What is a banana peel worth? Or potato skins, or coffee grounds?
By themselves, not very much. But when you add up the thousands of tons of food scraps we collectively produce, just here in Chittenden County, they are certainly worth a lot.
For most of us, composting is the first solution we think about when it comes to food scraps. In this article, we’ll hear from an energetic team of fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Green Mountain Homeschool Robotics Team who studied using food waste to generate energy.
Participating in the First Lego League Challenge, which this year focused on energy, the Green Mountain Homeschool Robotics Team chose the topic of converting food waste to energy (methane) using biodigesters. They were inspired by the fact that, by law in Vermont, we are no longer allowed to throw food waste into the trash. They saw this as an incredible opportunity to convert food scraps, which in many instances continue to enter the waste stream, into a viable renewable energy source.
But how does the food-to-energy process work? The students learned that it’s not magic, it’s science: A biodigester takes in organic material (food scraps) and combines it with bacteria to start a fermentation process that outputs gas, liquid effluent and residual sludge. The desired product produced by a biodigester is methane, the same as “natural gas.” But the food-to-energy process doesn’t require drilling and fracking to obtain the gas. The gas produced by this process is scrubbed of impurities and can then be used for heating or to run a generator to produce electricity.
Keeping food scraps out of the trash and generating energy from that food waste is a monumental challenge for experts in waste management and engineers involved in alternative energy generation. Undaunted, the students dove into the subject and used the information they gathered to develop a live presentation and supporting video, which was used in the First Lego League challenge on Jan. 28.
Food waste is a continuing problem here in Vermont despite the requirement to keep it out of the landfill. When asked how to get more people to separate their food scraps so they can be used to create green energy, the students came up with the following ideas that each one of us can help with.
• Keep track of your household food waste. In other words, consciously think about where that banana peel is going. Putting it in trash is not the correct answer.
• Do more outreach and advocacy, such as this article, to raise awareness.
• Connect with your local school for information and informational programs about food waste and converting it to energy. How are our schools participating to best reduce food waste?
• Develop lobbying initiatives for renewable energy generated from biodigesters to get incentives. Contact both your state and federal legislators.
• Work toward having people receive a financial reward for separating food waste.
• Have commercial trash-haulers collect food scraps alongside trash and recycling pickup.
• Work toward creating commercial biodigesters where people can buy shares similar to solar farms.