Waste Not

A plastic composting gadget exemplifies tech’s desire — and failure — to smooth away the imperfections of life and death

Modernity has forced efficiency upon many life-sustaining practices. Old agricultural rituals of planting and harvesting have been standardized and reorganized to increase productivity — whether through vast expansions like horizon-spanning monoculture plantings of corn and soybeans or through techniques of compression, as with vertical farms and commercial hydroponics. At either end of the scale, the unruly rhythms of life have been molded into an exploitable form. But despite centuries of technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution, the most glaring inefficiency of organic systems persists: Living things continue to die. 

The shadow of death has long haunted quests for superabundance. English agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard, writing in the mid-20th century, cautioned that the proliferation of synthetic fertilizers had “left unbridged” the divide between “the two halves of the wheel of life.” In other words, farmers were so focused on accelerating crop growth that they neglected the processes of death and decay necessary to renew their land. Synthetic fertilizers led to explosive crop yields in the short term but also degraded the soil by destroying essential microorganisms. Meanwhile, the waste produced by urban consumers was not, in Howard’s words, “faithfully returned to the land” where it could decompose and give life to the next generation of plants. 

Like most environmental crises, this is an opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs

Although 21st century capitalism has found ways to profit from decomposition — industrial composting facilities now harness decay as a business model — vast inefficiencies persist. Most food waste ends up in landfills, where it emits enormous quantities of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. 

Like most environmental crises, this is an opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs. They hold that only by more fully monetizing the wheel of life can it be turned to our benefit. If their grandiose claims are to be believed, its power can even be harnessed to avert impending climate catastrophe. Naturally, their solutions do not involve slow, old-fashioned practices — the backyard compost pile or a neighborhood composting collective — but come in the shape of products that appear frictionless and personally convenient. 

Compost, sometimes called “black gold” by its proponents, is a nutrient-rich soil additive formed from the decomposition of organic matter: food scraps, yard trimmings, manure, and so on. Farmers and gardeners use it to dispose of waste, enrich soil, and stimulate plant growth. But traditional composting is inefficient and hard to square with slick images of modern urban living. What green capitalists offer is a technological fix in the form of a “revolutionary appliance”: Lomi, a $499 machine (plus a subscription service to maintain it) that promises, in the words of its successful $7.2 million crowdfunding campaign, to “turn waste to compost with a single button.” Its parent company, Pela, is known for its biodegradable smartphone case, which, in case you were wondering, can be disposed of in a Lomi. 

Described in this infomercial as a “solution to the world’s garbage problem,” Lomi promises to meld convenience and a zero-waste lifestyle, evoking a fantasy world in which “we,” the affluent urban consumers, can save the planet without getting our hands dirty. It replaces the incremental, messy vitality of composting with a quick, invisible, odorless process. Never mind that what it produces shouldn’t be called “compost.” Food can take weeks or months to decay into the bountiful “black gold” prized by gardeners, while unfinished compost can actually harm plants if mixed with soil. Lomi’s longest “mode” lasts 16 to 20 hours. 

As a soil scientist points out on YouTube, the machine’s method of dehydrating and grinding food scraps and the company’s proprietary microorganism pill both accelerate the composting process, but that only gets you so far. “Decomposition has to take the time it takes,” she says. Even Lomi’s user guide tells customers to put only a limited amount of the “dirt” it produces on their plants as fertilizer. If you use Lomi to break down biodegradable plastics or rely on its more convenient three-to-five hour “Eco-Express” cycle, most of what comes out still belongs in the trash, a green bin, or a home compost pile.

Lomi evokes a fantasy in which “we” can save the planet without getting our hands dirty

This raises a number of troubling questions. If you are mostly throwing away what the machine produces, why buy a Lomi? If you have a green bin program in your city, why buy a Lomi? If you already compost, why buy a Lomi?

