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With nearly 40 percent of the food we grow in the United States going to waste — costing businesses as much as $161 billion each year — figuring out how to reduce it while also generating the most economic benefit is more important than ever.
Food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Around one-third of the world’s food — or nearly 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But just as we use food to power our bodies, there’s also great potential for it to power our communities.
The concept of turning waste into energy is nothing new — it’s something that has been done in one form or another for over a century — but creating a truly economical process for turning food waste into energy has been just out of reach, until now. Researchers at Cornell University have found a new way to capture nearly all of the energy in a food waste product, meaning nothing is leftover for the landfill.
A new way to turn waste into energy
The Cornell team’s research was supported by BARD (the United States-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund), Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the Cornell Energy Institute and the Chilean Fund for Science and Technology.
Here’s how it works:
- Using a hydrothermal liquefaction process before anaerobic digestion, virtually all of the energy is extracted from the food waste.
- In hydrothermal liquefaction, the waste is pressure cooked to produce a crude bio-oil, which can be refined into biofuel.
- The remaining food waste, which is in an aqueous state, is anaerobically digested by microbes within days.
- The microbes convert the waste into methane, which can be used to produce commercial amounts of electricity and heat.
Typically, anaerobic digestion can take weeks to turn the food waste into energy — which clearly is too long for it to make sense economically. However, the aqueous product from hydrothermal processing is much better for bugs in anaerobic digestion than using the raw biomass directly, the researchers say. Combining hydrothermal processing and anaerobic digestion is more efficient and faster — allowing the food to be turned into energy in a matter of days.
Putting hydrothermal liquefaction first in an engineering process and finishing with anaerobic digestion completes a food-water-energy nexus, the researchers say. Technological innovations such as this will allow us to reduce the amount of waste we send to the landfill while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste is a major contributor to climate change, primarily due to the methane which is released when it is left to rot in landfills. Food waste’s climate footprint also comes from the energy that goes into the production, harvesting, transporting and packaging of that wasted food.
Beyond food waste
But we can go beyond food — coffee waste also is a strong candidate for transforming into energy. Coffee grounds have a high calorific value, which gives them a fuel value slightly better than wood. With this in mind, UK-based startup bio-bean has developed a technology for turning waste ground into biofuel. Raw material comes from hundreds of caffeine-consuming locations around the UK, including office blocks, cafés, instant-coffee factories — which provide the coffee grounds for free in exchange for being relieved of waste-management costs.
Imagine being able to use food waste to power our homes, rather than relying on carbon-polluting power plants. It’s a great way to nourish our planet while benefiting our pocketbooks.
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Feeding the 9.7 billion people expected to be living on this planet by 2050 isn’t going to be easy — particularly since we must do so while also nourishing the planet. While American agricultural productivity has skyrocketed over the past century, this also has contributed to serious environmental concerns, such as soil degradation and water pollution and scarcity. With the impacts of climate change and other environmental concerns mounting, we’re going to need to rethink how we grow our food in a way that promotes human and planet health alike.
For generations, farmers have plowed their fields and planted their crops in the spring, harvested them in the fall and done it all over again the following year. However, in the past several decades, some agricultural experts have been experimenting with eliminating the spring planting by developing perennial crops — more or less revising thousands of years of selective breeding. Perennial crops are those which are alive year-round and are harvested multiple times before dying. Perennial plants aren’t new to agriculture — popular plants such as apples and alfalfa are perennials that already are commercially grown and harvested.
But today most farmland remains devoted to annual agriculture, and “annuals” such as cereals, oilseeds and legumes occupy 69 percent of global croplands. Many of these staple crops can be replaced by perennials by hybridization and other techniques. According to some researchers, ten of the thirteen most grown cereals and oilseeds can be hybridized with perennial plants. Kernza grain, for example, comes from the perennial intermediate wheatgrass plant which is drought-resistant with long roots and doesn’t need to be replanted every year. This isn’t fringe science — General Mills recently announced a partnership with The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota to help commercialize Kernza and incorporate the grain into cereals and snacks under its Cascadian Farm organic brand.
The conversion of annual fields into perennial fields offers many environmental benefits, including reduced soil erosion, less chemical runoff, increased water efficiency and less reliance on fossil fuels. Here’s how perennial crops do just that:
While most of us are taught from a young age that it’s not good to judge a book by its cover, we do it all the time with the fruits and vegetables we choose to buy — or not buy. In the United States, this obsession with blemish-free food causes us to throw away almost as much food as we eat, which deepens hunger and poverty while inflicting a heavy toll on the environment.
