My week with the future of trash cans

8 months ago
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it’s 10 pm now and like a vampire stirring in his coffin to greet the nocturne, my wastebasket comes to life. A semicircle of yellow lights on the lid starts blinking, a glowing lock icon appears, and inside the snow-white 27-inch container, I hear the steady thud of metal blades slowly turning over eggshells, celery stalks, coffee grounds, and chicken. bones that I fed him during the day. As I pause the process and open the lid to put in some pizza crusts, I feel a surge of warmth. Before dawn, a container connected to Wi-Fi will complete its task and turn all leftovers into a uniform brownish food. My garbage is destined – literally – to become chicken feed.

A newcomer to my kitchen is a prototype of a new product called Milldesigned to integrate your food waste into the larger cycle of life, neutralize odors and save the planet. It’s also the first trash bin I’ve ever used that plugs into an electrical outlet, uses Bluetooth to communicate with my phone, and has a Wi-Fi Internet connection for software updates. Twenty-four years ago, when I wrote Newsweek story about the nascent Internet of Things, I lobbied for the title line “Will your dishwasher be connected to the Internet?” over a clear image of the device in question. The concept was too ridiculous for the editors to green-light it. I can only imagine if I had thrown the trash can.

The founders of Mill would say that this is a high-tech approach to a difficult situation. As graduates of Nest, the company that turned thermostats into technological passions, they are familiar with the process. The Mill began when one of the former nesters, Harry Tannenbaum, indulging in his climate obsession, was struck by the magnitude of the food waste problem. (I should report that Tannenbaum is the son of a friend of mine, and I have known him for most of his life.) Of course, this was a concern long before anyone was worried about greenhouse gases; parents used to scold their offspring for leaving half their dinner on their plate. “Think of starving children!” they would cry never explaining how eating your spinach will feed hungry street kids on the other side of the planet. But now that we are in a climate crisis, the problem goes beyond recalcitrant children. Of all the food in the world, a third wasted. Most of it ends up in landfills, which are third largest source of methane emissions in the US. “We have been trained to think that waste is inevitable, and we bury it and burn it,” says Tannenbaum. “But what if we could intervene upstream in the home to prevent uneaten food from turning into food waste?”

Tannenbaum turned to Matt Rogers, who was one of the co-founders of Nest. Together with food chain experts, they began to develop a plan. They ended up coming up with a system that starts with the Mill bin that’s been spinning around in my kitchen this week. It accepts a wider range of food waste than most home composters and is far less messy. “You can add any food you don’t eat to our process, like chicken bones, avocado pits, and orange peels,” Rogers says. “We take water and grind it into something like a brown powder. We mix it with things that we collect with all the other houses and create a mixture that is an ingredient for chicken feed.”

Oh, and don’t call it garbage. It’s nutrition! Just no more your nutrition. “It’s not trash; it’s valuable!” says Kristen Virdone, director of product at Mill. “Once you understand that, the equation starts to make sense.”

Courtesy of Mill

Mill app showing how many hours left in an incomplete dry grinding cycle

Courtesy of Mill

Once the co-founders decided on their plan, they fired up the Silicon Valley scenario to turn it into a company. They have raised millions in venture capital investments. They hired an Apple-style industrial designer who created something that would look like being at home in everyday life. film by Nancy Meyers. They developed an ultra-dense carbon filter to absorb food odors. They made a deal with the postal service to pick up the overcooked grounds and send it to the Mill facility. They have developed a great app. And they spent a lot of saliva to get Mill.com domain. “You only run once,” Rogers says of the latest spending. “If I become a founder again, we will do it for real.” The plant already employs 100 people.

This is not your usual startup, but something that wants to change the way of life that has developed over the centuries. Not to mention how it might affect Pizza Rat. So I had questions.

How do you make sure the things people throw away aren’t toxic? Rogers says that heat and dehydration get rid of bacteria and that food grounds are further processed after they reach the Mill plants.

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