Andrew Hayim De Vries – WastePlant – Ep 04

Andrew Hayim De Vries, Co-CEO & Inventor at WastePlant

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Andrew Hayim De Vries from WastePlant, who we will be talking to about how their regenerative food waste farming solution is, a local food waste, food access, and community solution for new development areas.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork” the PostHarvest podcast, that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Andrew Hayim De Vries from WastePlant, who I’ll be talking to about how their regenerative food waste farming solution is a local food waste, food access, and community solution for new development areas.

So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Hello, Andrew. How are you? Thanks for joining me on the podcast today.

[00:00:28] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Good morning, Mitch.

[00:00:29] Mitchell Denton: Before we get into it. Andrew, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know. 

[00:00:38] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Okay, I think the big secret that most people don’t know about me, especially here in Byron Bay is the fact that I come from an art background. I spent 38 years as a practicing artist teaching at university. And the fact that I did lots of crazy activities all relating to ecology to soil as well as being a painter working oil, painting and performance work, which is being very theatrical and very funny and pretty wacky, but all of it has indirectly related to ecology.

[00:01:15] Mitchell Denton: Really. Okay. That’s interesting. What style of painting are we talking about here? 

[00:01:20] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Ah, we’re talking about, during the seventies and eighties, there was a particular trend of oil painting in large scale. And I was very much part of that international movement and a lot of the content of that work was all dealing with self identity, which was very much a part of a cathartic process of that period and probably still exists today in many ways.

[00:01:43] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. Fantastic. Okay. Well, on that note, let’s talk farm to fork.

I’m really looking forward to discussing WastePlant with you, Andrew. But before we do, I’d love to hear more about how you came to be an ecological designer and inventor, along with your history in composting waste with ventures like Compost Central and Subpod. 

[00:02:02] Andrew Hayim De Vries: When I left home at 16 during the whole period of going to art school, I was extensively recycling. We’re talking 45 years ago. And it was a very natural progression for me, maybe because I had migrant parents and we were quite poor. But during the early seventies, recycling and composting for me, it was a very natural process.

So right through that whole evolution, it became apparent to me that we were heavy consumers. In my experimentation of composting, I’m thinking to myself here we have a waste product. That’s just going to landfill and I’m composting it, and I’m building soil, and I’m growing food.

What would happen if we were doing this on a large scale? And of course my food was tasty, it was nutrition-rich and it was easy and it became apparent to me that very few people then weren’t doing it. And so I started building and creating different compost systems in my veggie garden. And that whole evolution of building up a knowledge base, looking at systems and where they faltered and constantly looking at where the problem was. Where’s the failure as I experimented with commercial systems, it became apparent to me that there was lots of issues with composting systems, certainly in Australia that weren’t designed for our climate.

So the progression went from there to experimentation and then back in the early days in Fremantle, I started building these experimental systems and then people wanted to come around and have a look, and then I was asked to do some classes and some school children excursions came about, and then one thing led to the other.

And meanwhile, I’m still practicing as an artist, and the switch about 18 years ago definitely took place from leaving an art practice, and venturing into the area of ecology in this case, looking at all systems of recycling and upcycling, because I could see that this was going to be a need because of the issues at hand that I was foreseeing about to take place in the world and it was a very natural progression. It was a very easy progression. For me, it was definitely a very exciting area. And I was very much alone in that evolution because establishing myself as an artist to jump from this environment too in the area of biology, it was, you know, I’m not trained, I have no degrees in this area and most of it’s self-taught.

So the transition was challenging, but I was very excited.

[00:04:52] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, it sounds like it’s really been a labor of love for you, so continuing on from you telling us about your background and former projects, would you mind telling us about how the idea for WastePlant first came about? 

[00:05:05] Andrew Hayim De Vries: In that experimental stage, of building systems that are in-ground. Which was to me the next progression of composting in an urban environment or residential. The experimentation went on for about eight years and then I ventured into compost buckets and worm towers, and then the invention of Subpod took place three, four years ago.

