Farmers are turning food waste into electricity and making enough to power entire cities
Nothing highlights the radical disparity between different parts of the globe more than food. As children and adults starve to death at a rate of 25,000 a day across the world, the United States throws away enough food to fill the Willis Tower in Chicago 44 times a year. Across the entire planet, it is estimated that humans waste over 1.3 billions tons of food every year.
Industrial farming covers hundreds of millions of acres across the country which is destroying and polluting ecosystems to produce food that gets thrown away. What’s more, when this food sits in landfills, it produces a greenhouse gas in the form of methane. According to climate experts at the United Nations, it is estimated that 10 to 18 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions are from food waste.
Thanks to innovation in the free market, however, some intuitive scientists have figured out how to turn that wasted food and greenhouse gas into energy. A company called Vanguard Renewables has created a process to turn dairy and food waste into energy reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85%.
Karen Franczyk, who is the sustainability program manager for Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region, sat down with NPR recently to explain how they are using Vanguard Renewables in their stores. Their location in Shewsbury, Mass has recently installed a Grind2Energy system.
As NPR reports:
The machine will grind up all kinds of food waste — “everything from bones, we put whole fish in here, to vegetables to dry items like rice or grains,” Franczyk says as the grinder is loaded. It also takes frying fats and greases.
While Whole Foods donates a lot of surplus food to food banks, there’s a lot waste left over. Much of it is generated from prepping prepared foods. Just as when you cook in your own kitchen, there are lots of bits that remain, such as onion or carrot peel, rinds, stalks or meat scraps. The grinder turns all these bits into a slurry. “It really becomes kind of a liquefied food waste,” Franczyk says.
From here, the waste is loaded into a truck and sent to an anaerobic digester. “There’s no question it’s better than putting it in the trash,” Franczyk says. She says the chain is committed to diverting as much waste as possible and aims for zero waste. In addition to food donations, Whole Foods composts; this waste-to-energy system is yet another way to meet its goal. “We really do like the system,” she says.
There is now a growing market that is thriving off of food waste. What used to rot in a landfill is now being used to power homes. According to Biogas world, researchers at Cornell University have found a way to capture nearly all of the energy in a food waste product, leaving little behind to fill a landfill. First, the researchers applied a method to “pressure cook” the waste, creating a crude liquid that be turned into a biofuel. Then, what remains is broken down into methane that can be burned to create electricity and heat.
“Food waste should have a high value,” says study author Roy Posmanik, a Cornell postdoctoral researcher, in a statement. “We’re treating it as a resource, and we’re making marketable products out of it.”
It’s working too. While it hasn’t become mainstream in the United States yet, Europeans have adopted food waste energy conversion on a massive scale.
According to a report from the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA), as of 2017, sufficient biogas was being produced by UK anaerobic digestion plants to power over 1 million homes.
In the United States it is a slower process, but it appears to be catching on.
A single dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass takes in about 100 tons of waste every single day, according to Bar-Way Farm’s owner, Peter Melnik. In a massive tank all this food waste — which would have simply ended up in a landfill — is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the methane released from the waste is captured and converted into electricity. This single farm in Deerfield creates enough energy from food waste to power their entire farm and over 1,500 homes in town.
“The digester has been a home run for us,” Melnik says. “It’s made us more sustainable — environmentally [and] also economically.”
Now, Vanguard Renewables hopes to expand to other states. “There’s more than enough food waste in Massachusetts to feed all of our five digesters, plus many more,” says CEO John Hanselman.