#20 | Amanda Weeks - Ambrosia: Champion on Combining Waste Management with Closed-Loop Manufacturing
In this episode of Sustainability Matters Today, I interview Amanda Weeks, CEO and co-founder of Ambrosia and #Champion on Combining Waste Management with Closed-Loop Manufacturing.
Providing a solution to our massive food waste problem while simultaneously creating sustainable products and commodities, Ambrosia was founded by Amanda and became the first closed-loop manufacturing company launched to specifically address the circular economy. With the hopes of recovering some of the 40 percent of food that ends up in landfills, she developed an anaerobic fermentation to breakdown food waste and turn the resulting byproduct into organic fertilizers and natural surface cleaners. She recently launched their first product, Veles, the first closed-loop, all-purpose household cleaner derived from food waste.
This award-winning manufacturing company, was recently recognized as one of the winders of Waste360 2020 40 under 40 Awards, which recognizes innovators in waste and recycling industry.
Please make sure to subscribe to the Sustainability Matters Today podcast to learn more about other champions of sustainability like Amanda.
I hope you enjoy the episode!
Daniel: I'm joined by Amanda Weeks, co-founder and CEO of Ambrosia. Thank you very much for joining me, Amanda!
Amanda: Thank you for having me! This is a very exciting time at the company and I'm really excited to talk to you about it.
Daniel: Awesome! Well, I'm really looking forward to hearing all of that. And so, just so we can tell them, I see it a very cool photo in the background. Where are you taking this call from?
Amanda: I'm taking this call from our office in Manhattan. We're part of a co-working space called primary, so I'm just in one of the conference rooms in my office.
Daniel: Oh, cool! Very fun! And so, the reason I wanted to speak with you, and I'm really thrilled that you started by saying that this is a very exciting time for Ambrosia and we'll looking forward to hearing all about it. For the people who are listening and who aren't familiar with Ambrosia, what I wanted to speak with you about is the fact that you create liquid clean products, at least that's the first thing and we're talking about basically sprays like for counters and different surfaces. And what's interesting about is that these products are usually about 90% water if not more. That was just a little bit of active ingredients in there. And as you said on your website, and I'm just giving some context for the listeners, you're overachiever achievers, so you've made one, which is called “Veles”, where the water and the active ingredients come from food waste. And you've essentially figured out how to isolate and purify water from food waste. And by doing that, you're diverting food waste from landfill and you're saving clean water. And on top of that it's $20. So there's a lot to unpack here and I can't wait to hear a lot more about it. For the people who are listening, we're all about sustainability here. So can you start us off by explaining why this work is important for the environment?
Amanda: Sure! So, I'm a native New Yorker and I grew up near what used to be the biggest landfill in the world - that was New York, Mary landfill for a few generations. It's now closed, but that means that actually our waste from the city, which is a huge quantity, is traveling further and further and further away to landfills because nobody wants them around which is very expensive and any of the emissions from the trucks is one thing and then a landfill is the third largest contributor to methane emissions in the United States. Methane being a much more potent gas and CO2 in the short term at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And so, food waste is something that I've been working on for six years now and touches upon your many pressing issues of today, whether that be climate change, whether that be resource use, consumer responsibility, corporate responsibility and water.
Daniel: Excellent! And so, you mentioned about the local aspect of garbage really. And that's something that never really thought of actually. I've always just considered if it goes to the landfill, it's bad. But actually what you're saying is that there are various degrees of bad when it comes to the landfill because if you're basically throwing away and it's going to close landfill that's requires less miles than having it go far, far away to travel.
Amanda: Right! It's just an extra issue on top of that. I prefer that we didn't have landfills but it's just an element of managing our waste that has become even more burdensome and unsustainable, which is how far away we have to take it.
Daniel: And with this element of water because like, well, you said, and I repeated it at the beginning, the food waste that you're using is actually where the water comes from for your products. So what's the benefit of using the water from food waste rather than just filling it up from the top?
