Chris O'Brien | January 30, 2023
It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than $160 billion worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.
Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris O’Brien, CEO and Founder of Hungry Giant.
Chris O’Brien is originally from Australia. He got his start in the waste industry when he observed styrofoam going into the trash in his early 20s. He invented a technology for small-scale generators that could compact and reduce the volume of the material at the source. Since then he has been focused on equipment solutions for diverting waste from landfill. Chris has built and sold several businesses in the Waste Industry over the last 18 years. His company Hungry Giant Waste Systems specializes in innovative food waste recycling technology, now based in Austin Tx. Chris and his team have grown the company more than 300% over the last 12 months. Chris attributes their success to having great products, but also business leaders are taking greater responsibility for their environmental impact.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! Well, I was working in a big box retail store back in 2006 called “The Good Guys” in Australia. I was the “Thursday late-night shopping guy” who loaded goods from the warehouse. Often we would unpack those goods to fit them in customers’ cars and I saw how much trash was generated. In particular, I saw how much-expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) went into the trash. It weighed nothing and took up a bunch of volume. I thought “there must be a better way”? But there wasn’t. There were only large-scale centralized commercial facilities that could handle it. So I set about (very naively mind you) designing a machine that could crush and compact the styrofoam. I patented it, got some government grants, built these machines, and somehow made it through those treacherous startup years! I really like to solve problems. I was able to save all this material from going to landfill, but in the process, I was able to commoditize the output. That is how Hungry Giant started, and it still has the same ethos today, just with food waste instead of expanded polymers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?
I have had many interesting stories over the years. It has been a really tough journey overall, but the story I can share that will have the most value to your readers is how I ignored my advisors. I was about 3 ½ years into my journey. I had no idea how to run a company. No idea how to build machines, make them safe, or even how to scale manufacturing. I had no idea how to market. I had an idea, a fire in the belly, and a whole lot of delusional confidence. Some would call it naive stupidity. I was under-capitalized and yet here I was doing deals with multinational trash companies and national retailers. I sold on enthusiasm and after-sales service. I picked up a big account in the early days, we had several machines scattered all over the place. I had no service or maintenance infrastructure so I often ended up doing it myself. I had extinguished the government grant funds and customers needed my help. I had accrued debts in the business, but I was doing everything- so if machines broke down, then I wasn’t selling. I was the janitor one minute and CEO the next. My contracted CFO and government-funded advisor called me and said “ Chris, do you know how to read a P&L? Based on what I am seeing- you don’t- we need a meeting.” my heart sank. I knew I was chasing my tail, but I was so focused on juggling the balls and being focused on my mission of reducing plastic to landfill that I had not looked at our cash flow woes. I had not paid myself a cent from day one. Luckily my partner (now wife Amanda) was working a corporate job and so she kept me fed and housed in the early days. He pulled me into his office and said “you are done. Finished. You can’t continue to operate- you need to close it down, I’m sorry Chris.” I have never felt so low. I think I cried that night. I had always told myself that the first few years would be tough, but I didn’t ever see it ending like this. I had a good idea. People loved the technology. I went home and discussed it with my partner. She has always been amazing and encouraged my hair-brained ideas. She said, “ we keep going, we keep trading, we get investors or we borrow money”. So that’s what we did. My advisor helped us to raise capital and I guess the rest is history. What is the lesson? Advisors mean well, but not all advisors can build businesses. Perseverance pays off.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made more mistakes than I did successes. Where do I start? The first machine I invented was a styrofoam recycling machine. I built this machine that was essentially a hammer mill. It ground the expanded styrofoam up into little pieces. I thought I was a genius. I managed to convince a big box retailer (who ended up being my first-ever customer) to use my machine on a trial basis. It was a wonderful gentleman called David Wenden- The Good Guys Chatswood, in NSW Australia. The day came. We installed it. Everyone is crowding around. The operating principle was a shredder, and then underneath a big plastic bag to capture the styrofoam. The thinking was that this material could be simply bagged and resold as bean bag filler. We started running the unit, everyone was clapping and excited. Then a gust of wind came and started blowing tiny pieces of expanded styrofoam all over the parking lot. What had started as a highly anticipated green initiative was quickly turning into an environmental disaster! We stopped the unit, everyone was laughing as we were all running around the parking lot vacuuming up loose pieces of styrofoam. Needless to say, I went back to the drawing board lol.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Always be prepared to get your hands dirty. Do anything in your business. Never expect anyone to do something that you would not do. Treat people as humans. Not subordinates. And make those around you the best that they can be. If they are happy, fulfilled, and successful, they will not only make your life easier but also the business will benefit. Culture is everything. Be jovial. There are times to be serious and focused, but there must be a concerted effort to have fun. After all, we spend the majority of our lives working!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Attitude is more important than aptitude. I teach my kids this. Nobody starts out being the best- at anything. It’s those who have a good attitude toward learning, those that have a dedicated approach to self-improvement and focus on acquiring skills/knowledge that achieve the most in life. If you have a good attitude, you will attract abundance and success. You may be the worst player on the team when you start, but if you have the right attitude you can end up being one of the best.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?
