Food waste is more than just uneaten leftovers. New statistics say that one third of all food produced is discarded as waste, 70% of which goes into landfills. Some is scraps but a lot comes from unconsumed product that has spoiled before it is eaten. This huge amount of waste is an untapped resource with great potential for generating energy.
One of the new and innovative uses for food waste is the developing technology of “waste to energy” systems. Food waste takes up a lot of landfill space, and WTE can eliminate the bulk while powering vehicles and heating homes, putting a significant dent in the collective human carbon footprint.
There are some 800 industrial-scale WTE plants in more than three dozen countries around the world and thousands more on a smaller scale. Some early innovations date back to the 1980’s, which were designed to condition feedstock for wood waste fired power plants. Now, much of the conversion is done through the use of anaerobic digesters, which makes use of microorganisms to break down and convert organic waste into a fuel such as biogas, biodiesel or ethanol.
To produce electricity, one first of its kind facility is collecting methane to produce power. In Merina, California, digesters collect cow manure and food waste. "The balloon that you see on top of the device collects the methane,” says Jeff Lindenthal, the developer who spent the past year working with German engineers to bring the technology to the U.S.
When enough methane gas accumulates, the generator turns the gas to electricity. Each unit generates 100 kilowatt hours of electricity; that's enough to supply 100 homes on a daily basis. The pilot program energy is not yet for sale but plans are in the works for future sales.
The Waste Management District is gaining national attention for speeding up nature's decomposition process. 240 tons of food waste is collected every three weeks. This means 5,000 tons a year that would otherwise end up in landfills.
"Waste-to-energy doesn't involve drilling, fracking, or mining, and it doesn't rely on scarce and politically-charged resources like oil," reports RWL Water Group, an international company that installs water, wastewater and waste-to-energy systems. The waste from small slaughterhouses, breweries, dairy farms and coffee shops can power hundreds of typical homes each day if the infrastructure is in place to sort, collect and process the flow of organic material.
Restaurants, bakeries, farms, grocery stores and other pre and post consumption outlets are all sources for raw materials. These outlets have legitimate bio waste in service and product production. Some effort will be required in sorting waste but the result can pay for itself over time.
Navigant Research, which produced the 2012 report "Waste-to-Energy Technology Markets, which analyzes the global market opportunity for WTE, expects waste-to-energy to grow from its current market size of $6.2 billion to $29.2 billion by 2022. "With many countries facing dramatic population growth, rapid urbanization, rising levels of affluence, and resource scarcity, waste-to-energy is re-establishing itself as an attractive technology option to promote low carbon growth in the crowded renewable energy landscape," says Navigant's Mackinnon Lawrence. "China is already in the midst of scaling up capacity, and growth there is expected to shift the center of the WTE universe away from Europe to Asia Pacific."
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