Renewable Energy from Food Residuals

Food residuals are an untapped renewable energy source that mostly ends up rotting in landfills, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food residuals are difficult to treat or recycle since it contains high levels of sodium salt and moisture, and is mixed with other waste during collection. Major generators of food wastes include hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, residential blocks, cafeterias, airline caterers, food processing industries, etc.

In United States, food scraps is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. Around 12.7 percent of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in the year 2008 was food scraps that amounted to about 32 million tons. According to EPA, about 31 million tons of food waste was thrown away into landfills or incinerators in 2008. As far as United Kingdom is concerned, households throw away 8.3 million tons of food each year. These statistics are an indication of tremendous amount of food waste generated all over the world.

The proportion of food residuals in municipal waste stream is gradually increasing and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised to ensure its eco-friendly and sustainable disposal. Currently, only about 3 percent of food waste is recycled throughout U.S., mainly through composting. Composting provides an alternative to landfill disposal of food waste, however it requires large areas of land, produces volatile organic compounds and consumes energy. Consequently, there is an urgent need to explore better recycling alternatives.

Anaerobic digestion has been successfully used in several European and Asian countries to stabilize food wastes, and to provide beneficial end-products. Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Germany and England have led the way in developing new advanced biogas technologies and setting up new projects for conversion of food waste into energy.

Anaerobic Digestion of Food Waste

Anaerobic digestion is the most important method for the treatment of organic waste, such as food residuals, because of its techno-economic viability and environmental sustainability. The use of anaerobic digestion technology generates biogas and preserves the nutrients which are recycled back to the agricultural land in the form of slurry or solid fertilizer.

The relevance of biogas technology lies in the fact that it makes the best possible use of various organic wastes as a renewable source of clean energy. A biogas plant is a decentralized energy system, which can lead to self-sufficiency in heat and power needs, and at the same time reduces environmental pollution. Thus, anaerobic digestion of food waste can lead to climate change mitigation, economic benefits and landfill diversion opportunities.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. Food waste can either be used as a single substrate in a biogas plant, or can be co-digested with organic wastes like cow manure, poultry litter, sewage, crop residues, slaughterhouse wastes, etc.

A Typical Energy Conversion Plant

The feedstock for the food waste-to-energy plant includes leftover food, vegetable refuse, stale cooked and uncooked food, meat, teabags, napkins, extracted tea powder, milk products, etc. Raw waste is shredded to reduce to its particle size to less than 12 mm. The primary aim of shredding is to produce a uniform feed and reduce plant “down-time” due to pipe blockages by large food particles. It also improves mechanical action and digestibility and enables easy removal of any plastic bags or cling-film from waste.

Fresh waste and re-circulated digestate (or digested food waste) are mixed in a mixing tank. The digestate is added to adjust the solids content of the incoming waste stream from 20 to 25 percent (in the incoming waste) to the desired solids content of the waste stream entering the digestion system (10 to 12 percent total solids). The homogenized waste stream is pumped into the feeding tank, from which the anaerobic digestion system is continuously fed. Feeding tank also acts as a pre-digester and subjected to heat at 55º to 60º C to eliminate pathogens and to facilitate the growth of thermophilic microbes for faster degradation of waste.

From the predigestor tank, the slurry enters the main digester where it undergoes anaerobic degradation by a consortium of Archaebacteria belonging to Methanococcus group. The anaerobic digester is a CSTR reactor having average retention time of 15 to 20 days. The digester is operated in the mesophilic temperature range (33º to 38°C), with heating carried out within the digester. Food waste is highly biodegradable and has much higher volatile solids destruction rate (86 to 90 percent) than biosolids or livestock manure. As per conservative estimates, each ton of food waste produces 150 to 200 m3 of biogas, depending on reactor design, process conditions, waste composition, etc.

Biogas contains significant amount of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas that needs to be stripped off due to its corrosive nature. The removal of H2S takes place in a biological desulphurization unit in which a limited quantity of air is added to biogas in the presence of specialized aerobic bacteria that oxidizes H2S into elemental sulfur. The biogas produced as a result of anaerobic digestion of waste is sent to a gas holder for temporary storage. Biogas is eventually used in a combined heat and power (CHP) unit for its conversion into thermal and electrical energy in a co­generation power station of suitable capacity. The exhaust gases from the CHP unit are used for meeting process heat requirements.

