The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Power Up With Leftovers

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Transforming food waste into energy could be a good investment, both environmentally and economically.

When I first considered reporting on a food scraps to energy program I wasn't really thinking of the smells I would encounter. Granted it's not nearly as bad as raw sewage, but 25 tons of decomposing food can pack a punch. Then I saw the sludge and thought what a nightmare for folks who can't stand their foods mingling on the dinner plate. Fortunately, I have a strong stomach.

The story intrigued me because it seemed like converting food waste to methane for energy use was a no- brainer. Why isn't everyone doing this? So far the program, run by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, seems like a success but as it turns out there are a few challenges, which may explain why it's not so widespread.

First, the wastewater plant in Oakland has to deal with non-organic items that accidentally wind up in restaurant green bins, such as forks, plastic wrap, even pennies. These pesky interlopers damage grinders and other machinery and are a constant and costly headache for the utility. That's why the agency wants more control over the sorting and is planning to bring the process on site. Right now the haulers and the restaurants control the pre-sorting process.

Then there's the question of how easy this program can be replicated at other wastewater plants. The East Bay facility already had the infrastructure and capacity to take on this program. It's investing to expand it, but some plants don't even have these anaerobic digesters and those that do may or may not have the ability to produce electricity. This could well require costly investments in tough economic times.

Then there's the buy-in needed by the community. The Bay Area is a mecca for food and green consciousness. It doesn't take much to get some portion of restaurants to jump on board. But even here in the Bay Area some have dismissed the program as a hassle. So you can imagine taking it to another part of the state or country where it might well meet with eye rolling and some "so Berkeley" comments.

There's also some environmental fallout from this process. When the plant burns methane for energy it creates carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. But methane is some 23 times more potent that Co2. So It's better to capture and use the methane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Co2 is a lesser of two evils.

In fact, the Agency is not dissuaded by any of the challenges. It's pushing the food waste to methane program to other wastewater treatment plants nationwide. It's even putting together a "toolkit" to show why it could be a good investment, environmentally and economically.


Listen to Power Up With Leftovers radio report online.

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Category: Energy, Environment, Food, Radio, Sustainable Food

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  • Wes

    Waste to energy is not the highest and best use of organic materials such as food scraps and food soiled paper products. Composting these materials releases much less methane/co2 and is turned into a beneficial product (compost) to grow foods. Compost is much less intensive to produce than the fossil-fuel dependent synthetic fertilizers, where nitrolized fertilizers represent the #1 anthropogenic cause of nitrous oxide emissions, which are some 300x worse than CO2. Compost,don't burn!