CEO & Co-founder Amanda Weeks’ experience growing up in NYC, near what was formerly the largest landfill in the world, inspired her from an early age to find a better way to dispose of and process waste. After learning that food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills – accounting for over 20% by weight – creating an organic waste solution was a natural starting point. In 2014, Amanda left her career in consumer marketing and analytics to launch Ambrosia, a closed-loop manufacturing company working to valorize food waste by using it as a catalyst to reimagine common resource intensive and water-based products. Veles is Ambrosia’s first product to market; it’s the world’s first closed-loop all-purpose cleaner with 97% of its ingredients scientifically derived from food waste. We virtually sat down to chat with Amanda about her journey!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background!
I’m a New York City native, and can trace my roots back to the British resettlement of New York. However, much of my close family history is through the working class immigrants of the 1800s. My grandfather was born in 1918, in what is now Flatbush, when there were still farms and mountain goats in Brooklyn. My other grandfather was born in 1890 (he was a bit older when they had my mother..) and actually served in WWI. So I have this very immediate connection to the history of New York, as I only have to go back a few generations to get to the 19th century.
So it’s no surprise that I would be drawn to one of the city’s timeless problems: waste. Did you know that much over lower Manhattan is man-made and built on trash, or that modern waste collection practices were basically invented here?
Why Veles? How did this product get created?
Over the last several years, cities and states across the country have begun to pass laws to slow down landfill usage. Food, the single largest component of landfills, has been one focus of those efforts. Food waste is tricky – it’s tough to handle but has a lot of potential. It’s actually a really valuable source of organic and inorganic compounds. Veles, an all-purpose cleaner made almost entirely from food waste, is Ambrosia’s first product to market; it’s the result of years of research to develop novel uses for food waste beyond compost or biogas.
Food waste and a household cleaner probably couldn’t sound further apart, but they’re actually connected by water. Household cleaners are at least 90% water, and food contains 75% water on average. So we use the organic compounds of food waste to manufacture common cleaning ingredients, and then recover the water from that process. Each bottle saves four pounds of greenhouse gas emissions and two cups of water.
Where do you source your materials?
97% of our cleaning solution is derived from pre and post-consumer food waste. We partner with commercial waste haulers, who collect separated food waste from their clients. Rather than drive hours to a landfill or compost facility, they deliver it to our local biorefineries. Not only does this save money, but it takes heavy duty trucks off the road. We have temporarily stopped production, but prior to COVID, much of our food waste was coming from corporate cafeterias. As we scale up, we will source from other businesses as well as municipalities just like a typical recycling facility.
Why is this important?
Food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills, accounting for over 20% of waste by weight, and landfills are a primary contributor of methane, which is a gas 84 times more potent than CO2. In addition, throwing away food also represents a major loss of water. Inside the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted globally each year is 45 trillion gallons of water.
Project Drawdown, a nonprofit focused on measuring climate solutions, just released its updated list of necessary actions to tackle climate change. The number one recommendation (of 76) listed before utility scale solar energy or tropical forest restorations, is to reduce food waste. We’re not only reducing food waste by diverting it from landfill, we’re using it to create a new, more sustainable version of a product that would otherwise be resource-intensive to produce.
What trends do you hope to see in sustainability in the next five years?
TRULY SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING. Through our experience getting Veles to market, we’ve seen a serious lack of sustainable materials for product design and packaging. At the same time, we’ve also witnessed a lot of greenwashing in the packaging industry. Many companies claim to have sustainable packaging materials, but almost invariably, they will use some element of plastic – even if it’s hidden in the overall construction (e.g. used as a lined material so you can’t see it). This renders it unrecyclable. It’s impossible for the recycling ecosystem to separate a composite of plastic and other materials.
This dovetails with a lack of education and awareness of consumers for how waste management works. There are two parts: one is collection, and the other is market. Just because a company like Tetra-Pak lobbies municipalities to collect drink pouches in the recycling stream, it doesn’t mean there’s a market for them on the other side. Actually, most recycled plastic today doesn’t have a market. It’s too impractical to sort, clean, and separate at scale.
What do you recommend for people who want to support the Veles mission?
Buy a bottle, of course. Ideally from AK! 😉 Educate yourself on the issues (follow us on IG for more on that), do your part on a personal level, and demand more from your brands. (Also – vote.)
Veles offerings are now available at the flagship Alchemist’s Kitchen location on 21 East First Street in the Bowery, and are forthcoming online.