Amanda: So, you're talking about concentrates. So when you buy a cleaning product that's a concentrate and then you add water to it from your tap, you're using water that was treated for drinking. And treating water for drinking has a very expensive, very energy intensive process. And so, you know, you are wasting drinking water, you're wasting the resources that were put into making that water possible to drink and then it depends on where you live, but we're dealing with water scarcity in some areas, not so much in New York City, but definitely other areas of the country and around the world. And a 16 ounce cleaner, which is what we're making, like every household in the US used to 16 ounce cleaners a year - that's the equivalent of wasting 16 million gallons of water.
Amada: And so, if we can use water from another source that's not meant for drinking, but it's safe to use in other products, we can save a lot of our fresh water for drinking and for other uses.
Daniel: Right! So it's the knock-on effect as well because it's not just the water, it's like you said, the energy required to clean that water and that contributes or it goes back to where the energy is coming from, whether it's coal or, well, hopefully not, but whether it's somewhere else.
So going to the actual food waste part, because I find this really interesting in terms of, I'm just really curious to know how it works. Essentially, you get food waste and I'm picturing all sorts of things. So can you kind of walk us through it? I guess first question, where exactly does it come from?
Amanda: So, I'll start out by saying that food waste on average is 75% water. That's what makes it so heavy when you throw it in the garbage. And so, we have a demo facility right outside of New York City and we work with trucking companies. So we work with waste haulers, waste collectors. Right now, our facility partners with a waste hauler that is bringing us food waste primarily from Google's office in Manhattan. And so, and that's everything - that's completely mixed food waste. We've received whole fish before. We get all sorts of pre-imposed consumer food waste from their cafeteria.
Daniel: You see that much food waste. I mean, the fact that a whole fish is just being thrown away, that's a whole separate topic, but okay.
Amanda: Yeah! It's something that we talk about a lot. So our facility, those kind of like a brewery and our first product is that it's cleaner because it was actually something that we stumbled upon accidentally as a by-product of this process as we were developing it.
Daniel: So, you were just developing this process. Did you have anything in mind as you were developing it or just trying to figure out how to actually process everything?
Amanda: A little bit of both. We were originally focused on making fertilizers which remains still - which we may still do, but this felt like where it was a little bit different. There are other food waste companies that are trying to make fertilizers.
Daniel: Yeah! It seems like a natural way to go.
Amanda: And so, we decided to explore this. So that was in 2017. And then we continue to trial - that we send samples out to third party labs to test it as a cleaner on different surfaces against other products from conventional to national cleaners and it performed really well and outperformed our expectations. And we were like, “Oh, that's interesting”.
So then last year, we worked with a design firm to work out all of our branding, our packaging design, our website actually - what you've seen is a splash page. We're just about to launch our full site tomorrow.
Daniel: Tomorrow. Just for people listening today is the 29th of January. So tomorrow is the 30th of January. So that's when we'll probably be publishing this after that has come out. So for people listening, they will see the new site. I guess for reference, we can quickly share the screen here just so we can see what the current site looks like.
And go ahead and, sorry to interrupt. So you're going to be publishing the newest or moving away from this splash screen to a full site.
Amanda: So this splash page is just for pre-ordering. We've had this up for the last couple of months and it's just a single page website. We just bottled our first run of inventory yesterday.
Daniel: Oh wow! Congratulations!
Amanda: Yes, thank you. So tomorrow will be is launching our full e-commerce site and have bottles ready to ship immediately. And so, some of this will still be here. It's going to look similar, but it will be more expanded, more information. And we're also going to start working on a refill program. So the bottle is $20 because it's reusable. And most reusable cleaning products like the concentrates generally sell their first item for, you know, between $20 and $40. So we're actually priced accordingly.
And then for our refills, we're looking at selling four packs that will be $3 each. So we're so fine tuning that and working out the pricing. We're trying to get that price as low as possible. But you know, this is a metal bottle, so you know, it's more expensive to make that a plastic bottle and it's painted with this sort of like terracotta, like rubbery coating and it feels really nice.
Daniel: It's really nice to hold.
Amanda: And so, an aluminum is infinitely recyclable, whereas plastic and glass are not. It can be back on the shelf in two months. There's aluminum that's been in circulation since 1940s. It's cheaper to make aluminum products from recycled aluminum and then from raw aluminum. I think right now it's really for packaging the most circular material that you can use.
