James Cook University in Townsville introduced a Bio-Regen food waste diversion unit into its campus kitchens, which has brought many more benefits than saving money alone.
For a university campus in Queensland’s dry tropics, James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville has lush sports fields. Its community gardens abound with fruit and vegetables. Yet the secret lies in the campus kitchen, and not with the grounds staff.
JCU was the first university in the world to install a Bio-Regen food conversion unit, which takes food waste and converts it into a liquid bio-fertiliser. The unit can be used in any commercial kitchen with a high volume of food waste. It helps sustainability-conscious organisations avoid sending food waste to rot in landfill, while producing a high-value end product, all for a relatively low investment.
In 2011, Adam Connell, JCU’s Manager – Environment, was aware of how much food the residential college kitchens were throwing away, and the associated costs for bin collections. As the university differentiates itself with its sustainability credentials, Adam started looking for a cost-effective, easy way to recycle food waste.
“I did a lot of research on organic waste processing systems and many had high capital costs, required significant labour and could be quite messy,” explains Adam. “The Bio-Regen system was attractive because it was a low-cost, simple system, which reduced the risk to JCU in trialling something that was relatively new.”
The Bio-Regen system was innovated by Ken Bellamy of VRM Global Holdings and the units were originally manufactured in Townsville. Ken had worked for many years in the waste and waste water sectors, and his invention came about after a client query.
“I developed Bio-Regen after receiving a request from Scotland for a mechanism that was not reliant on either composting or anaerobic digestion to process food waste. They needed a biological conversion process for putrescent material, which produced neither CO2 or methane as an off-gas,” explains Ken.
The Bio-Regen process
The Bio-Regen system was the result – a safe, clean and eco-friendly method to convert food leftovers into what Ken describes as a “soil power pack”.
Staff collect food scraps and leftovers in a bucket, where digestion begins. They feed this into the funnel at the top of the unit, which had a macerator to grind material if needed. They add water and a special mix of microbes, called liquid bokashi, to break down the foodstuffs.
The mixture is then pumped into a 1,000-litre bio-digester tank. It sits there for 28 days for it to be digested by the microbes and converted into a bio-fertiliser that enhances soil nutrients to support plant growth.
The unit and the tank are fully enclosed, preventing any issues with odour, vermin or pests.
JCU installed a Bio-Regen unit for a six-month trial in the Townsville university halls kitchen in April 2012.
It caters for more than 300 staff and students, producing three meals a day for most of the year, and generates around eight tonnes of food waste annually.
In the six-month period, JCU’s unit processed four tonnes of food waste and generated 10,000 litres of bio-fertiliser. This saved the university thousands of dollars in skip bin collection fees, as they reduced from daily to three times a week because the bins contained no food waste.
“We were delighted with the trial results,” says Adam. “Despite some teething issues with staff acceptance of the system, it was effective in diverting waste from landfill and producing a valuable product that we could sell on, so we decided to continue.”
Due to the trial success, JCU installed a second unit at its Cairns campus in 2013.
Reaping the rewards
Adam highlights several benefits to having the food waste conversion units.
First, implementing the system has helped JCU identify wasteful practices in its kitchens and the financial cost of throwing away food.
The average cost of buying produce for making meals is $5 a kilogram. With eight tonnes a year being thrown away that meant $40,000 going to waste, and then there are the bin collection fees.
Adam says commercial kitchens are less likely to identify these outcomes if the waste products aren’t handled directly by staff.
“It’s a change from a culture of wastefulness and carelessness to understanding the food cycle and being environmentally responsible,” adds Adam.
Another major benefit is value for money, as the system generates an income for the user. VRM undertook testing to ensure the quality of the liquid bio-fertiliser Bio-Regen units produce. JCU sells this product under licence from VRM International.
“The use of this XLR8 brand allows us to support the market recognition of the product wherever it is used and sold, so that a collective market develops into which JCU and others can sell,” explains Ken.
