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Good Spirits: Changing the Way the World Sees Food Waste - Ecotone Renewables

Updated: Jun 30



Good Spirits are quarterly interviews with business leaders. During Good Spirits, we bring you a distilled look at business owners who are working to make a better future by giving back to their community through their work or philanthropy. These leaders inspire and empower us to make a positive difference in our own backyards.


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Transcript


Carolyn Keller Hi! This is Carolyn, and welcome to our fifth episode of Good Spirits. In this series, we conduct quarterly interviews with business owners and leaders who are making a positive impact in our region and beyond. Today, we have a special guest, Elliott Bennett, from Ecotone Renewables. Elliott, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little about your company and your role there?



The Beginnings of Ecotone Renewables


Elliott Bennett: Happy to and thanks for having me, Carolyn. Just to give you a little background, Ecotone Renewables started as a college project at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). It was initially focused on aquaponics, which combined fish farming and plant cultivation in a symbiotic environment. It wasn't what Ecotone is known for today, but it was a fantastic collaboration focusing on how to use fertilizer produced from fish waste to grow crops in a greenhouse above a shipping container.


Now, our company has pivoted significantly. We are primarily focused on diverting food waste using upcycled shipping containers. Initially, I joined the team wanting to invest, but Dylan and Kyle, our co-founders, roped me into much more. I joined the team in a sales capacity. And then with my finance background, I was really honored to move into the CFO role that I have today. 


Our goal is to change the way the world views food waste by utilizing anaerobic digestion technology.



The Process and Products

Their anaerobic digestion technology works through Food Waste Diversion. The process is similar to how a stomach breaks down food. Ecotone Renewables processes cooking oils, dairy, meat, vegetables, and more to produce two main byproducts: Soil Sauce and renewable energy.


Soil Sauce: Soil Sauce is an organic fertilizer created from the digested food waste. Elliott gave a special shout-out, encouraging listeners to look for Soil Sauce in their local plant stores in Pittsburgh and beyond.


Renewable Energy The second byproduct is renewable energy that powers their system, making it a green and clean operation.




Employee and Community Engagement

Ecotone Renewables was founded in 2019 as an LLC and later incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) in 2021. 


Elliott: Our staff is currently nine full time and probably close to a dozen by year end, which is really exciting. This rapid growth that we've seen on a lot of different fronts is really fueled by community engagement, by new business partners, and our awesome technology that's solving real problems for our customers. 


Carolyn: What was the reason that you transitioned to a public benefit corporation? 


Elliott: Public Benefit Corporations are designed to consider people and the planet, not just profit. We always think of it as three P's. Part of Ecotone’s bylaws is to devote employee time for charity as well as profits and product. One of the biggest ways that we are able to impact the local community is through our time, engagement, and the donation of soil sauce. 


One of the challenges with food waste is infrastructure. It's really hard to get something that's perishable in three days to people who need it. Since not everybody is within walking distance to a grocery store, what we define as a food desert, at least we can allow them to grow really good quality food in their backyard. We've made recent donations to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. To date, we have donated over 1000 gallons of Soil Sauce to underserved communities. 



Ecotone Renewable’s Mission

Ecotone Renewables aims to divert food waste from landfills to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Methane gas from food waste is significantly more damaging to the ozone layer than CO2 emissions. Ecotone's long-term goal is to divert 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


"It's crazy to think about a little startup out of Pittsburgh taking on such a big challenge, but that's what we're here to do" - Elliott.


The Educational Aspect

The company emphasizes education, helping people to be more sustainable in their own backyards by growing food at home, reducing waste, and using less.


Elliott:  I think so many people think how can I make a difference? And the easiest way is in their own backyard. Grow foods at home, try and waste less and use less if you can. Don't shop for a huge amount of time. We have an awesome monthly newsletter that always has little blurbs on how to be sustainable in small ways that make a huge difference.


We also engage the community through events. Recently, the three founders had three simultaneous events across Boston, Rhode Island, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. It helps spread awareness and engage people organically.


Ecotone has a unique pledge – 10% of our Soil Sauce is donated, along with 1% profit and 1% employee time. So many good things happen when we donate our time or when we donate dollars to organizations we care about, or when we donate soil sauce. And donating resources often brings back benefits tenfold. 


Carolyn: One of the things I love about purpose forward organizations is that when you elevate your purpose you also elevate your business so that they grow hand in hand. You treat people well, you do business well, and you do good within the community. All of those things come back around and perpetuate.


Elliott: That's so true and very well said. What we're trying to do, too, is build a legacy like brand and company. So if we were just focused on profits, there wouldn't be a planet to continue to build in, in the future. So it's important to consider both. Whether you're referring to McKinsey studies, where they say there's this sort green initiative where people will pay up to 30% more if they know that there's an ESG focus of a company or it's doing greater good, that even aside, it makes our employees feel better, and our employees are the ones that progress the company. So if we can make our shareholders happy, then I think everybody's happy, right?