A closer look at the machine’s advertising suggests that Lomi’s intended benefits are not necessarily material but ideological and spiritual. One advertisement states that Lomi is meant for people who lack “the luxury of time, space and know-how to have a backyard compost.” Little effort is spent explaining how it works — an odd decision for a product that purports to be the result of “a thousand compost tests” performed by engineers and material scientists. Instead, Lomi is positioned as an enchanted object. “Push the button and Lomi works its magic to breakdown your waste,” its website states. When the button lights up, it’s a sign that Lomi “is going to start its magic.” According to another company post, “It’s magic opening up the Lomi and seeing the objects disappear.”

Lomi also positions itself as an ideal product for customers who are just disgusted by the whole composting thing. Visitors to its website are greeted with the proclamation that Lomi is perfect for people who “don’t like cleaning up” and “think garbage is gross.” The specter of “smelly” food waste is invoked over and over. In fact, it is the primary justification for why anyone should want a Lomi instead of, say, a green bin program, as Pela’s CEO explains: “You know, those pesky little plastic bins with leaky bags under your sink that are amazing at producing that smelly gross liquid sludge.” The visuals in Lomi’s ads are even less subtle: Close-ups of rotting banana peels contrast sharply with Lomi itself, which exudes the sterility of sun-bleached bone. Often it sits in kitchens with bare countertops and sparkling appliances that look more like austere sets from a cooking show than lived-in spaces.

All this should help us see what Lomi actually provides: Not composting so much as support for a particularly sterile vision of life untouched by decay yet somehow still blessed with renewal. For those who can afford it, Lomi secures an illusory peace of mind and a dubious assurance that their food waste is being “magically” transformed into an ecologically friendly product. It doesn’t matter that a properly managed compost pile shouldn’t smell. The very idea of decay is gross, something to be technologically disguised, if not eliminated. 

Not only does Lomi promise that more of the same — “convenient” consumer technology marketed to individual households — can fix Earth’s interlocking ecological crises. It also highlights a troubling fantasy among tech developers and investors: that we should assimilate decay, decomposition, and death into capitalist innovation under the auspices of “defeating” these inevitable endpoints of life.

While Lomi is not physically part of Silicon Valley — its parent company is based in British Columbia, Canada — the machine partakes of the tech world’s general distaste for death, as well as its ethos of disruption. (An employee in this company promo tells the camera, “We’re going to break everything, we’re going to change everything.”) It imagines its customers will share the contempt tech billionaires hold for the natural limits of human existence, as Tad Friend details in this New Yorker piece about the Valley’s quest to “make death optional.” Tech companies and their ego-driven founders have poured billions into cryogenics, anti-aging research, and cybernetic schemes to transfer their minds to the cloud. As L.M. Sacasas observes, Silicon Valley posthumanism sees death as a problem to be solved and “the ultimate limit to overcome.”

However, perhaps it’s more that Silicon Valley understands death as a variable to be controlled and manipulated rather than as a constraint to be removed. The aim is not to solve death for everyone but to rework it as a tool to intensify existing hierarchies, even beyond present disparities in human life expectancy. This potential future has already been sketched out by techno-utopian prophets like Yuval Noah Harari, whose book Homo Deus predicts that certain humans will evolve beyond current bounds of intellect and consciousness, while those left behind will become “superfluous” and “unnecessary” members of the “useless class.” His casual eugenic assumptions bear a particularly horrible weight in the anthropocene: Can we really expect the ultra-wealthy to help the rest of us survive the ongoing intensification of floods, fires, droughts, and super-storms?

A closer look at Lomi’s advertising suggests that its intended benefits are not material but ideological and spiritual

Lomi’s creators don’t see themselves as expediting a project to stratify society into the rich and the “useless.” The company’s business model depends on a faux-populist appeal to mass consumer activism: “Together, we can do something that politicians and big businesses can’t seem to take any action on: Actually helping the planet.” Yet the machine reflects on a small scale the same desire to control, tame, and rationalize away the “inconvenience” of death. Lomi promises that decomposition can be accelerated beyond biological bounds and that decay can be managed according to one’s busy schedule. But just as food scraps can’t be magically transmuted into useable compost overnight, the frenzied, high-consumption, metropolitan lifestyle of Lomi’s ideal customer can’t be made sustainable by the addition of more “green” products.

