Food Waste to Energy

Converting Food Waste to Energy

So much of the food that we produce or consume goes to waste. In fact, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste each year and much of that will go to landfill. As a result, this food waste breaks down and produces methane and methane is far more damaging to our environment than CO2. However, we can deal with this problem by converting our food waste to energy.

With an abundance of food waste, it only makes sense to put it to good use. We are already growing our use of different types of renewable energy sources and so, biomass food waste could be the solution8. After all, there is always going to be food waste, it is just vital that we make sure we put it to good use.

What is Food Waste to Energy?

Turning Food Waste into Energy

Ultimately, this is all about taking the food that we waste and turning it into energy1. Biomass is an organic material and food waste falls into this category. However, to turn food waste into energy, it has to go through a specific process.

Countries around the world have committed to reducing the amount of food loss and waste. In fact, the United Nations have global standards that countries have to adhere to when it comes to dealing with food waste6. So, rather than food waste being taken to landfill where it will pollute the environment, we can use it to create energy.

Therefore, we are now taking organic waste and making use of it. As far as future energies are concerned, turning food waste to energy looks set to be a part solution that we have been looking for. Converting food waste to energy enables us to create renewable energy. This, in turn, reduces our reliance on fossil fuel which can only be a positive development.

How does it work

To turn our food waste into energy, it has to go through a process of anaerobic digestion10. So, food waste that would have been taken to landfill is now taken to a food waste processing facility.

Here workers or machines will sort through the food waste to remove any materials that could contaminate the process. Then the food is placed into a digestion tank.

As the process is anaerobic, it means that oxygen is removed. Therefore, the food decomposes naturally, the use of microorganisms accelerates the process.

While these plants are processing food waste, the release of methane takes place9. However, whereas this gas would normally be released into the atmosphere, in the process of converting food waste to energy it is contained within a sealed tank. We can then use the gas to drive electricity generators to create energy.

So, the anaerobic digestion process turns our food waste into a renewable energy source. What’s more, as much as 90% of the energy can be used locally or even exported to the grid.

This means that we are now capable of creating vast amounts of renewable energy that we can benefit from. What’s more, it is also possible to use heat, which is a by-product of the process. Therefore, around a third of the heat can be used to heat the plant while the remaining heat is used to heat buildings. As a result, the entire process is almost self-sufficient in both power and heat3.

As such, food waste has the potential to become a larger contributing solution to our energy problems. We need to produce food and we need to eat and that means that there will always be food waste. However, we now have the ability to manage that waste effectively.

What Are The Benefits of Turning Food Waste Into Energy?

Orange Peels

There is no denying that we live in a wasteful society. From dwindling resources to increasing levels of CO2, we are facing a rather large problem.

Despite this, waste disposal attitudes are changing and food waste to energy is a vast improvement on our waste heading to landfill. What are the benefits of turning food waste into energy?

Less Waste Ends Up In Landfill

Many people understand the reason why plastic waste should not be taken to landfill. After all, across its lifecycle, it doesn’t breakdown or decompose for hundreds of years. However, many people fail to see how food waste causes a problem when we place it in landfill. Food rots and eventually it disappears but there is more to it than this.

When we place food in landfill it will rot and eventually completely vanish. This entire process will create gases that are a menace for our environment. Methane is the main problem here. This gas is more potent than CO2. Therefore, when you place rotting food on top of rotting food in landfill, the methane continues to enter the atmosphere7.

So, when we stop discarding our food waste into landfill, we can reduce the damage.

Along with this, landfill sites are a blot on our landscape. They give off horrific odours and they damage our environment. Overall, increasing landfill sites and their use is not an environmentally friendly option. Rather, our objective should be to reduce waste that might otherwise go to landfill

Reduced Carbon Emissions

There are several ways that we can look at this. When we dispose of food waste in the traditional way, refuse trucks will pick up our waste from our homes. This will then get transported to landfill sites. Here more machinery will pump more CO2 emissions into the atmosphere in order to make it all work. Effectively, this cycle of picking up waste, transporting it and dumping it is playing a role in the greenhouse effect.

So, if we can take our food waste to processing plants that produce their own energy we can reduce emissions. Of course, we still need to transport waste but many food waste processing plants are self-sufficient. This is where we can make CO2 savings.

We Can Generate Electricity and Heat

Traditionally, we use fossil fuels and non-renewable sources to generate electricity. If we follow the same trajectory of use, we will run out of coal and fossil fuels in the not-too-distant future.

When we create energy from food waste, we can make a switch from using non-renewable sources. The gases stored from processing food waste can help to create electricity and heat as a by-product. As a result, we can power homes with electricity and heat all of which comes from a renewable source2.

