Food waste recycling is one of the most promising and environmentally beneficial opportunities for reuse.
North America generates more than 80 million tons of organic waste each year, including food waste and yard waste. In the U.S. alone, the EPA estimates that 2/3 of all solid waste is organic waste. And although nearly 66% of yard waste is diverted for recycling, only 2.5% of food waste is eventually recycled.
Finding a sustainable way to deal with all that discarded food is a mountainous problem. But food waste can be a valuable commodity if processed properly. The ability to capture value from discarded organic waste is necessary for the future sustainability of our country and our world.
One promising new technology for recapturing organic waste is anaerobic digestion. This biochemical process produces methane-rich biogas, which can be converted into electricity and used to power manufacturing.
Anaerobic digesters are not a new idea, and in fact have been around for decades in the agricultural industry. Think traditional composting, but on a larger and faster scale. Newer anaerobic digestion methods use technologies like fermentation, gasification, and chemical processes to hasten the break-down of organic material into energy that can be captured and effectively used.
Companies are just beginning to realize how effective––and profitable–– biogas technology can be. Gills Onions, for example, turns discarded onion peels into juice that is processed into a biogas. The biogas is then turned into electricity that Gills’ uses to run its Oxnard, California processing plant. The company annually saves $400,000 by eliminating costs associated with hauling onion waste away from the plant to local farm fields for cultivation. They also save an additional $700,000 per year in electricity costs, which has a direct effect on bottom-line production costs for the company.
Like traditional composting, large scale anaerobic digestion also produces by-products that can be used as soil amendments, usually after only a short time. This allows companies to sell off unused recovered material, lessening the cost outlaid for new technologies. But unlike traditional composting, biogas technology can effectively process large amounts of food and yard waste quickly and effectively.
And the benefit doesn’t stop there. Organic waste can also be effectively turned into bio-fuel, a product close in structure to gasoline, which can fuel vehicles without any modification.
For instance, a Texas-based company called Terrabon has developed a technology based on anaerobic digestion, that it uses to create a high-octane organic bio-fuel called MixAlco. The gasoline produced through the MixAlco® technology is not ethanol, but a higher energy value product than ethanol that can be blended directly with gasoline produced from hydrocarbons.
All though there are seemingly mountains of regulations to plow through and even greater cost and technology issues to address for large scale recapture of organic material, there is still room for improvement in the handling of food waste. Capturing of organic waste resources can have an important impact on the future of sustainability in our country as a whole.
Many municipalities are now requesting or requiring that organic material be diverted from traditional disposal facilities in order to meet their own community’s sustainability goals. But to achieve long range sustainability goals, municipalities must also institute plans for the capture and processing of diverted organic material.
Seattle is one city that is doing just that. The city plans to ban commercial food waste from the municipal waste stream completely, and has already began working with local companies and waste handlers to provide an adequate commercial food waste processing system before the ban goes into effect in 2014.
Organics recycling opportunities can provide a powerful financial and environmental catalyst for formulating new technologies to process food waste. By promoting the recapture of organic waste in our communities, we lessen the landfill load considerably and provide opportunities for a more sustainable future.