The world is preparing to receive almost 10 billion people. The amount of food and food waste is increasing consequently. It will be necessary to develop strategies to reduce and dispose of the growing amount of urban and agricultural organic waste.
Food waste has economic, environmental and social implications that are particularly relevant and complex to manage. When food waste ends up in landfills, it is a severe problem for the environment. It pollutes and generates greenhouse gases and unpleasant smells, and toxic fluids that can infiltrate the soil and contaminate underground aquifers.
That is why we must not only reduce waste upstream, trying to limit leftover but also find strategies to turn it into a resource. One of them is converting organic waste into energy. The new technologies are a great tool that comes in handy for this purpose, to use food waste to generate clean energy.
For example, once used and discarded, waste vegetable cooking oil can be collected in special centres and transformed into green biodiesel for vehicles. But there are many ways to convert waste into energy. Another example is the energy use of food waste by gasification of biomass.
Biomass plants are now an ecological solution, allowing the sustainable disposal of waste and transforming waste from the food sector into energy. “Biomass” means discarded materials of biological origin such as firewood, straw, branches, livestock farming wastewater, algae and food waste. Through technology, these materials can be transformed into fuels or even directly into electricity and heat.
The process of gasification of biomass allows converting agricultural organic waste into a mixture of gas through heat, oxygen, steam or a mix of these. The gases from biomass will thus be used as a green fuel. This method is very efficient and sustainable because it allows transforming food waste into valuable energy generators derived from gases such as hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. These gases will then be used to generate heat for heating and virtually zero-impact electricity as an alternative to fossil fuels, helping to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. The gasification of biomass is also obtained fertilizer for soils, always with a zero-waste circular economy approach.
There is also a recent discovery that employs a “waste-eating” bacterium. It can ferment and convert the glucose of food waste into hydrogen that, through a biomass plant, is converted into renewable energy, fuel for cars and electricity. These methods of converting waste into energy are particularly effective strategies today. They generate much fewer emissions than incineration, with a much lower carbon footprint calculated over the whole LCA.
Equally virtuous is coffee waste or the production chain of wine to feed biomass plants, such as marc, lees and waste from pruning vines. All this organic material can feed biomass plants to produce clean energy that can provide power for the supply chain. This is a virtuous process to zero waste that represents the idea of a circular economy.
Food waste, if well managed, can become a resource instead of a problem, making a valuable contribution not only to tackling climate change but also to achieving greater energy self-sufficiency. To date, European gas imports exceed 45% of total consumption. It, therefore, becomes urgent the transition to renewable energy sources that can free us from dangerous dependencies. For this reason, the European Commission recently presented the REPowerEU initiative: another European response to the energy crisis, which updates the “Fit for 55” strategy presented in the summer of 2021.