In the last few years, food waste has hit the international stage as a glaring outgrowth of the global food system, managing to offend nearly everyone from efficiency conscious business owners to advocates for the environment and the hungry. Besides being a life-long card-carrying member of the clean-plate club, I've also spent countless hours growing and preparing my own food, working alongside and researching farmers and ranchers growing food, kitchen staff, and small food business operators. I'd seen first hand food waste across the supply chain, and because of this not only could I recognize the challenges, a few opportunities presented themselves. When it came time in my second year of graduate school to develop a thesis project (our brief: design and build something - anything - in a team using the human-centered design process. You have a year. Go), I teamed up with a parter designer in my program (Hi Sonia!) and we set out to see if we could realize one of these opportunities. The resulting project, SCRAPWORKS, was a business ready process & service to collect human-grade (but not human-consumable) food waste from commercial food operations and process it into a shelf-stable, balanced and sustainable livestock feed.
Ethnographic & Expert Interviews
If you're familiar with the human-centered design (HCD) process, you know it starts with research, and in this case, talking to a lot of people. There are so many stakeholders who impact how and why food waste is created, and typically the people setting the policy are not the same as those who implement it in practice, meaning many good intentions don't end up as good actions. We talked to people at every level across the supply chain - farmers, ranchers, janitors, prep cooks, sous chefs, dishwashers, truck drivers, waste disposal workers, and commercial kitchen appliance salesmen - and observed them at work and their work environments to understand their contexts and look for opportunities.
Observations & "Immersive" Experiences
We received a Green Fund grant from Stanford University's Office of Sustainability to support particularly the research portion of our work. Part of determining the feasibility and viability of our project, and supporting Stanford's mission to reduce their overall waste as well as redirect waste from the landfill, was figuring out just how much food waste was being created at various commercial kitchens across the campus, from what sources, comprised of what components. Grateful that I have a very poor sense of smell, we literally dove in and did census after census of dumpsters to mine this information, and did countless observations of kitchens and consumers eating to map the waste to its initial source.
Along with interviewing over two dozen people, we surveyed the existing landscape for existing solutions and organizations (and added a team member - Nik). Taking all the insights from our interviews, our understanding of existing players and traditional research we mapped out opportunities across the food waste space. We were most excited about the potential to match nutrient dense food waste from commercial kitchens, which needed to be disposed of in a quick, affordable and sanitary way, with small to mid-size livestock farmers, who needed nutritious, affordable, sustainable feeds for their livestock, primarily pigs. I drew and Sonia edited this short video for a progress presentation.
Ideation & Prototyping
After getting excited about our users and building a deep understanding of the system and the context for each player, we began collecting, sorting and processing food waste in earnest. We smashed, ground, chilled, mashed and dried food waste that we carefully collected and sorted to not endanger any of the pigs we were testing with - making sure no foreign matter or unhealthy contents entered our food supply (pigs eat nearly everything except onion skins and citrus, at least those of our partners). We studied dehydration technology, visited feed mills and inspected pelletizers and consulted with a hog nutritionist. We spent A LOT of time elbow deep in food waste.
Through working closely with a few farmer partners (demand) and a kitchen partner (supply), we tested everything how, when and what to collect from the kitchen, how to process it, how and when to deliver it to farmers, what consistency, nutrient profile and quantity, feed mix, packaging and of course, price.
Our goal by the time we hit our final presentation and thesis design review was to have sold over 1,000 lbs. of product to small local farmers - and we made our goal. We were also able to identify thousands of dollars in savings for the Stanford Office of Sustainability and Dining Program through small behavior changes among staff and management. We diverted over three tons of food waste from the landfill through the 9 months we worked on this project. We shared our data, findings and work at two events, with three classes, a sustainability working group and over a dozen other student groups and teams interested in reducing or addressing food waste in some way. We also both managed to graduate.