Published 3 years ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Barstow’s Longview Farm — Hadley, Mass | Images credit Vanguard Renewables
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Food waste handling presents itself as either a generator of deadly greenhouse gases — or a tool for immediate decarbonization of the food cycle, and an
increase in the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.
The pandemic has
forced us, as a nation, to focus on the issues of environmental and personal
More and more, consumers are coming to understand that these two massive parts
of our daily life are inexorably linked, but few consumers understand that this
connection can go much further than they may have considered. How food is
manufactured and how it is disposed of turns out to have direct and significant
impact on both the personal health of US consumers, as well as on our
More than 30 percent of all food that is produced in the US ends up in an
incinerator or landfill. The breakdown of that food waste produces methane — one
of the most damaging greenhouse gases, estimated to be more than 40 times worse
for the environment than carbon dioxide. If food waste were a nation, it would
be the third-largest greenhouse gas contributor in the world, behind the US and
Finding a positive solution to this challenge is the reason we started the
movement to reframe the way the US food production, delivery and disposal
process works. Vanguard Renewables has worked
with US farmers to scale a solution for recycling organic waste and producing
Great strides are being made on reducing waste from existing manufacturing and
supply chains. Most food manufacturers are fully engaged in multi-faceted
efforts to reduce food
but some amount of that waste is endemic to any manufacturing and distribution
process, and cannot be overcome due to food safety and quality concerns.
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The remarkable thing about food waste is that it can become either a dangerous
greenhouse gas or an incredible ingredient to produce renewable energy,
low-carbon fertilizer and even
The deciding factor is based entirely on how we dispose of it. Sending food
waste to landfill creates terrible issues with greenhouse gas emissions and
toxic leachate in our waterways, whereas recycling it in an anaerobic digester
takes all those negative issues and turns them into positive benefits.
At Vanguard Renewables, we are proud to have been able to create a new
closed-loop model for US food waste by partnering with family farms. We build
and operate anaerobic digestion facilities on farms across the country that
repurpose food waste into renewable energy and low-carbon fertilizer. Building
our recycling facilities on farms leverages the amazing synergies that exist
between food waste recycling and regenerative agriculture
As is commonplace in Europe, our anaerobic digestion
on farms throughout the US take nutrients from unusable food and deliver it back
to the soil; while the anaerobic digester sequesters the greenhouse gas that
would otherwise have been emitted if the food waste was sent to a landfill. This
process, called co-digestion, combines food waste and cow manure in a large
sealed tank (much like an enormous cow’s stomach) for roughly one month, and
lets the natural process of anaerobic digestion break down the waste into biogas
and liquid digestate. The biogas can be used as renewable natural gas
(RNG) for injection into the pipeline, for vehicle fueling, or on-site as
fuel to produce renewable electricity. The leftover liquid from the process —
called digestate — is a potent, low-carbon fertilizer used by the host farmer
that improves soil health. By substituting digestate for traditional fertilizer,
our farmers can reduce their reliance on synthetic fertilizers by 80 to 100
percent. As importantly, our farm partners have seen significant increase in
both crop yield per acre and the nutritional value of the crops. These cost
savings and production enhancements combine to make our farmers more
economically and environmentally sustainable for the next generation.
Vanguard has been working with generational farmers for more than seven years to
make this solution work. During the company’s lifespan, RNG has gone from
relative obscurity in the renewable energy world to one of the fastest-growing
areas of investment focus. The important distinction with RNG is that, unlike
wind and solar energy — which are carbon neutral — RNG is carbon negative.
Therefore, the utilization of RNG in a manufacturing process has immediate and
meaningful impact on a user’s carbon footprint. Moreover, RNG can only be
economically produced from the breakdown of organic materials either in
landfills or anaerobic digesters.
What excites us most today is our position at the convergence of two totally
independent catalysts toward decarbonization, now combined to dramatically
increase the adoption of repurposing organic waste to produce RNG.
Consumers and investors have been seeking transparency in the sourcing and
for at least a decade. Most recently, the food industry has focused on the
carbon footprint issues related to packaging and transportation. Now consumers
have a growing awareness of the tragedy of the vast amount of food being wasted
in the US, and are demanding transparency in the waste-disposal practices of
companies from which they purchase products. These same consumers are also
demanding actionable solutions from business and government to directly impact
This huge shift in consumer attitudes and buying patterns is being reinforced by
socially conscious investors at the commercial level by the environmental,
social and governance (ESG)
on Wall Street.
Per a recent New York Times
cutting greenhouse gas emissions from food production is critical to limiting
global warming. In addition to reducing food waste and repurposing what cannot
be eliminated, food producers and retailers can also work with supply chain
on food waste repurposing, thereby dramatically reducing their Scope 3
emissions. The food industry can also support the synergy between reducing
companies’ carbon footprint and that of host farms, while producing vital
Most major food industry participants have committed to
over the coming decade. It has been relatively easy to reduce or remove the
carbon impact of
at a facility, utilizing wind and solar energy. Removing the carbon impact of
the thermal needs (hot water, refrigeration, and cooling) of a facility has
proven to be extremely hard and expensive. Retrofitting a manufacturing facility
to electrify thermal components requires enormous time, capital expenditure and
plant shutdowns to execute the change. Additionally, the performance criteria of
the thermal process would either exceed the maximum production capacity of
electric components or be extremely expensive to run. RNG presents an immediate,
zero-capital-expenditure pathway to target attainment.
The virtuous circle of recycling manufacturing food waste into RNG that is then
used at that same plant to decarbonize thermal energy requirements is incredibly
attractive. If the farm that hosts the digester produces the raw materials that
are processed into the food product, the feedback loop is almost perfect. This
may seem an aspirational model; however, Vanguard Renewables has worked with
several food and beverage manufacturers to do just this. We see closing this
loop as the future of the food and RNG industries.
Virtually all the major food manufacturers and retailers have committed to
admirable climate-change reduction goals. Food waste handling presents itself as
either a generator of deadly greenhouse gases — or a tool for immediate
decarbonization of the food cycle, and an increase in the adoption of
regenerative agriculture practices. We believe that integrating farm-based
anaerobic digestion into the food cycle is an immediately impactful solutions
pathway that will protect people, planet and profit for the future.
Published Nov 10, 2020 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
John Hanselman is Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Vanguard Renewables — the U.S. leader in farm-based organics to renewable energy. John launched Vanguard Renewables in 2014 to connect farm-based anaerobic digestion to agricultural resilience and produce renewable energy. His work includes finding a decarbonization pathway for the food and beverage industry by enabling the repurposing of unavoidable manufacturing and supply chain waste into renewable natural gas. John’s strength is bringing together partners in the decarbonization journey and Vanguard has strategic partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America and Dominion Energy, among others. (Read more ...)
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.