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The worm is the essence

Turning an idea into a marketable product is often a long and rocky road – especially without the development department of a large company behind the idea. However, one young woman has achieved just this: Nadine Antic is a waste recycling specialist who set up a company called GlobalFlow when she was still a student. She recently joined forces with two other people to create a new company called albfertil GmbH, which has invented a natural fertilizer called WORMANIZER. The fertilizer is produced from biogenic food industry waste that normally ends up in the garbage. The unusual worm humus product has now been placed on the market.

Nadine Antic is an industrial engineer, founder and CEO of GlobalFlow GmbH. Her company advises companies that produce waste, and shows them how to prevent or recycle it. When she was a student, the young entrepreneur studied ways of turning waste into new, high-quality products as an alternative to combustion. She founded her first start-up company – GlobalFlow based in the city of Korntal in southern Germany – in 2012 with funds from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts' Young Innovators programme, which helps up-and-coming scientists set up businesses. Antic has already won several awards, including the EMOTION.award and the Darboven Sponsorship Prize.

Spinning out a new company from a start-up

Nadine Antic, her sister Anne-Kathrin Antic and Sven Hofstadler went on to found a company called albfertil. In July 2016, the company launched an extraordinary fertilizer produced by hundreds and thousands of so-called stink worms. © albfertil GmbH

The services provided by GlobalFlow include waste, recycling and material management as well as international waste recycling solutions and audits. The company already has a relatively large client portfolio, including companies from the food industry such as Melitta and Ritter Sport. The enthusiasm for waste runs in the family: Nadine Antic’s sister, Anne-Kathrin Antic deals with GlobalFlow’s major customers. In September 2015, the two sisters and Sven Hofstadler, GlobalFlow’s sales director, joined forces with a company called Korn Recycling and established another company based on the existing start-up. The new company is called albfertil GmbH and has developed the WORMANIZER, an unusual fertilizer that is sustainably produced from completely natural resources.

The idea of producing a new kind of natural fertilizer is based on the founders’ dealings with food industry products and how they were discarded. The sheer quantities of unused waste got albfertil's founders thinking: “Raw materials and finite resources are often burnt and are then of no use whatsoever. We therefore wanted to find an alternative way of disposing waste that was more sustainable solution than burning it.”

Stink worms turn organic waste into high-quality biofertilizer

The stink worm (Eisenia fetida) belongs to the family of earthworms. It turns albfertil waste into natural fertilizer. © Rob Hille, Wikimedia Commons CC licence

About two years ago, the founders started to look into ways of recycling biogenic waste. “This is when we came across the stink worm (the German name means compost worm, which reflects the worm’s ability to digest almost any type of organic waste). We simply deposited organic waste in wooden boxes and added worms. We left the boxes for a while and observed what happened,” says Hofstadler. This simple experiment was rather successful, the worms turned the waste into humus. Antic and her colleagues then studied the matter further, screening the literature and talking with experts from a variety of disciplines. “We carried out further experiments and found that not all types of waste were good for the worms,” said Hofstadler. “In parallel, we went on to build bigger worm composters.” Hofstadler and his team were quite successful and the result was WORMANIZER (from “worm” and “fertilizer”), a natural fertilizer that consists largely of upcycled food and plant residues converted into humus by hundreds and thousands of stink worms of the genus Eisenia fetida.

“Don’t worry, the final product does not contain any worms,” said Nadine Antic. “With WORMANIZER, we have not only discovered a sustainable method for recycling organic waste, but also a way to make depleted soils fertile again. Although we do not use any chemicals at all, we are nevertheless able to optimally tailor the composition and effect of the fertilizer to the plants for which it will be used. We do this by using different types and amounts of substrates.” At present, the fertilizer is produced in containers of around 1.80 m3 in volume. The worms are active in the top 20 cm and lay their eggs around 20 cm further down. New waste is added on the top. Pure product can be removed from the bottom. It is cut off and packaged immediately.

Manifold benefits for humans and environment

The albfertil portfolio already contains three WORMANIZER varieties: a chilli pepper fertilizer, a rose fertilizer and a universal fertilizer. The composition of the three fertilizers differs in the amount of worm humus, chicken manure and guano. The start-up company also has plenty of new ideas – liquid fertilizer or a worm tea for orchids. © albfertil GmbH

The particular advantage of the fertilizer for the plants is, amongst other things, the tailor-made, easy availability of nutrients by way of clay-humus complexes that the worm compositing process brings into the fertilizer. These complexes have a high water storage capacity, so that the plants do not have to be watered as frequently as usual. “And one thing is very important for consumers. The fertilizer leads to better fruit - tomatoes taste like tomatoes, and they can even be harvested earlier,” says Antic. “This is due to the fact that the worms' excretions make the plants think they are being attacked, and so they safeguard the flavours in the fruit as quickly as possible. The fruit therefore has a more intense taste. In addition, the worms bring a large number of microorganisms into the humus, which protect the plant against pests. The plants are thus fed an outstanding fertilizer menu, and do not have to live on junk food. So they live a healthier life.”

Another special feature is the packaging of WORMANIZER which at first sight resembles an ice-cream rather than fertilizer container. “The packaging material is made completely of renewable materials and can be composted. In theory, we could even turn it into fertilizer,” says Antic. The packaging material was designed in cooperation with BASF, which developed the plastics material from renewable raw materials and also uses it for organic waste bags and disposable dishes.

Official launch of WORMANIZER

Albfertil, which now has eight employees in addition to the founding team, has been producing and selling WORMANIZER since early July 2016. The company receives food industry waste that is carefully analysed prior to use. “We need consistent quality and cannot use leftovers or waste from organic waste bins,” says Hofstadler. The company has produced 60,000 fertilizer units that are sold over the internet, and through small garden centres, organic grocery shops and farm shops. “For the time being, our main aim is to attract attention. Later on we will produce larger units,” says Hofstadler. In order to be able to produce larger units, albfertil is currently expanding its facilities and has relocated to a huge area in the Darmsheim district of Sindelfingen.

The fertilizer was presented and officially launched on 20th July 2016. More than a hundred people were invited to the reception which, to reflect the quirky nature of the product, was held in the Fleischmühle, a historic corn mill in the village of Ditzingen. Among those invited were Dr.-Ing. Hannes Spieth, managing director of Umwelttechnik BW, which has also been involved in the project; Leonhard Eichner from BASF and Prof. Dr. Helmut Haussmann, former German Minister of Economic Affairs, all of whom gave keynote speeches. Over the next few months, albfertil will continue expanding the company as well as working increasingly with fruit and vegetable farmers and wine growers. The company is also planning to deliver the fertilizer in bulk rather than packaged to further reduce waste.

Packaging of one of three WORMANIZER varieties that look like ice-cream containers.
WORMANIZER fertilizer for chilli plants produced by albfertil GmbH. © albfertil GmbH
Packaging of one of three WORMANIZER varieties that look like ice-cream containers.
Albertil GmbH also produces rose WORMANIZER fertilizer. © albfertil GmbH
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