropolitan areas, it attracts flies that carry disease, and as it sits, waiting to be taken to the landfill, all you can do is take it to the landfill. And these other valuable materials like plastics, metals like aluminum, cans, paper, they get contaminated.
So not only is food waste about 20% of what we send to landfills, it's also what is preventing us from really doing a great job at getting clean recyclable material.
So to get a restaurant to become zero waste, you need a food waste solution that is above 90% recovery, and a recycling solution that now becomes so easy that you no longer need landfill.
How important is food waste for a landfill? Very. Because it keeps them in business, and as those dumpsters stink, they need to get emptied, even if they aren't full. So food waste is the number one thing preventing recycling operations from overtaking the landfill operations.
Restaurants typically pay hundreds of dollars a month to get their food waste sent to landfills. And that's why people don't want to depend on compost service, because they feel it should be less important than a landfill - they want their main invoice to be landfill, because what if i get a mess in the back of my restaurant? But the source of the rats and flies when the health inspector is looking for droppings is the dumpster they have in business today. But if they put their food waste in GrubTubs, they wouldn't have rodents. The sanitary thing to do is seal food before it turns into waste, versus mixing that with highly recyclable material and sending it to landfill.
At GrubTubs, our recycling doesn't smell, our trash doesn't smell, and our grubs don't smell. We only have to have our waste picked up once a week. It's a complete paradigm change.
Tell us a little bit more about the GrubTubs farm and the other farms you support. How do people become.a part of the farm network?
After we collect the GrubTubs filled with food from restaurants, we take them to our GrubTubs facility, where we can then sort the tubs according to what farmers need based on what we have using RFID technology.
Then we send the right GrubTubs to the right farmer as a way for them to offset their food cost, and we give those tubs to that farmer for free. Certain farmers want to grow grubs on the food within the GrubTubs: those farmers need a subscription of baby grubs so that they can gorge on the massive amount of nutrients the farmer is getting for free. And once they are fully grown, fat, and happy, they are sanitized and then fed to the chickens, pigs, or fish that the farmers are feeding.
What do you think about vegan restaurants being a part of the cycle?
I think we need more vegan and organic restaurants giving affordable, good food options in America, and there's no need for them to be able to send any of that leftover good food that can't be fed to people to a landfill. More importantly, there's a growing understanding that if we're going to grow plants sustainably without using synthetic fertilizers that the only option is by using animal manures. However a lot of animal manures like chicken litter that is made available to organic farmers is coming from conventional confined livestock operations, where there is no regulation on the amount of chemicals put into those manures by way of what is being fed to those animals. At GrubTubs, we pride ourselves in working with smaller farmers who are sometimes part of a neighborhood, and cannot run a confined animal operation. Therefore these animals have a tendency to be healthier, more sustainable, and their manures are not contaminated with antibiotics and arsenic. So we feel that by supporting local farmers, where they can actually grow good food at a good price point, they will also take better care of their animals. I've never met a farmer that wishes to be cruel to their animals, but I have witnessed an industry that has pushed farmers so desperately to turn a blind eye to horrible conditions just so they can feed their families. Happy farmer, happy animals, happy fertilizer, happy food. They are all pieces in a food chain.
Do you foresee researching other insect-based solutions to common problems?
At this point, cultivating an insect on a massive scale has only been done twice in history - the honey bee and the silkworm. And you realize that they are both cultivated because they bring something of extreme value that nothing else can bring - honey and silk.
Cultivating an insect to solve a waste problem only becomes viable when we're deeply entrenched in a wasteful society. So biomimicry is a discipline that seeks inspiration from nature to solve some of the most complex problems.
When I first explored the idea of using the Black Soldier Fly as a waste solution, I contacted a local entomologist, and the only thing they knew on that species was what pesticides to use to destroy it. Harnessing insects in a productive, industrious capacity is a fairly new idea. Most research within entomology is dedicated to eradicating insects. So before we can cultivate and find new values within the insect world, we need to shift our schools of learning to explore those opportunities at the lab level.
On the bright side, nature has developed insects to do certain tasks repetitively and extremely well. The power of insects is not so much what they do, but the numbers at which they can do so without any human intervention. There's millions of bees in colonies, there's millions of grubs in one of our grub facilities. Unfortunately when we think of insects and numbers, we always think of Biblical plagues.
By changing our thinking, we need to realize that the numbers of insects can actually play massive biological functions within our industrial ecosystem.
What would be your dream for the future?
That's a very simple answer.
I want sustainable farmers to scale so they can keep net farm income growing at a faster pace than urban real estate prices so that our farmers can be a part of our cities for hundreds of years to come.
And we can only do that by not wasting food.
How can people stay up to date with you or reach out if they want to learn more?
Follow us on social media - @grubtubs on pretty much everything (except on Instagram, @grubtubsInc). Ask@grubtubs.com.
There's no nationally recognized food waste solution company, just nationally recognized waste companies. We're changing that. One farmer at a time.