As the concept of making waste useful continues to gain popularity, Elizabeth Matsangou explores some novel approaches that can drastically reduce our carbon footprint
Reducing is insufficient. Recycling is mostly inefficient. We are now in desperate need of smarter ways to lessen humanity’s environmental impact, particularly as expanding populations drain the planet’s resources. In response to this crisis, a new movement has formed that takes a step beyond recycling, turning waste into something of value. This movement is gaining ground not only because of its environmental benefits, but also because it can save a significant amount of money while forming a central pillar of an organisation’s social responsibility. Both private companies and state organisations are starting to think outside the box and explore the countless ways they can use the waste they produce to their advantage.
“Food waste is the next frontier. It’s where recycling was 25 years ago with other materials, such as cans and bottles”, said David Hitchcock, Senior Vice President of Harvest Power, a leading start-up that turns organic waste into fuel. To tackle this escalating problem, an increasing number of organisations are exploring the latest, and arguably greatest, development in waste management: anaerobic digestion. The process involves combining food waste (which can include dinner scraps and used cooking oil) with biosolids (the nutrient-rich by-product of treated sewage) in order to produce biogas. Biogas is then combusted to generate electricity via degradation that is caused by microorganisms in the absence of oxygen. The remaining material also has a use: “The nutrient value of the original inputs is retained and turned into natural fertilisers or compost for the local community”, said Hitchcock.
Anaerobic digester plants in Germany
Of all greenhouse gases come from livestock and their by-products
The happiest place on earth, Disney World (of course), implemented Harvest Power’s circular system in 2014 using selected restaurants and hotels located within its sprawling complex. At full capacity, the $30m facility, which is located in the Reedy Creek Improvement District, can process 120,000 tonnes of organic material per year, generating around 5.4MW of combined power and heat. Others in the US have also adopted the innovative approach in order to fulfil both their waste management and energy needs, such as the city of Sacramento and the state of Massachusetts, among many others. The scene in Europe, on the other hand, is far more mature, with 9,000 anaerobic digester plants in Germany alone, most of which recycle small-scale farm waste.
According to the Worldwatch Institute’s paper, Livestock and Climate Change, livestock and their by-products account for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Although the petrochemical industry and transportation exhaust fumes often receive the brunt of the blame for ozone depletion, the methane produced by cows is far more harmful than CO2.
In order to build a society that is less destructive to its environment, this must be addressed urgently, and the first place to start is with food waste. “By tackling the interlocking challenges of food waste, we simultaneously unlock sustainable solutions”, said Hitchcock. Although a small piece of a very complex and politically charged puzzle, reusing food waste could have a dramatic effect on mankind’s struggle with its surroundings.
Aside from fuel, food waste is an increasingly popular choice for reinvention, with a growing number of companies exploring imaginative solutions. UK design company Reworked is turning used coffee grounds into furniture, jewellery, and, ironically, coffee machines. The process uses up to 70 percent of the waste product to create a hybrid material that is made completely from natural components. After teaming up with coffee machine manufacturer Sanremo, it has sold hundreds of the Verde model each year since its launch in 2013. Italian design company WhoMade, meanwhile, is repurposing food waste, such as peanut shells and carrot peels, as biodegradable and additive-free plates for dry food. In order to add a further layer of use, when the plates become wet, they can be composted and used as fertiliser.
Numerous academic institutions are also lending their expertise to various projects that are as surprising as they are intelligent. The University of East Anglia, for example, is researching how to turn agricultural by-products, including straw, sawdust and corncobs, into bioethanol.
“Our role was to identify naturally occurring yeasts that could ferment the sugars that are released from digested straw material”, said Dr Tom Clarke, the university’s lead researcher on the project. “We identified several potentially interesting strains that were able to tolerate the presence of sugar breakdown products (called furfurals) that are a by-product of straw processing. While [the] price of second-generation bioethanol struggles to compete with regular petrol, this research is important in preparing the groundwork for a time when oil becomes scarce.”
According to the university’s website, around 400 billion litres of the alcohol-based fuel could be produced from crop waste each year, and, as bioethanol mixes well with petrol, the potential for the automotive industry is huge.
Then there is a recent study by Coventry University, which has explored the use of waste construction by-products, such as recycled bricks, steel fibre, recycled crushed glass and cement by-pass dust, to make sustainable paving blocks. The results so far have found that compressed paving blocks can be successfully made from cement and waste materials – alluding to vast possibilities for the construction industry worldwide.
‘Upcycling’ is a buzzword with growing traction. As opposed to recycling, which breaks down materials and turns them into something else, upcycling involves using the components of discarded items in a new way to create objects that are of practical or aesthetic use (and which are often of greater value than the original pieces). Examples include old television sets that have been turned into fish tanks, glass bottles that are transformed into light fixtures, or even roll-top bathtubs that become stylish sofas. This sustainable and cost-effective movement is making waves in the design world, with numerous industry players adopting upcycled inspiration. At the same time, television programmes and ideas shared on social media are captivating the imaginations of millions around the world.
Aside from the money-saving aspect, the idea of producing something from items that would otherwise be discarded has great appeal to those who have grown weary of a throwaway consumer culture. Moreover, the individuality of such pieces is a big shift away from monotonous, common trends, allowing individuals to be creative and unique. Upcycling is even inspiring new hobbies, classes and moneymaking enterprises, such as Remade in Britain and the US’ Hipcycle.org, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of vendors on Etsy.com.
