(Bloomberg) -- For all its crap, the United States isn’t doing much with it.
Wasted, a Burlington-Vermont based startup, is hoping to change that. The three-year-old company collects human waste from portable toilets and transports it to a processing center, where the excrement is treated through a nutrient-recovery process to create fertilizer. On Wednesday, Wasted announced $7.5 million in seed-stage funding from investors that include Collaborative Fund, Divergent Capital, Day One Ventures, Third Sphere, Pure Ventures and Gratitude Railroad.
The funding will go to Wasted’s first pilot program, involving 200 porta-potties located on construction sites in Burlington. Solid waste from the retrofitted porta-potties will be transported to a nearby facility in Williston, where it will be processed into a nitrogen-rich fertilizer aimed at reducing the phosphorus run-off that creates algae bloom on Lake Champlain.
“What we’re building through the porta-potty industry is distributed, climate-resilient sanitation that can be deployed everywhere that it’s needed,” says Brophy Tyree, Wasted’s co-founder and chief executive officer.
Wasted’s porta-potties — which at $200 cost roughly as much as the traditional version, according to Tyree — are part of what’s known as “container-based sanitation.” It’s a catch-all term for toilet systems that collect human waste in containers, then transport the excreta for processing at treatment facilities. A cost-effective solution in densely populated cities and countries with limited sewage infrastructure, the idea of turning waste into fertilizer is now attracting the attention of startups in Europe, including Sweden’s Sanitation 360 and France’s Toopi Organics. Tyree’s goal is to bring the idea to the US.
“We chose to do it here because it’s not currently being done here,” he says. “We saw the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants who really pioneered it in other countries.”
For locales with sewage systems already in place, the draw of container-based sanitation is environmental. Such systems generally use less water, and converting human waste into fertilizer is particularly useful amid inflated fertilizer prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another selling point, Tyree notes, is a better-smelling bathroom experience.
Co-founded by Tyree, Taylor Zehren and Thor Retzlaff in 2020, Wasted grew out of a non-profit, Do Good Sh*t, that the founding team launched in 2018 after noticing exorbitant amounts of human waste during mountaineering trips. Do Good Sh*t provides toilets and other sanitation facilities near popular outdoor destinations.
Wasted is starting with an equally narrow focus, but already has big plans. The startup is eyeing other venues with portable toilets — including camping sites, concerts and outdoor events — and looking to expand into a second city in 2024. Tyree says Wasted plans to tailor its fertilizer to local needs and has also filed a patent for a toilet that can parse liquids from solids.
First, though, Wasted will have to overcome the ick factor. While the company has many international examples to look to, Rebecca Nelson, a biologist at Cornell University, says it may struggle to introduce container-based sanitation to American consumers.
In that respect, the dearth of US competition could help. Cities that include Chicago and Tacoma, Washington already have programs that produce fertilizer from sewage waste, but Wasted has few direct competitors in the container-based sanitation space.
“That’s why it’s an opportunity. There’s a lot of value on the table,” Nelson says. “It’s straight up nutrient value.”
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