And now it’s a commercial product of the last two years. And so from a little domestic system it was always in the back of my mind, what would happen if we build a larger system, but more importantly, how would it look and was there a need and of course, all of this was screaming at me saying yes, yes, yes, there is a need of creating an environment where these large in-ground systems could take place in a large scale.

So we’re looking at composting food waste, which is still a huge, massive issue worldwide. We’re looking at soil degradation on a massive scale, and well of course the area of food sovereignty or food access, food nutrients, food affordability, as we know today, and even back then, for me, it was predictable it was going to be a big issue. 

So how would WastePlant, provide a service and a need to create community to create locality, but more importantly, it become a universal, educational platform right across the spectrum? And then I’m thinking to myself in the whole area of biology to look at waste streams, what would it take to enter the space of black water systems and of further issues. 

So WastePlant becomes a massive, exciting platform and that’s it in a nutshell, Mitch.

[00:06:54] Mitchell Denton: Okay. Wow. There’s a lot to digest there. I love the WastePlant seems to be very people-focused and community-focused when it comes to being a food and waste solution. So what would you say separates WastePlant from your standard communal garden then?

[00:07:09] Andrew Hayim De Vries: So most community gardens, the composting component is the most neglected area. 

[00:07:15] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. 

[00:07:15] Andrew Hayim De Vries: It’s usually infused with rats and cockroaches and ants and smells and odours, et cetera.

And there’s a lot of green waste in our community gardens, similar to on a smaller scale at home. So what would happen if you created an in-ground compost system in a community garden? Which is the big one this is what’s really crucial here is that when you deal with in-ground composting, you can actually compost in this case, a raised garden where you’re growing food.

No issues of rats and rodents and smells, and it’s really easy and sure it’s taking up 5% or maybe 10% of your growing area, but we’re actually composting, which is great and we’re building soil and the veggie plants are growing around the system.

So, in regards to home gardens and community gardens. This is a great result because this is a huge problem in community gardens around the world, where people are trying to compost and there’s rat infestation and the smells and odours, and usually they’re placed right down the very back of community gardens.

And I’ve seen them like, Mitch, I could write a book how this area is a huge problem. And I’m thinking in the case of WastePlant, how this is actually brought up right up front. So the composting component then becomes in this case, Subpod or my large systems with WastePlant become seating, and people sit on these structures that are on the edge of the garden.

And most people don’t know they’re actually compost systems, so I’ve designed these structures now within the case of WastePlant, where they become classrooms that become meeting points that become facilities where the public engaging in, as a meeting point as a classroom, as a seating area, as a dining area. 

[00:09:00] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. I can only imagine novice gardeners having some of those nightmare encounters with composting and then just throwing in the towel. So maybe. You should write that book on compost problem areas. I mean, you may have already answered this through that question, but I was just wanting to know what you think the biggest challenge is with communal gardening and farming right now and how WastePlant can overcome that. 

[00:09:26] Andrew Hayim De Vries: So with communal farming, we know that industrial farming, the science is telling us that it has maybe 50, 60 year period of sufficiency, based on soil quality and current industrial farming practices that will cease to feed the world to a greater degree within 50 to 60 years. So we’re looking at the destruction of nutrients in soil to take place in this timeframe.

Because we’re increasingly putting in artificial fertilisers and we’re dealing with an exploding population. 

So this is a huge issue and of course we’re getting lots of coverage on social media, all over the place. So what would happen if we were to start decentralising the food system? Which is essential.

And of course this whole area becomes quite complex because as industrial growing systems evolve and they’re still evolving and it’s still progressing more and more people are unaware of how to grow food and we’re exploring in major cities around the world that children think that carrots are grown in Woolworths.

