From Food Waste to Energy: It’s Here!

  • Article
  • February 5, 2019

I remember watching Doc Brown power up his time-travel machine with banana peels among other items scavenged from garbage in “Back to the Future II” – and thinking how inconceivable and futuristic that was. Well that is our reality now. The technology now exists to use food waste to generate electricity with the help of anaerobic digesters and transform cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. These are among the better known industrial uses for wasted food – and the subject of the fifth post in my six-part series on the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy.   

The hierarchy provides a framework to understand steps we can take as a society and as individuals to recover some of the estimated 30 percent of our food that is thrown away in the U.S. and put it to good use. Solving the food waste issue that confronts our food system requires multiple approaches. Health and wellness professionals and the public may not have much exposure to the industrial and energy sector of our economy, but let me tell you a lot of good work is being done to convert food waste to energy. 

Many types of foods contain useful ingredients for industrial purposes, and every bit that can be extracted from food waste offsets the need to use other resources. One well-known example is the process of turning used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, biodiesel can directly affect the environment by significantly reducing sulfur dioxide and soot emissions over conventional diesel.

Food waste can be added to anaerobic digesters on farms that recover energy from manure. When food is biodegraded by bacteria in an oxygen-free environment, such as in a landfill, the greenhouse gas methane is generated. However, under controlled conditions, such as digesters, the methane can be captured and used to produce heat or power electric generators.  Another great example is a cooperative project run by Noblehurst Farms, Inc. that diverts food waste and scraps from universities, schools and local grocery stores like Wegmans near Rochester, N.Y., to a digester on Chris Noble’s dairy farm. This project alone keeps 90 tons of food waste from entering local landfills weekly and provides enough energy to power the 1,800-cow dairy. There are also anaerobic digesters at some wastewater treatment plants that also can benefit from adding food waste “fuel” to their systems.

As you can probably tell by now, almost everything can be put to good, productive use if we take the time to look for solutions. Once the value of “waste” is recognized, we can find all sorts of great things to do with it. You can help spread the word. Look for farms in your area where digesters are being used to turn waste into energy. If you are interested in finding out more first-hand, connect with your local dairy council to take a farm tour.

This is the fifth post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts in this series: