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Should Food Waste Be Banned from Landfills?

The UK-based think tank CentreForum made headlines in July 2012 when it issued a report recommending that the UK ban all food scraps from landfills by 2020. Considering that food waste makes up 25 to 45 percent of the average residential trash can in the UK, media reaction to the report was skeptical. Diverting 100 percent of food scraps – let alone accomplishing such a feat within the next eight years – would be impossible, wouldn’t it? CentreForum’s plan is bold, but when framed as a cost-effective approach to meet renewable energy targets and provide many additional benefits, the idea starts to make a great deal of sense.

CentreForum argues that anaerobic digestion (AD), a technology that processes organic materials such as food scraps to create renewable energy and natural fertilizers, could produce more than 11 terawatts (TWh) of energy for the UK by 2020. Current barriers to building an industry that can achieve that potential include access to organic feedstocks and the high costs of connecting to the energy grid. The country produces 1.3 TWh of energy from AD today. The think tank recommends several steps that would enable AD to expand, including a government-imposed ban on all food waste entering landfills. It remains to be seen whether such assertive legislation could become a reality, but data-driven voices like CentreForum’s are essential to driving action.

So what does all this mean for North America? While the UK lags behind leading countries like Germany in AD advancement, they’re still miles ahead of the US, which according to the EPA produced 541 million kWh of energy from farm-based anaerobic digesters in 2011. The American Biogas Council estimates that the potential for AD from farms is 8.8 billion kWh, demonstrating how underutilized organic materials are on farms alone. Landfill culture is more prevalent in the United States too: the US sends nearly 70% of its waste to the landfill, compared to less than 50% in the UK.

On the other hand, there is evidence that North America is beginning to change its perceptions of organic materials and embrace the potential value of AD. Biogas, a flexible, methane-based fuel created through AD, is increasingly popular in North America according to a recent study by Pike Research, which also estimated that the global market for biogas would double in size to $33 billion within the next decade. In the Fall of 2011, Portland, Oregon became the first American city to ban weekly trash pickups, shifting to weekly collection of “green” waste, organic materials including food scraps and yard trimmings, and bi-weekly collection of garbage. In the first quarter of 2012, Portland’s landfill waste decreased 44% due to the new policy.

While North America – and the UK, for that matter – may not be ready to completely ban organic materials from landfills just yet, this report is a signal that think tanks like CentreForum and community activists everywhere are beginning to take AD seriously. The faster we embrace the value of organic materials and the opportunity of AD, the better our future looks, both economically and environmentally.

Wayne Davis is co-founder of Harvest Power, which is building two of the largest AD facilities in North America, both of which are set to open later this year. These “Energy Gardens” will use organic waste streams to produce renewable energy in the form of biogas and natural, nutrient-rich fertilizers, soils and mulches. The company’s Energy Garden in Richmond, British Columbia (near Vancouver) recently received an Infrastructure 100: World Cities Edition Award from KPMG Global. If AD facilities like these processed only half of the food waste created by the US in a single year, the EPA estimates they would produce enough clean energy to power 2.5 million homes.

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