Taking the next step in the movement are firms such as TerraCycle, a US-headquartered company dedicated to “eliminating the idea of waste” through the creation of new products from discarded materials. The company has a number of national programmes, which it calls ‘Brigades’, that collect non-recyclable items such as cigarettes, biscuit wrappers and used coffee capsules.
“The waste is collected through TerraCycle’s recycling fundraising programmes, which are free fundraisers that pay schools, charities and non-profits for every piece of waste they collect and return”, said Stephen Clark, TerraCycle’s Director of Client Service and Communications for Northern Europe.
“Instead of taking space in landfills or being incinerated, they are then made into an array of products, including backpacks, watering cans, waste bins, and even park benches. TerraCycle works with over 100 major brands, [including] the likes of Febreze, Capri Sun, Tang, Tassimo, BIC etc, in 21 countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Japan, across the globe to collect used packaging and products that would otherwise be destined for landfills. We repurpose this waste into new eco-friendly materials and products that are available online and through major retailers.”
The damage society is inflicting on the world is reaching the point of no return. The depletion of raw materials, deforestation, the agricultural business, chemical pollutants and soaring energy consumption around the world are getting worse by the year, despite public awareness being greater than ever before. The need for absolute sustainability is urgent and has become the duty of both governments and corporations. Being sustainable reduces costs, portrays a positive image and requires a beneficial long-term outlook – all of which can contribute to the success of any type of organisation.
The concept of zero waste is one that can actually change the world. By creating circular systems, greater resilience is afforded, not only for the organisation itself, but also in terms of its host city and country. It enables people to harmonise with their environment through the consumption of fewer fossil fuels and the solution to one of the biggest problems of the 21st century: waste disposal. With imagination, technology and collective action, waste of any kind can be transformed. Humanity may still be at the early stages of this momentous transition, but it will certainly grow in fervour in the coming years, and, when it does, we can finally begin to undo the damage we have already done.
Making the most out of rubbish
Gills Onions, the largest onion processer in the US, produces 300,000lbs of onion waste every day. Driven to become sustainable, the California-based company worked with various partners and spent years researching how to turn that waste into electricity. The outcome was the installation of two of FuelCell Energy’s DFC300 sub-megawatt power plants, which provide 100 percent of Gills Onions’ power requirements, including the energy required to run its anaerobic digesters. Three quarters of the plant’s onion waste is converted into carbon-neutral energy, while what remains is sold as cattle feed. As well as meeting the company’s zero waste goal and maximising its energy security with an on-site power generator, the process also saves an estimated $700,000 per year in power costs, in addition to the $400,000 previously spent on energy. According to the company’s website, the $10.8m spent on the system will be paid back in less than six years.
HJ Heinz Company is finding new ways to repurpose the stems, seeds and peel waste produced from the 200 million tonnes of tomatoes it uses each year for its world-famous ketchup. In 2012, Heinz began collaborating with Ford Motor Company, Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble in order to develop an entirely plant-based bio-plastic made from tomato fibres. The material can be used in anything from packaging to car manufacturing, reducing the need for oil-based alternatives. Ford is hoping to use Heinz’s leftover dried tomato skins by converting them into pellets, which would then be then transformed into strong but lightweight wiring brackets and storage compartments within its vehicles. According to a press release published by Ford in 2014, if successful, the adoption of bioplastics in various vehicle components will significantly reduce the company’s use of petrochemicals and the environmental impact of its manufacturing process.
The US state of Wisconsin faced two problems each year: treacherous icy roads during winter and the disposal issue of its successful cheese industry. In an ingenious solution to both, Polk County authorities now use liquid cheese brine for snow and ice control. Not only does the process help local cheese producers, it is actually more effective than regular de-icing methods. “For some scientific reason cheese brine has a lower freeze point than manmade salt brine”, said Steve Warndahl, Polk County Highway Commissioner. Moreover, the mixture does not leave behind any residue when the snow thaws or is rinsed away. It even helps the salt stick to the roads better, saving the county thousands in reapplication measures. “The first year of cheese brine use saved Polk County $30,000”, said Warndahl, “[as] we bought much less of the more expensive product, like calcium chloride or magnesium chloride.”
Every day, around 3,500kg of unsellable fruit and vegetables is discarded at Rotterdam’s biggest outdoor market. Vendors must pay for their rejected produce to be properly disposed of. This leads to illegal dumping in some cases, and a whole host of problems for the city’s authorities. Seeing an opportunity to help, a group of designers from the Willem de Kooning Academy started the Fruit Leather Rotterdam project to turn spoiled fruit into a leather-like material that can be used to make bags, clothing and even furniture. The process involves removing seeds, turning the fruit into a pulp, boiling the mixture to remove bacteria, and then finally drying it on a specialised surface. Not only does the resultant durable material make use of the city’s unsellable fruit and reduce illegal dumping, it also provides a non-animal option for leather goods – a big draw for vegans and non-vegans alike.
Beer by bread
A microbrewery in Belgium, the Brussels Beer Project, is using leftover bread from bakeries and supermarkets to produce a seven percent amber beer. Using a recipe that dates back 4,000 years to Mesopotamia, with a few tweaks, the Belgian brewers were inspired to tackle the city’s food waste problem – about 12 percent of which is bread. It took around a year to find the perfect balance of bread and barley, and the result is a unique-tasting beer called Babylone that is sold to local bars and cafés. According to the company, around 30 percent of the barley required for brewing one bottle of beer can be replaced by just one and a half slices of bread, which is dried and mashed into flour and then mixed with barley malt. Since starting the project, the brewers have teamed up with the NGO Atelier Groot Eiland, which organises the collection of unsold bread and prepares it for brewing on the group’s behalf.