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Why Waste, a New Zealand-based business, rents worm farms to organizations and households. The worm farm diverts food waste from landfills, which contributes to methane emissions, and instead turns it into compost that can provide nutrients for plants. It is a growing business that now offers subscriptions in cities throughout the country and has recently moved its base of operations to the capital of Wellington.
Vermicompost is hardly a new idea. One of the easiest and most environmentally friendly ways to deal with food waste is to feed it to worms. The worms' wastes—referred to as worm castings—is a nutritious fertilizer for plants. Leo Murray, founder, and director of Why Waste saw the need for a new type of business utilizing this old method. Many people who want to start composting feel that they lack the knowledge to do so or are hesitant to make the upfront investment. At this step, Why Waste comes in, offering businesses and households a monthly subscription to worm farms—bins filled with worms that will eat food waste placed within. The business specialists set up the farm on location and check in monthly to ensure the worm's health.
For Leo, Why Waste is part of a movement away from a linear economy, where resources are extracted from the earth and thrown away without a second thought, to a circular economy in which wastes are recycled and put to productive use. When food waste is thrown away to the landfill, as is too often the case, it cannot decompose properly, and so it emits methane, a greenhouse gas. By contrast, vermicompost breaks down the wastes naturally and turns them into essential fertilizers. Furthermore, Why Waste's business model reflects another trend of the circular economy: a shift away from an ownership model and towards one based on a subscription so that the company which makes a product is responsible for the end of its lifecycle. Why Waste started in Tauranga on the North Island of New Zealand, spreading throughout the country, offering memberships in Auckland, Dunedin, Hamilton, Rotorua, Tauranga, Wellington, and Whakatāne.
Leo has a deep association as a human-nature relationship with the environment, and Why Waste is just one iteration of this. He studied political science, international relations, and media studies at the university. After graduating amidst the Great Recession, Leo ended up working as a DJ. Over time, he pivoted into permaculture design, but this did not keep him satisfied. As he describes it, “I was designing other farms and backyards, and it was all great, but I didn't feel like I was having enough of an impact.” Leo started working as a sustainability consultant, specializing in waste management. He developed a particular interest in compost, and one day he agreed to lend a worm farm to a friend—a traveling chef who did not want to deal with the burdens of ownership.
From here, Leo realized the potential of this concept. The basic idea, as he describes, is, “I and some folks were traveling around the country to get someone to sign up, set them up with a worm farm, and empower them with all the right information so that they are feeding their worms the right way, not the wrong way.” After several years, Why Waste is fast on the way to becoming a nationwide company.
Leo identifies as Pākehā, the descendant of European settlers to New Zealand, but his inspiration lies with the Māori, the nation’s indigenous people. This inspiration is visible in Why Waste’s impact model, based on Māori values such as kaitiakitanga (guardianship of the natural environment), kotahitanga, and whanaungatanga (unity and community), and rangatiratanga (leadership and self-determination).
The consequences for the natural environment are mostly predictable. Roughly half of the waste sent to landfills in New Zealand is food waste. If we redirect the food waste, it will no longer be a polluting substance that emits methane but rather a fertilizer for plant life. As Leo puts it, “In permaculture, a common thing that we hear is the problem is the solution. And, you know, the problem is waste. The solution is soil.”
Moreover, he sees this as part of a cultural shift away from the linear economy and the wasteful consumption that comes towards a model where people are more connected with the natural environment and take responsibility for their wastes. In their small way, worm farms are part of “empowering local autonomy and collective, and decentralized action.” Through all this, Leo’s goal is that Why Waste is a company whose actions are “not just doing less bad, but doing more good.”
Why Waste is a growing business, currently offering memberships in Auckland, Dunedin, Hamilton, Rotorua, Tauranga, Wellington, and Whakatāne. Leo estimates that roughly two-thirds of subscribers are businesses and other organizations seeking to reduce their environmental impact, while the rest are households. Each of the over 100 subscribers pays NZD 40 per month to use the worm farms and access to specialist service. Social and environmental impact is a top priority for the people involved in the business. As Leo puts it, “we all are like a bunch of idealists who want to make a more beautiful world that our heart knows is possible, so we’re not savage advertisers“—but this has not stopped Why Waste’s steady expansion. According to Leo, the idea is the one that regularly attracts interest from organizations. While they are sometimes slow to turn that interest into a paying subscription, they are almost always happy with the service once they sign on.
In addition to this, Leo emphasizes his goal of creating a “regenerative income” for employees. The average person has limited time and resources to dedicate to causes they care about unless they can do it as part of their job. As such, it has become one of Why Waste’s purposes to “create employment for people that goes beyond sustainability and contributes to a thriving future on our living planet.“
Reducing food waste is Why Waste’s most prominent selling point. For Leo, this is an uncontroversial issue that nearly anyone can come together on. “They may disagree with me on several topics such as social and environmental policy, but they will all be pretty much like, ‘Yeah, waste sucks.’“ Indeed, there is no doubt that diverting food waste from landfills, thereby preventing methane emissions and leachate, is an important goal.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Why Waste business model enables a wide variety of positive changes as keeping wastes within households reduces the need for waste collection services by using fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Accessible gardening and growing own food promote resilience when supply chains are unreliable. As a result, worm farms will become more popular. Leo believes this will create a sense of community as people rely on each other for information and support. “If the worms are a bit sad, I will go to the neighbors down the road and get more worms out there and bring it back.“ This sense of belonging builds networks and a decentralized community. In this way, a simple business idea of lending worm farms becomes one small part of a societal transformation. As he summarizes it, “It's not even an economy, it's an ecology, it's a social ecology, and we have more connected individuals to the natural world, not living separately to nature, but within it as a part of participating in the broader story of life.“
Leo Murray, Founder
Founded in 2014 in Tauranga, New Zealand, Why Waste rents worm farms to organizations and households. Monthly subscribers receive a worm farm for composting and regular servicing. It is a growing business that now offers subscriptions in cities throughout the country and has recently moved its base of operations to the capital of Wellington.