By Staci Matlock | The New Mexican
A new visitor is hanging out at the Aspen Community Magnet School cafeteria for the next couple of weeks, chowing down not on food, but food scraps. The sleek, silver Ecovim sat in a corner of the cafeteria Tuesday, its stainless steel top periodically opened by staff who emptied tubs of unwanted french fries, apple slices, veggies, shredded chicken and hamburger buns inside. Push a button, and the machine starts a cycle, like a washing machine, only it superheats the culinary mess and tosses it about until all the water is extracted. The steel tub can hold about 66 pounds of food waste at a time.
The Ecovim acts like a combination dehydrator and superfast composter. When it is finished several hours later, a tray on the bottom is pulled out, and what was once food is now a dark, rich, mulch-like material that can be used to enrich the school’s garden.
“The Ecovim reduces food waste up to 90 percent without using any fresh water,” said Daniel Maki, sales associate with Integrated Veterans Services, which is the sole distributor for the machine in the United States. IVS, owned by Butch Maki, a former Gov. Bill Richardson staffer who has lobbied in the New Mexico Legislature, is based in Santa Fe.
Aspen is the first New Mexico school to test the Ecovim in a two-week pilot program this summer. Lisa Randall, energy conservation and recycling program director for Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district will decide at the end of the two weeks if the machine is worth its $18,500 price tag. “We needed to see it in action,” Randall said.
She believes it will be worth the money, saying food waste makes up 60 percent or more of the trash the district produces each year and pays to haul to the city’s landfill. Moreover, recycling the food waste makes sense environmentally, Randall said. Food waste in landfills produces a lot of methane gas, one of the less heralded culprits in greenhouse-gas emissions that climatologists believe contributes to a warming planet.
“Landfills are not meant to be composters,” Randall said. “Recycling the food waste and keeping it out of the landfill is actually going to save us money.” Randall will provide a report to the school board at the end of the two weeks.
Ecovim is manufactured by the South Korean firm Enic Co. Jun Yang, a company representative in Santa Fe for the demonstration, said Enic began designing the units a decade ago. It has six models now that can hold from 66 pounds to 3,300 pounds of food waste. “If someone needs a larger unit, we can design it,” Yang said.
Yang said the South Korean government began promoting innovative solutions to food waste years ago. With 50 million people in the small country and no room for landfills, they needed alternatives. “We tried natural composting at first, but it takes too long,” Yang said.
Instead, the company came up with a machine that it says needs no fresh water or chemicals added. In about half a day, it can convert pounds of waste into a usable, sterilized mulch. The company says the high heat — 180 degrees — used to bake the food scraps kills bacteria. Filters keep the food waste odor-free as it is dehydrated. Condensation during the process also produces several gallons of water that can be reclaimed and used on landscaping. The machine operates on 220 volts of electricity.
An advantage of the process is that every kind of food except really large bones can go intothe Ecovim. Since Americans throw away an average of 1 pound of food a day, there are a lot of scraps headed to the landfills. More than 1,000 of the units are installed in Korea now on military bases, in restaurants and on cargo ships. More than 30 have been installed in the United States since the company began marketing here two years ago. Pojoaque Pueblo’s Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino will begin testing a 250-gallon Ecovim model next week. Laguna Pueblo Development Corp. has purchased four units for its casinos.