How do you solve a problem like food waste? There’s no magic bullet, but realizing that discarded food attracts flies like nothing else, UK-based startup Entomics has engineered an upcycling solution that exploits the metabolic power of insects to convert leftover scraps into high-value protein and fertilizer product.
The company’s technology optimizes the natural conversion abilities of Black Soldier Fly larvae to break down food waste into fats and proteins inside their bodies. But instead of downcycling the waste into simpler substances, the larvae transform it into more complex – and valuable – chemical compounds that can be turned into protein meal, bio-oil and organic fertilizer downstream.
“We’re taking the worm farm concept, making it a bit more super-charged and bringing that to mass-market scale,” says Entomics co-founder Matt McLaren. He adds that over the course of 14 days, the larvae can remove 95 percent of food waste that is put in front of them due to their fast metabolic rate.
“That’s the main chunk of the processing time,” he says. “Before that you have a couple of days where the flies lay and eggs and they hatch. The insect lifecycle defines the industrial lifecycle.”
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As the larvae feed on the food waste, they balloon in size – up to to 5,000 times their own body weight. McLaren says this effectively means that one tonne (UK) of food waste can be converted into as much as 250kg of larvae – “quite impressive if you consider that food waste can be over 50 percent water content” – which, in turn, can produce 100kg of high-protein insect meal.
At the end of the 14-day feeding cycle, the larvae are killed and processed.
“It’s a bit grim, but they become the protein feed,” McLaren says. On an ethical level, he points out that the insects will ultimately end up being put back into the food chain, most likely as fish feed – and that many traditional fish feed products are sourced from wild-caught marine fish such as sardines and anchovies, which contribute to ocean depletion.
“Would you rather kill a fish than a maggot? If people have an issue with using sardines to feed salmon, I think the insect is objectively a much more sustainable way of doing that. We feel this method has much less impact on the environment, and we haven’t heard any complaints from it,” McLaren says.
One of the advantages of the Entomics process is that it is self-sustaining – it operates on a continuous batch system with vertical breeding trays to keep the space footprint low. An adult fly can lay 300 to 500 eggs, and so the process doesn’t need many flies to be kept at equilibrium. There is water loss from the process, due to the high moisture content of food waste, and this is currently evaporated off.
“We’ve been doing some trials to try and de-water the process, and to recycle that water,” he says.
Entomics has been busy proving the concept of its technology, and over the next 9–12 months the company plans to design and build a pilot plant with the capacity to process 5,000 tonnes of food waste per year. In terms of supply, it hopes to tap into the surplus food from supermarkets and food-processing facilities that would typically go for anaerobic digestion (AD) or in-vessel composting.
“We see opportunity there, picking up waste that’s not edible,” McLaren says. “This could be a great solution for processing waste in decentralized locations and trying to take a few vehicles off the road.”
He claims that compared to AD, the use of insects can offer impressive potential carbon savings and even wider sustainability benefits: “Because the insects are a natural optimized engine already, they are very efficient and create very little waste. Using insects allows us not to produce any waste streams, or any type of CO2 and methane emissions. It is a zero-waste, zero-emissions solution.”
Entomics has its eye on the aquaculture industry as a key target market for its insect protein meal and is refining its technology accordingly.
“To supply the animal feed industry, you need huge scale, even if you are a small player,” McLaren says. “We’re not selling it commercially to the farmed fish markets yet; there’s more research for us to do in terms of understanding the exact effect on fish growth rates first.”
It’s also worth noting that not all of the food waste ends up being digested by the Black Soldier Fly larvae – a residual amount (around 5 percent) is left as insect manure. Entomics has created its first commercial product from this, an organic fertilizer, which it is selling online and to local garden stores.