From Iceland — Fermenting For Change

Fermenting For Change

Published June 21, 2024

Fermenting For Change
Photo by
Joana Fontinha for The Reykjavík Grapevine
Håkon Border Lund

 Julia and Björk are unlocking the potential of organic waste with their startup, Melta

“I love talking about soil and getting other people interested in soil,” says soil scientist Julia Brenner as we sit outside, enjoying the rare moment of Reykjavík sunshine. Together with Björk Brynjarsdóttir, Julia is developing Melta — an innovative circular economy waste management solution that transforms organic waste into a sustainable, nutrient-rich fertiliser. How did these two become interested in working with waste? And what could their work mean for Iceland and rural communities around the world?

Originally from the U.S., Julia pursued her Master’s in organic fertilisers for restoring eroding soils in Iceland before returning to America to work at a national lab on soil research for climate models. “At that time I was doing a lot of science for science’s sake and I kind of missed doing something that was a little more hands on,” she shares. 

It was during her studies at Kaospilot, a social design and experience school in Denmark, that Björk discovered bokashi composting — a fermentation-based decomposition method. Intrigued by this approach, she reached out to Julia to learn more about soil. Soon enough, Julia found herself on a flight back to Iceland to work for Jarðgerðarfélagið (The Composting Company), which would later become Melta. This collaboration began exactly five years ago.

“Together with some friends, we had gotten to know the bokashi method and started importing bokashi buckets and teaching people how to do this,” shares Björk. “From the beginning, we wanted to do it in a very community-focused way — people order buckets beforehand and when they arrive, they sign up for a workshop. This way, they learn how to do it in a space with a lot of other people that are learning how to do it, so it never feels like a lonely act or something that only you are doing.”

“Until now it’s been just the two of us with pitchforks and shovels.”

The workshops quickly gained popularity, demonstrating the community’s eagerness to embrace sustainable solutions. “The people were so willing to do something, but there was no infrastructure for it,” says Björk. “Hosting this workshop again and again and again, it was so good to give these tools to citizens. But it was the responsibility of municipalities to enact good circulatory systems for organic waste.” She thought, “How about we design this for a whole municipality?” Julia, with her background in soil science and climate research, saw the potential for broader impact. She got involved in driving a system for “infrastructural change, rather than an individual deciding to take on a better solution.”

Intentional innovation

The project started in Reykjavík, but soon the team realised that they can bring way more benefit to rural areas. “We remixed this fermentation process a little bit so that it fit a larger scale,”  Björk shares. “With the system that we’ve designed, we’re able to reduce collection frequency, which is a lot of cost reduction for rural municipalities. In [the countryside], they pay 90 to 255% more for waste management than the city does and most of that part is linked to collection, because homes are far away from each other.” 

Julia and Björk’s innovative approach not only reduces collection needs by kickstarting fermentation and eliminating bad smells but also allows for local fertiliser production.

Melta is still in the development phase, testing an MVP as the team prepares to start fundraising for a microbrewery to increase efficiency. “Until now, it’s been just the two of us with pitchforks and shovels,” smiles Björk, adding that the future microbrewery would serve as a showroom where Melta could bring municipal leaders to showcase how the system works. 

​​Julia adds: “This process doesn’t exist on paper anywhere. There’s no regulation for it.” The duo has to forge their own path, collaborating with MAST (Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority) to ensure safety and compliance every step of the way.

While Melta’s development might seem slow-paced, Julia and Björk agree it’s an intentional approach to avoid risks. “It hasn’t been like ‘move fast and break things,’” says Björk. “It has been very much [a consideration of] how do we make sure that we’re doing things properly at every step, so that we don’t involve residents into a system where we say that it’s supposed to be circular and then they would find out that it actually didn’t work.”

Scaling solutions

As Melta focuses on larger-scale systemic changes, it no longer offers workshops on the bokashi method. But Julia and Björk remain willing to answer people’s questions, share guides, and exchange ideas and feedback through a Facebook group. “It’s just two such different scales to be operating. The difference between doing home pickling and running a pickling facility,” Julia explains. 

For their small team of two, splitting efforts between helping individuals and working with municipalities would be an arduous task. “If we want to see any big changes in society we really need it to be a larger system change,” she adds.

“We know that this is a solution that is going to solve so many problems, because for the food system to be resilient, it needs to be regional and local,” says Björk. Melta provides just that — it supports a more regenerative food system and contributes to climate change mitigation.

Hope from the ground up

Björk shares that after experiencing intense climate anxiety in 2018-2019, her collaboration with Julia brought a renewed sense of optimism. “When I started talking to Julia about soil, it was like an injection of hope. There’s a whole world below our feet we can’t see but we can do so much good there,” she says.

Iceland’s unique landscape, with 40% of its soils being barren desert, makes it the perfect testing ground for Melta. These soils can’t hold carbon, leading to the use of synthetic fertilisers, which not only have a horrible production chain but also add nutrients to the plants, not the soil. “Producing nitrogen for synthetic fertiliser is globally 2% of greenhouse gas emissions,” Julia provides alarming statistics. 

What Melta offers, in contrast, is an end product that is nutrient-dense with an ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, averaging around 17. The fermentation process introduces beneficial microbes, similar to probiotics, which unlock nutrients, retain moisture and promote soil health. 

Julia and Björk agree that if Iceland could eventually sustain itself without importing synthetic fertilisers and produce, it would be a significant achievement. This would not only contribute to food security on the island but also make farming more cost-effective, potentially revitalising rural communities.

Melta oasis

Since much of Melta’s work is conceptualising behind the scenes, reaping the physical benefits of the team’s efforts is especially rewarding, the co-founders agree. 

“For the food system to be resilient, it needs to be regional and local.”

For Design March this year, Melta collaborated with Krónan to produce Moldamín, a soil supplement made from fermented fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be discarded as organic waste. “It was the first time we had something to show — a little taste of what we’re doing,” shares Julia. Developed in just a month and a half, the product was sold at Krónan Grandi and received positive feedback. “People who have used it, have been asking when we’re gonna make more?,” she says, highlighting this as a success.

While Moldamín showcases Melta’s potential in the consumer market, the team’s true pride lies in a more unconventional demonstration of their work: a thriving oasis near the Rangárvallasýsla waste facility in Hella. 

Two years ago, as part of an experiment, Julia and Björk raked a piece of sandy gravel, applied some of their fertiliser and left it for a year. “We didn’t add seeds, we didn’t do anything,” Julia explains. “We tried to be really good and not check on it because I’ve studied these soils when I did my master’s thesis — these soils are tough. It takes forever to see any change. Nothing happens quickly.”

When, after a year, the duo returned to the deserted land and saw a lush green oasis, they at first couldn’t believe it was theirs and had to double-check the GPS coordinates. “It really gave us a boost,” says Julia. 

by Håkon Border Lund

The team has been expanding the oasis ever since and is once again eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Icelandic summer to see the results in bloom.

“Every now and again I look at the photo of the oasis and I think “Yes, that’s why we’re doing it. It works,”” says Julia.

Björk adds: “So much of the way that we talk about ourselves as humans is that we are a plague on this planet. We are not. We’ve just designed systems that are not sustainable for us or the planet.” 

Melta is on the way to change that.

Follow along news and updates from Melta on Instagram: @melta__melta

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