Waste to Energy

Technology Turning Food Waste into Renewable Energy

Food waste is an enormous environmental and economic crisis that demands urgent solutions. Each year, an astonishing 1.03 billion tons of food is wasted globally—enough to feed 1.26 billion hungry people. All that wasted food is responsible for a staggering 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

As the world grapples with these mounting challenges of food waste and the need for sustainable energy sources, an innovative solution is emerging—the use of anaerobic digestion (AD) to transform organic waste into renewable electricity. This cutting-edge technology offers a powerful way to address two pressing environmental issues simultaneously while also providing valuable byproducts that can benefit agriculture and local communities.


At its core, anaerobic digestion is a natural biological process that utilizes anaerobic bacteria to break down organic matter, such as food waste or sewage sludge, in an oxygen-depleted environment. This process, which occurs naturally in conditions like swamps and landfills, has been harnessed and refined by modern technology to create a sustainable and efficient means of generating energy from waste. Anaerobic digestion has been used for centuries around the world to recycle organic waste into energy. Now, this proven technology is being widely implemented here in North America.

The Process

The AD process begins with collecting and sorting organic waste, like food waste residuals, from processing and various other sources. This material is then fed into airtight tanks called digesters, where microbes consume and break down the complex organic compounds through a series of chemical reactions. As the bacteria metabolize the waste, they release two products: a nutrient-rich soil amendment called digestate and biogas made up primarily of methane and carbon dioxide.

It is this methane-rich biogas that holds the key to generating clean, renewable energy. The biogas is upgraded to remove impurities, resulting in a purified biomethane product that can serve as a renewable substitute for natural gas in residential, commercial, and industrial applications. This process takes place in a closed-loop system that captures emissions, turning waste that would generate detrimental greenhouse gases into energy.

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One prime example of this technology in action is the Maryland Bioenergy Center in Jessup, a state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion facility. This pioneering center has the capacity to process an impressive 110,000 tons of organic waste annually, producing approximately 312,000 MMBtu (one million British thermal units) of renewable natural gas, enough to power around 4,800 homes for an entire year.

Shawn Kreloff

However, the benefits of anaerobic digestion extend far beyond just energy production. The process also yields a nutrient-rich byproduct called digestate, which can be further processed into a valuable soil amendment. Facilities like the Maryland Bioenergy Center generate thousands of tons of this sustainable soil byproduct annually, providing a viable alternative to synthetic fertilizers and supporting sustainable local agriculture by enhancing soil quality and crop yields.

Engineering and Environmental Science

The technology behind modern anaerobic digestion facilities is a marvel of engineering and environmental science. Automated systems meticulously monitor and control every aspect of the process, from the initial sorting and pretreatment of the organic waste to the final purification and distribution of the biogas. Sophisticated sensors and control systems ensure optimal conditions for the anaerobic digestion process, maximizing efficiency and minimizing environmental impact.

Additionally, the versatility of anaerobic digestion technology allows it to be tailored to a wide range of applications. From small-scale digesters on individual farms or community gardens to large-scale industrial facilities, this sustainable solution can be adapted to meet the unique needs of diverse communities and organizations.

As the world transitions to a more sustainable and circular economy, the role of anaerobic digestion in turning food waste into renewable energy is becoming increasingly vital. By redirecting organic waste from landfills and incinerators, this technology reduces greenhouse gas emissions and generates a valuable source of clean energy and nutrient-rich fertilizers.

Looking ahead in 2024 and beyond, we can expect to see intensifying focus and capital flowing towards proven food waste technologies like anaerobic digestion, improved logistics, process optimization software, tracking software, recycling and upcycling solutions, and consumer-facing technology. Driven by the massive economic price and increasing pressure to curb emissions, I anticipate increasing innovation of recycling solutions over the coming years.

With smarter technologies deployed at scale, the monumental goal of halving food waste by 2030 is an achievable target. Realizing that goal is an environmental and economic necessity that the tech sector is poised to meet.

Shawn Kreloff is CEO of Bioenergy Devco, a Maryland-based group that specializes in anaerobic digestion technology.

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