And so, okay then we’re coming down to food access and food sovereignty. So if we look at creating food systems and I’m thinking, why don’t we create food systems from waste in this case, composting because this is a big component of WastePlant is that these facilities will be located in a kilometre radius of living environments or urban environments, so a suburb that would have a WastePlant, people will bring their waste to it, and of course we’re also talking about growing abundance of food in the WastePlant and then there’s food access to that kilometre radius of people living around a large scale WastePlant. So in the case of Byron bay, in the inner-area of Byron bay is about 3,800 people with about 5,000 tourists.

I envisaged that you’d need about four or five small 3000 square metre WastePlant facilities located around Byron bay where food waste and carbon waste could be brought, but they also become destinations for food to be either purchased or acquired or donated, and of course they become a community space.

The current facility that I’ve designed in the industrial estate, which is increasingly becoming residential and yoga studios and cafes and so forth will be to take all the organic waste, create a food production environment that could be used for the homeless and related social enterprises. It will be a massive school excursion for learning from preschool to universities because we’re working with universities to collaborate with us, which is very exciting. 

So decentralised food systems occurring in one kilometre radiuses. So we got food access and in that people will learn because we have a massive education facility that will learn to take it home, to learn, to start growing food at home. 

And of course, in the area of WastePlant and how it evolves in communities.

The collaboration with industry, individuals, science, philanthropy and investments, the space is expanding very quickly to make it more affordable, more efficient, more effective as various people around the world are really starting to explore this to make food accessible, and of course the challenges are in different environments.

So if we go in and say a hundred, 200 kilometres off the coast in Australia, we obviously experiencing arid environments and the biggest challenge there is water. So in the area of technology of water harvesting and water irrigation, This technology is evolving so quickly. So WastePlant is collaborating with individuals and companies around the world, in the space, as an example.

[00:13:24] Mitchell Denton: I really love the educational aspect. Uh, we at PostHarvest are also trying to really help reach people on more of an educational level as well. And just in regards to food waste and the methane that’s released from landfills and, and incorrect composting. It’s really cool to hear what you guys have been up to and what the goal is within the community.

So that’s really cool. What would you say is the biggest surprise you’ve found with developing these Gardenships for WastePlant? 

[00:13:54] Andrew Hayim De Vries: The fact that the GardenShips are basically a simple blueprint, where the possibilities of adaptation, in other words, to adapt to different climatic regions, adapt to different needs. Because a big part of WastePlant is working with developers.

So developers are building subdivisions and they’re building suburbs all over Australia, all over the world. And of course these developers that we’re approaching, are saying, “Andrew, can we alter the design? Can we bespoke the infrastructure and the aesthetic? And I’m saying absolutely. What is crucial is that you maintain form function.

What is exciting is the adaptation of the GardenShip. as you can imagine, different environments, like we’re designing them for Indonesia, which has been an ongoing project based on my project in Sri Lanka three years ago, where the climate there is tropical, so the GardenShips have to alter by design because of the humidity, the rainfall and the heat.

you know, we’re looking at materials, another example, and the materials at the moment in Australia, we’re using hardwoods, they’re commercial hardwoods, but they’re still coming out of a natural environment.

And so we’re looking at the sleepers to build these raised veggie beds. We’re looking at hemp fibre sleepers, and were in the very early stages of dealing with a company, in Kentucky in America. So we’re trying to find all the time, various systems methods, materials that are sustainable and they’re becoming more affordable, more durable and a less carbon footprint.

So from my point of view, as a designer and collaborating in the near future. I just get so excited, to be quite honest, Mitch, I say to people, I wish I was 30 years of age, a lot younger than I am.

[00:15:51] Mitchell Denton: Yep, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that the GardenShip designs would be a result of the climate they inhabit, but as I say it out loud, it makes perfect sense.

Well, continuing on this line of thought, what’s something that people seem to misunderstand about your line of work when it comes to food waste and growing fresh produce? 

[00:16:13] Andrew Hayim De Vries: When I talk to people about what I do, or what we do as a company, I think the most immediate, response is yuck, you know, compost been there, done that, doesn’t work big deal, a bit of a hippie stuff. 

Everyone’s had an experience of composting. However, because now it’s increasingly becoming a big issue with waste, soil, food, people are taking great interest and of course, the conversation within people certainly on an individual level is shifting, and I’ve noticed this, I noticed it each week, each month, each year, this transition of engagement and interest and let’s face it, Mitch, as far as climate change is concerned, the need in these three areas of the organic waste stream, soil sustainability, and food access, food sovereignty, et cetera. 

Is very much increasingly around people’s radar, so increasingly more people taking a great interest. But we need to move really quickly from here on. I cannot stress this.

[00:17:14] Mitchell Denton: If I’m going to be honest cards on the table right now, I’m very guilty of some of those mentalities towards composting. Uh, but I must agree with you, as I’ve seen that shift, you were mentioning even take place within myself. There definitely seems to be an openness and more of a big picture outlook on some of those food and waste topics you mentioned.

So then, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points within the fresh produce industry and what practical measures do you think could combat this? 

[00:17:46] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Okay. So the biggest problem is we’re having a reliance on the food industry. One, we take it for granted.

[00:17:53] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. 

[00:17:54] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Two, we know that industrial food production food nutrients are weening because the area of hydroponics and similar, where there’s a lack of minerals in the soil, there’s a lack of minerals in the food, hence our intake, having an effect on our wellbeing, our mental state, and it goes on and on.

It’s just for me, there needs to be more engagement with how our food is procured, how it’s distributed. Again, this is food access, food affordability, food sovereignty. As in, it’s access to people. 

And with this too much reliance on centralised food systems, opposed to decentralised food systems, we need to grow food that’s indicative of the area and locality and its season. 

There is a strong movement in regards to growing food that is conducive to its area. In other words, Bush tucker or indigenous food and that we should be going down this pathway, and I totally agree. We should be mindful of the fact that, you know, if broccoli is not growing up here, we shouldn’t be freighting it in mass coming from the south, for example.

And if we can cut these carbon miles down and be smart and intelligent about where our food comes from, how it gets to a dinner plate, it’s all education, constantly education.

And of course, a lot of this starts at the top end. You can have these food sovereignty conversations at schools, but if it’s not happening at the top level, we’re just moving way too slow in this whole conversation.

It’s a big area. Mitch. I’m sort of covering a very broad area very quickly.

[00:19:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s great. I love it. I feel like we could really go down a long path around the topic of consumers being overly reliant on centralised food systems, but perhaps we’ll save that for another day. So has . The COVID pandemic and the lockdowns that have come with that for better or worse, had any effect on your day-to-day operations, and if so, how? 

[00:19:58] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Okay, so we have many projects earmarked for indigenous communities, commercial development, eco villages, and aged care facilities.

For me to be there creates a bit of an issue in case I get stuck and training up that person. So we are setting up structures with a colleague of mine, who’s based in Bali to set up WastePlant, and so normally what we’d be doing as of early last year, I’d be spending six months there to set up this infrastructure and manufacturer and learning and implementation.

Um, project that I set up in Sri Lanka, I’m supposed to be back there, just dealing with that component, the Middle East and France. 

So, it makes it difficult because, this is all great for me talking about all these entities and engagements, but we need to have mobility on one level. Setting up infrastructure to make that possible makes it slow everything down, which makes me pretty frustrated, where we can work very, very quickly if we just had that level of mobility and training. 

So it’s pretty frustrating. This conversation that’s happening worldwide, it’s perfect timing, there’s money from all fronts coming into this space, so this is creating a big problem. 

[00:21:15] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. I never really considered the training and the groundwork that would go into developing these on location Gardenships, so that’s quite interesting. So as an inventor, what are some of the things you’re researching the most right now? 

