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 health. 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 environment.
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 China.
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 carbon-negative fuel.
Food waste is energy
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 waste; 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 plastic. 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.
Closing the loop on food waste reduction and food production
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 practices.
As is commonplace in Europe, our anaerobic digestion facilities 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.
RNG production via anaerobic digestion creates carbon-negative energy, sustains farms
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.
Consumers and companies catalyze decarbonization
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.
The first catalyst: the public’s desire for transparency in the food production cycle
Consumers and investors have been seeking transparency in the sourcing and quality of food 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 climate change. 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) ratings on Wall Street.
Per a recent New York Times article, 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 partners 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 carbon-negative energy.
The second catalyst: the commitment by companies to decarbonize their energy sources
Most major food industry participants have committed to science-based targets over the coming decade. It has been relatively easy to reduce or remove the carbon impact of electricity 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.
The solutions pathway
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.