Bioplastic still have a long way to go in terms of being able to be recycled. Right now, they kind of just contaminate the plastics recycling stream because the plastics recycling facilities can't tell them apart. And then same thing when you go to a compost facility, you can't tell plastic and bioplastic apart, so they just sort them all out before composting.
So there's other needs to be an end-of-life strategy for bioplastics which there isn't right now. And so we felt that that aluminum, and all of our bottles are overstocked. So we work with a domestic supplier to source surplus aluminum standard or sized aluminum bottles. So we're not, we're also not manufacturing them.
Daniel: Or what do you mean by overstock exactly?
Amanda: So it's like surplus. If a company buys the standard bullet-shaped 69 bottle -
Daniel: Absolutely made like tons of them are made.
Amanda: Right! And then, so if another company buys them and then it has too many, they work with this dealer that we work with where we purchase excess bottle that are all already exist, that have already been made.
Daniel: Okay. That's great. So you're not actually requesting any manufacturing done on your behalf, really.
Daniel: I noticed that the top is for the people listening, they can't actually see it. So I noticed that the top is - doesn't look like it's made from aluminum.
Amanda: That's correct. So the top is plastic. Here's the best off the shelf option. But it's clear and there are no metal parts in it. So usually, you know, there's like a metal spring. And so, when you have a plastic piece that has other parts in it that are like other types of plastics or other types of materials, it can be recycled. So we chose a trigger that doesn't have any other parts, is also clear. Clear plastic is the most valuable because it can be re-dyed. Any other type of plastic has to be dyed black when it's recycled and it's less valuable on the market.
Daniel: And bioplastic is even recyclable from what I understand.
Amanda: That's new information for me. But that's probably, it could be because of the downgrade. So it can be because bioplastics already been recycled and then it probably can't be recycled again.
Daniel: I've also heard.
Amanda: Go ahead.
Daniel: Sorry. I've also heard that, I'm not sure how true this is, but I've heard that basically the camera's on these machines that pick out the plastic, they have a really hard time seeing black plastic because it's like a negative space exactly.
Amanda: Oh, right. Absolutely. Yeah. There's a lot of, as I was saying before about bioplastics, you know, the way that our recycling system is run today is all is very much relies on sorting, and that's all optics.
Daniel: Right. So, yeah, camera isn't perfect. I mean the human eye can pick it up because we know what it is as well, but you essentially have to program a camera to figure it out which can be a bit tricky. So I mean that's really cool in terms of your bottles - I think that's, it's a unique way to do and I actually didn't realize that aluminum is, first of all, infinitely recyclable, and second of all, it's cheaper to use recycled. So, it's actually even better because you're actively not wanting to go out into the world and dig up new stuff.
Daniel: Going back to the food waste, just because it's kind of where we started and I still have unanswered questions in my mind. So you get a whole fish from one of the local companies. And I really like the picture of the fact that whoever's using this product is cleaning with the whole fish. Although again, food waste isn't it, but…
Amanda: They're not cleaning with a whole fish. They do really want to make sure that everyone knows there is no food waste in here. We use food waste as a feed stock, like any other kind of organic chemical production. So it's water organic acids and alcohol that are all derived from food waste. But there's no food waste residues or food waste products in here.
Daniel: It make sense. It's almost like there's vinegar or something in there that basically kills all the germs in a way. That's what it sounds like to me.
Amanda: And it's a process that we actually proved out with the state of New York. So the state of New York Environmental Regulatory Office funded a study to prove that our process was safe and to prove that our process did sterilize the incoming food waste. And that was several years ago and we did that in connection with getting our permit.
Daniel: Cool! So its seal of approval is there. It really is clean. Well, that's really great to hear. And you mentioned fish, you mentioned all sorts of food waste. So it really is anything and everything.
Amanda: Yes! We started this company to create solutions for food waste, not necessarily to make products from food waste. That needs to be a part of the equation because we need to have end markets. But our first priority is to really provide scalable and sustainable waste management infrastructure to prevent food waste and potentially other biodegradable waste from going to landfill.
