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Meet the Honorees: John Hanselman, Cofounder & Chief Strategy Officer, Vanguard Renewables

The Environment+Energy Leader honoree program is an annual list that recognizes the environment and energy “doers” who break trail in creating new solutions, programs, platforms, best practices and products to help their companies – or other companies – achieve greater success in commercial and industrial environment and energy management. Meet the Honorees… is an ongoing series that will feature one E+E Honoree from 2022 each week. See the complete list of 2022 Honorees here.

Meet John Hanselman. As cofounder and chief strategy officer with Vanguard Renewables, John says his day-to-day is never the same. “I am not a leader who leads top-down, but I like to believe that I lead by example,” he says. “My days can include anything from engaging with our energy partners, meeting with food and beverage companies who are current or potential customers, educating key stakeholders about our mission and anaerobic digestion’s benefits, speaking with the media, visiting our farm partners, interviewing new candidates to join our rapidly-growing team, and much more.”

John also says he spends much of his time working with the feedstock sales team to ensure that the company is not missing any opportunities to reach more sustainably-minded companies interested in sending them their food waste. “I also focus a lot of my efforts on our ongoing national expansion and our Farm Powered Strategic Alliance,” he adds. “In my eyes, there’s always more work to be done, and there will always be more companies that can turn their waste into something that benefits our planet; it’s my goal to make every last one of them believe in our mission. Waste is only waste if you waste it! I see myself, and our entire team, as climate warriors who are fighting for our planet’s future.”

What is your biggest environmental challenge, and how are you addressing it?

John Hanselman: In the United States, 40% of all food produced is discarded, with the majority of food waste ending up in landfills or destroyed via harmful incineration. Vanguard Renewables develops, owns, and operates six on-farm anaerobic digesters. When the company first started accepting organic waste from manufacturers, supermarkets, and other organizations, we could only accept the waste at one of our anaerobic digesters if it was free of any packaging and did not need pre-processing. We found that separating organic waste from packaging was an unmet need; in response, we constructed our first Organics Recycling Facility (ORF) in Agawam, Massachusetts, which became operational in December 2020.

The facility enables Vanguard to accept waste that is in any form of packaging except for glass, and divert that packaged waste from incineration or landfill. The ORF “depackages” and processes inedible waste from all over the Northeast and enables us to recycle waste streams that are packaged or contaminated with packaging into renewable energy, providing an all-in-one, circular solution to sustainably recycle organic waste. The ORF can process up to 250 tons per day of packaged waste and eliminates the need for manual separation. Once separated from its packaging, the waste is transported to one of six Farm Powered anaerobic digesters and converted into renewable energy, low-carbon fertilizer, and animal bedding. Many of the companies that send us their waste also purchase the renewable energy that it ultimately creates: a truly circular solution. We partner with multiple waste hauling companies to ensure that packaging ends up in its appropriate destination.

The ORF is a highly valuable asset to food and beverage manufacturers; previously there were few options for packaged products that needed destruction, from recalled or mislabeled to expired goods. And, it diverts tons of waste from landfills or incineration every day. As more and more companies are required by law to repurpose their organic waste, and public outcry grows ever louder for greener company practices, the need for depackaging facilities will only increase. Moving forward, each anaerobic codigestion site built by our team will be accompanied by an ORF. Vanguard Renewables’ anaerobic digestion and organic recycling facilities provide innovative solutions to our national food waste problem, while also benefiting our planet.

What was a successful project or implementation you worked on at your company that you can share? Do you have any tips that would help colleagues at other companies who are contemplating similar projects? 

JH: We are proud to lead the charge toward reducing commercial organic waste from large food and beverage producers on a national scale with the formation of the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance (FPSA). In 2020, Vanguard Renewables founded the FPSA with Unilever, Starbucks, and Dairy Farmers of America. The Alliance offers US food manufacturers and retailers a circular approach to reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of CO2 emissions and provides a pathway toward a carbon-neutral footprint, making a measurable impact in their respective companies’ efforts to combat climate change. Today, the FPSA includes a host of like-minded food industry leaders such as Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Stonyfield Organics, Smithfield Foods, Food Tank, Chobani, Kikkoman, Schreiber Foods, Hillebrand, and Polar Beverages who are collaborating to make a difference for our planet.

Every FPSA member commits to capturing the food waste inherent in the farming, manufacturing, and sale of food and beverage products and recycling that waste at a Farm Powered (on-farm) anaerobic digester. Vanguard also works with Alliance members’ numerous suppliers to recycle their food waste. FPSA members are committed to a renewable energy transition and have the potential to procure renewable natural gas produced by our on-farm anaerobic digesters to power their operations.
Our advice for colleagues at other companies who are contemplating similar coalition based projects like the FPSA is to find companies that share the same goals and aspirations as your own and collaborate. Climate change is a huge issue, and not one that we can tackle on our own.

What trends do you expect to see in the market in the next few years? What challenges will the industry face and what technologies or organizational changes will overcome them?

JH: Over the next few years we expect to see an increase in the demand for renewable natural gas (RNG). RNG is changing the energy landscape because it is the first energy source produced from organic matter that would otherwise be released as harmful greenhouse gases. As such, Vanguard’s growth has been catalyzed by the national movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of a climate change mitigation strategy and by corporations’ desires to reduce waste and decarbonize manufacturing and supply chain operations to achieve sustainability goals. In addition, many state governments, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, have introduced legislation that mandates the recycling of organic waste previously disposed of via landfill and incineration, which previously generated as much as 10% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The anaerobic digestion process mitigates methane emissions and turns the gas into renewable energy, creating a more impactful GHG reduction profile than solar or wind per megawatt.

GHG reduction through anaerobic digestion also has economic benefits. At present, solar is still heavily subsidized by federal and state incentives whereas anaerobic digestion tax credits expired in 2016, making anaerobic digestion ten times less expensive than solar. The RNG created through the anaerobic digestion process also improves grid reliability as it is available to the grid as 24/7 baseload power. RNG has a circular approach because a production byproduct can be used to fertilize the host farmers’ croplands, supporting regenerative agriculture by returning the nutrients from the manure and food waste back to the soil to be recycled again. We aim to extend the reach of our organic waste recycling and RNG production to over 100 anaerobic digestion projects across the US by 2026.

Do you have a favorite book that has had an impact on you and your work?

JH: One of my favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. The book uses major news stories and historical events to examine the ways that we talk to strangers and what often goes wrong. We talk to strangers with our own personal truths; those truths may not always be shared, and this book offers powerful insights as to how to interact with people who may not be like us or agree with us, and how we can better communicate with, listen to, and understand each other.

At Vanguard, we’ve learned that these principles are key in the sustainability space. There is a wide spectrum of beliefs out there regarding climate change; not everyone is in the same place that we are, and it’s important to be mindful of that in all of our interactions, whether with farmers, food waste partners, energy partners, and more. In a space where we’re trying to convince others to be on board with our mission, it’s critical to be able to understand where others are coming from and how to approach potentially difficult conversations. Learnings from this book are key in how we approach everything we do.

Twitter: @FarmPowered
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leonardobonanni/

Editor’s note: nominations are now open for this year’s E+E Honorees. Nominate a colleague — or yourself — for the 2022 E+E Honorees today.

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