Turning Food Leftovers Into Energy Fast

A team of researchers at Cornell University has discovered a process of turning leftover food into energy much faster than already existing methods. It is a two-step process and is very efficient, since it captures virtually all the available energy.

Other methods work on the basis of anaerobic digestion with bacteria slowly chipping away at the organic matter and producing methane, which is then used for fuel. This new method that the researchers discovered works on the basis of the process of hydrothermal liquefaction. Basically, the food leftovers are first pressure-cooked, which results in a sort of bio-oil. This bio-oil is then refined into biofuel, while all that remains of the original food leftovers is just very watery liquid.

The next step is to feed this liquid into an anaerobic digester, which converts it into methane in a couple of days. Two sources of usable energy are produced via this method, one for generating electricity, the other heat, while none of the original food leftovers go to waste. When using just anaerobic digestion, it can take weeks for the food waste to turn into energy.

Also, the liquefied product that is leftover after the hydrothermal processing in this new method is better for the anaerobic digestion part of the process. Combining the two makes the overall process both more efficient as well as quicker. It takes mere minutes to achieve hydrothermal liquefaction and just a few days for the anaerobic digestion.

Current statistics show that about one-third of the world’s food is wasted, while US landfills are primarily filled with food waste. Needless to say, one of the priorities should be to keep food from becoming waste. But it is also important to find efficient ways of recycling food waste into something useful. A process such as this one, which leaves virtually no waste while producing clean energy would greatly reduce our carbon footprint and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Reinventing the Food Cycle

horse

Food going to waste is a problem in the US and elsewhere in the developed world. However, the High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical Output device, or HORSE for short, developed by Impact Bioenergy, could go a long way towards alleviating this problem on the consumer side.

HORSE is not a real living being, but it could be called a ‘living’ machine. It can best be described as a portable anaerobic digestion system, which is capable of accepting a whole range of organic waste materials, such as kitchen scraps, yard waste and even paper, and turning it into a liquid fertilizer and even energy in the form of biogas and electricity.

The creators claim that one HORSE unit can, in a year, convert 25 tons of organic waste into roughly 5400 gallons of liquid fertilizer and up to 37 MWh of energy. So 135 lb (61.2 kg) of organic waste input into the device in a day, could have a yield of 360,000 BTU of energy and 2.5 kW per hour in electric output every day. And this output would be achieved with almost no waste.

Needless to say, placing these devices in neighborhoods around the world could have a significant impact on local waste management issues, renewable energy production, and reduced transportation emissions. Together with other recycling and waste-reduction programs, it could, conceivably eliminate the need for organic waste pickup, and remove all the carbon emissions of this activity.

Impact energy is currently raising funds to start building a containerized production model. They are doing so via a Kickstarter campaign and have not yet reached their $43,300 goal, but the campaign still has about a week to go, so hopefully they will get there.

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‘Just Eat It’: Documentary Explores Food Waste From Farm to Fridge

Just Eat It

What happens when two filmmakers challenge themselves to survive for six months only on discarded food? You get Just Eat It, a new documentary that explores the food waste issue from the farm all the way to a Vancouver fridge.

In Just Eat It, Director and film subject Grant Baldwin found a swimming pool-sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus.

In Just Eat It, Director and film subject Grant Baldwin found a swimming pool-sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus.

Debuting at festivals in late April, the film follows Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin’s food waste experiment and features interviews with experts like authors Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom, and Dana Gunders, project scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. What they find is both shocking and hopeful.

This is Vancouver-based couple’s second foray into waste-based projects. For their first film, The Clean Bin Project, they competed with each other to see who could produce the least amount of garbage. We caught up with the filmmakers to learn more about Just Eat It. But first, check out the trailer:

Sustainable America: You had already tackled waste in your first film. What motivated you to look deeper into food waste?

Jenny Rustemeyer: We were doing some school presentations, and we ended up doing a waste audit at one school where you dump out a garbage can and look at all the different categories of recycling and things that shouldn’t have been in the garbage. We saw things like granola bars and pudding cups, and that was really the first time we realized that edible food was going in the garbage. That sparked the initial thought that we should look into food waste a little bit more.

