Colorado Found a Solution to Fix the $165 Billion Food Waste Problem
There is a stench in the air around LaSalle, Colorado, that stinks of rotting produce and cow manure. That unpleasant smell is methane gas and for Colorado it means money in the form of electricity.
That electricity is generated at facility known as the Heartland Biogas Project, through a process known as anaerobic digestion. To put it in layman’s terms, it is basically a machine that works like a giant human stomach, digesting wasted food in huge tanks to produce methane gas, which is then sent through a pipeline and converted into electricity. The facility can take in a massive amount of food waste, which it stores and later digests in six tanks that hold 1.7 million gallons in food waste and manure slush and produce up to 4,700 MBTU of biogas daily.
For cities like LaSalle, these “digesters” are a way to make use of the methane gas that is naturally given off by waste sitting in a landfill. And the amount of waste sitting in landfills is only growing by the day. Currently, Americans throw away an astonishing one third of the available food – around 35 million tons equalling $165 billion in food was wasted in the United States last year. While the issue of wasting food is a huge problem, anaerobic digesters like the one in Colorado are at least able to make some use of it.
Food digester plants have been used in Europe for quite some time, but are relatively new in the United States, mostly because they are costly to build and require changes to already existing policies. “With an anaerobic digester you often have a high project cost up front,” said Darby Hoover, a resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Cities may not see that there is a high value to implementing something like a digester.”
Aside from convincing cities to invest in the cost of building a digester plant, the issue still remains: how do we stop wasting so much food? While food digesters do alleviate some of the guilt surrounding all that food being piled onto landfills day after day, they don’t fix the real problem. Making energy out of food that has been thrown out is certainly admirable, but it would of course be better to save that food before it goes bad and use it to feed the one out five people in the U.S. who struggle with hunger.
Lawmakers are working to change how we waste food and just last year, put into place the first official government goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030. “The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on Earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1500, uneaten each year.”
For cities like LaSalle and Sacremento, California – which has a 20-year agreement with EDF Renewable Energy to buy the methane generated from their digester – projects like Heartland Biogas are a step in the right direction. It is essential we find a way to reduce our food waste on the long term, but in the meantime, making electricity from it certainly doesn’t hurt.