Who Are Ecotone's Customers?

Elliott: Our customers range from direct consumers who use Soil Sauce on houseplants to large farms using it for commercial crops. So pretty much everybody fits under the umbrella there somehow, whether it's we have awesome customers that are on a subscription model, they get a little bottle of soil sauce, or they're maybe just a one time purchaser of soil sauce to try it out. They can use it on their one to two houseplants indoors, and then all the way up to farms that have hundreds of acres that are using it commercially for acres and acres of soybean, potato, any of those sort of big agricultural crops. 


Businesses like Meta's Pittsburgh headquarters and Bryant University are also on board. Our primary customers are individuals and businesses interested in sustainable solutions. This includes local retailers like Soil Sister and City Grows as well as larger agricultural enterprises. Definitely buy in store if you can support local and small businesses. As a quick shout out for soil sauce -  each gallon diverts 90 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere. Basically reduce your carbon footprint for like a whole week with one purchase. 




Measuring Impact

Ecotone Renewables measures impact through crucial metrics like CO2 diversion and the amount of waste processed. Each customer receives a Waste Diversion Report, detailing the environmental impact of their waste processing.


Elliott: For all of our customers, whether that's Meta headquarters in Pittsburgh, Bryant University in Rhode island, everyone in between, weekly, they get a quick report which includes pounds of waste and its impact on the environment. Meta shares this internally to show their sustainable efforts, which has led to interest from other offices.



Regulations Supporting Food Waste Diversion

Interestingly, some states are proactively regulating food waste. States like California and Massachusetts have banned residential and commercial food waste from landfills.


Carolyn: Something I have learned through our conversations is certain states regulate food waste. Can you touch on that briefly? 


Elliott: Thank you for bringing that up. It's something that a lot of people don't know about. And we fell across this as we were building out business plans and market strategy. The list is now up to eleven states with commercial and residential food waste to landfill bans spanning everywhere from Hawaii to California to New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island…a few more on the west coast, and then one or two on the east coast as well. Pittsburgh is not on the list, but Pittsburgh is forward thinking, very proactive around waste. Pennsylvania as a state is one of the lowest cost waste to landfill states. So really interesting to sort of see the dichotomy of a state where every business is almost incentivized to just throw it in the trash. They're still making a different choice.



What's Next for Ecotone Renewables?

Ecotone is currently involved in campaigns through Honeycomb Credit and raising equity through a priced seed round led by Earth Foundry.


Elliott: We’re expanding across state lines with hubs in Rhode Island and plans for the West Coast. We also have a significant order from the University of Pittsburgh for five systems.  There are even opportunities for global expansion in the near future.


Carolyn: As you have grown, what have your biggest challenges been and how have you overcome them? 


Elliott: At the end of the day, we all are first time founders. And so ecotone is our pride and joy. I think that part of what's sometimes difficult is that there's, as the company grows, it doesn't necessarily mean that less work is done by an individual. It really just means there's more people to communicate with, there's a culture to set. There's all these problems with scale that you never even thought would happen. We're hiring people that are in many cases more talented in certain verticals than we are. And that's the whole point, to build a culture of creative change and to really chase change. So I think that's the biggest struggle, especially in a space that is saturated by some big players, like waste management. We have to be really creative in bringing this new technology to market and be comfortable just accepting that. We know very little about how a lot of things get done, but we're very tenacious and open to new ideas, which makes us super excited. 


"We're very tenacious and open to new ideas, which makes this journey exciting" - Elliott.


Advice for Future Entrepreneurs

Carolyn:  For others who are embarking on this journey of entrepreneurship, especially purpose driven entrepreneurs, what piece of advice would you give to others who want to do good?


Elliott: There's so many ways to do good, but I think the biggest thing is the WHY behind why you're doing good. All of our founders have really strong stories as to why we care about food waste. It makes what we do a whole lot easier because every day, we're really moving the needle. Also learning lessons from your community so that you can take the benefit that you're producing within that community and expand. All of our founders are working with our local communities and respective alma maters.If you can feel that confident and assured that your product you're offering, your solution, is good for yourself and your closest communities, then I think it's a testament to what it can do for the world.



Final Thoughts

Ecotone Renewables is making significant strides in the sustainability space, particularly in food waste diversion. Their innovative approach and community-focused mission set them apart as a leader in the industry.



For anyone interested in supporting their work or learning more about their products, feel free to contact Elliott directly at elliott@ecotonerenewables.com or visit their website (ecotonerenewables.com).





Curio412 is a consultancy for businesses and nonprofits who want to improve their bottom line, build relationships, and scale meaningful impact. We believe in creating lasting impact. Which is why we share knowledge and tell stories to keep nonprofits, business, social enterprises, and charitable organizations informed about current trends, ideas, and impact.

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