Alex Arnold spent much of his childhood working as a farmhand on his uncle’s sheep and cattle property on South Australia’s southeast coast.
“I always noticed there were a lot of grasshoppers and other insects crawling and jumping around the place,” Mr Arnold, now 32, told The New Daily.
“They were a pest at the time. But there were more insects than cattle.”
So he wondered what would happen if rather than trying to eliminate the insects, “we actually embraced them, and farmed them”.
Today, Mr Arnold and partner Phoebe Gardner, 28, are co-founders of a Melbourne startup that is recycling food waste into fertiliser and animal feed using nothing but insects.
Bardee processes more than 10,000 kilograms of food waste a day using world-leading technology, interrupting a major source of greenhouse emissions, replacing unsustainable farming practices, and saving Australian businesses money in the process.
Enough waste to fill 10 MCGs
Australians waste about 7.6 million tonnes of food each year, according to an industry study. That’s 312kg per person at an estimated cost of about $2500 per household every year.
“That 7.6 million tonnes would fill the MCG to the brim 10 times over,” Fight Food Waste CEO Dr Steve Lapidge told The New Daily.
“Or it would fill B-double trucks that would stretch from Perth to Sydney, end to end.”
Dr Lapidge said it wasn’t just food that was wasted.
“It’s all the resources, the water, the fertiliser, the fuel to get it to the supermarket,” he said. “And that’s all wasted when we waste food.”
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization says about a third of the world’s food ends up in landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Food waste accounts for a staggering 8 per cent of all man-made greenhouse emissions, close to that of global road transport emissions.
The Australian government has committed to halving food waste by 2030, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal on food waste.
“[Fight Food Waste]’s vision is for an Australia without food waste,” Dr Lapidge said.
“Whether you can get to absolute zero – I don’t know any country that has, but you can get pretty damn close to it.”
‘An integral part’
Dr Lapidge said food waste recycling companies like Bardee are “an integral part of trying to halve food waste by 2030” by turning “unavoidable food waste into something of value”.
Companies like Bardee are not only preventing methane emissions by diverting food waste from landfill, they’re also replacing emissions-heavy agricultural practices, like cattle rearing and synthetic fertilisers.
Bardee’s protein and fertiliser is also rich in nutrients from food waste.
“Our aim, wherever possible, is to make sure we’re retaining nutrients in the human food chain,” Dr Lapidge said.
And so long as the nutrients from our food waste is going back into feed or fertiliser for produce that ends up on supermarket shelves, “then it’s not wasted food”.
But recycling food waste isn’t simple.
Bardee has spent several years, and millions of dollars, developing methods and machines that allow them to process food waste efficiently and effectively.
“Everyone can keep backyard chickens, but not everyone can do what [poultry supplier] Ingham [Enterprises] does,” Bardee CEO Ms Gardner said when asked why more companies aren’t doing what Bardee does.
Ms Gardner and Mr Arnold started their operation in a Melbourne University carpark in 2019, grinding piles of rubbish into insect feed using a wood chipper from Bunnings.
Today, they have more than 30 employees and a billion insects.
The Melbourne company uses Black Soldier Fly larvae, which eat the food waste and ‘cast’ it off as nutrient-rich fertiliser.
The larvae themselves are then harvested and boiled to make protein.
“Farming these insects is quite complicated,” Mr Arnold said.
“We have a very diverse team of people from all over the world.
“We’ve got entomologists, engineers, and even artists on the team, that have helped design and build a lot of the really unique technologies that we’ve developed.”
And protecting that technology hasn’t been easy, either.
Visitors to Bardee’s Sunshine North facility have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and most of the equipment and practices on the factory floor are protected intellectual property and trade secrets.
“IP protection is an area I’ve had to learn so much about and the team’s had to learn so much about over time,” Ms Gardner said.
“And we’ve even had instances where people have tried to break in to see what we’re doing at Bardee, which really surprised us.
“But it just shows how interested and valuable this type of technology is. And hopefully that’s a good signal that we’ll be able to progress in the future and grow this really big.”