Grant Baldwin: What we were trying to do at that school is say, “Let’s find out what can be composted.” But what we found is that this food hadn’t even got to the stage of being post-consumer. It was still ready to eat, still packaged. We started researching, and waste seemed to be the next food topic. I feel like we’ve had this conversation about organic food for so long, but if the food’s not even eaten, then what’s the point of growing it sustainably?

SA: Why did you challenge yourselves to live off discarded food?

Jen: This was totally Grant’s idea. We like to show the regular person’s side of the story. We thought if there’s 40 percent of food being wasted, we should be able to find some of it and eat it. There’s definitely a stigma around that. We both have day jobs, and I was pretty worried that my boss was going to find out that I was dumpster diving. But if we hadn’t set the rule that we had to eat exclusively rescued food, then I don’t think we would have found as much waste out there.

SA: How did you find the food?

Grant: It started pretty bad. We didn’t really know where to look. We went cold turkey; just quit grocery shopping, basically. We found most places lock up their waste. We would also try to purchase the food where we could from the grocery store that had already pulled it off the shelf, but that only worked a couple times during the whole project. Most places wouldn’t sell it to us.

At farmer’s markets, we were successful in purchasing the ugly stuff left over that people wouldn’t buy for cosmetic reasons. We’d find the majority of the food at wholesalers. Some grocery stores had bins that were open. A couple stores actually had a discount shelf of past-date food, and we were able to buy that.

Jen: Or we’d shop off the cull cart in the produce section. They go through the produce section and pick out the ones that are damaged and put them on the cart to take them into the back. I would just follow that guy around and take what he was taking right off the cart.

SA: So you were still spending some money on food? You were just trying to intercept the food that wasn’t going to be sold?

Grant: There’s a term called freegan that really bothers us because “free” is in the word, meaning you’re trying to live for free. And that really wasn’t the point of this project. We didn’t want to be associated with that, and also we felt like the food is still good, that’s the point. Why can’t we buy it? Though we tried to buy the food, we were pretty much shut down most of the time so we only spent $200 on groceries in six months, and we brought home $20,000 worth.

After just a couple months of dumpster diving, Jen and Grant’s fridge and pantry were so full that they had nowhere to store groceries.

After just a couple months of dumpster diving, Jen and Grant’s fridge and pantry were so full that they had nowhere to store groceries.

SA: What were some of the more egregious examples of food waste that you found?

Jen: The further we looked up the supply stream, the further the quantities. We started looking at wholesalers, and the scale of food waste there is pretty shocking. Just because it’s all in one spot. For example, one day we found $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars. Hundreds and hundreds of chocolate bars. Just boxes and boxes. We took as many as we could to save them. The reason that we think they were thrown out is that here in Canada you have to have everything labeled in French and English, and there was no French writing on these packages. They weren’t past date or anything like that. So we ate chocolate daily for a year.

Grant: The next day we found pallets of pickled herring. Our diet wasn’t that great in terms of variety. Sometimes things didn’t really go well together, like chocolate bars and pickled herring, but this is the kind of stuff that’s getting thrown out. We are talking about something that’s been preserved in a jar, and it’s thrown out, or canned foods or cans of soda. Stuff like this that you would expect to find in an earthquake shelter, for example. The stuff you would store. So there’s definitely a disconnect happening between surplus or stuff near date and places that want the food. We know of many places in our town that would’ve taken it, but there’s just no one there to pick it up or make that connection.

SA: Did you ever go hungry?

Grant: No, I gained about 10 pounds. The food was more packaged and processed, so there was a lot of eating foods like that.

Jen: We had friends coming over grocery shopping at our house.

SA: What were some of the more surprising or shocking things you learned about food waste?

