About one-third of the food the world produces each year for consumption by humans gets wasted or lost. In fact, they throw away up to $2,200 in food per year. This creates a financial burden for families as well as waste companies and municipalities that must determine what to do with all this waste. New York City, for example, spends about $400 million each year shipping the waste it collects to landfills and incinerators across the country.
This wasted food also has a significant environmental impact. It represents a lot of wasted resources — not just the food itself, but also the land, water and energy it took to produce it. Food decomposing in landfills also releases a gas composed of approximately 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to the greenhouse effect. Landfills are responsible for about 14 percent of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.
There are various efforts underway to prevent this food waste and its negative impacts. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the nation’s food waste reduction goals, which aimed to cut waste by 50 percent by 2030.
To meet these goals it’s crucial that we prevent food waste from occurring in the first place and that we redistribute food, perhaps through donations, that would otherwise be thrown out. We also need efforts that focus on how to deal with the waste we do produce.
Waste companies are now experimenting with ways to not only reduce the costs of dealing with food waste but to actually derive value from it. These methods would also reduce emissions from decomposing organic matter and avoid emissions from fossil fuels. Waste companies and researchers are now turning food waste to energy, so the 15 percent of income Americans spend on food does not get tossed out as well.
How Does It Work?
Waste Management is one company exploring this area. WM now sends some of its food waste for composting and some of it to its Centralized Organic Recycling equipment (CORe) processing facilities to be turned into energy. The facility turns organic waste into a slurry that WM calls engineered bioslurry (EBS), which is used to generate electricity. The EBS is poured into an anaerobic digester, a machine that replicates the decomposition that takes place in landfills and produces methane. In this case, though, the gas is contained and powers a generator. The company has four of these and has produced over 30 million gallons of EBS as of Nov. 5. The process can turn each ton of food waste into enough electricity to power eight to 10 homes, according to the company.
Food waste is also a significant problem — and cost — for grocery stores. Stop and Shop, which has more than 400 stores in New York, New England and New Jersey, is addressing this problem by turning its food waste into energy. The company has an anaerobic digester at its 1 million-square-foot center in Freetown, Massachusetts. When running at full capacity, the digester can produce enough electricity to meet about 40 percent of the distribution’s energy needs.
Municipalities, too, are attacking the food waste problem by turning to trash into electricity. New York City currently has the largest organic waste collection program in the U.S. San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have programs as well. Like WM and Stop and Shop, NYC is using composting and anaerobic digestion to deal with its food waste. The city sends some of its trash to a wastewater plant, which converts it into methane. Some of that biogas helps power water heaters at the plant, while the rest is burned off. Energy company National Grid plans to build a system that would allow residents to use the methane gas to heat their homes.
The Future of Food Waste
Going forward, we will likely continue to use a combination of approaches to deal with our food waste problem. Prevention and redistribution will be important, as will waste management practices such as composting and energy production.
The potential for the amount of energy we can produce using food waste is huge. According to Save on Energy, a company that helps people shop for electricity and natural gas, the average food waste produced annually by one person living in North America — 231 pounds — could power a 100-watt lightbulb for two weeks. The amount a country of 319 million people might waste — 74 billion pounds — is enough to power 5.5 billion electric heaters for one hour.
Currently, most food waste is just that — waste. However, it has the potential to provide economic and environmental benefits when it’s used to produce renewable energy. We already have the resource. Why not take advantage of it?