26 January 2023 |

Waste nothing


Ask a farmer, and they’ll tell you organic wastes – poop and pee – are valuable. Both can work well for various fertilizing applications, especially when applied with care and under specific conditions. Humans have a rich, long history of using waste from animals in farming

In nature, most animals pee and poop separately. Problems arise, however, when poop and pee mix. On farms animal waste is often applied less discriminately in pursuit of higher and higher crop yields, leading waste streams to commingle. This can create volatilized ammonia. Ammonia is a nitrogenous compound that pollutes waterways and damages habitats when it runs off farms. Under certain conditions, it can also turn into methane and nitrous oxide – both potent greenhouse gasses – that float into the atmosphere.

Major fault lines are forming globally concerning these agricultural practices, including in countries that are global ag export leaders, like the Netherlands. And all that is to say nothing about how we handle human waste. Let’s dig deeper on that front, shall we?

Doing business differently

Unlike most animals, most of us do our business all in the same place. We went against nature, created the bathroom, and then centralized waste management from the toilet bowl to the treatment plant. Our poop and pee almost always, inevitably, mix together. This renders them useless for most waste-to-value type applications, even though human poop and pee can also be effective fertilizers when separated.

Enter Wasted*. On the heels of a successful $7.5M seed round and a public launch, they’re telling the world about their mission: Splitting up human poop and pee. I caught up with CEO Brophy Tyree last week to get the download on their round – co-led by Collab Fund and Divergent Capital with participation from Day One Ventures – and the business.

There are many challenges inherent to trying to overhaul our society’s centuries-old waste management processes. One is how centralized waste treatment facilities are. In San Francisco, one facility processes 80% of the city’s wastewater. Processing waste together is also a major contributor to methane emissions.

Rather than start in the belly of the beast in sewers and treatment plants, which would entail billion-dollar infrastructure projects, Wasted* had to find another application to scale. 

Porta-potties are a great fit. They’re smaller, mobile, and pretty modular. After waste accrues in them, it’s picked up and transported – all above ground – which means there’s an existing supply chain and less infrastructure retrofitting required.  

Like many industries that could use a climate-conscious overhaul, the porta-potty industry hasn’t changed much in 60+ years. Wasted* is giving porta-potties an update. For one, they want to make the porta-potty experience a bit more, uh, palatable. And they retrofit them to ensure separate receptacles for pee vs. poop; everything that goes down the urinal goes into its own holding tank. 

At this point, the ladies in the audience may wonder whether they’re expected to use some new urinal to help out here. Fair question. On construction sites, 95% of the population is male. That makes separating poop and pee a bit easier, provided all the lads assiduously use the urinal. And construction companies increasingly have sustainability mandates, making them a relevant sales target for Wasted*. 

Further, Wasted*’s porta-potties also include better ventilation systems, bamboo toilet paper, and more sustainable products (i.e., using a sugar beet compound rather than methanol to keep waste from freezing). 

Making it circular 

Perhaps the most critical phase of the process after initial separation comes when Wasted* picks up the waste from the site. Their porta-potties are serviced with a double-tank vacuum system that can keep solids and liquids separate. The waste streams are then transported to a hub (Wasted*’s first hub is in Williston, VT) for processing. 

Processing will have to be site-specific; for eventual use in Vermont, Wasted* works to remove phosphorus for local soils that already feature too much phosphorus. Different markets will have different processing needs (putting on my business hat, that strikes me as a nuance of the business that could prove particularly challenging over time.)

The final step is where things get truly circular. Wasted* works with local farmers to apply the separated urine for different fertilizing applications, displacing some of the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Since the poop still features some pee in it (at least at this stage), it’s not necessarily ready for resale into farm applications—one step at a time.

Beyond reusing waste, what are the other benefits of this process? 

For one, depending on how they’re applied, synthetic fertilizers can be quite taxing on the environment in their own right. Further, production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers accounts for more than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Displacing some of that production with alternate fertilizers that otherwise go to waste is an excellent opportunity. 

Finally, production of fertilizer is also tied up in geopolitical conflicts. Reducing some of those dependencies could be another nice byproduct of Wasted*’s work. 

What’s next for Wasted*

Everyone poops and pees. All the time. So there are plenty of other applications where separating waste for eventual application back to the land could make sense. There are even plenty of other decentralized systems, like airplanes or trains.

That said, other applications will require new tech. Eventually, Wasted* will need to make new toilet designs that separate urine in the toilet bowl to really scale. Similarly, other sustainability challenges, like electrifying service trucks, loom.  

For now, Wasted* is looking to prove out its unit economics and grow sales at the level of porta-potties, creating something valuable from what others typically pay to dispose of. 

Intermediary steps before taking on all of wastewater treatment include building out decentralized sanitation infrastructure anywhere it’s needed. You can imagine successful applications in disaster relief, developing countries, and more.

Zooming out, the broader goal is to create circular waste solutions wherever possible. 

The net-net

Centralized wastewater treatment is an excellent example of something that’s intentionally out of sight, out of mind. Because of that, however, we also lose sight of the scale of our waste and its impact on natural systems. Try as we might, at the end of the day, we aren’t separate from natural systems; we’re one with them. But we don’t treat our waste that way. 

Wasted* sees a more harmonious future where we valorize more organic waste, not just from animals on farms, but from ourselves too. Nor are more circular solutions like theirs just good for the planet; they may make good business sense, too. Waste-to-value or trash-to-cash are a focal area for me in 2023. There’s a lot to prove and no shortage of waste to put to work.