The digested substrate leaving the reactor is rich in nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus which are beneficial for plants as well as soil. The digested slurry is dewatered in a series of screw presses to remove the moisture from slurry. Solar drying and additives are used to enhance the market value and handling characteristics of the fertilizer.

Diverting Food from Landfills

Food residuals are one of the single largest constituents of municipal solid waste stream. Diversion of food waste from landfills can provide significant contribution towards climate change mitigation, apart from generating revenues and creating employment opportunities. Rising energy prices and increasing environmental pollution makes it more important to harness renewable energy from food scraps.

Anaerobic digestion technology is widely available worldwide and successful projects are already in place in several European as well as Asian countries that makes it imperative on waste generators and environmental agencies to root for a sustainable food waste management system.

Biomethane from Food Waste: A Window of Opportunity

food-waste-behaviorFor most of the world, reusing our food waste is limited to a compost pile and a home garden. While this isn’t a bad thing – it can be a great way to provide natural fertilizer for our home-grown produce and flower beds – it is fairly limited in its execution. Biomethane from food waste is an interesting idea which can be implemented in communities notorious for generating food wastes on a massive scale. Infact, the European Union is looking for a new way to reuse the millions of tons of food waste that are produced ever year in its member countries – and biomethane could be the way to go.


The Bin2Grid project is designed to make use of the 88 million tons of food waste that are produced in the European Union every year. For the past two years, the program has focused on collecting the food waste and unwanted or unsold produce, and converting it, first to biogas and then later to biomethane. This biomethane was used to supply fueling stations in the program’s pilot cities – Paris, Malaga, Zagreb and Skopje.

Biomethane could potentially replace fossil fuels, but how viable is it when so many people still have cars that run on gasoline?

The Benefits of Biomethane

Harvesting fossil fuels is naturally detrimental to the environment. The crude oil needs to be pulled from the earth, transported and processed before it can be used.  It is a finite resource and experts estimate that we will exhaust all of our oil, gas and coal deposits by 2088.

Biomethane, on the other hand, is a sustainable and renewable resource – there is a nearly endless supply of food waste across the globe and by converting it to biomethane, we could potentially eliminate our dependence on our ever-shrinking supply of fossil fuels. Some companies, like ABP Food Group, even have anaerobic digestion facilities to convert waste into heat, power and biomethane.

Neutral Waste

While it is true that biomethane still releases CO2 into the atmosphere while burned, it is a neutral kind of waste. Just hear us out. The biggest difference between burning fossil fuels and burning biomethane is that the CO2 that was trapped in fossil fuels was trapped there millions of years ago.  The CO2 in biomethane is just the CO2 that was trapped while the plants that make up the fuel were alive.

Biofuel in all its forms has a bit of a negative reputation – namely, farmers deforesting areas and removing trees that store and convert CO2 in favor of planting crops specifically for conversion into biofuel or biomethane. This is one way that anti-biofuel and pro-fossil fuel lobbyists argue against the implementation of these sort of biomethane projects – but they couldn’t be more wrong, especially with the use of food waste for conversion into useful and clean energy.

Using biogas is a great way to reduce your fuel costs as well as reuse materials that would otherwise be wasted or introduced into the environment. Upgrading biogas into biomethane isn’t possible at home at this point, but it could be in the future.

If the test cities in the European Union prove successful, biomethane made from food wastes could potentially change the way we think of fuel sources.  It could also provide alternative fuel sources for areas where fossil fuels are too expensive or unavailable. We’ve got our fingers crossed that it works out well – if for no other reason that it could help us get away from our dependence on finite fossil fuel resources.

Food Waste Management

The waste management hierarchy suggests that reduce, reuse and recycling should always be given preference in a typical waste management system. However, these options cannot be applied uniformly for all kinds of wastes. For examples, food waste is quite difficult to deal with using the conventional 3R strategy.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer.

