Editorial Feature

Food Waste as a Renewable Energy

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With fossil fuel depots becoming increasingly depleted every day and the difficulty of locating new reserves, it has become clear that there is an expiration date for the use and availability of fossil fuels.

The Problem with Fossil Fuels

Various reports have now estimated that the world’s oil and gas reserves could run out in just over 50 years, while coal deposits could be gone in 150 years. Also, there is the added concern of fossil fuels’ contribution to global warming and the climate change associated with it. With this being said, scientists are now trying to identify other potential clean sources of energy that will replace fossil fuels and, therefore, reduce the effects of energy production on climate change.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy has given great hope for energy production worldwide; however, there remains the issue of cost and affordability of the general population. As one of the most popular clean sources of energy, using naturally replenished resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and heat, renewable energy was only making up to 13.7% of the total primary share of energy consumption worldwide in 2016. As energy demand increases significantly year on year, it is becoming clear that the quest for other sources of clean energy has not even begun.

Biomass as a Source of Energy

As terms such as climate security and food security came together, an important solution to the energy problem emerged: food waste-based energy. According to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), one-third of all food produced globally goes to waste each year, which makes up a total of 1.3 billion tons of wasted food with a value of more than $1 trillion. But what would the implications of further use of this food wastage be?

A so-called Biogas is produced through anaerobic digestion of organic waste (or biomass) and can then be burned to produce electricity or heat. The biogas is a natural source of energy and its production relies on natural processes. The food waste is placed in digestion tanks where it is broken down by microorganisms in an oxygen-free environment. During the decomposition process, the microorganisms release methane gas or Biogas.

Good Practices in Using Food Waste for Energy Production

A great example has been set by France, which has set the objective of implementing a 23% share of renewable energy by the year 2020. The county has made plans of utilizing biomass to heat plants, buildings, and even entire cities.

A report by an American electrical company, SaveOnEnergy, has estimated the energy benefits from converting food waste to electrical power. According to their statistics, a North American city with a population of 6 million people wastes around 1.4 billion pounds of food per year. If this food is converted into energy, it would be enough to power 417 million washing machines for an hour. If implemented on a worldwide level, this type of energy could have enormous benefits for energy production.

The biggest biomethane plant in Europe is situated in Spain’s capital, Madrid. Built-in 2009, this plant has been expanding significantly over the past decade and, according to its latest report, is expected to reach a capacity of 156 965 MW by the year 2030.

Anaerobic Digestion and the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is another example of a county utilizing biogas to power millions of homes. According to a report released by the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association, UK anaerobic digestion plants produce sufficient biogas to power over 1 million households every year.

A report from the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation from earlier this year shows an increase of biomethane supply to the energy market from 6 million liters in 2016-2017 to 7.6 million liters in 2017-2018. This makes up a total of 0.7% of the energy supply of the country. What comes as a surprise is that only 0.3 of the 7.6 million liters comes from local food waste, while almost 5 has been imported from Sweden.

In early 2019, the Scottish Government devised a new Food Waste Reduction Action Plan which aims to encourage and ensure that farmers and landowners, as well as householders with access to food recycling facilities, are using them appropriately. If such structures are put in place, there will be an opportunity for more anaerobic digestion plants to be built, particularly near urban areas. The new action plan postulates that anaerobic digestion is currently the most environmentally effective method of tackling the problems of food wastage and energy in Scotland.

With 50 anaerobic digestion plants already in existence, statistics show that only 55% of households recycle their food waste despite the recycling facilities available to over 80% of the Scottish homes. To address this problem, the Scottish government announced a ban on biodegradable municipal waste entering landfills from 2021, which opens up new opportunities for the use of anaerobic digestion plants throughout Scotland in less than 2 years.

As seen in the examples above, anaerobic digestion and biogas are inevitably part of our future as a solution to both food wastage and renewable energy production. With the added benefit of being environment-friendly, this method of energy production requires further development. An apparent drawback for the efficient use of anaerobic digestion is the collaboration of the public. Many people are still lacking the knowledge and will use the facilities put in place for the collection of food waste and, therefore, the creation of public campaigns and encouragements should be introduced by the governments.

Sources and Further Reading

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Mihaela Dimitrova

Written by

Mihaela Dimitrova

Mihaela's curiosity has pushed her to explore the human mind and the intricate inner workings in the brain. She has a B.Sc. in Psychology from the University of Birmingham and an M.Sc. in Human-Computer Interaction from University College London.


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