In The City in History, his 1961 study of urban living, Lewis Mumford identifies “a deep contempt for organic processes” dwelling beneath the metropolis’s “superficial regard for life and health.” In a passage that could refer to the pretensions of electronic composting, Mumford writes that “the popular technology of our time devotes itself to contriving means to displace autonomous organic forms with ingenious mechanical (controllable! profitable!) substitutes.” Though Mumford’s tone is cutting, there is a note of unwilling respect here too. Mechanical substitutes like Lomi are ingenious, but not in how they cheat nature. Instead, their ingenuity derives from their capacity to unearth new frontiers of profit by intensifying our alienation from cycles of life and death.

Loathe to admit that technological progress has generated many of our current crises, inventions like Lomi embody the delusion that humanity can fully optimize our environments and transcend material limitations. Writing in The Guardian during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Harari chided those “medieval holdouts” who say the novel coronavirus — arguably the direct result of capitalism’s rapacious encroachment on the earth’s dwindling wilderness areas — proves our inability to “subdue the forces of nature.” What the climate crisis and future pandemics require, evidently, is more discipline, a more efficient method of reorganization, and more economic exploitation of ecosystems that allow for human flourishing. 

The machine reflects on a small scale the desire to tame and rationalize away the inconvenience of decay

But the power Lomi promises is a distracting illusion. It dilutes the radical potential of reorganizing society so that it works with natural systems rather than attempting to dominate or subvert them. The point of composting is not simply that it produces a useful end result; it also forces one to slow down and participate in a cycle of transformation that is not driven by the capitalistic drive for efficiency and economic growth presently consuming the planet. Its pace is set by the organic process of decay, not the demands of profit. 

For farmer and poet Wendell Berry, the inefficiency of incremental practices is a virtue. In his 1988 essay, “The Work of Local Culture,” Berry describes an ancient bucket, which hangs from a fence post near his Kentucky farm and has persisted in the same spot for decades. The container, though, is less important than its contents. He writes:

What is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle I have ever heard of: it is making earth. The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. 

The composition of Berry’s leisurely sentences, which describe layer upon layer of natural accumulation, is itself a lovely image of his subject. In the same way that leaves wander toward their preordained end, he meanders toward his central point: “This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus.” 

The bucket is the inverse of Lomi. The latter embodies sleek, white-and-chromium perfection, while Berry’s bucket is “battered, galvanized.” Lomi offers a shortcut of accelerated decay, but the bucket gives no more than what ecosystems have always promised: unhurried death and the promise of eventual rebirth. For Berry, the bucket also represents the best qualities of a strong local culture — an accumulation and slow composting of traditions, memories and stories that nourishes a community and binds it together.

Berry’s vision is unapologetically rural. He sees little hope for any systems of urban living and can offer little to the city dweller looking for an option other than Lomi. For urbanites to uproot themselves and flood the countryside would, of course, contradict Berry’s insight about the power of fixing oneself in a particular community. But structures of urban ecological resistance do exist: The Baltimore Compost Collective, for example, was founded in 2017 to stop food waste from being burned in the city’s incinerator, a waste disposal stream that poisons the air and contributes to local rates of asthma. The collective, in partnership with a community garden, redirects neighborhood food waste back into local, urban soil. Vegetables are grown, which nourish the community and eventually return to the ground, allowing the wheel of life to complete another cycle on its endless course. 

As reporter Jesse James Deconto observes in an article for In These Times, “Composting can’t fix all of Baltimore’s pollution, but the Collective is an incubator for what’s possible.” Perhaps there is a genuinely transformative power here. The alternative is to entrust our future to products like Lomi, a whited sepulcher that helps affluent consumers look away from the rotting core of industrial civilization for just a bit longer.

Tynan Stewart writes and gardens in Fort Worth, Texas. His journalism has been published in the Counter and Undark Magazine, among other places.