Worms, people, and produce: turning food waste on its head
From produce to people to livestock to worms, ReFeed Canada is focusing on circular nutrition to make sure no vegetable is wasted.
The mixture of manure, cardboard shavings, and food scraps is dark—and that’s just how the worms like it. Although they don’t have eyes, red wigglers are sensitive to light and are happy to spend their days eating compost scraps in the peaceful gloom. Stuart Lilley is just as happy to show them off.
He lifts up Walmart-branded cardboard squares that shield the worms.
“They love bananas, it’s just unbelievable,” Lilley says. He runs his fingers through the mulch, revealing the thin bodies of dozens of worms. The worms don’t like the light. “We put the cardboard overtop just to give them an environment where they can just do what they do without being distracted.”
Here, on a combination farm and distribution plant in Langley, the worms eat old produce so Lilley can sell their poop as fertilizer. But it’s a little more complicated than that. So to better understand why there are thousands of worms being bred in Langley, you need to get to know Lilley, and his relationship with bugs.
For a decade, Lilley has worked in waste management—part of that time at Langley’s Enterra. The company used to breed black soldier flies for pet food and animal feed, and Lilley was in charge of connecting with businesses to find food waste and then feed it to the insects.
“It opened my eyes to how big of a problem we have in terms of all the wasted food,” he said. “But yet it was my job to get it, feed it to insects, and skip the human side of it. And that bothered me every day.”
When Enterra moved to Calgary in 2018, Lilley eyed the gap left behind. Then, in January 2020, he started ReFeed Canada on the same property where Enterra had been breeding flies.
Today, Lilley is the Chief Visionary Officer at ReFeed Canada, and the head of a worm-farming operation that is set to triple by the end of the month. But Lilley’s goal is bigger than worms. He’s going for “circular nutrition.”
What is circular nutrition?
Circular nutrition involves worms, livestock, and people. But it starts with produce.
Half of all the fruits and vegetables grown around the world are thrown away. Some of this happens at the consumer level, when people buy produce but fail to eat it before it spoils. But much happens on the industrial side—and that’s where Lilley’s company starts its process.
“We’re trying to serve the community by rescuing food that would otherwise be wasted on the industrial scale,” he said. “And then the whole concept is what you have leftover doesn’t get wasted either.”
When The Current visited ReFeed, the air surrounding Lilley’s warehouse was perfumed with the scent of oranges—stronger because some of them were rotting. He had just received four tractor trailers full of mandarin oranges to his property that week, all of which were rejected by a wholesaler. This is a regular occurrence for the company, as semi-truck trailers arrive to dump off unwanted produce from graders, processors, distributors, and major grocery chains like T&T.
All this produce—from oranges to carrots to french fries—are all sorted for Lilley’s three main consumers: the people, the livestock, and the worms.
One in eight BC households struggle with food insecurity: the inadequate or unstable access to groceries because of financial constraints. In the Lower Mainland, the percentage of households that were insecure was even higher.
Although that data is from a decade ago—the newest available information—there’s little reason to believe the situation has improved. That’s why the Greater Vancouver Food Bank decided to partner with Lilley.
“It’s such a game changer,” David Long, CEO of the food bank, said when he arrived at ReFeed for a tour with Lilley. “There’s no shortage of food. There’s a distribution problem. And so this is… a perfect partnership.”
ReFeed uses a 6,000-square-foot warehouse space to divide the produce between products that can go to food bank cupboards and products that can’t. When it’s orange season, thousands of oranges get processed through Lilley’s warehouse and sent to local food banks. But sometimes, it’s too much. And sometimes, it just gets boring. Like the oranges, for example.
“I got really frustrated the other day that we weren’t trying to upcycle it into something new,” Lilley said. So he made some calls, and found a company in Vancouver that works in juicing. Suddenly, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank had its own juice brand for as long as Lilley had oranges and mandarins.
(ReFeed has also done some forays into dehydrating, although it hasn’t commercialized that yet. But it has done some tests with grapes. “There’s this one grape, called a Sable grape—when you dehydrate it into a raisin, it will change the world.”)
The goal, Lilley said, is to impact society in a positive way, and reverse what we are doing to the environment at the same time. “You don’t have to always recreate the wheel, you just have to connect the dots.”
When you are handling multiple tonnes of unwanted produce each day, not everything will be fit for the food bank. That’s where ReFeed’s second warehouse, just 60 metres away from the sorting centre, comes into the picture. There, places like T&T deliver bins of pre-consumer produce to be sorted before being delivered to local farms as livestock feed.
On the day The Current visited ReFeed, there were a dozen blue bins in front of the warehouse, each filled with carrots, lettuce, broccoli, yams, parsley, and apples. The bins will be dumped onto a conveyor, where employees would sort through the produce by hand to remove twist ties, plastic packaging, and even knives that fell in during the store’s prep.
Depending on where the produce is going, Lilley and his team also remove some of the vegetables as well. Dairy cows find produce from the nightshade family unpalatable so sorters must make sure to remove items like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants heading to those operations. When the produce is ready, it’s delivered to places like Randon Farms.
Although Lilley wants to treat ReFeed like a food processing facility (he sanitizes the bins once the produce is removed) it still smells a bit like compost. You can blame the company’s smallest eaters for that: the worms.
Any produce that isn’t sent to the food bank or delivered to farms is transferred to the HotRot, a piece of equipment that turns produce into compost. Lilley doesn’t use it exactly as intended. Instead, he’s repurposed the HotRot as a feed producer. He mixes the output with dairy manure, and sends mixture to the next building over to feed his growing worm population. (Red Wigglers double in population every 60 days, and there’s already three pounds of worms per square foot of bed.)
There, in a warehouse coated in spray foam, hundreds of thousands of red wigglers spend their lives eating and pooping. The worms are smaller than your average earthworm, and “vigorous eaters,” Lilley explained. What comes out are worm “castings”—worm poop. An automated cutting bar scrapes the castings from the bottom of the worm beds, and those small brown pellets are sold as fertilizer to local farms.
“We’re actually coming to the point where gasoline is gonna get thrown on this,” Lilley said, looking at the masses of worms moving through mulch near his hands. “We’ve finally got all our technology tweaked and ready to go. So we’re pretty excited about where it’s going.”
The circle in Lilley’s circular nutrition model isn’t quite complete. He still needs to grow his own produce, so he can fertilize it with worm castings. That step is in the works, with restoration already beginning on the 20,000 square foot greenhouses behind ReFeed’s composting building. And there’s more Lilley hopes to do.
ReFeed Canada and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank are working to turn Lilley’s sorting warehouse into a provincial distribution hub, so excess produce can not only be shared with local food banks, but people across the province.
Research and development is underway on Lilley’s composter, to see how the HotRot can keep more microbes in the compost, and therefore make a better food for the worms. By the end of this month, ReFeed will have six more worm beds, which will kick off more research on how places like ReFeed can farm worms better. (“There’s a lot of opportunities with worms,” Lilley said. He’s also looking into how ReFeed could farm other species of worms for protein or use them to do things like filter manure.)
“There’s a lot of rabbit holes that I want to be going down, once we get this momentum here,” Lilley said. “But in the meantime, we’re just doing the best practices that we can.”