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A Winning Formula: Making Connections to Turn Food Waste into Energy

Published May 21, 2019; Updated January 6 2019

piles of food waste waiting to be sorted into the composterThe numbers set the scene: 133 billion pounds of food at the retail and consumer level in the United States goes uneaten. The accumulated total value of that loss and waste from three main food groups consists of $48 billion worth of poultry, meat, and fish, $30 billion of vegetables, and $27 billion in dairy products. (Source: USDA, Economic Research Service)

Food waste is the single largest component of our daily trash. Decomposing food not only takes up significant amounts of space in landfills, but produces methane, a potent gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet.

That’s where EPA comes in.

“Reducing food waste and redirecting excess food to people, animals, or energy production provide immediate benefits to public health and the environment,” noted EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in early April as he joined with federal partners at the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recognize April as Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month.

One winning resource is already helping: the Agency’s interactive Excess Food Opportunities Map.

The map identifies and displays facility-specific information about potential generators and recipients of excess food. For example, with additional follow up by the user, it may work as a kind of online matching service linking those who own and run anaerobic digestion facilities with those looking to dispose of organic waste, including excess food. In an anaerobic digestion facility, the process of organic decomposition is controlled in an oxygen-free, sealed tank so that the byproducts—biogas such as methane, and biosolids, which can be used as fertilizers—can be collected and sold or used on site.

Turning waste into a resource is a classic win-win situation. That’s what originally attracted Brett Reinford, a second-generation farmer who along with his father and two brothers run a dairy farm with some 700 dairy cows outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “I’ve always been fascinated with sustainable energy, so I convinced my dad to build a digester here on the farm,” Reinford said during a conference call with EPA’s Claudia Fabiano, who manages the Excess Food Opportunities Map.

The digester was originally built for turning the cow manure into energy to heat and run the farm. But the family quickly discovered that they had the capacity for handling more organic waste and that keeping the digester fed and running at relatively high temperatures increased efficiency, yielding more energy and less solid waste as an end product.

Reinford and his family first started working with a single waste hauler, delivering truckloads of unsold and expired food from a local Walmart to keep the digester humming. When they first started, the loads consisted only of unpacked food unable to be sold to consumers.

In a quest for increased capacity, the farm has since added a secure facility where they unpackage food waste to prepare it for the digester. “We saw an opportunity to grow the business through our food waste handling for the digester, so we made some significant investments in that direction,” explains Reinford. Plans are now underway to add a second anaerobic digestor to the farm.

In order for those investments to pay off, he began looking for even more sources of food waste to keep a near constant stream of organic material flowing into the facility. That generally consisted of scouring Google maps for potential new sources, zooming in to assess the size of their operations from the satellite view, and then searching public records for contacts who might be responsible for handling waste disposal.

Then, a presentation by University of Maryland Professor and food waste expert Stephanie Lansing at a conference led Reinford to EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map. It was an easy solution to locate potential feedstock sources.

“As soon as I got back from the conference I searched for the map on EPA’s website, and when I found it, is was pretty incredible. Being able to just pull up the map and search specifically for local food manufacturing and processing is awesome. For us, it’s a real game changer.”

That type of reaction is exactly what Fabiano and her colleagues have in mind, an easy-to-use, interactive mapping tool to support diversion of excess food from landfills nationwide. The map displays the locations of potential excess food generators, including facility-specific information about potential generators and recipients of excess food in the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors. Users can also find estimates of excess food by generator type.

The Excess Food Opportunities Map also serves as a success story for the Agency’s Regional Sustainability and Environmental Sciences Research Program (RESES). Managed by the Office of Research and Development, RESES is designed to act as a catalyst for spurring solutions-based, innovative research by aligning Agency science and engineering expertise with high-priority local environmental challenges, like food waste.

What is now the Excess Food Opportunities Map started as a 2014 RESES project entitled “Research and Development of National Waste to Biogas Mapping Tool – Creating an Organic Resources Exchange.” The project looked to scale a regional online mapping tool developed by EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office (EPA Region 9) to a national level. The original tool focused on identifying opportunities for diverting food waste to wastewater treatment facilities turning sludge and other biosolids into biogas. RESES partners included identifying additional waste-to-energy opportunities—such a family farms running anaerobic digesters—in the project.

The success of the original RESES project attracted the attention of EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, which eventually took over the project with expanded data and methodologies. In June of 2018, they released the Excess Food Opportunities Map that is helping Reinford keep his digester full.

The recently updated version 2.0 now includes nearly 1.2 million potential excess food generators, including correctional and educational facilities, healthcare operations, food wholesalers, restaurants, and more. Some 4,000 recipients are identified, including anaerobic digestions facilities like the one on the Reinford’s Dairy farm, as well as composting facilities and food banks.

It all adds up to some serious potential in making the connections for diverting food waste from our nation’s landfills. EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map is just one example of how EPA and our federal partners are committed to taking a bite out of food waste.

EPA checked in with Reinford at the end of 2019.  His second digester will be up and running soon. When it is, he plans on exclusively using the Excess Food Opportunities Map to find feedstock.  

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