Video: Turning Food Waste Into Energy

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With the recent passing of San Francisco’s mandatory recycling and composting law, new resources for processing food waste are likely to be in high demand. Enter the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), the first wastewater treatment plant in the nation, which is turning post-consumer food waste into energy.

With help from a U.S. EPA grant, the plant is taking food waste from San Francisco and Contra Costa County restaurants and commercial food processors and using it to produce green renewable energy.

Using a process known as anaerobic digestion, the plant currently processes 90 tons of post-consumer food waste per week. Capable of processing up to 200 tons of post-consumer food waste per day, the facility is planning to increase its efforts as the passing of the first mandatory composting law in the nation will yield increased demand.

Anaerobic Digestion: How It Works

Food waste is first collected and diverted from the landfill to the EBMUD main wastewater treatment plant. The waste is first treated to remove contaminants (generally plastic and aluminum foil), then placed in large containers called anaerobic digesters, where bacteria begins to break down the food. The anaerobic digesters capture the biogas produced in the digestion process, the methane of which is used to power the treatment plant. Any material remaining after the digestion process is complete is composted and used as fertilizer.

Food waste is a significant contributor to landfill methane production. In fact, more than 30 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, contributing to the second largest source of human-caused methane in the U.S. Also, food waste is the second largest category of municipal solid waste in the U.S., accounting for 18 percent of the waste stream, and it’s one of the least recovered materials at less than three percent diverted from landfills.

The EPA estimates that enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes a year could be generated if only 50 percent of the food waste generated each year was anaerobically digested. Many wastewater treatment plants already contain and operate anaerobic digesters, making them excellent facilities for the co-digestion of food waste.

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