While the best solution to our garbage problem may be to make less stuff, what’s the most appropriate way to manage what’s left? Reverse distribution of food, electronic and plastic waste consumes local governments and businesses. That’s why it’s always amazing when people find effective ways to harness alternative sources such as food waste to turn it into sources of energy.
Case in point — this past year, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a Ohio based ice cream company, initiated a voluntary recall of all of its products after a pint of dark chocolate ice cream from a Whole Foods store in Nebraska tested positive for listeria. A week later, Jeni’s announced that it destroyed over half of a million pounds of ice cream, costing the company an estimated $2.5 million.
Despite the recall, Jeni’s found a way to make good use of its ice cream. In April, the Hermitage Water Pollution Control Plant in Pennsylvania reached out to Jeni’s to propose turning their recalled ice cream products into a biogas that can be burned to generate electricity. The process involves anaerobic digestion in which micro-organisms called “methanogens” break down the ice cream ingredients and packaging. As the ice cream and packaging are broken down, the methanogens gives off “bio-gas” that is used to generate electricity and produce a natural fertilizer. Officials at the Hermitage plant hope to produce about 45 days of electrical energy when the conversion of the defective ice cream products is complete. The plant is also exploring turning biogas into natural gas.
Food waste is the second largest category of municipal solid waste sent to landfills in the United States and one of the least recovered materials in the municipal solid waste stream. Given that food disposed of in landfills decomposes to create methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, it may also be one of the most significant waste streams to divert from landfills. EPA estimates that if 50% of the food waste generated each year in the United States was anaerobically digested, enough electricity could be generated to power over 2.5 million homes for a year.
Various states and local governments have found ways to promote waste treatment technologies. In October 2010, the City of West Lafayette, Indiana completed a major renovation project installing equipment at its wastewater treatment plant allowing the city to convert fats, oils, and grease (FOG) as well as food scraps from Purdue University into energy used to augment the plant’s electricity usage. In October 2014, Massachusetts enacted a commercial food waste disposal ban that requires non-residential entities that dispose of one ton or more of food waste per week to send waste to composting sites, animal-feed operations, or anaerobic digestion facilities for conversion to energy. Initiatives like these that adopt innovative waste-to-energy treatment system decrease the overall carbon footprint of the community and reduce waste going to landfills.
More companies and local governments should look to adopt newer waste treatment technologies to promote recycling and reuse. Let’s make some lemonade out of our lemons, or in Jeni’s case, energy out of its lemon buttermilk frozen yogurt. Investing in modern waste-to-energy technologies that strengthen our local waste-reduction infrastructure is a win for everyone.