Grant: For me, the biggest shock was the whole time I just wanted to point the finger at industry and say look at how bad you guys are, but really a lot of it is consumer-driven—whether it’s at the grocery store where we decide not to buy stuff because it doesn’t look right, or when we actually purchase the food and we don’t eat it in our house. So we do spend a fair amount of the film looking at what we’re doing in our homes because half of the food wasted is wasted by us in our houses and at restaurants. I didn’t realize it was such a high part of it. So we turned the camera on ourselves in that sense and said, OK, this is the easiest fix, what can we do in our house?

SA: What areas do you think have the biggest potential to make an impact on this problem?

Jen: First of all, we always try to remember that businesses and corporations and farmers, they still are individuals, they are people. So if someone gets engaged in their own home about food waste, they might take that to their work as well. I think one of the key areas that could help a lot is around date labeling. People are throwing out food because it’s close to the date or it’s just past the date, and they’re not sure what the date really means. We did a lot of research around that and realized that the dates are really there for peak freshness and not for safety. It’s generally completely fine to eat things past the date, and we need to use our senses a little bit more.

SA: What is your No. 1 tip for reducing food waste at home?

Grant: I made an “eat me first” bin in the fridge. Then I put stuff in there like a half an onion or tomato or a bit of celery. Anything that is going to go bad soon, I put in that bin, and then when I open the fridge I look at it and think, Oh, what can I make out of these items that are on their way out? I think we save quite a bit of food that way. We’re not perfect. We still have some food waste for sure. We do compost anything that we don’t get to, but I think that bin has saved a lot. And it’s a really simple way to curb the fridge waste.

SA: What do you want viewers to come away with from this film?

Grant: Just revalue food and have fun with what’s in your house. When we started, we realized how much food we still had in our pantry and freezer, and it became kind of fun just making meals off of what we already had. After watching this film, I hope that people, when they eat out, will watch that portion or bring the leftovers home and get past the stigma of that.

Jen: I hope that they come away entertained too. It’s a documentary about a serious issue, but it’s actually a pretty fun documentary. The portions with Grant and myself are definitely comic relief to the seriousness of the issue.

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Are Food Expiration Date Labels Making You a Wasteful Person?

Photo credit: Shutterstock

By Dana Frasz

Words such as convoluted, confusing, inconsistent, ineffective, disorienting, ambiguous and dizzying are not terms you want to hear associated with a system you believe is designed to guarantee food safety. Yet those are the adjectives that a recent report uses to describe the current date labeling regime in the U.S. Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the report, titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, shows that a bewildering system of date labeling is a major driver of unnecessary food waste.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Date labeling was instituted in the 1970s as a way to give shoppers assurance they were buying fresh food. But labeling hasn’t even achieved that modest goal, according to the report. “Ironically, despite the original intention of increasing consumer knowledge about their food, date labeling has become a largely incoherent signaling device for consumers,” the report says. That incoherence is costly for shoppers and retailers, bad for the planet and could even be leading to increased health risk.

Each year, an obscene amount of food is wasted in the U.S. and around the world—and confusing and inconsistent food date labels are making the matter worse. According to another NRDC report published last year, 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten. That translates to wasted natural resources, wasted money and wasted nutrition.

Here’s a quick overview:

Each time food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing, processing, packaging and transporting that food is wasted, too. This means huge amounts of chemicals, energy, fertilizer, land and 25 percent of all freshwater in the U.S. used to produce food are all thrown away.
Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year in food, which costs $750 million annually just for disposal.
Most uneaten food rots in landfills, where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is at least 56 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and is a significant contributor to global warming.
Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food.

Look at all of the food wasted globally and you’ll see that mismanagement of resources is a major contributor to climate change. According to a recent FAO report, the global carbon footprint of food produced but not eaten is the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of CO2 annually—which would make food waste the third-largest contributor to climate change, behind the U.S. and China.

Food waste happens for many complex reasons, people’s misinterpretation of date labels on foods being just one of them. But it might be one of the easiest food waste causes to fix. Dana Gunders, agriculture specialist at NRDC and one of the authors of The Dating Game, says, “Every entity around the world that has investigated food waste—the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Nations and NRDC in last year’s report—have all highlighted reducing confusion around expiration dates as one of the key ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for reducing food waste. So we set off to seize that opportunity starting with this report.”

