With the Christmas holidays just behind us, many of us surely felt obliged to binge on meal after meal as well as on equally delicious leftovers. But parallel to these festivities, it’s also a great time to ponder on exactly how enormous amounts of food go to waste, too.
If somebody stacked up all the food that was not eaten for a year in the US alone, it would be enough to pack a 40-floor tower approximately 44 times. That’s a lot of wasted energy and resources.
If we consider the rise in food consumption, and consequently food waste, during the holiday season, you can only imagine how many more floors we can add to the equation.
Now, a huge chunk of this food waste goes straight into industrial landfills, and as they slowly rot in the said landfills, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that adds to the aggravating climate change. In particular, a new statement from a panel of climate experts coming from the United Nations predicts that at least10 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food waste. And that is just… bad, like permanent, irreversible, Earth-damaging bad.
The good news is, we might have just found a solution: Dairy farmers in the state of Massachusetts are utilizing food waste to generate electricity.
They have discovered a process wherein they can feed waste into anaerobic digesters which then captures the methane emissions and produce renewable energy. These anaerobic digesters were built and are operated by Vanguard Renewables, the leader in dairy waste and food waste-to-energy movement in the country responsible for processing almost 200,000 tons of both on-farm and off-farm organics each year.
The process works by first, gathering food waste from all around the state, including from several Whole Foods locations. The chain’s store in Shrewsbury has even installed a Grind2Energy system, an industrial-strength grinder that devours up all the scraps of food the store wasn’t able to sell. The machine can and will crush up all sorts of food waste from small items like vegetables, rice, grains, as well as bones, and whole fish. The machine can even take fats and greases from fried products.
Whole Foods claim to distributes most of its surplus food to food banks and other similar facilities. But even with that, there is still a considerable amount of waste left over. They said that the majority of it comes from prepping pre-packed ready to eat foods.
Similar to how it is when you prepare food in your kitchen, there are quite a lot of bits that are left: garlic, onion, or apple peel, rinds, stems, or meat scraps.
The grinder from the Grind2Energy system turns all these bits and pieces into a slushy.
Once that’s done, the waste is then loaded into a truck and shipped to an anaerobic digester. According to the chain’s sustainability program manager, they are dedicated to redirecting as much waste as plausible and strives for zero waste. Which is why aside from the usual food donations and composts, they also implemented this waste-to-energy system.
Bar-Way Farm, Inc., owned by the fourth-generation dairy farmer, Peter Melnik also has his own anaerobic digester installed next to his dairy barn.
His digester is currently able to take in approximately 100 tons of food waste, roughly three tractor-trailer loads of food waste every single day.
Peter mixes food waste with manure from his cows, then feeds it to his digester. The mixture is heated and goes to about 41 degrees Celsius. The methane that’s released from the heat rises and is captured at the top of a black bubble-shaped dome and is then sucked into a big motor that uses it as an alternative to gasoline or diesel. The power from this motor is then used to run a large generator capable of producing one megawatt of electricity, enough to power his farm and more!
Peter said that his farm makes use of merely 10 percent of the electricity they make and 90 percent goes to the electricity grid which is all you need to power approximately 1,500 homes.
Aside from being a great sustainable energy resource, this system also gives dairy farmers like Peter a new source of income. Vanguard pays Peter rental fees for holding the digester on his farm. Plus, he can also utilize the liquid byproduct from the digester as fertilizer on his fields. An obvious win-win for farmers and the environment!
The company and the farmers’ mission is a noble one, and is definitely a step into the right direction. But the challenge of the common people’s lack of awareness and general apathy still poses a huge challenge.
Vanguard Renewables is still working on growing its operations in the state and abroad. As of writing, they are constructing an anaerobic digester on a farm in Vermont that will be used to supply energy to Middlebury College in the hopes of reducing their carbon footprint.