Daniel: So that the whole concept is to make sure that nothing food waste wise goes into landfill.
Daniel: So that's a big part of it. And so where, I mean, do you get the food for food waste for free or do you have to actually pay for it?
Amanda: No, we get paid for it.
Daniel: You get paid for it. Oh, even better. That's cool! So yeah, I'm assuming…
Amanda: It's an expensive process.
Daniel: Yeah. So I'm assuming it's cheaper for companies to basically pay you to take it rather than to ship it far away or like to the other side of the state.
Amanda: Right! So they do have to pay no matter what. That's how the whole industry works. So they either have to send it a hundred miles away to a landfill and then still pay at the landfill rr they come to us. And part of our approach is that, our process was developed to be able to operate indoors without odor in smaller spaces so that we can have some of these micro facilities around cities. So they're taking trucks off the road and they're providing a more local option, which then also creates a huge cost savings for the whole value chain.
The trucking companies, the food waste generator so for example, a restaurant pays a private waste hauling company to collect their waste and that private waste hauling company has to take it somewhere and they have to pay wherever they go. And so, we're just providing an alternative that's closer. In addition, many cities like New York have also passed laws to regulate food waste being recycled, so there are many businesses in New York City. If there is a food waste processing option available, they have to, by law, send their food waste there.
Daniel: Oh wow! So, okay. So you count as that. Okay, Very cool. So I was reading that your, that the way your design, the way your these little factories, I guess for lack of a better word are or facilities are built that I really liked this term “pop up modular design” was in one of the articles I read. What does that mean? I mean, how does that work?
Amanda: So a major part of our thesis is that we want to reuse buildings. So many times these types of facilities require purpose-built spaces on many, many acres. And so, what we have done in our demo facility, we're actually reusing a former meat packing plant that was abandoned. And so, the idea of pop up in the waste industry, you know, which is a very big and very slow industry. It means that if, because we're not building a whole plant, we can sort of pop up inside of an existing sort of empty warehouse space and because we have a system that is modular as another aspect that allows us to kind of quickly deploy and quickly scale up.
Daniel: Yeah, absolutely! It makes sense. Makes sense. There were a couple of terms that I think are really interesting to cover that are mentioned on the website and just are part of your ethos. So the first one is closed loop. What is that?
Amanda: Close loop is a system in which you are creating a product that can then go back into being a product again, as opposed to the concept of cradle-to-grave versus cradle-to-cradle. So to be able to you know, to recover resources and materials from the system and then use them again in order to create a new product.
Daniel: So that to me sounds like circular economy basically.
Amanda: Yeah. That mean they're pretty much, very similar.
Daniel: Yeah. I think it's really important, especially considering that once it's, there's so many reasons to go with a circular concept, one of which is, I mean, as you said, recycling aluminum is cheaper, so there is potentially a lot of money to be saved in that process. Also, I think what people sometimes forget is that to create a new product is a lot of energy and then we have all of these - basically these products - that are just thrown away when hopefully the idea is that you can actually reuse all the elements and not have to create new stuff from scratch.
And there's another one that you use as resource negative. And that really interesting to me, that sounds kind of like, it sounds similar to a carbon negative. So what is resource negative?
Amanda: So, it's a term we made up. And similar to carbon negative, we wanted to apply that type of methodology to resource use. So for us when we're making this product, we're taking a waste material that could have gone to landfill and instead we're using it to replace ingredients and products that would take raw resources to make. So we're saving raw resources from being used and keeping them in the environment. And then we're also removing carbon by diverting waste from landfills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so, it was a sort of that choose two sides of that on that we want to marry together to create the concept of resource negative.
Daniel: And you mentioned that when you were first testing this out, that going back to the actual product, that you were surprised by how well it worked. So for people listening, how well does it work?
Amanda: Well, we either performed competitively or outperformed leading glass and stainless steel cleaners. We outperformed in cleaning different types of soils. So there are some standardized lab soils for cleaning. One is called Hucker’s soil. It's intended to recreate actually fecal matter and it's a test of cleanliness and hospital settings. And we performed well on that. We also perform while on a soap scum soil as well as tests for RL use. And those are called reflective light units. And that's a measurement of kind of organic matter on a surface. And that's used a lot in and food prep cleanliness or observation. And so, we also performed well on those tests.
