Getting the most out of food waste

 By Andrew Burger

“But one man’s rubbish may be another’s treasure, and what is the standard of value in such a pursuit as this?”–Hector Urquhart, from the introduction to 1860’s “Popular Tales of the West Highlands”…

Changing times, technology and pressing problems have spurred people and organizations the world over to come up with new, more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to produce, distribute and consume food and reduce waste, including converting it into sustainable, environmentally friendly, “net zero” emissions fuels, thermal and electrical energy. “Waste to Energy” (W2E), aka “Energy from Waste” (EfW), technology spans a wide spectrum—from converting the energy bound up in agricultural, forestry and timber to the solid and liquid waste streams that flow out from our homes, cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets, including our own bodily waste. The new applications also includes using biogas in a range of transport applications, from forklifts to passenger and cargo car and truck fleets.

Others are going further yet, using biogas produced from food waste in new ways, including groundbreaking processes that produce nanocarbon materials. This is fueling the emergence of a new class of lighter, higher performing, environmentally friendly materials that can be put to a wide range of uses.

Carbon nanotubes spun to form a yarn (CSIRO, Wikimedia)

Triple Bottom Line Returns

Government leaders in Europe and North America have been increasingly keen to capitalize on the broad-based benefits the latest generation of W2E/EfW technology promises. In mid-March, the European Parliament adopted a new raft of regulations that calls for dramatic reductions in food waste-to-landfill streams and a big boost in recycling, as well as prevention, elimination or reduction of health risks throughout the food industry supply chain. In the US, the federal government in 2013 began instituting national policies in line with what is now officially item 12.3 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Sept. 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted the nation’s first food waste reduction goal and associated programs.

Some 60 million tons—around 50 percent of all produce in the US is thrown away every year that’s $160 billion worth—according to report from The Guardian. That’s about one-third of all foodstuffs produced annually. Furthermore, nearly all food waste—95 percent or more—winds up decomposing in landfills, according to he US EPA, where it emits methane—a greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 86-times that of CO2 over a 20-year period. In sum, the resulting landfill methane emissions from landfills account for around 21 percent of the nationwide total.

The US EPA, along with other federal, state and local government, public and private sector partners, aims to reduce food loss and 50 percent by 2030. “By taking action on the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction goal, the United States can help feed the hungry, save money for families and businesses and protect the environment,” EPA states.

Taking a Big Bite Out of Food Waste

In tandem, leading municipalities, such as San Jose, California, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, have enacted “zero waste to landfill” policy frameworks and have been funding a variety of projects and programs to realize similar goals. In January 2016, Colorado’s Grand Junction announced it was the first in the nation to use biogas produced from raw human sewage to fuel its fleet of vehicles. In Europe, project partners in February began construction of a district steam heating network at Flanders’ Waasland Port. Slated to come online in 2018, the Ecluse thermal energy network will transport steam produced from W2E/EfW facilities owned and run by Indaver subsidiary SLECO five kilometers via a mostly underground network of pipes to six local customers—eliminating the need for them to use on-site boilers for heating. With a maximum capacity of some 250 megawatts (MW), production, distribution and use of steam heat from these W2E/EfW facilities is expected to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 100,000 tons a year.

Landfill in Ukraine (Andy Shustykevych, Wikimedia)

Food Waste to Clean Energy

In the private sector, Disney World in Orlando, Florida, features a theme park and resort-wide food waste recycling system that includes production of electricity, thermal energy and biomethane fuel used in Disney World vehicles. It’s all part of Disney’s efforts to create a sustainable circular economy that produces zero waste and zero emissions. In February, the John Lewis Partnership, which runs the UK’s Waitrose supermarket chain, announced it was the first retailer in Europe to use a new, lighter type of storage tank that extends the range of its biogas-fueled fleet of Scania trucks 500 miles. That’s nearly twice the current average and could also reduce associated vehicle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 70 percent as compared to diesel fueled counterparts.

In addition, US multinational Emerson Electric is partnering with AT&T, the US’ largest telecoms provider, to take a big bite out of food waste produced in major food industry supply chain organizations with the Grind2Energy (G2E) food waste recycling system.
A scalable, end-to-end system, Grind2Energy incorporates a variety of component products, the core of which is the “Insinkerator,” an updated, upgraded version of the in-sink electric food grinders that began popping up in homes decades ago. Enabling end-to-end oversight, control and management is Grind2Energy’s cloud-based data and information communications platform, which makes use of AT&T’s emerging IoT systems network and application services.

Grind2Energy™ Grind Demo

Food Waste to Energy Tech Expands, Diversifies

South of the U.S. border, one of Mexico’s top tequila brands, Herradura, is adding bioenergy production to its agave farms by converting plant biomass left behind during harvesting into biogas to be used to power its tequila production facilities. These and related initiatives have led to both companies being recognized for the leadership role they’re playing with regard to environmental stewardship and corporate sustainability.

Taking things a big step further, the EU-funded PLASCARB project used anaerobic digesters to produce biomethane. “We take the food waste through an anaerobic digester, which is a well-established technology to produce biogas (CH4 & CO2). Then, following purification, it passes through a low temperature microwave plasma reactor to produce the graphitic carbon (named as renewable PlasCarbon) and renewable hydrogen,” says Neville Slack, coordinator of the project for the UK’s Center for Process Innovation (CPI). Funded through Nov. 2016, the PLASCARB project aimed to validate the process during a continuous, one month-long pilot test in which 150 metric tons of mixed food waste was to be converted to more than 25,000 cubic meters of biogas, 2,400 cubic meters of which was to be transformed into high-quality “graphitic” carbon. Along with that, the project team was to produce a decentralized business model that could be implemented at the local level across Europe.

It seems clear that numerous and diverse opportunities exist to reduce the amount of food that’s thrown away or otherwise goes to waste. From using waste to generate useful, clean energy to a growing variety of new, improved, environmentally-friendly materials, these new technologies bring promising solutions for endangered ecosystems worldwide.

SEE MORE: Where there is waste there is energy by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.