It Creates Jobs

Turning food waste into energy is a relatively new industry. While it is established and the technology is there, it is only going to get bigger. We are more than likely going to need more processing plants. Along with this, we will need more workers to manage the processes. Therefore, as this industry grows, more jobs will be created.

Cost-Effective

While there is a cost to turn food waste into energy, in the long-term, it could reduce fuel costs. There is an abundance of food waste, and despite efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, it will always be present to some degree. Therefore, we will always be able to produce energy using it. There is no digging for coal or labour-intensive processes. The energy source is readily available it just needs transporting from homes, restaurants and supermarkets to the plants. This will significantly reduce costs and that could mean that consumers make savings.

Countries Turning Food Waste Into Energy

US Airforce Turning Food Waste into Energy

The photo shows U.S. Airforce academy professors converting cafeteria food waste into a pulp which is then converted to energy. Photo: Jason Gutierrez / U.S. Air Force photo (public domain)

Fortunately, more and more countries are turning food waste into energy. Realistically, it has to be a global effort if we are going to make a difference.

In the UK, households are now encouraged to recycle their food waste. This means that local councils provide food waste bins for separate food waste collections.

Along with this, large supermarkets are aiming to become zero waste, including Sainsbury’s. As a result, each ton of waste that does not go to landfill can be used to generate enough energy to power 500 homes.

In the US, New York is already leading the way when it comes to dealing with food waste. It is the top city in the US as far as food waste recycling goes, proving that we can make a difference with one million residents taking part in the scheme. For some time, the residents have been placing their food waste in separate bins. However, the city has stepped up its efforts and is now preventing a vast amount of food waste from entering landfill.

China is also playing its part which seems right given that Shenzhen in Southern China generates around 154,000 tonnes of waste daily5. Despite this, here you can find the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant. China generates more waste than any other country but it also looks to be making progress in the way of finding more sustainable solutions.

Is Food Waste To Energy a Real Solution?

The truth is that food waste is a real problem. Therefore, we need to find a solution to deal with it and food waste to energy seems to be the right solution.

It solves so many problems in on hit including managing food waste, preventing it from going to landfill and generating energy from a renewable source. If this is going to become a legitimate source of energy then we need to be more considerate when it comes to dealing with food waste.

On a global level, we generate a vast amount of food waste. However, if that waste can be put to good use then perhaps we could be onto something that can change our future forever.

1Yingqun Ma, Yu Liu, Turning food waste to energy and resources towards a great environmental and economic sustainability: An innovative integrated biological approach, Biotechnology Advances, Volume 37, Issue 7, 2019, , ISSN 0734-9750, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biotechadv.2019.06.013
2A. Zahedi, A review of drivers, benefits, and challenges in integrating renewable energy sources into electricity grid, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 15, Issue 9, 2011, Pages 4775-4779, ISSN 1364-0321, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2011.07.074
3Sora Yi, Yong-Chul Jang, Alicia Kyoungjin An, Potential for energy recovery and greenhouse gas reduction through waste-to-energy technologies, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 176, 2018, Pages 503-511, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.103
4Wenfang Huang, Jie Wang, Xingyi Dai, Mingran Li, Marie K. Harder, More than financial investment is needed: food waste recycling pilots in Shanghai, China, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 67, 2014, Pages 107-116, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.12.019
5Wenfang Huang, Jie Wang, Xingyi Dai, Mingran Li, Marie K. Harder, More than financial investment is needed: food waste recycling pilots in Shanghai, China, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 67, 2014, Pages 107-116, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.12.019
6Göbel, C.; Langen, N.; Blumenthal, A.; Teitscheid, P.; Ritter, G. Cutting Food Waste through Cooperation along the Food Supply Chain. Sustainability 2015, 7, 1429-1445.
7Adhikari, B. K., Barrington, S., & Martinez, J. (2006). Predicted growth of world urban food waste and methane production. Waste Management & Research, 24(5), 421–433. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734242X06067767
8Food waste biomass: a resource for high-value chemicals. Pfaltzgraff, Lucie A, De bruyn, Mario, Cooper, Emma C, Budarin, Vitaly, Clark, James H, 2013, The Royal Society of Chemistry, http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C2GC36978H
9Stafford, D.A., Hawkes, D.L., & Horton, R. Methane production from waste organic matter. United States.
10W Gujer, A J B Zehnder; Conversion Processes in Anaerobic Digestion. Water Sci Technol 1 August 1983; 15 (8-9): 127–167. doi: https://doi.org/10.2166/wst.1983.0164
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