Food waste contributes to approximately 6% of total global emissions. Mi Terro makes use of spoiled milk and turns it into new textiles. In conversation with the CEO Robert Luo
Mi Terro, a company that aims to turn food waste into fabrics, has aims to tackle this issue head on. Food waste is food that is left uneaten, unused or discarded; The World Resources Institute describes it as «the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away». This wastage can happen at various stages of food production — from picking to consumption. It is attributed to overproduction and low demand. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 415 million tons of food is thrown away before distribution.
According to The European Commission, the EU generates 88 million tonnes of this, which has associated costs of around €143 billion. With large amounts of waste, comes environmental costs from production, harvesting, transportation, and packaging. It is appraised that this throwaway culture generates 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas, approximately 6% of total global emissions; three times more than emissions from aviation.
In their attempts to combat this problem, the Mi Terro team addressed the waste that occurs in dairy production. Robert Luo, the CEO of Mi Terro described how his realization «began when I was visiting my Uncle’s dairy farm in China in 2018, and I saw buckets and buckets of spoiled milk. That was my first exposure to the milk waste that we have in the world». And this wastage was not specific to his uncle’s farm; according to the Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 20% of dairy products are surplus and get discarded. And with the global pandemic of COVID-19, this problem has been exacerbated.
«Before COVID-19, data shows that around the world, more than 128 million liters of milk are discarded every year. Now more farmers are having to dump their waste product. Every single day in the US, 2.3 million tonnes of milk are discarded. This is because farmers do not have anywhere to sell this milk as it is usually sold to schools and restaurants which are all closed down. However, cows keep on producing milk even though there isn’t anywhere for it to go». Whilst milk is a natural product when thrown away, it has the potential to damage the environment as «it can clump together once it dries out. If it falls into a water stream, there is potential that it can sit there and block out the oxygen in the water which causes eutrophication. This will then have a major impact on marine life».
«There are a few avenues that can deal with the waste; to burn it as biofuel or dried to feed livestock but there is over-supply, and neither of these are beneficial for the environment». The options did not seem feasible for Luo’s uncle who asked him to find a solution to distribute the quantities of milk waste. «He wanted to make money from selling the spoiled milk. We undertook research to understand what parts of the milk we could isolate and utilise to help alleviate this problem, and to create something out of it».
Robert’s background is in business, and his co-founder Daniel Zhuang has a chemistry and material science background. They combined skills and began testing, consulting with an array of experts to understand ways to utilise this spoiled milk. «At every step we came across difficulties. From the technology side we had to work out how we could transform milk into a material that we could use. We then had to work out how we could spin it – to make the fibers into yarn and then fabric, and then into a t-shirt». Currently, their fabric is made from around 15-20% of spoiled milk, with one glass of milk making up five T-shirts.
Initially, their production relied on using the milk from Robert’s uncle’s farm, yet, as demand increased, they found that they needed to find other avenues to source their spoiled milk. To increase their reach, they began cold calling and sending emails, hoping that other farmers faced the same issue. Through their exposure, they have found that farmers have «reached out to us on the back of publications that we have featured in», giving them the opportunity to bring awareness and support to other farmers struggling with over-supply.
After collecting excess milk from a variety of sources, their patented process involves three steps to convert the milk amino acids (particularly casein) into a yarn. Their first step, Pro-Act (Protein Activation) is a technology which extracts casein molecules from the ‘bad’ milk, after the protein has been extracted, it is purified using Sea-Re (Self-assembly Purification) to turn it into a usable molecule in preparation for spinning using a process called Dynamic Flow Shear Spinning (DFS) which turns the protein into sustainable fibers. Over the past two years, Robert and his team have developed and tested yarn prototypes made from spoiled milk. The first version of their milk-to-clothing process took two months to complete and the team have been working to improve their fabric ever since.
They have been developing a second fiber which is «blended with viscose which has its own natural properties that will help it to boost the performance of our fiber and make it cheaper than organic cotton or modal». Despite viscose having potential drawbacks with respect to the chemicals used in its processing techniques, Robert believes that its benefits outweigh its potential costs «unfortunately there is no 100% eco-friendly fiber out there, every fiber requires a different chemical process in its production. There are many viscose producers in the world, and each has a different processing technique. We typically use Lenzing viscose, which is considered to be more sustainable than other types of viscose». Lenzing’s aim is to recycle the majority of the chemicals used in production of the fiber so that they do not end up leaching into the environment.
Keeping their use of viscose in mind, the development of their process, and their movement from their first fiber to their second, Mi Terro has tried to keep environmental impacts to a minimum, «production requires 60% less water than the process for organic cotton. Our fiber is 100% biodegradable and we do not use any petroleum which benefits the environment We reduce the amount of energy and water required to produce our textile. Saving food waste from landfill reduces the amount of CO2 produced in the world. If we can do less fracking or extraction of fossil fuel from the ground, then we are making major steps. Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, so if we can solve a problem for them, that is a big step for the industry». And these environmentally aware steps can seem even more important with
The material that they have created is not just beneficial for the environment but has properties that make it usable. «Unlike other protein-based materials, we have found that casein produces a soft fiber which is perfect for people who have skin allergies. On top of this it is moisture wicking and has anti-bacterial properties which is great for outdoor or casual wear».
Their product has been well received, and Mi Terro have experienced support which has helped them to remain focussed and positive about their goals to reduce food waste. With their reach extending to 40 countries, they have begun to focus on meeting the demand of larger companies «so that they can incorporate our material into their supply chain, to provide to their customer». Through this collaboration, they are seeing how their product can be used in wider markets.
Mi Terro’s goal is to move beyond dairy and look at ways to harness other food waste. «We have plans to use other protein-based food wastes to create these into fibers; we would like to find a way to replace plastic. The idea is to create a circular economy in which food waste can be re-engineered to produce a material that is recyclable or biodegradable and is able to replace petroleum chemicals. We are having a triple impact — with the packaging industry, the fashion industry, and the food waste industry».
With their aims on creating a lasting impression on these three areas, Robert sees an opportunity to redefine the circular economy. «It goes back to consolidating the supply chain. Food waste happens at either the retail or consumer levels. It is hard to collect food waste from the consumer, so we began to understand, and collaborate with food-processing centres and retail stores, to collect their waste. We found that they could provide larger volumes of waste in a cost-efficient way. We then translate this communication and collaboration to work with businesses who want to buy our fibre, and want to make a change in their supply chain».
With this reimagining comes the opportunity to benefit multiple parties in the supply chain. «Not only are we solving a problem for food processors, saving them cost from disposing of this food waste, we are also providing a solution. We try to make everything easier to streamline our process». And these benefits are seen by farmers and consumers, processors and textile companies. However, most of all the environment is able to reap benefit.
Mi Terro’s fabric is their starting point, as they attempt to make changes within the packaging, fashion and food-waste industries. Robert sees the work that they are doing as pivotal; opening up an industry to «educate people on this problem that we’re trying to solve». Whilst they have come against adversity from those who «do not understand what we are doing and who have never heard of anything like this before», it becomes more important to them to not let those doubts change their course.