There are numerous places which are the sources of large amounts of food waste and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised for them to make sure that either they are disposed off in a safe manner or utilized efficiently. These places include hotels, restaurants, malls, residential societies, college/school/office canteens, religious mass cooking places, communal kitchens, airline caterers, food and meat processing industries and vegetable markets which generate food residuals of considerable quantum on a daily basis.


The anaerobic digestion technology is highly apt in dealing with the chronic problem of food waste management in urban societies. Although the technology is commercially viable in the longer run, the high initial capital cost is a major hurdle towards its proliferation.

The onus is on the governments to create awareness and promote such technologies in a sustainable manner. At the same time, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and environmental agencies should also take inspiration from successful food waste-to-energy projects in Western countries and try to set up such facilities in cities and towns.

Sustainability Standards in Oil Palm Industry: An Overview

The palm oil industry is particularly involved in the development of sustainability standards. Driven by growing global demand, palm oil production has expanded rapidly in the last few years. Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world, and its popularity has grown even more with the emergence of new market opportunities in the biofuels sector, in addition to its traditional food and oleochemical uses.

This strong growth has unquestionably contributed to the economic development of the main producer countries – Indonesia and Malaysia – which account for 87% of global production. Palm oil cultivation provides income for many smallholders, whose produce accounts for around 40% of world palm oil output.

Environmental and Socio-economic Concerns

However, the expansion of palm oil cultivation has also generated serious environmental concerns. It results in tropical deforestation and thus has a major impact on biodiversity loss, with the decline of emblematic species such as orangutan in Southeast Asia. It contributes to climate change through deforestation, but also through the conversion of peatlands, which are of vital importance in soil carbon sequestration.

The huge forest and bush fires in recent years in Indonesia which are associated with clearing lands for agricultural or forestry plantations caused severe air pollution and public health problems across the sub-region. In addition, industrial plantations are sometimes responsible for polluting waterways, into which chemical inputs and processing plant waste are dumped.

Moreover, this expansion has sometimes resulted in social abuses and human rights violations, in the form of land grabbing by plantation companies at the expense of local and indigenous communities or of the exploitation of plantation workers.

Sustainability Standards in Oil Palm Industry

Condemnation of these abuses by NGOs and growing consumer awareness of the adverse impacts of the expansion of palm oil plantation have driven the development of sustainability standards. Such standards are aimed at transforming production practices in order to mitigate their adverse environmental and social effects.

The expansion of palm oil cultivation in Southeast Asia has also generated serious environmental concerns.

In 2001, representatives of the food processing and distribution sector launched a dialogue with WWF and plantation companies, leading to the creation in 2004 of the first voluntary sustainability standard in the sector, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

There are now 2.41 million hectares of RSPO-certified plantations, while sustainable palm oil accounted for 20% of world trade in this product. Meanwhile, several other initiatives proposing a vision of palm oil sustainability have emerged, positioning themselves as either a complement or an alternative to RSPO.

New Challenges to Overcome

The development of these initiatives demonstrates the growing awareness among producers, the industry and the public authorities of the need to transform the sector to enable it to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But this proliferation of sustainability standards itself poses new challenges, even though the environmental and social problems that motivated their emergence remain unresolved.

At the institutional level, the proliferation of sustainability initiatives since the creation of RSPO reflects a real fragmentation of the regulatory framework. This proliferation also raises the question of the articulation of these voluntary standards with the public regulations and national sustainability standards that producer countries have adopted.

Finally, measures to ensure the sustainability of palm oil cultivation need to bolster their credibility by guaranteeing better inclusion of the millions of smallholders, and by contributing in an effective, measurable way to mitigating the adverse social and environmental impacts of growth in palm oil cultivation. In this field, the role of collaborative and multidisciplinary research in providing strong evidence-based impact evaluation of standards is crucial.

Note: This is an excerpt from the book Achieving Sustainable Cultivation of Oil Palm (Volume 2) published by Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing. You may buy the book from this link. Use code BIOEN10 to avail special discount.