The waste alchemist
Steve Morriss is elbow-deep in dirt laden with wriggling earthworms and he couldn’t be happier. One of the pioneers of the circular movement in Australia, having founded the enormously successful Close the Loop, Morriss has now shifted his considerable enthusiasm and acumen to tackling agriculture through his new venture, Circular Food.
Morriss oversees a growing team and burgeoning industry at a site in Somerton, in Melbourne’s north, turning Australia’s largest urban worm farm into gold. Circular Food uses vermiculture to transform food waste into liquid and solid fertilisers used throughout the food growing supply chain – everyone from major farmers to home gardeners.
Four million earthworms perform their feat of alchemy at the Somerton facility, converting around 200 kilograms a week of food waste into the organic fertiliser.
“I think I was born with a set of values that helped me to be aware of the need to reuse natural resources,” Morriss says. “I’ve always known we only have one planet and the way we are consuming is not sustainable.”
This kind of thinking translated into one of Morriss’ early business ventures, where he looked at the waste generated by used printer cartridges. His first instinct was to find a way to refill them. “That led to starting Close the Loop, where we provided collection and recycling services for printer manufacturers.”
Morriss says he has a passion for start-ups. “While I’m still a director of Close the Loop, I got to a point where I wanted to look at doing something else. I stuck my head out the front door and saw the problem of food waste and thought, ‘That’s something I can get excited about’. It’s a priority waste stream for all levels of government, so I started researching technologies that might be suitable.”
While compost was an obvious option, Morriss wanted to push further. “Compost certainly has great value to farmers and gardeners alike, but there are plenty of people doing that and not solving the problem quickly enough. The more I looked at technologies around the world, I kept coming back to the humble earthworm.”
Circular Food is a family venture with Morriss’ parents as well as his daughter Chloe involved in the business. “I didn’t start down this path because of my family; when it comes to the environment, Mum and Dad’s generation were blissfully unaware for a long time of the implications of human actions. Their awareness has been raised much more recently.”
But the ‘aha’ moment came for Moriss after he bought his first inkjet printer several decades ago. “The replacement cost for a cartridge back then was astronomical,” he recalls. “But what equally irked me was the expectation that I’d throw the old one in the bin.
“I thought the cartridge was way too good a resource and I wanted to find a way to resell it. I’d just come back from a world tour where I ended up in Hong Kong doing sales and marketing and I was looking for a niche.”
Where others saw junk, Morriss recognised the embodied value. “The cartridges had small amounts of copper and gold – and the prices of those were very high. Even the polymers had value.”
Internet research and a solid program of learning from people around the world who were already recycling cartridges put Morriss on his way. “Six months later, I teamed up with family members, we pooled our resources and started a cartridge recycling business in Carlton.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have strong family support all the way through and that includes shareholdings in Close the Loop and in Circular Food today.
“It’s funny, one thing Mum had before I knew anything about recycling or reusing resources was a worm farm on the balcony of our place in Strathmore. None of us had any idea back then that I’d turn it into a business.”
Of all his ventures so far, Morriss is most proud of the success of Close the Loop. “It employs almost 200 people in Australia and the US and there’s also been an acquisition in Europe. That’s a source of great pride for me – all those families supported from a single idea that popped into my head one day.
“Watching the people come through the business and see their careers evolve has been very satisfying, but I’m also proud of the technical innovations we’ve been able to develop, especially the patented technologies of eWood and TonerPave.
“While many people have realised there’s no such thing as waste, it’s another thing to turn it into something of value. I’m proud that we’ve been able to set our minds to the problems and issues we’ve encountered along the way and never give up.”
This article also appears in Issue 6 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.