I would say Food waste is defined as post-consumer food scraps, out-of-date produce, or trimmings from kitchens known as prep waste.
Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?
Overproduction, under-consumption, or inefficient use of the resource. Food waste is a given though. Every human needs it to survive. Sadly, we live in a society where food waste is inevitable. We are excited though to be at the forefront of solving these problems for places that generate larger volumes of food waste, and we can now turn it into a higher-value commodity.
What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?
Some companies utilize food banks to donate surplus. This is great for one cause, surplus food. But when it comes to plate scrapings or prep waste- these obviously cannot be donated to food banks. Sometimes food banks cannot accept certain items, either because it is too spoiled for them to reuse, or it’s too much of a certain type of food that they would struggle to then pass it on. On the commercial side, companies struggle with what is left and what is actually considered waste, and that is where we can come in.
Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?
We have a new certification called “Plate2Farm” which certifies restaurants that use our equipment to recycle their food waste on-site. It’s a great initiative that allows restaurants, clubs, offices, hotels, and any facility that generates commercial volumes of food waste, to recover costs associated with the equipment. The output that comes out of our technology reduces food waste volumes by 70–90% and in turn, it creates logistical efficiencies. We can get the biomass soil amendment from those locations where we send it to our compost partners for further refining. Those businesses become self-sufficient, landfill-free and they are creating a valuable commodity out of food scraps. There are many markets across the US where composters are already at capacity. City mandates and laws are being introduced effectively banning food waste from being put in the trash, and yet the composters do not have the capacity. Our on-site technology helps support the decentralized processing of food waste and moves the material toward a higher-value product than compost.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?
I think the community, for the most part- if given the choice to recycle, to contribute to a worthwhile cause, will take part. Government has a responsibility to incentivize businesses, to incentivize waste generators. Government has to support the reuse or redistribution of food waste by supporting food banks. The next stage is for governments to create tax incentives or subsidies for the implementation of decentralized management of food waste. There is no single solution to this problem and the sooner legislators realize this, the better.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
When you have a great new idea and you size up the market- divide it by 4. When you think you have worked out how long it will take- triple it. When you think you have worked out what it will cost to develop? Quadruple it. If it still makes sense, go for it.
I reflect on my professional journey and I think the harsh lessons taught me resilience. Yes, I wasted time and money. Had I been better educated, better focused, but that was my journey. I think the best advice I can give anyone is to be diligent but also trust the process. Have a basic understanding that anything you do needs to solve a need or fix a problem. If it does neither of those things, then it is likely not worthwhile. Get yourself a basic understanding of business and learn your weaknesses fast. Think strategically, often. And most of all, think big. You will surprise yourself with what you can do in a lifetime.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
There are many good organizations that are combating food waste. It’s a collective effort. It’s corporations with their decarbonization objectives and plans. Its families composting their food scraps, its food banks, and community gardens. It’s commercial composters and innovators in that space that are seeking out new and better ways to create higher value use for their products. Not one organization or community can solve the food waste problem, but if we look at it collectively and with the common goal of reducing, reusing, and commoditizing food as a resource, the leachate in landfills are reduced, logistics is reduced, emissions are reduced, and we have successfully created something of value, out of waste material.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Eat the end of the cucumber, it won’t kill you. Don’t peel the potato- eat it. Do your bit to reduce food waste!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Well given that I live in Austin, it would have to be the main man himself- Mr. Musk. would love to have a person of influence get behind an actionable environmental cause.