Food waste is a major issue in the Middle East, with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment estimating it cost the UAE economy Dh13 billion in 2020 alone. A 2019 report by Dubai Carbon highlighted that 38 percent of food prepared every day is wasted, a number that leaps to around 60 percent during Ramadan.
Shocked by the statistics, Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI) students Dalilah Mansour, Kaya Tueni and Sana Mohamed were inspired to work on a potential solution to the growing food waste problem. The resulting product, Wastology, won a competition hosted by global energy giant Eni and later put on exhibition at the Expo 2020 Italian Pavilion as part of the Braiding the Future workshop.
Wastology is part kitchen gadget, part art installation: a circular smart composting system that offers an attractive alternative to traditional compost bins.
Organic trash is placed inside a central tube and automatically composted out of sight, thanks to high-tech humidity/oxygen detectors. When the composting is complete, customers receive an alert via app. Herbs and vegetables can be grown from the resulting compost, all in the same apparatus.
“It is like you have a small garden in your kitchen,” design student Kaya explains to Livehealthy. “It is very poetic because you are taking something that many people think has no value and is often just discarded, and creating value by using it to give something new life.
“Not only are you adding plants to your kitchen, you are also teaching kids how to use it so composting becomes something normal to them. We are very happy with the results, but we were surprised to be honest when we won — the competition was tough and there were amazing people with amazing products.”
DIDI, based in Dubai Design District, was established to address the growing need for talented designers and innovators in the UAE and beyond. Its curriculum was created in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design in New York.
“Using design and innovation to create a cleaner, greener future is an important part of our curriculum and wider efforts to prepare young people for the future of work,” says Mohammad Abdullah, president of DIDI.
“This competition was an opportunity for our students to demonstrate how complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking can be used to create scalable products that promote a transition to a circular economy. We are extremely proud of the winning project.”
Judges from Eni and Italian design firm Carlo Ratti Associati had encouraged entrants to create a product that would help raise awareness about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Wastology scored highly across the five competition indicators: originality, potential impact, feasibility, prototype, and communication impact.
“Our goal is to put this in the market and use this as a tool not only for decoration but to change people’s mindset about food waste and how we contribute positively to the community,” says product design and strategic design management student Sana, another member of the DIDI team.
“We feel like a small change can have a big impact on the environment and it starts with educating people how to use this item,” she says. “In Arab culture, composting isn’t something very common. We hope Wastology will help people be more aware of their behavior and what they can do to help the environment.”
A physical prototype of Wastology was first presented at Maker Faire Rome 2021 last October, and Kaya, Sana and Dalilah are now in the process of experimenting with different materials for the final, commercially viable product. They are simultaneously searching for investment to take Wastology to market.
“The products we’ve seen out there are mostly big, ugly composting bins that you stuff everything into, rotate it manually and then take it out,” Dalilah explains. “Not only is ours portable and easy to fit in everyone’s kitchen, but it is also great to look at as you have plants growing.
“It is a closed loop — first you have food waste, then you make compost and from that you grow plants and vegetables. Then you eat them, you have the leftovers, you use Wastology again. This circular economy is something we feel is very important.”
The three students behind Wastology are continuing to work on the project alongside their studies. It has been a substantial undertaking but Dalilah insists that the experience has been a valuable one.
“We are trying to find a balance between our university commitments, the project and our lives,” she says.
“The support we get from each other has been keeping us going. It has been like this throughout. We have put in so much effort and work in — fingers crossed we can see people using Wastology in the UAE and around the world in the future.”
Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.