Google Nest’s cofounder, Matt Rogers created what Fast Company is calling the “world’s fanciest” bin for food scraps. The smart bin is called “Mill” and through a process of “drying, shrinking, and de-stinking” the bin turns food waste into feed for chickens.
That way, your kids’ aversion to broccoli, your own dislike of pizza crusts, and most people’s intolerance for banana peels, avocado pits, and eggshells don’t contribute to the 30-40% of U.S. food supply that goes to waste. Mill puts it simply: “feed farms, not landfills.”
Launched in 2020 by Rogers and fellow Nest alum, Harry Tannenbaum, the Mill smart kitchen bin sounds like an ideal solution to food waste, which in the U.S. is 119 billion pounds of waste a year. When the bin is full — which happens roughly once or twice per month — consumers empty the bucket of dehydrated, milled “Food Grounds” into a prepaid return box.
All of the nutrients from the food remains in the grounds and through a “secret process” feeds farms, making it a circular food cycle. It’s not composting, as the food remains food.
On top of the circularity, it puts a small dent in the 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss and waste, specifically the dangerous levels of methane rotten food produces in landfills, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are 24% food. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is approximately 80 times more global warming-inducing than carbon dioxide.
Mill helps avoid about a half-ton of greenhouse gas emissions per year per household. Beyond climate, it reduces litter, rodent and fruit fly attraction associated with trash and sometimes composting, and the land, water, energy, and fertilizer required of traditional food waste disposal.
The bin uses as much energy as an energy-efficient dishwasher, and even this cancels out by the emissions saved from keeping food out of landfills.
The only catch may be the emissions associated with its model, which ships Food Grounds back to the company. However because Mill uses the U.S. Postal Service, these emissions may be cut as the USPS deploys electric vehicles. With the Mill app, users can track all the impact their “not composting” has on the planet.
Sounds like an environmentalist’s dream, right? But would you pay $33 a month for it annually or $45 a month for a month-to-month payment?
According to Dana Gunders, a pioneer in food waste advocacy who runs the nonprofit ReDEF via Bloomberg, “They’ll [Mill’s creators] have an army of food waste warriors that are really excited about this, but getting to the next rungs is hard.” While the subscription includes the smart bin, the steep price may be hard for a lot of consumers to get over.
Mill will begin shipping in spring 2023, prior to which the startup conducted a survey of potential customers, revealing the hurdles the startup must overcome. Nearly half the people self-described as “very climate concerned” in its survey, but reported that tossing food in their garbage “works fine.”
On top of that, many cities already have citywide composting programs. 700 across the U.S. in fact, from San Francisco and Portland to Seattle and Boulder and Denver, Colorado. Soon Chicago may be joining them. Vermont has a program that encompasses the entire state, and in 2022, California joined the mandatory composting brigade.
Anyone in these cities or states interested in composting likely already participates in these programs. San Francisco established the country’s first mandatory citywide food and yard waste composting program in 1996. Here, a whopping 80% of its waste is either recycled or composted, collected by an employee-owned company called Recology. This is a big change from 25 years ago when California was running out of space to bury its trash.
However, with the exception of smaller cities like Evanston, Illinois, many towns and cities don’t have the land space or workforce that San Francisco has for composting. While it’s mandated in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland (a restaurant, for example, is billed with ill-compliance) the practice is optional in most places, municipal program or not.
Plus, not all programs are convenient. While many offer curbside pickup/delivery, in Washington, D.C. you have to drop off your food waste or pay a company to pick it up.
New York restarted its voluntary composting program in 2021 after canceling it in 2020. While it still only covers a portion of the city, it is the largest composting program in the country. However, in San Fransisco, customers pay Recology each month, thus it’s funded like a utility. But in New York, composting had to compete with COVID-relief for funds. Could Mill fix this problem?
It depends on where you are. Mill’s creator, Rogers, is a San Francisco resident, where residents pay Recology just about $7 a month per 32-gallon bin. Mill’s monthly rate is on par with Recology’s cheapest option for a one-unit building.
To work, Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen writes that Mill must pull off what San Fransico already has: “coordinating with trucks, farms, city governments, and federal regulators,” on top of convincing people to change their habits.
Outside of San Fran and other pockets of composting gold, the rates of composting in the U.S. are… trash. Less than 6 million American households have access to curbside composting, according to research from the industry publication Biocycle.
Other composting services are trying to solve this problem. Raleigh, North Carolina’s CompostNow serves households in select locations across the southeast. Since launching in 2011, they have diverted over 54 million pounds of food waste from landfills and turned it into nearly 18 million pounds of compost, avoiding almost six million pounds of methane. Their price point is similar to Mill, with a $19/month drop-off program in Cincinnati, and a $29 or $39/month program for bi-weekly or weekly pick-up.
Like many composting services such as LA’s Compostable and Manhattan’s Reclaimed Organics, CompostNow has a limited service area. Thus they created a directory of compost services and programs available in 46 of the 50 states.
The recycling company TerraCycle offers a nationwide service for their Zero Waste program which “recycles everything local services can’t,” however after plugging many major city zip codes into their home composting program (which is specifically for food wast) it’s hard to see where TerraCycle does operate the composting service.
Of course, there are a multitude of home composters on the market for those who wish to take the state of the planet into their own hands. In fact, Reencle Prime dries out food waste, similar to Mill, and turns it into fertilizer.
However, most people don’t have a use for fertilizer, and while the American recycling rate has increased, many Americans don’t recycle because of a lack of convenient access, or because they are confused and overwhelmed. Without adequate national domestic recycling infrastructure or any national composting program, food continues to be the most significant source of waste in the country.
With the convenience and intuitiveness of the device, Mill may not run into the barriers recycling has. According to Bloomberg, Rogers and Tannenbaum are talking with municipalities about partnerships.
"Even in the most well-meaning, most progressive cities that are doing everything right, they are still having trouble getting folks to put the food waste in the green bin,” Rogers said via Axios. By reinventing the green bin, Mill could make voluntary composting easier than recycling and more financially sustainable than throwing everything away.
“In a lot of cities around the country, you pay for your trash service, and you pay based on the size of the bin — the bigger the bin, the more you pay. So when you can take the food waste out of the trash, you could downsize your bin and save money."
In 2015, the U.S. federal agencies vowed to halve national food waste by 2030. That deadline is only seven short years away, and the agencies have not made much notable progress since. If Mill takes its service nationwide, it may be the first effective national composting program in the U.S.
“Waste doesn’t exist in nature, yet we create it everywhere and have been trained to ignore it, or worse, believe it’s inevitable,” Tannenbaum said in a statement. “Food in landfills is one of the most solvable climate problems facing us today.” He adds: “Together with our members and the communities and policymakers we work with, we can make progress towards a better planet.”