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Convert your food waste into renewable energy

Posted at 6:20 PM, Apr 13, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Food waste is a common part of our everyday lives.

“It’s fairly immoral to waste this much food," sustainability manager Morgan Bowerman said. "Because we waste all this food while one in six adults in the U.S. are food insecure.”

Morgan Bowerman is the sustainability manager at Wasatch Resource Recovery, a waste management service in Salt Lake City, Utah.

She says reducing waste and feeding the hungry should be our first priorities, but food waste is still inevitable. When it goes to the landfill, it’s harmful for the environment.

“Putting food waste into the landfill is really inefficient use of our resources," Bowerman said. "All of that food waste is going to break down and is going to release into our atmosphere and create a really potent greenhouse gas. Or we could capture it with anaerobic digestion technology.”

Anerobic digestion refers to breaking down food without oxygen. The process – which happens naturally in a landfill - creates methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But what if you could take that methane, and convert it to a renewable energy source?

That’s exactly what giant food digesters do 24/7.

“The Anaerobic digester can take all the food waste," Bowerman said. "So it can take the meat and the dairy and the oil and all kinds of cooked foods, processed foods and sugary foods.”

Bowerman says the vast majority is manufacturing waste. Big tanker trucks come throughout the day to offload. They also process food waste that comes from local residents. In fact, people in the community can bring their food waste straight to bins at the facility. Then there’s food waste that’s brought to them from restaurants and grocery stores.

A grocery store chain called Harmons has been diverting food waste to Wasatch Resource Recovery since the facility opened nearly two years ago.

“All of our stores last year – so that’s 19 stores and our floral distribution center – we diverted about 1,900 tons to the digester,” director of sustainability Kate Whitbeck said.

Kate Whitbeck is the director of sustainability at Harmons.

“Our food waste would generate enough gas to heat 179 homes for an entire year,” Whitbeck said.

She says food still fit for human consumption goes to the local food bank, but everything else is sent to the digester.

“It’s your fruit peels and your onion tops and it’s the fat that’s trimmed off of the meat," Whitbeck said. "Ya know, it’s food that we wouldn’t be consuming otherwise that we’re preparing here at the store.”

So it goes through Wasatch Resource Recovery – adding to the four to five hundred tons of food waste the facility gets every day. Recyclable material is sorted out and organic material is sent to the digester where microbes break it down.

The methane that is created through that process is converted to natural gas and sold to be used as renewable energy. And the food that gets digested comes out the other end as fertilizer that can be used to grow crops. Right now it’s being sent to farms at no cost.

“So it’s really great fertilizer," Bowerman said. "It’s got tons of micronutrients in it.”

Bowerman says studies so far show the fertilizer has been yielding incredible crops; proof that this sustainable practice can be beneficial across the country.

“Anaerobic digestion as a technology is catching on," Bowerman said. "Finally, like wildfire, it’s really been exciting to see the food waste landscape change.”

Click here for an additional resource about converting food waste into energy.