Growing Ideas: A natural wastewater treatment

BioFiltro – how worms are cleaning up wastewater

Californian Red Worms eat just about anything. What’s more, they're always hungry. US company BioFiltro has harnessed these exceptional powers of digestion to treat wastewater so it saves energy, cuts carbon emissions and recovers natural resources.

Biofiltro is based out of Davis, California, but the story starts in Santiago, Chile. Matt Tolbirt is BioFiltro's CEO: “In 1994, the University of Chile developed technology that our founder, Matías Sjögren, commercialized. The technology used worms and microbes to treat wastewater and was introduced into parts of Chile that had no wastewater treatment.” Several years later, the technology was patented and BioFiltro was born. “Operations in the US began in 2013 and have spread to Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Spain as well as Chile.”

Water fit to irrigate

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the largest polluters of American waterways are not oil or chemical companies, but food companies. “It takes a lot of water to grow food, but also to process it for consumers," explains Tolbirt. “Food production generates wastewater that typically needs chemicals and energy to treat it; we use worms and microbes to clean that water, rapidly, on site, so processors can reuse it for irrigation or to reduce their discharge fees.

“Our worms clean waste water so you can irrigate the land with it”

- Matt Tolbirt, Biofiltro

“We also collect the microbe-rich worm castings every other year, by removing the top layer of the worm beds where the worms naturally push them, and putting them back down into the soil, replenishing its health and nutrient cycles.” Most wastewater treatment technologies solve one problem by creating another; producing dirty sludge for example that needs transport and disposal. “Ours is energy-efficient, creates reusable water and does not require chemicals.”

BioFiltro can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 90% in some cases and energy consumption by 95%. The company won the Highly Commended Award at Rabobank's recent FoodBytes! pitch competition in San Francisco.

“We can reduce energy consumption by some 95%”

- Matt Tolbirt, Biofiltro

Service-based business model

Alongside the revolutionary worm-based approach, BioFiltro has a 21st-century business model that Tolbirt even compares to Uber. “BioFiltro sells wastewater treatment as a service, putting up the capital for projects so customers don't have to; they pay a fixed monthly fee that starts only when the plant starts processing water. We design, engineer, permit, and build the treatment centers and then maintain them ourselves.”

Selling this new type of infrastructure can be a challenge, says Tolbirt. So can ignorance about just how much water customers actually use, and how dirty they make it. “They might say, okay, this is our data, design a system for us. We install our own meters, and come up with very different figures. They'll retreat in disbelief, only to come back and say: ‘You guys were right’.”

Cattle – and worms - feeding

Building on the customer story

More and more people care where their food comes from. “Consumers want to know how their food is processed, they want transparency. BioFiltro helps companies – from the big food processers to wineries, breweries, slaughterhouses and dairies – manage these changes and build on their story to the customer. We‘re currently looking at ways to add certification to packaging. We help clean up the food system in a regenerative approach, that’s where our focus lies. And we plan to be all across the US in five years’ time.”