[00:21:30] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Okay. So the most important thing we’re researching, maybe it’s not research anymore it’s about implementation. So the biggest challenge for WastePlant is dealing with health requirements to meet EPA, the environmental protection agency, and to meet the health requirements of councils. So we’ve been very fortunate in three universities that have reached out to in each faculty, each director of each of these three universities have expressed a personal interest themselves, as well as master’s students and PhD students to work with us, to monitor the soil, to determine the level of pathogens, et cetera, to meet EPA and council requirements.

And because we’re, vermicomposting, the area of pathogens is greatly reduced, and so we are creating a blueprint, for councils in Australia that where we can monitor, document extensively to get this off and rolling. 

These are areas that people have never ventured into, and so this is a big part of setting a blueprint for people in Australia, and of course in the States, and elsewhere. 

[00:22:42] Mitchell Denton: Hmm, absolutely. We at PostHarvest have been fortunate enough to also be in collaboration with a number of universities and it truly has been a blessing for research and product trial periods. So keeping in the same vein, I’m just wondering if there is a particular group or innovation within the regenerative farming industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on? 

[00:23:06] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Okay, that’s a great question. I would have to say, and Byron bay sort of leans in this area, but this is happening all over Australia, is the level of interest and engagement with the young urban farmers entering the space. Now, I get approached each week by either locals or tourists or travelers, more to the point that come to me and they ask me, can you suggest where I can go to learn about growing food?

And this is happening all over Australia, and probably same in Europe and the States, the UK, where people are wanting to learn to grow food, and there’s lots of amazing, interesting individuals around the world. Like Rob Greenfield, Michael Abel, and many others that are encouraging urban farmers, where these young individuals are wanting to grow food in a market style garden environment. 

And they’re coming in as novice but jumping into it and their skillset and passion and interest, and working together collectively in a community environment, and in the case of Byron bay, the council’s actually employing one of these individuals three days a week to connect landowners, to young urban food farmers to grow food on their land, to sell commercially at the markets. The relationship then just needs to be established because the biggest problem in this area of young urban farmers is having land tenure but not for six months, not for a year, but for up to five years, so they can plan a crop, they can learn and engage. So, yep. 

[00:24:52] Mitchell Denton: It’s funny that you would mention young urban farmers, because there is a pocket of young, urban farmers in San Diego that I’m really hoping to tap into for this show. Uh, apparently San Diego with its climate has the biggest concentration of small farms than any other area in America. And they seem to be developing some of the most unadulterated farm to fork systems in the entire food industry, so I’d love to get some of them on the show to really pick their brains. 

But I must say having you on has been a delight. So as we’re coming to a close, I just want to ask you, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode? 

[00:25:32] Andrew Hayim De Vries: One, I would connect with your community garden and get involved. Two, I would encourage your primary school, your preschool high school to look at the waste stream. Look at food production. Look at education.

There is a great resource of videos on Netflix, for example, that are dealing with ecology right across the spectrum, but also dealing in the area of the environment, the challenges ahead for us in the future, and there are many, many YouTube videos about growing food and understanding food and the outcome of that is engaging with your local community.

I think when you set up full on food garden, You might do it in your backyard. What I’m saying is do it in your frontyard, build your food garden in your frontyard and your neighbours will come by and they will be inspired and you start talking, and you start growing food and you start swapping food, and then your other neighbors join in, and then they’re having more conversations. 

And this creates community, this creates locality, and this is priceless. So I hope that’s what you do, because if we have community, we have connectivity to each other and Mitch, you can’t put a price on it.

[00:26:54] Mitchell Denton: I love that very, very practical advice. That’s that’s a great note to leave on. Well, unfortunately that’s all for today’s episode of let’s talk, farm to fork. Thanks for listening and thank you, Andrew, for joining me today. 

[00:27:08] Andrew Hayim De Vries: Mitch. It’s been a privilege and I thank you for inviting me. 

[00:27:12] Mitchell Denton: If you would like to know more about Andrew and WastePlant, check out the link in the description of this episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends. 

Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm” to Fork a PostHarvest podcast.

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