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.

Bin2Grid

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 in USA

food_wasteFood waste is an untapped energy source that mostly ends up rotting in landfills, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food waste is 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 waste is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. Around 13 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in the country is contributed by food scraps. According to USEPA, more than 35 million tons of food waste are thrown away into landfills or incinerators each year, which is around 40 percent of all food consumed in the country. As far as United Kingdom is concerned, households throw away around 8 million tons of food each year. These statistics are an indication of tremendous amount of food waste generated all over the world.

Food Waste Management Strategy

The proportion of food waste 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. The two most common methods for food waste recycling are:

  • Composting: A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste by naturally occurring micro-organisms with oxygen, in an enclosed vessel or tunnel;
  • Anaerobic digestion (AD): A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen, producing a renewable energy (biogas) that can be used to generate electricity and heat.

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.

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, abattoir wastes, etc.

Food waste is one of the single largest constituent 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 wastes. Anaerobic digestion technology is widely available worldwide and successful projects are already in place in several European as well as Asian countries which makes it imperative on waste generators and environmental agencies in USA to strive for a sustainable food waste management system.