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Food Waste to Renewable Energy

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In cities of the future, food waste will be managed as a resource that seeks to return organic matter to soil, and capture energy as a renewable resource – with the added benefit of diverting it from disposal in landfills.

What will the sustainable urban infrastructure look like? What are the various approaches for managing food waste, how do they compare, and what factors will be considered by municipal decision-makers? Future infrastructure for managing food waste – which approximates 15% to 20% of municipal solid waste, and the most problematic component for a host of environmental and operational reasons - will need to be economically feasible, environmentally sound, operationally friendly, and socially acceptable. Wastewater treatment facilities will increasingly pursue resource recovery from food waste but the energy demands and emissions from the food waste system will need to be sustainable. Operational requirements from generators of food waste, as well as the facility operators receiving the food waste, will need to be user-friendly. Overall, the infrastructure for managing food waste will need to be acceptable socially in terms of aesthetics, acoustics, odor, and vector attraction control.

Analyzing possible infrastructure systems can guide decision-makers towards the best solutions. Possible systems which cover the majority of options in an urban setting include: (1) curbside pickup and hauling food waste (as mixed municipal solid waste, or MSW) to a landfill, (2) curbside collection and transport of source-separated food waste to a composting facility, (3) hauling food waste to a facility for solids separation and anaerobic digestion, and (4) using decentralized food waste disposals and conveyance with domestic sewage to a centralized wastewater treatment plant utilizing anaerobic digestion for treatment of wastewater solids.

A comprehensive assessment analyzes and compares possible food waste infrastructure systems and configurations based on quantitative environmental impacts and qualitative cost, energy, and social impacts and opportunities. Quantification of the materials, chemicals, and water inputs, energy and type of energy consumptions, and air and water emissions are developed to compare the alternatives in terms of life cycle carbon footprint. Infrastructure system parameters include the operating cost, energy, emissions, and labor of trucking, water and wastewater pumping, and wastewater treatment process operation. As all aspects of costs (from raw materials, construction, operation, and final disposal) have wide ranges due to regional variability, land use, existing uses, etc., costs have been analyzed qualitatively using the same boundaries as the quantitative analysis of environmental and energy consumption inputs and outputs. Existing facilities were differentiated from new facilities to assess the benefit of using existing assets.

The results of this evaluation serve as a guide for decision makers during the planning of infrastructure for food waste management. A key finding of the assessment is that existing infrastructure can be more fully utilized and optimized to realize today the benefits of managing food waste as it will be in cities of the future.

Keywords: Anaerobic Digestion; Carbon Footprint; Compost; Food Waste; Landfill; Life Cycle Analysis; Renewable Energy

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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