Every now and then, looking for a solution to one problem leads to better answers on several fronts. Eleven Wegmans stores in the Greater Rochester area are sending food waste to two dairy farms to be turned into energy and useful byproducts, thanks to a technology known as anaerobic digestion. The initiative involves a partnership that includes Wegmans, Lawnhurst Farms, Noblehurst Farms, and Natural Upcycling, a hauling company that specializes in collecting food scraps that can be fuel for renewable sources of energy. In 2014, Wegmans turned more than 2.5 million pounds of food scraps into clean, renewable energy.
Wegmans recently produced a video to help explain the process.
One of Wegmans’ Buffalo stores is also piloting the program and more will follow. Four Syracuse stores will begin a pilot in May. By early 2016, Wegmans hopes that 32 of its New York stores will be participating in this program. Other Wegmans stores are already diverting food scraps away from landfills to compost or animal feed producers.
Collecting food scraps: At participating Rochester Wegmans stores, employees in the bakery, produce, sub shop, cheese shop, coffee, floral and prepared foods departments put what’s headed for the “digester” into collection totes that roll on wheels. Into the totes go foods that can’t be donated, like coffee grounds, baked goods, fruit and vegetable peelings, and damaged produce. When full, the totes roll out to a loading dock. Natural Upcycling, based in Linwood NY, empties the totes onto the truck, sanitizes the totes with a power-washer system built into the truck so they can be reused at the store, and then heads to the next store. Once full, the truck heads to the “digester” at Noblehurst Farms in Linwood or Lawnhurst Farms in Stanley NY.
Turning scraps into energy: Two years ago, Lawnhurst Farms, a fourth-generation, family-owned dairy farm near Canandaigua, unveiled a state-of-the-art anaerobic digester to manage waste from the 1,400 cows on the farm, and to generate electricity through the capture of methane released during the digestion process. The digester had spare capacity, and the Jensen family, co-owners of the farm, wanted to supplement manure from the cows with food waste to produce more energy and useful byproducts. That’s where Wegmans’ scraps fill in. At full capacity, the digester can produce enough electricity to power 400 households for a year. This electricity not only powers the farm, but also generates excess energy that the local utility company buys.
Wegmans’ partnership with Noblehurst Farms follows the same process for anaerobic digestion.
Anaerobic digestion is a biological process that occurs when bacteria decompose organic matter in the absence of oxygen. As the bacteria work, biogas (mostly methane) is released. The digester collects the biogas and pipes it underground for cooling. Then it’s pressurized, metered and fed into a heat and power unit that yields heat for the digester, farm buildings, and the farm’s milking parlor. The waste remaining, after controlled anaerobic decomposition, is low in odor and rich in nutrients. The liquid can fertilize soil, and the solid “digestate” can be used as bedding for the cows, or spread on fields to add organic matter to the soil, improving its structure.
“The real advantage of these partnerships is that the benefits are broadly shared,” says Wegmans Sustainability Manager Jason Wadsworth. “The process is easier, safer and more efficient for our people, it helps to reduce carbon emissions generated by landfills, helps farmers in our community achieve their sustainability goals, and creates a whole new business model for farmers and food waste haulers, adding jobs to our region. This is the very definition of sustainability and a project that the whole community can feel good about.” Specifically,
- Diverting food from landfills means less methane gas escaping into the atmosphere. (Methane, a byproduct of decomposition, is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide.)
- Because the anaerobic digester is a closed system, it captures the methane produced as food scraps and farm waste decompose, turning it into renewable energy.
Day-to-day practices count too
“What a waste management technology like anaerobic digestion can do is exciting,” Wadsworth says, “but everyday practices that cut down on what goes to the landfill matter too.”
When Wegmans produce employees spot a misshapen apple that customers might not buy, they check with the culinary team to see if there’s a good use for it – perhaps as a crunchy addition to a salad or another recipe. That’s one apple that feeds someone, instead of ending up in a landfill.
Wegmans also partners with local food banks and pantries near its stores, sending donations of day-old bread, not-quite-perfect produce, yogurt near the sale date, and other items. In 2014, approximately 13.5 million pounds of food from Wegmans’ 85 stores (333 tractor trailers) went to people in need rather than to a landfill.
“If something can’t be used at the store or donated, it goes into the collection tote. We are always asking ourselves how we can do a better job of bringing food’s goodness to people, in ways that are better for the environment,” says Wadsworth. “We’re committed to finding sustainable uses for food scraps. It’s the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.”