Daniel: Wow! Fantastic! So can Veles be used in like a hospital setting or a food, like a professional food prep setting?
Amanda: It depends. That's something that we are not currently claiming or we're focused on households right now. I think it just depends on the application.
Daniel: Got it! But what you're saying is that the way the tests have been run people should feel or, and can feel very confident using this product.
Amanda: Yeah, it's more a matter of you know, it can be very expensive to register for certain commercial uses and so we have not done that. And so, we are currently not trying to have the product we use in those settings.
Daniel: Got it! That makes sense. And so, in terms what's next to you said this is a very exciting time. So, what exactly are we in addition to tomorrow's launch of the new website, what else is kind of in the works?
Amanda: Well, I mean that.
Daniel: That’s the big one.
Amanda: This is the big one. We just bottled all of our product yesterday where we're rolling out our whole website tomorrow where people could start ordering. We’re going to have probably some more media coverage coming out. We're going to start really building out our Instagram presence. And then we're going to be shifting our focus to what's next for us. And so that's something that next month my team and I will be sitting down to discuss our next priorities and what we want to make next.
Daniel: And so, aside from being a food waste Alchemist turning garbage into liquid gold, what do you do in your daily life to be environmentally friendly to inspire some of the listeners here?
Amanda: Excellent question! I like Alchemist. That's good. I really do. I was going to use that. Well, I tried to eat meat very minimally. I would say eat red meat about once a month. I eat vegan probably two thirds of the time, so I tried to eat plant-based whenever I can, but I also don't believe in and limiting yourselves . I believe that a balance like that is probably a more easy to maintain for people. And then also, you know, I tried to avoid these plastic wherever I can, I will run away if you try to offer me a plastic bag. And I guess you know, another thing is that I tried to stay active. And also for stress management, for entertainment. I try to be very active and I actually don't spend a lot of time watching television and things like that. I try to be more outside things like that - that's another thing.
But it's mostly just you're trying to be conscious of my consumption and trying to avoid plastic. And then trying to, you know, buy organic, buy and support responsible products. I'm very into clean beauty and clean skincare brown. So, that's another area that I'm very interested in.
Daniel: I think those are all really good points. I like especially what you said about going outside because that's I mean I think that's so important. And there's studies, all sorts of different studies talking about how important it is just to be in nature and how good that is for your health. And I think it's also kind of what you're saying is just a good reminder that we are part of nature and it feels so good to be there, so we should respect it. Nothing like just taking a long walk in the forest or by the beach or something. So, for people who are interested in learning more about Veles purchasing a product, following you, getting more updates, where are the best places for them to go?
Amanda: So our website is Veles.com, V-E-L-E-S.com. And then our Instagram handle is @VelesOfficial.
Daniel: So yeah, VelesOfficial for people who are interested in falling on social and for people who are interested in buying once this is launched. I understand you're currently only in the US.
Daniel: Cool! And will there be plans to expand globally at some point?
Amanda: Yes. I think that that will follow any expansion plans on the waste management side of the business. I think that, we'll see, but I would prefer not to ship this product internationally. I will preferred to as we expand our waste processing capabilities that we will, you know, that was something we'll be implementing internationally. Then I think that we will be building those facilities and building out those end products based on the local market and maybe different products. But at this point, I'm not sure, I think it would be maybe a little bit counterproductive to ship this product internationally.
Daniel: It makes sense. And there's plenty of people in the US as well who will benefit a lot. I think also if you're able to set up these facilities and divert landfill waste in every country around the world ideally that's way better than just shipping waste from the US because all countries have food waste. So they certainly could do with a little bit of diversion there.
So thank you so much for your time, Amanda. This has been a lot of fun, really interesting. And again, for people who want to purchase the product, that's veles.com. And best of luck with the launch!
Amanda: Thank you! Thank you so much!
Thank you very much for listening to this episode
If you’d like to learn more about Amanda Weeks and Ambrosia, please visit ambrosia.io. You can also check out and pre-order Veles at veles.com.
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