Tackling the Next Nexus: Food Waste and Energy

Food Waste Reduction Alliances launches new toolkitThe food industry organization Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) has just released a new toolkit for improving the bottom line by reducing food waste, and one major theme to emerge from those strategies is the nexus of food waste and energy. That relationship is most clearly evident in the waste disposal area, since food scraps are generally wet and heavy, leading to high transportation and landfill costs.

The food waste-energy nexus is also at work more subtly throughout the new toolkit. Think of the relationship between food waste and energy as a corollary to the water-energy nexus, and you can see how this massive challenge can be leveraged as a positive bottom line benefit that sets off a ripple effect through civic and environmental issues as well.

Food waste reduction and social benefit

The new toolkit is called The Best Practices and Emerging Solutions Toolkit. Although the document is aimed squarely at bottom line performance, FWRA pushes the civic benefits angle into the spotlight. The press release announcing the toolkit features FWRA member Feeding America, which played a critical role in its development. A spokesperson for Feeding America explains:

The sad truth is that while food is going to waste, 37 million Americans struggle to put enough food on the table to feed their families. The safe, edible food that is diverted from the waste stream to food banks through model practices showcased in the toolkit make a positive social impact on communities across the country by providing sustenance to those in need.

Addressing that aspect of the food waste challenge, the toolkit includes a discussion of strategies for hurdling some of the legal and supply chain issues that stand in the way of donating food, with a generous use of examples and case studies to illustrate successful strategies.

Following the lead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the toolkit makes it clear that reclaiming edible food is second only to source reduction at the top of the food waste recovery hierarchy, followed by animal feed, industrial uses, compost and disposal (landfilling or incineration).

The food waste-energy nexus

Depending on the donation strategy, companies could save significantly on fuel costs while also avoiding disposal fees, although in terms of overall fuel consumption — including producers, the donation chain and consumers — the savings may be minimal at best (after all, the food will still have to be transported).

A similar scenario could also come into play regarding the diversion of food waste for animal feed. Some or all of the disposal transportation burden is lifted from producers, but transportation is still involved.

Where things really start to get interesting is a little farther down in the hierarchy, in which food waste is recycled for industrial uses. As far as the toolkit goes, that primarily means producing energy: biodiesel from waste fats and oils; ethanol from fermenting organic material; and methane gas from anaerobic digestion.

By diverting food waste from landfills to fuel production, you get the kind of sustainability twofer that plays a role in the Obama Administration’s Food Waste Challenge, which is partly aimed at reducing fugitive methane emissions from landfills.

Among the high-profile companies cited by the toolkit are Aramark, McDonald’s, Wegmans and ConAgra.

To that we can add the Cleveland Browns football franchise, which just last year introduced an onsite food waste-to-methane system called Grind2Energy by Emerson, based on the company’s tried and true InSinkErator product.

Another new addition to the food waste-to-energy scene is the Sacramento BioDigester, aka the “gigantic manmade stomach,” which will enable local restaurants and other food industry members to generate fuel, electricity, compost and other soil products.

Food waste, compost and energy

Speaking of compost, that’s the next step down in the recovery hierarchy. As with food donation and animal feed, in many cases composting would involve transportation-related energy consumption, but facilities with expansive grounds, landscaping or agricultural operations could reduce that impact by using some or all of their compost on site.

In that regard, one example we’ll add to the toolkit is the Department of Defense’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which has been putting its compost to use in restoring on site habitat for an endangered butterfly.

Image credit: David Goehring via flickr

Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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