The Vitamix Foodcycler Is a High Tech Composter for the Impatient
This $400 gadget is worth it if you want to processes food waste without stinking up your kitchen
When I first read about the Vitamix Foodcycler while researching a piece on achieving zero-waste, it kind of blew my mind.
The Foodcycler FC-50 is a breadmaker-sized appliance that you place on your kitchen countertop and fill with organic waste: eggshells, potato peels, paper towels, and the like. You then press a button, and in a few hours, the Foodcycler transforms your waste into nutrient-rich, garden-ready fertilizer for your plants. It’s like a high-tech compost pile for the impatient.
The fact that such an appliance exists in the first place delighted me. But the fact that the Foodcycler came not from some tiny, hippy-ish startup but instead by a prominent brand like Vitamix — known for their super high quality, flamboyantly expensive blenders--made it even more intriguing. (The company appears to license the tech from an independent company). Here was a device that feels like something out of Back to the Future, but positioned and marketed as a mass-market appliance you might place in your kitchen alongside your coffee maker and microwave. I knew I needed to try the Foodcycler out, so I reached out to Vitamix. They provided me with a unit to test.
My Foodcycler arrived in a box adorned with photos of the manicured hands of a model tipping food scraps into the device. The Foodcycler costs $400, and Vitamix is clearly marketing the device to a well-heeled audience. The scraps in the photos on the box (and in the company’s other marketing materials) look almost good enough to eat--like some kind of deconstructed soup from a fancy farm-to-table restaurant.
It all feels very sophisticated. One can almost imagine the conversation at Vitamix’s marketing department: “Okay, guys. We have a machine that essentially processes garbage. Now, let’s make it sexy!”
Somehow — improbably — the Foodcycler succeeds. The device feels solid and well-built, like something you might find in a commercial kitchen. It’s heavy but compact, designed to fit into about a cubic foot of counter space, and has a forward-sloping top that feels weirdly sleek and modern. I installed mine on my kitchen counter beside my stove, but I’ve seen other people place theirs in a garage, laundry room, or other utilitarian space. Setup was easy and consisted mostly of removing tape and stickers from the device’s innards, a bit like setting up a laser printer.
The device itself is a big box with some controls and a tight-fitting lid. Under the lid is a thick metal bucket covered with a nonstick coating, with a series of blades and grinders at the bottom. To use the Foodcycler, you begin by removing the bucket, which you fill with organic waste. The Foodcycler can process basically anything you’d throw into your green bin or home compost pile, including fruit and veggie peels, stale bread, eggshells, paper towels or napkins, wilted flowers, coffee grounds, and much else. (You can process meat and animal bones, too, but the Foodcycler manual says you shouldn’t process these if you intend to use the resulting fertilizer in your garden.) The bucket holds 2 liters of waste, which I found is about as much as my family of five generates from one home-cooked meal.
You then place the bucket into the Foodcycler, lock its lid into place, and press Start. To break your scraps down into fertilizer, the device begins by heating and aerating them, driving off moisture over several hours until they’re thoroughly dehydrated and sterilized. It then slowly grinds them, reducing them into a lumpy powder. After a cool-down period, you open the lid, pull out the bucket, pour out the resulting fertilizer and let it “cure” for about a week, and then either rake it into your garden or sprinkle it into houseplants.
Vitamix says that the process of breaking down a load takes between 4-8 hours, depending on how full the bucket is and how much liquid is in your scraps. In my testing, a typical load took about 4-6 hours to process. Lights on top of the Foodcycler indicate whether it’s drying, grinding, or cooling down. The device makes a low whirring sound when it’s operating, a bit like the sound of an ice cream maker. Even when it’s grinding up food, it’s not loud enough to be overly annoying and is way quieter than a coffee grinder.
You’d think that heating and grinding up garbage would be a smelly, unpleasant affair. But in keeping with their slick marketing and up-market image, Vitamix goes to almost obsessive lengths to keep the Foodcycler odor-free. The bucket itself is hermetically sealed during operation, and air from the Foodcycler’s chamber passes through two carbon filters in the back of the device, removing smells. The bucket also comes with a lid that has an integrated carbon filter, so that if you leave it on the counter and fill it with scraps throughout the day you don’t have to take the risk of being exposed to even a momentary, fleeting odor.