“This also helps us to preserve quality control measures and ensure that people have an improved recognition of what they are getting when they use the product.”
JCU operates a container deposit system, where customers pay $5 for a 15-litre plastic bottle, and the liquid costs $1 a litre.
“The interest and demand for the bio-fertiliser has been incredible,” says Adam. “We haven’t advertised it, but word of mouth due to good results on people’s gardens has meant demand keeps rising.”
He says that JCU initially sold the product at very low cost, as it was seen only as a by-product of the process. However, its popularity and effectiveness proved it had real value, so TropEco recently adjusted its business plan to value it as a commodity.
“To date we have processed over 12 tonnes of food waste, producing 25 tonnes of bio-fertiliser,” says Adam. “The estimated savings from reductions in skip collections are around $12,000 to date and we have also received income from sale of the bio-fertiliser of around $4,000.”
Short payback period
This in turn leads to another advantage – a short payback period for investing in the Bio-Regen units.
Ken Bellamy says VRM offers smaller Bio-Regen units to schools and similar institutions for around $7,500 plus installation. This type of unit, the kind installed at JCU, can handle up to 500kg of food product daily.
For JCU, with the savings achieved alone, this meant a payback period of less than three years.
Another benefit of the installing the units has been garnering student involvement and stimulating collaboration with others.
JCU students provide tours of the system to visitors and it’s proving to be an educational tool for the university’s courses with an environmental element.
The university’s solid working relationship with VRM has brought about links with South East Asia, where it has installed dozens of the units.
This has generated enquiries from potential international students and led to dialogue with sustainability interest groups, both in Australia and overseas.
Closer to home, Adam is exploring the possibility of an agreement between local farmers and JCU, whereby the farmers would receive the bio-fertiliser free of charge in exchange for supplying the JCU kitchens with fresh produce.
“With zero food waste produced and the nutrients from our system going back on to farms for crops, we’re closing the loop on the food cycle,” says Adam.
Finally, there is potential to obtain carbon credits through the Emissions Reduction Fund for soil carbon sequestration, as JCU also uses the soil enhancer on its community gardens and its extensive sports fields.
Adam thinks this could offer additional benefits for organisations with extensive areas of land, such as universities. In addition to seeing significant improvement in quality and consistency of grass cover, JCU is keeping records for the potential to claim carbon credits in future.
Experience and next steps
Adam says human involvement and engagement is pivotal to getting the best results out of the Bio-Regen system. The unit is designed to require a hands-on approach from the operators and gives users a visual understanding of how much food is being wasted.
JCU now employs a casual employee to oversee its Bio-Regen project. This includes liaising with kitchen staff every week, managing the community garden, and overseeing sales of the bio-fertiliser.
This employee also collates data on the system’s inputs and outputs, manages the relationship with VRM, and identifies potential research projects.
“I’d recommend having one person to manage the system, but you also need to get your kitchen staff to support the system and champion its use,” says Adam.
JCU has improved its use of the process over the past two years and it is looking forward to the next phase.
In early 2016, it plans to upgrade to a larger Bio-Regen unit at Townsville, when it will collect from all eight commercial kitchens on site. This will increase production to about 50 tonnes of food waste a year, while halving labour costs per unit of waste processed.
Students are also undertaking a voluntary collection program from lunchrooms at both the Cairns and Townsville campuses.
“We would like to see the majority of food waste at JCU diverted through the Bio-Regen system, which is certainly feasible with the upgrade,” says Adam.
For other businesses considering such a tool, Adam says Bio-Regen is ideal for anywhere with large volume of food waste. He suggests putting together a business case for investing in a system early and finding a market for the end product to get the most value. However, it is the environmental benefits that stand out with this system.
“Linking with local farmers or the community to use the bio-fertiliser is key,” states Adam. “Closing the loop on the food cycle is now achievable in this value-adding process.”
See www.vrmbiologik.com for more details on the Bio-Regen program.