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With Icelandic Startup Melta, Food Waste isn’t Wasted

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Household composting is a nice intention. But when life gets in the way, “it’s one of the first things that you stop doing,” Icelandic entrepreneur Björk Brynjarsdóttir said. 

She knows the topic well: A few years ago, she and soil quality expert Julia Brenner co-founded Melta, a startup whose name is a play on the Icelandic word for compost, ‘molta.’

Melta is based on the process known as bokashi, a form of fermented composting that Björk Brynjars compares to a micro-brewery. Its center is an airtight bucket that people fill with organic material and spray with microbes that facilitate fermentation so they don’t have to worry about smell and other nuisances.

What Melta found out during its process is that users raved about the system because it was convenient; the environmental impact was more of a plus. This is good news for Melta: It means that everyone can adopt it, not just climate-conscious people. “We want to make it work for the modern person and for regular human people,” Björk Brynjars explained. 

However, Melta’s actual clients are actually institutions, not individuals, she explained. “We essentially have been developing a closed loop system that is specifically focused on rural communities to locally process the food waste, turn it into a fertilizer and save a lot of waste management costs.” 

Financial incentives

EU policy is a strong incentive for municipalities to embrace the circular economy and solutions like Melta’s. While Iceland is not an EU member, it is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), and a significant proportion of the EU’s laws are applied in Iceland today. This means the country will eventually have to comply with the EU’s policy on waste management, which is quite ambitious when it comes to sorting, recycling and disposing of waste.

A key goal of EU waste policy is to cut the amount of waste sent to landfill, which it sees as the least preferable option. Iceland has historically been a poor performer in that regard, but has made significant improvements between 2010 and 2021. However, it still has a long way to go to reach the goal of the EU Landfill Directive, which is to reduce the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less by 2035.

For small municipalities in rural areas where homes are far apart and the weather and roads don’t help, collecting waste is costly. One solution would be to collect bins less often, but while that could work for paper and plastic, it is not possible when organic waste gets gross in a matter of days. Melta can reduce that issue with its design and technology. But it can also help with the monetary side of the equation.

Right now, the problem is that small municipalities don’t produce enough organic waste to process it themselves. “The general consensus is that if it’s less than 5000 tonnes a year, it’s not feasible to operate a biogas plant.” This means transporting the waste to collective plants in urban areas, but that makes it more difficult to reuse that biogas, Björk Brynjars explained.

“In the Nordic countries, the economic distance threshold where it becomes too expensive for farmers to drive and collect the organic fertilizer or compost is around 20 kilometers. So now we have transported all of this organic resource away from the rural areas where the farmers are located and driven it into the cities to be composted, but it’s essentially just piling up there because there are not enough farmers in the 20-kilometer vicinity of the city to actually use the compost.”

Melta’s solution can solve all of these issues at once: If organic waste doesn’t smell or rot, municipalities will be able to collect garbage less often, saving money and reducing carbon emissions in the process. And if organic waste is processed locally, it can be used in local farms, where it will help fight soil erosion, a major challenge in Iceland.

In a series of drawings, Brenner illustrated how Melta can help fertilize and enrich soils, without some of the drawbacks of synthetic fertilizers. The startup is now also confident that it works just as well: An eroded plot where it had applied its fertilizer turned into a little oasis.

Melta’s next milestones

Melta’s successful MVP and pilot project caught the attention of Kronán, one of Iceland’s main supermarket chains, which collaborated with the startup to create a new product called Moldamín. Made from fruit and veggies that were starting to go bad, it consisted of a spray that customers could use on their house plants.

This was just a one-off project for a special event, but still a huge milestone for Melta. “To my knowledge, it’s the first time that a fertilizer or soil amendment product that was made by fermenting organic material in this way was approved for sale in Europe,” Björk Brynjars said.

To move forward, Melta is putting samples through lab tests to showcase that its method is just as safe and efficient at killing pathogens as fermentation with heat. Being based in a small country like Iceland will also help. 

Says Björk Brynjars: “In Iceland, bureaucracy is just a phone call. […] We go by the same EU regulation, but we don’t have the [same] bureaucracy. So if we’re able to showcase that this works here, then we have a product that we should be able to export.”

The places where it would be most natural for Melta to expand would be Norway, Sweden, Finland, where a significant share of the population lives in rural communities that are too small to run their own biogas plants. But beyond municipalities, its clients could also be waste management companies like Iceland’s SORPA and its foreign equivalents.

Another step will be for Melta to patent its technology, which could help it franchise part of its operations. A new designer that they met at hafnar.haus, the Reykjavik co-working space where Melta is based, is currently working on an upgraded collection system that the company could seek to protect.

Getting back by venture capitalists could help Melta define its patent strategy and hire more people. So far, the startup has been funded by grants, but after eliminating enough risk factors and proving its feasibility, it is about to start raising its first VC round, Björk Brynjars said.

There certainly are Nordic funds willing to bet on startups like Melta. For instance, Iceland- and Denmark-based VC firm Crowberry Capital led a 2022 pre-seed round in Greenbytes, a Reykjavik-based company that fights food waste in restaurants. 

With one cohort of startups getting out each year from Hringiða, the circular economy acceleration program from which Melta graduated in 2023, there’s plenty of deal flow, too; and it will be interesting to see which innovations they are able to bring to market to make sure that waste isn’t wasted.

Disclosure: Anna Heim traveled to Iceland on an invitation from Business Iceland on behalf of Reykjavik Science City.

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