I was skeptical about Vitamix’s claim that the device is odor-free, so I used it to process a bucket full of stinky chopped onions which had sat in the sun for several hours. To my surprise, I didn’t smell the onions at all, and the resulting fertilizer came out with a sweet, savory smell, like French onion soup. The obsession with removing smells is probably a way to differentiate the Foodcycler from the often-smelly compost piles with which it competes, as well as a clever ploy to sell you replacement filters, which cost $24.95.
I’ve used the Foodcycler for several weeks, and have run about a bucket a day through it. To optimize the nutrient content of your fertilizer (more on that in a bit), Vitamix recommends processing a variety of different scraps in each load. As I’m cooking, I’ll often throw stems, moldy berries, banana peels, and the like into the device’s bucket. After a meal, I’ll remove and discard any meat scraps from my family’s plates, and then tip the rest of our uneaten food into the Foodcycler. I’ll also go through the fridge periodically, grabbing anything which has expired and dumping it in.
In Vitamix’s marketing images, the Foodcycler’s fertilizer comes out looking dense and loamy, like actual compost or the rich topsoil from a Midwestern field. In my experience, the reality was much different, with each load coming out looking somewhat different depending on what I’d thrown in. Loads with a lot of paper towels come out fibrous and white, and a load with several rotting carrots even came out vibrantly orange. I found that there was something weirdly exciting about filling the device with scraps, putting on the lid, and coming back a few hours later to see how the end product looked.
The Foodcycler produces a much smaller volume of fertilizer than you might expect. This, of course, is by design — the device’s purpose is to break food down, and Vitamix says that the device reduces foods’ volume by over 90%. That’s great for the environment, but it means that each load yields about one or two cups of fertilizer. When you begin with two liters of waste, it’s sometimes surprising to open the lid after a cycle and find only a few handfuls of fertilizer. Still, given that many people process one or two loads per day, all that fertilizer adds up. Unless you have a huge garden, you should have no problem producing enough to meet your needs.
Vitamix makes it clear that the Foodcycler’s fertilizer is a “soil amendment” and “is not compost, nor can it be used in lieu of compost”. Still, the company says that the fertilizer is “completely free of bacteria and pathogens” and will “continue to break down” once placed into soil, releasing valuable nutrients. To back this up, Vitamix tested the device’s fertilizer, finding that it has an NPK ratio of roughly 4–1–1, making it equivalent to many lawn fertilizers. In a controlled experiment with four different garden plots, Vitamix says that the device’s fertilizer yielded bigger plants and better nutrient density than traditional soil alone.
How green is the Foodcycler? That likely depends in part on where your electricity comes from. Heating and grinding food for hours is an energy-intensive process. In my testing, the Foodcycler consumed about 0.5-kilowatt-hours of electricity per cycle. Across the United States, producing a kWh of power releases about .92 pounds of carbon dioxide. If you power your home from rooftop solar panels or buy green power from your utility, then, by all means, Foodcycle away. If your power comes from less clean sources, though, make sure to weigh the carbon footprint of the power used by your Foodcycler against its other environmental benefits. Consider, too, that unlike a compost pile, the device breaks down waste aerobically and thus generates very little methane. That’s a big potential benefit to consider, too.
Ultimately, Vitamix appears to have big aspirations for the Foodcycler. While the company is focused mainly on marketing the device to consumers, its technology partner sells similar tech to restaurants, facilities, and even whole cities. Competitors are already appearing. Home composters as a category of appliance appear to be here to stay. Yes, the Foodcycler is pricey, and the volumes it processes are relatively small. Yes, you can achieve similar results with a compost pile for about $10. But if you live in an apartment or have limited yard space, you want to compost year-round, or you want to process a broader range of food waste than a home compost pile can manage, the Foodcycler is a great appliance to consider.
It’s also a great appliance if you just don’t want to have a compost pile. I‘m fine with getting my hands dirty outdoors. But the idea of having a giant pile of rotting garbage in my backyard — releasing smells and potentially attracting pests — has never really appealed to me. I feel a bit guilty admitting that as a Bay Area resident, but it’s the truth. And I’m sure there are a lot more people like me, who would love to create some homemade plant fertilizer from food waste, but only if the process is fast, pleasant, and a little fun. For us, the Foodcycler is the perfect fit.