Waste and Want.
As farmers we pride ourselves on feeding the world, or more importantly, feeding our corner of the world. Part of that pride is due to our ever evolving role as the world’s first environmentalists and our constant improvement as stewards of the land, not just in the present but with an eye towards the future. One of the the ways we can improve our sustainability is finding new ways to utilize the wastes and materiel readily at hand. Food waste is an integral part of the sustainability conversation for farmers, not only as a renewable energy source but also as part of the solution for hunger in a time where we farmers truly are capable of feeding the world. When it comes to learning about how food waste can be utilized I went to the gal with the facts and the knowledge, Sarah Wintle of Exeter Agri-Energy and Agri-Cycle Energy.
Perhaps I’m dating myself a bit, but I don’t really remember a time when recycling wasn’t part of the discussion. “Recycle your newspapers!” “Recycle your cardboard!” “Recycle your milk containers!” It never occurred to me that organic waste wasn’t part of that conversation. The good news is – it is now.
Several reports have come out during the last couple of years and without going into nauseating detail, they reveal a couple of things: (1) Americans waste a lot of food, and (2) there are more responsible ways to dispose of organic waste than simply sending it to a landfill.
When referring to organic or food waste, it’s not just the leftovers that turn green in your refrigerator. Apparently Americans only want to buy ‘pretty’ food – that means that lots of food that farmers grow either never makes it to the grocery store for sale OR people don’t buy it because it has a dent or is misshapen. Further, food that is pulled from store shelves on or around its labeled expiration date is typically still edible but grocers are forced to dispose of it because of expiration rules. Many producers of food waste are actively seeking alternatives to landfills but, sadly, lots of this waste still ends up there. The real crime is that ALL of this waste can either be avoided OR used in more beneficial ways.
The EPA publishes guidelines for responsible handling of food waste – the Food Recovery Hierarchy lists six possible uses of food waste ahead of sending it to a landfill. The top rungs of the hierarchy deal with curbing overproduction of food and repurposing what might be considered waste but is still edible. The bottom rungs of the hierarchy deal with processing the waste to create biofuel, fertilizer, and renewable energy. That’s right, you can process organic waste to make products that are VERY useful to a lot of people!
At Exeter Agri-Energy in Exeter, ME we’re collecting organic waste from producers around Maine and New England and processing it via anaerobic digestion. Cow manure from the co-located Stonyvale Farm is combined with the organic waste, processed in the digestion vessels, and we’re left with three separate products: (1) 1MW of renewable energy, (2) liquid fertilizer to spread on the farm fields, and (3) solid bedding material that is used in the dairy barns in place of sand or shavings. The renewable energy produced is enough to power as many as 800 households each year and the methane destructed as part of the process is the equivalent of removing 3000 passenger vehicles from the road annually!
So this makes complete sense, right? Unfortunately, recycling organics isn’t yet as natural for the public as recycling newspapers and cardboard, despite the fact that doing so would send recycling rates through the roof (in a good way). Hopefully the efforts to recycle organic waste being made now will mean future generations won’t remember a time when recycling organic waste wasn’t part of their lives.
About the Author…
Sarah Wintle is a true jack of all trades and master of none. A graduate of Smith College, she has held a variety of jobs including teacher, program manager, and researcher. She works currently with both Exeter Agri-Energy and its affiliate company, Agri-Cycle Energy.
More information can be found by visiting Biogas Energy Partners
Dairy farmers are part of the solution Transforming Food Waste into Green Energy