Large amounts of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill because of unrealistic cosmetic standards. Between the farm and our tables, high-value and nutritious food is being sacrificed to retailers’ demand for unattainable perfection, according to farmers and others on the food distribution chain. One in five fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. never make it off the farm due to tiny cosmetic defects that don’t affect quality, according to Imperfect Produce.
Besides being a social and environmental problem, this practice of throwing away perfectly edible but ugly food also contributes to our massive food waste challenge. Nearly 40 percent of the food we grow in the U.S. goes to waste, which costs businesses as much as $161 billion annually.
Luckily, several innovative companies are stepping up to find ways to make sure even ugly fruits and vegetables make their way into our stomachs rather than our landfills. Here are a couple we think are awesome:
By now, you’ve probably heard that President Trump earlier this month announced that he would be pulling the United States out of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. While this is troubling to all who particularly enjoy living on a habitable planet, there’s still plenty of questions that remain.
Climate change isn’t some distant threat; it’s already having observable effects on the environment, as confirmed by NASA scientists. We’re seeing the loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves. Acting on climate isn’t about politics, but doing what’s right for all people living on this planet.
Here’s everything you need to know about how we can still push forward on climate despite the Paris pull-out:
For those privy to the world of tech, the free meals offered by such companies as Google, Facebook, and Apple have become the stuff of legend. At the Googleplex, Google’s Mountain View headquarters, for example, employees never are more than 200 feet away from food. And this isn’t a half measure — Google’s food is varied, tasty and designed to promote health and environmental values, such as being organic and sourced locally.
Naturally, with all of this food being produced to feed Silicon Valley’s hungry tech legions, it also generates a significant amount of food waste. While this is regrettable, many of these innovative firms are on top of making sure that all of this waste doesn’t end up in the landfill.
Many of the foods we eat every day — energy bars, canned goods, deli meats and more — were invented not for civilians but for our men and women in uniform. Many food innovations resulted from efforts to make soldiers’ rations taste good and last longer. But just as the U.S. military has influenced the food and beverages we eat, it also may be showing us the way to making sure we don’t waste it.
The military is doing this for myriad reasons. For one thing, those who defend us have openly voiced their concern about the impacts of climate change on national security, calling it a “threat multiplier” which will increase the likelihood of conflict as the earth warms up. And food and beverage waste is a major driver of climate change. Another is the economic — dealing with food and beverage waste is expensive for the military just as it is for businesses. Also, the less the military has to haul out means a more streamlined supply chain that increases the safety and effectiveness of our troops.
Mushrooms might not seem so special — something that you put in your soup or grow on your lawn. But the applications for using mushrooms to solve sustainability challenges seem almost magical. While scientists have identified around 75,000 species of fungi, there could be as many as a million fungal species yet to be identified. Given their many uses, innovators around the world are finding exciting new ways to create value from mushrooms, from replacing plastics to creating biofuel.
Here are four of the most interesting:
The restaurant industry is worth nearly $800 billion in the United States, and there are more than a million restaurants nationwide. But running a successful restaurant business is not easy — as many as 60 percent fail within the first three years of opening their doors. At full-service restaurants, profit-margins are razor thin, ranging between 1.8 and 3.5 percent, according to the National Restaurant Industry.
Successful restaurants must find a way to keep costs low while keeping the quality of service high — no simple task. Because it typically isn’t associated with the bottom line, food waste is one area of a restaurant’s operation that often is overlooked. Four to 10 percent of food purchased by a restaurant or food service operation is discarded before ever reaching a customer.
With restaurants generating large amounts of food and beverage waste, paying people to haul off and dispose of it is becoming a costly business liability. Meanwhile, growing regulatory uncertainty surrounding waste means smart businesses are looking to get ahead of the issue before it gets out of hand.
Coffee is kind of a big deal here in the United States — the average American adult drinks around three cups a day, which adds up to some $40 billion each year, according to the National Coffee Association. That’s no small beans.
Globally, coffee production generates more than 23 million tons of waste per year — from the pulp of fresh coffee cherries through the packaging that brings the roasted beans to your favorite barista. For most people, used coffee grounds are the most visible example of this waste — what we throw out after making each fresh brew. While most of us don’t give a second thought to our spent grounds, these black, sodden remains of pulverized coffee seeds have great potential for finding new life as renewable resources.
With Earth Day reminding us that it’s time to get smarter about food waste, here are three ways businesses already are turning coffee waste into valuable resources: