Smart compost bin translates food waste into dollars

Sustain a bin - web

UG Sustain A Bin team: Lauren Jans, Nic Durish, Aftab Ahmad, Justin Gruber

Too much food is being wasted today, and a group of University of Guelph (UG) students is working on a solution to address that problem.

They’ve invented a “smart” compost bin that aims to raise consumer awareness of food waste by assigning a dollar value to the food people are throwing out.

Food science student Lauren Jans and computer science students Justin Gruber, Aftab Ahmad, and Nic Durish presented their concept – now called Sustain-A-Bin – at the Pitch for Progress competition that was part of the 10th annual Universities Fighting World Hunger Conference in Guelph this past winter.

They won.

“Sustain-A-Bin is a smart compost bin with Wi-Fi that can measure the weight of what is being thrown away and display the weight, volume, and cost of the food being dumped,” explains Gruber, a fourth year software engineering major from Oakville. “Thirty per cent of what is in landfill is food, so if we can keep people from throwing away so much food, we’ll be reducing what goes into landfill.”

The concept could work particularly well in a campus setting, where food sold in on-campus restaurants and dining halls has a similar, established dollar value per gram, or in institutions like hospitals or long-term care facilities.

The bin continually uploads the data it collects on waste, allowing users to log into a website and track the results.

Analysis could pinpoint which days or products have higher waste rates, which could lead to waste- or cost-reducing changes in food purchasing or preparation, as well as waste disposal.

As part of their project, the students have found that 95 per cent of dining hall garbage at the University of Guelph consists of food, and the campus currently doesn’t offer compost bins for food waste.

“The university incurs costs for each bag of garbage that goes to landfill so, it adds up in savings to the university if we reduce what we’re wasting on-campus,” says fourth year student Jans, who hails from the Sarnia area.

The group got their start through the Feeding 9 Billion Challenge: Food Waste Hackathon held at the university last fall. A hackathon is a concept fairly common in computer engineering where participants work together to build something in a short amount of time.

Although they worked on three separate teams, they all ended up developing similar concepts, and three of the four group members finished in the top three.

“We met up together after the Hackathon and decided to keep working together. The Hackathon judges thought we had a pretty good idea,” she says.

This semester, all four enrolled in Ideas Congress (ICON) together so they could continue developing their concept and receive credit at the same time.

ICON is a pilot undergraduate course involving 14 disciplines from four colleges.

The prize money they won at the Hackathon and Pitch for Progress has been put towards further development and testing of their prototype on campus.

Jans is graduating this spring, but Gruber has one more semester and fellow group members Ahmad and Durish one more year at Guelph, so they plan to continue working on the project.

All four credit Prof. Dan Gillis with supporting the group and encouraging them to enter various competitions, including the Elevator Project, a city of Guelph initiative to connect innovators with mentors, investors, and support.

Results from this are expected to be announced this spring.

“Food sustainability is trending and it’s a huge issue from farm to consumer. If we can make a difference at any level, it helps,” says Jans.