Is turning food waste into bioenergy a profitable industry?

Posted: 17 July 2023 | | No comments yet

Researchers at the University of Illinois have claimed that turning food waste into bioenergy can become a profitable industry.


An estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food is wasted across the world each year. According to The Feeding America 119 billion pounds of food goes to waste in the US annually. But is there an achievable and profitable solution to this?

According to researchers at the University of Illinois, one potential solution is to divert food waste from landfills to renewable energy production, but they say that this isn’t currently being done on a large scale anywhere.

A new study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has investigated the feasibility of implementing energy production from food waste in the state of Illinois.

“We have a large amount of organic waste in the US, which eventually enters landfills and emits greenhouse gasses. However, this material can be converted into a renewable energy resource using anaerobic digestion. This solution simultaneously deals with excess food and contributes to sustainable energy production,” said Jason Uen, a Doctoral Student in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and The Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois.

Uen, the lead author on the paper, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, along with the research team conducted a comprehensive analysis of supply chain logistics to determine if a system of converting food waste into energy and other bioproducts would be profitable in Illinois.

First, they used geospatial data to identify potential sites. Then they analysed technological and economic factors, including transportation, production, and facility costs, as well as revenue and return on investments.

“Anaerobic digestion is not a new technology, but if it were profitable, I would expect it to be more widely implemented. That’s why it was quite surprising that our study showed promising results despite the very conservative assumptions we put into the analysis,” said Luis F. Rodriguez, Associate Professor in ABE and Co-Author on the paper.

“There are some sectors that really ought to consider this as a potentially viable technology with an attractive return on investment,” continued Rodriguez.

Anaerobic digestion is a biological process that decomposes organic feedstock using rich organic materials such as wastewater sludge, animal manure, or yard waste. It can be accomplished at stand-alone facilities or at wastewater treatment plants for a co-digestion process. The researchers point out that the resulting biogas can be used to produce electricity, which can be transported to consumers via regional power grids. The process also yields additional bioproducts, including biofertilizer and animal bedding materials that can be sold to agricultural producers.

“This is an opportunity for wastewater treatment plants, but we’ve also shown that there’s potential for new stand-alone facilities to provide a service that can generate revenue while dealing with an environmental concern that is currently unaddressed. A new industry could form around this,” Rodriguez said.

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The results of the study showed that installing anaerobic co-digesters at wastewater treatment plants with a total annual capacity of 9.3 million metric tons could generate an 8.3 percent return on investment while reducing carbon dioxide by approximately one million metric tons annually.

According to the researchers, the most significant factors influencing the results were capital investment, operational cost, and tipping price, which is a service charge for waste disposal.

Food waste availability was also found to be an important factor, including the challenge of sorting and transporting food waste from households. In the study, Uen and Rodriguez assumed food waste amount is directly related to population density distribution, meaning that facilities would be collecting waste within a ten-mile radius from residential areas. To estimate revenues, the researchers included wholesale electricity price and current fertiliser prices.

“There is still a big gap between the market demands for bioproducts and the amount of food waste we have. If we can expand the marketability of those products, then the profitability for converting food waste into sustainable resources will further increase,” explained Uen.

Government policies such as higher incentives for carbon reduction efforts could also make it more attractive to implement these technologies, Uen added.

With the study focussing on Illinois, the researchers noted that the next step would be to expand to a nationwide analysis.

“Estimating food waste availability on a larger scale and determining bioprocessing techniques will be essential for improving food waste utilisation and the circular bioeconomy in agriculture,” Uen and Rodriguez concluded.

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