While many people place a lot of confidence in food date labels, its an ad-hoc system with no oversight and little consistency. The labels are not federally regulated and can vary from state to state. Despite what most people think, the labels don’t communicate whether a product has spoiled. “use by” and “best before” are just suggestions determined by the manufacturer to indicate when food is at its peak quality. “Sell by” is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the product. There is no uniform criteria for any of those terms.

Dr. Ted Labuza has been working on shelf life testing since the 1970s. He says 65 percent of consumers sort through items at the store to locate the “freshest” product based on the date stamp. “That is no guarantee of safety or quality,” he warns. “The newer product could have been sitting on a loading dock for 10 hours.”

According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, confusion about date labels leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. This habit isn’t cheap: Americans annually spend between $1,365 and $2,275 per household of four on food they never eat. A study in the United Kingdom estimated that 20 percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. The new NRDC report also warns that date labels may fuel a false sense of security when it comes to food safety. Date labels “may be encouraging consumers to ignore the more relevant risk factors affecting food safety, including the importance of time and temperature control along the distribution chain.”

The confusion also costs retailers money. A 2001 study estimated that each year, $900 million worth of inventory was removed from the supply chain due to date code expiration and identified the lack of standardization around date coding as one of the factors driving that loss. A survey of grocery store workers found that even some employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates.

The problem has trickled down to efforts to recover and redistribute food. Anti-hunger organizations around the country often make use of expired or soon-to-expire items. Yet confusion around date labels leads to food unnecessarily being tossed out instead of distributed to people in need. According to the NRDC report, experts in food recovery and food waste say there is widespread confusion among anti-hunger program administrators over the meaning of various date labels. Food safety officers working with anti-hunger organizations “must consequently spend considerable time and effort educating workers about the date labeling system and those workers must in turn educate clients and end-users when they express concerns or uncertainty about the products they are receiving.”

Each of U.S. has a role to play in reducing food waste and its horrible impacts. This involves learning how to reduce your waste, understanding date labeling and sharing this knowledge with family, colleagues and friends. According to Labuza, storage temperature is the main factor determining food safety, rather than the amount of time that has passed since the product’s creation. Labuza recommends keeping refrigerators at 40 degrees or less (he keeps his at 34) and the NRDC has put together a guide to help you understand how to more effectively use your refrigerator.

The Dating Game has a few recommendations for industry and government:

Make sell-by dates invisible to consumers. These dates are meant to be for business-to-business communication and yet they are confused as safety dates.
Develop reliable, standardized labeling that clearly distinguishes between safety and quality.
Remove dates from non-perishables. Where safety is not a concern, this would encourage people to make judgments about freshness and quality by actively investigating the food instead of relying on an industry-provided label.
Use labels as an opportunity to educate consumers on safe food handling. For example, packaging could include “freeze by” dates to help raise awareness of the benefits of freezing food to extend shelf life.
Retailers can sell past-date products at a discount. This gives thrifty shoppers the option of overlooking the quality standards indicated by a date label in exchange for a reduction in price.
Governments should conduct public education campaigns to educate consumers on the meaning of date labels, proper food handling and ways to determine when food is safe to eat.

Brands and retailers have an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for the environment and the health and finances of their customers by taking action to re-educate shoppers about food safety and labeling. To achieve lasting change, we need to push Congress and federal agencies to change these inconsistent and confusing rules. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) has submitted the Food Freshness Disclosure Act to “help establish a consistent food dating system in the United States and protect American consumers.” Emily Broad Leib, one of the authors of The Dating Game, says consumers should ask their representatives to sign onto the bill and help push it through to passage.

“Creating a meaningful, standardized system is a crucial way to reduce food and resource waste, save money for consumers who are watching their wallets (particularly in these economic times) and actually improve safety for consumers,” Leib says.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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