Turn your food waste into fertilizer in a day with Zera (hands-on)

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Hi, I'm Megan, and I'm a grocery store junkie. See, I love food, so when I happen across a fruit I've never seen or a hard-to-find vegetable, I tend to snatch it up and ask questions later. Flash-forward a week and I've likely devoured a lot of what I bought, but those forgotten Japanese eggplants are well past prime. What to do?

Well, I could get better about meal planning, but in the meantime I have two main options: chuck the leftovers in a garbage bag bound for a landfill or toss them in a compost pile to make fertilizer. The first option is fast and convenient. The second option can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to over a year; the compost-to-fertilizer time frame can vary a lot depending on the size of the pile and your level of active involvement with it.

WLabs, the arm of Whirlpool Corporation tasked with designing, developing and manufacturing small-batch products on the quirkier side of the spectrum, has found a clever, albeit pricey, alternative to composting. The $1,199 WLabs by Whirlpool Corporation Zera Food Recycler claims to turn your food waste into fertilizer in just 24 hours.

The basics

The WLabs/Whirlpool team visited the CNET Smart Home here in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this month for an in-person demo of Zera. For now, Zera is just a prototype, but WLabs and Whirlpool Corporation plan to launch an Indiegogo campaign in early January. Depending on the success of that project, Zera will make its way to the broader market.

WLabs has set its earliest "Early Bird" pricing tier for Indiegogo backers at $699 -- a significant discount on that $1,199 MSRP. Previous WLabs products include the Vessi beer fermenter and the Swash "clothes refresher."

Similar to GE's FirstBuild, the Michigan-based WLabs seems like a research and development fan's paradise, a place where employees brainstorm ideas and rely on the adjacent microfactory to test concepts and produce functional prototypes. Zera is simply the latest WLabs creation, one that's being officially unveiled at CES 2017 -- fortunately, we got an exclusive early look.

First impressions

Chris Monroe/CNET

Zera looks like a very classy extra-tall kitchen garbage can with an integrated touch display and a related app (the software was still in development during our demo, but expect to be able to start and stop a Zera cycle remotely -- no third-party smart-home integrations are currently in the works).

Zera's exterior has a white finish and a plasticky bamboo-effect sliding top lid that gives you access to a garbage-disposal-looking interior compartment. Below that you'll find a second, slide-out compartment -- this is where you'll get your fertilizer post-cycle.

The idea is that you'll plug the included power cord into a nearby outlet and leave Zera as a 24-7 fixture in your kitchen. This device does looks pretty sleek, but it's also on the large side and not every kitchen layout will have a reasonable spot to permanently stick a Zera. It worked out pretty well in the CNET Smart Home kitchen lined up with the large center island, but some folks will have to get creative with placement.

Giving Zera a go

Zera is designed to hold up to 8 pounds of food, which according to Whirlpool is the rough equivalent to the amount of waste a typical family of four creates in a week. The idea is that you'll use Zera like a receptacle over that week -- tossing in apple cores, onion skins, moldy bread and whatever is left on your plate after a meal.

Every time you throw in something new and slide the lid closed, Zera is supposed to sense it and initiate a 2-minute process to push the food to the bottom of the main reservoir. This is supposed to help make room for more food to come, but it also serves as an initial step to prepare the food for "recycling" later on. I got to see this in action during the demo -- you can hear it, but it wasn't as loud as my dishwasher at home.

When you're ready to begin a cycle, simply hold the start button on Zera itself (or use the app, once that's up and running). I got to try this myself after tossing in whole apples, carrots, cheese, broccoli, dinner rolls, coffee grounds, tuna salad, cottage cheese -- all sorts of stuff. We didn't run a whole cycle, but I did briefly get to experience how a production-model Zera should work. Like those 2-minute preliminary runs, the main cycle was pretty quiet, although I don't know if it gets louder at different periods throughout.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The tech involved

Chris Monroe/CNET

Aside from the obvious convenience of an in-kitchen composter, Zera is also decked out with tech that reduces a weeks-long process to anywhere from 16 to 24 hours. The team told me it primarily uses heat and airflow to accomplish this. But there is one other component -- a small paper baggie containing coconut husks that have been transformed into uniform little pellets that look like rabbit food. Coconut shells have been used in gardening to supplement mulch for years, as they help retain water and their fiber contributes nutrients to fertilizer. It's the same idea here, but WLabs will sell manufactured four-packs for $12 a pop. Toss in a bag (really, just throw in the whole thing unopened) before you start a cycle and then you're ready to go.

WLabs said the coconut husks aren't absolutely essential to this process, but that "the quality of the homemade fertilizer will decrease" without them. Buy them or not -- it's really up to you.

WLabs brought Zera-made fertilizer to the demo so I could see exactly what the finished product should look like. For every 8 pounds of food waste, Zera makes about 2 pounds of fertilizer that's ready to be stored or to go straight to your next gardening project. A representative from WLabs listed off a variety of flowers and vegetables the team had already grown using Zera fertilizer.

Big picture

Whether you're deeply concerned about your food ending up in a landfill -- or you simply want to re-purpose those leftovers into food for your garden, Zera presents a seriously smart alternative to traditional composting. But $1,199 is a huge amount to spend, especially when you can buy standard, outdoor composting bins and related accessories for well under 100 bucks. At the same time, there's a huge convenience factor here that might make the price worthwhile for some.

And, if you get in on the action early, you can snatch one up for $699 -- a solid discount for early backers. We've already requested a review unit, too, so we'll be running our own cycles to see just how fast Zera works, as well as spending time testing out the companion app.

 

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Where to Buy

W Labs by Whirlpool Corporation Zera Food Recycler

Part Number: CNETWLABSBYWHIRLPOOLCORPORATIONZERAFOODRECYCLER

Visit manufacturer site for details.

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