Food Waste to Energy

How Can We Convert 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 produced go to waste each year, and much of that will go to landfills. As a result, this food waste breaks down and produces methane, which is far more damaging to our environment than CO2. However, we can solve this problem by converting our food waste into energy.

With abundant 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, so biomass food waste could be the solution4. After all, there will always be food waste, and 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 we waste and turning it into energy. Biomass is an organic material, and food waste falls into this category. However, to turn food waste into energy, it must undergo 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 must adhere to when dealing with food waste. So, rather than food waste being taken to landfills where it will pollute the environment and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, 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 into energy seems to be a partial 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 fuels 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 digestion6. So, food waste that we would have taken to landfills 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, and using microorganisms accelerates the process.

While these plants are processing food waste, the release of methane gas takes place. However, whereas this gas would usually 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 energy5.

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

This means that we can now create vast amounts of renewable energy from which we can benefit. 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 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 heat1.

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, which means that there will always be food waste. However, we now can 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 significant problem.

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

Less Waste Ends Up In Landfill

Many people understand why we should not take plastic waste to landfills. After all, across its lifecycle, it doesn’t break down or decompose for hundreds of years. However, many people fail to see how food waste causes problems when we place it in landfills. Food rots and eventually disappears, but there is more to it than this.

When we place food in landfills, it will rot and eventually wholly vanish. This entire process will create gases that are a menace to 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 a landfill, the methane continues to enter the atmosphere3.

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

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

Reduced Carbon Emissions

There are several ways that we can look at this. When we traditionally dispose of food waste, 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 to make it all work. Effectively, this cycle of picking up waste, transporting it, and dumping it plays 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 switch from using non-renewable sources. The renewable natural gas 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 come from a renewable source.

It Creates Jobs

Turning food waste into energy is a relatively new industry. While it is established and the technology is there, it will only 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, it will create more jobs.

Cost-Effective

While there is a cost to turn food waste into energy, it could reduce fuel costs in the long term. Food waste is abundant, 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 labor-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 local councils provide food waste bins for separate food waste collections.

Besides this, large supermarkets are aiming to become zero waste, including Sainsbury’s. As a result, each ton of waste that does not go to landfills 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 regarding food waste recycling, proving that we can make a difference with one million residents taking part in the scheme. The residents have been placing their food waste in separate bins for some time. However, the city has stepped up recycling food waste and is now preventing a vast amount of food waste from entering landfills.

China is also playing its part, which seems right given that Shenzhen generates around 15,000 tonnes of waste daily2 in Southern China. 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 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 our discarded food waste, and turning it into energy seems to be the right solution.

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

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

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1Sora 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
2Wenfang 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
3Adhikari, 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
4Food 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
5Stafford, D.A., Hawkes, D.L., & Horton, R. Methane production from waste organic matter. United States.
6W 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
Photo by Giuseppe Famiani on Unsplash
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