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The Green Metropolis: Recycling Food Waste for Fuel

a photo of a car engine's gas tank gauge with images showing fuel made from food-recycling efforts

It’s no secret that greenhouse gas emissions are actively threatening the environment. But what might be less well-known is that wasted food accounts for a significant portion of those emissions. In fact, estimates suggest that food waste produces as much greenhouse gas emissions as 3.4 million vehicles annually. And food waste also accounts for 75 percent of landfill space, which is an additional concern. Fortunately, bold companies and policymakers are providing sustainability solutions to these problems. Specifically, food-recycling techniques that not only serve to protect the environment but also produce energy now exist.

Increasingly, cities are pursuing efforts toward recycling food waste. While many municipalities have adopted composting methods, better alternatives now exist. Anaerobic digestion of food not only is faster but also offers additional benefits. But some obstacles remain that must be overcome if we are to fully realize the potential of recycling food waste. With over 80 million pounds of food wasted annually in the U.S., that is an essential pursuit. Food-recycling strategies must be employed sooner rather than later if we are to make progress in these areas.

What Is Anaerobic Digestion?

To appreciate how anaerobic digestion is involved in recycling food waste, traditional approaches need to be understood. In routine composting, wasted food is allowed to decompose as bacteria and oxygen breakdown food components. In contrast, however, food-recycling efforts with anaerobic digestion do not require oxygen. Here, bacteria break down foodstuffs without oxygen, which accelerates the process. And at the same time, anaerobic digestion can be used to generate biogas, which is an energy fuel.

Certainly, this detail gives anaerobic digestion a clear advantage in recycling food waste. But it doesn’t mean composting is not still a useful process as well. In fact, many still prefer composting when it comes to breaking down leaves and sticks. But for food-recycling efforts, efficiency and added byproducts make anaerobic digestion a preferred method. In an ideal scenario, cities would employ both techniques in an effort to be more sustainable and reduce waste. And in fact, many municipalities are doing just that.

cartoon of two men recycling food waste for fuel for their car parked along a suburban street
Effective food-recycling efforts through anaerobic digestion are here! How will they impact future sustainable fuel solutions?

Food-Recycling Barriers to Overcome

Numerous cities already have food-recycling laws in place, and an increasing number are exploring new alternatives. For example, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Philadelphia are already constructing or using anaerobic digesters for recycling food waste. Some towns, like Brooklyn, have existing wastewater treatment plants pursuing similar strategies for food-recycling. And private companies are also beginning to see profitability in providing anaerobic digestion services to areas. One California company currently uses anaerobic digestion to both fuel its plant while also provide energy for 600 homes annually.

Despite this progress, many cities have yet to invest in these measures. Using anaerobic digestion in recycling food waste often requires costly updates to public infrastructures. Likewise, until profits are realized, anaerobic digestion is more expensive than composting in the short term. And private investors are often needed to build new anaerobic digester sites. That and a lack of federal incentives have hindered many towns from exploring anaerobic digestion for food-recycling as an option.

Bold Businesses to the Rescue

Given the challenges many towns face, anaerobic digestion has been slow to evolve. Nevertheless, a small number of private companies are taking the lead and offering such services. Most have launched in Europe where anaerobic digestion specifically, and sustainability solutions generally, are being pursued more robustly. Germany, Switzerland and Italy are seeing a gradual rise in anaerobic digestion plants for recycling food waste. And China has recently aligned with private partners to do the same in some regions.

For example, Kompogas—a Zurich-based company— is able to manage 100,000 pounds of food waste daily in its California plant. In its high-heat process of recycling food waste, it generates methane biogas. It can then be either used or sold, thus making this endeavor quite profitable. Organic Waste Systems (OWS) is another company based in Belgium involved in the construction and operation of anaerobic digestion plants. These types of bold business are showing how food-recycling efforts through anaerobic digestion can be effective. Indeed, such efforts are necessary to preserve landfill space, but they also offer hope for sustainable fuel solutions for tomorrow.

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