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Massachusetts companies are turning to 'anaerobic digesters' to dispose of food waste


Massachusetts recently launched a new ban on food waste. Any business that generates more than half a ton per week cannot send it to landfills or incinerators, so hospitals, restaurants and colleges need to send their food scraps somewhere else. As WBUR's Barbara Moran reports, a farm-powered, climate-friendly technology is gaining traction as a solution.

BARBARA MORAN, BYLINE: The Fancypants Baking Co. in Walpole, Mass., makes one thing - cookies, lots of them. But co-owner Justin Housman says they don't all make the cut.

JUSTIN HOUSEMAN: If you drop something on the floor, it's sure not getting sold to a person - right? - no matter what. But it can go into a food waste bin, and it can be turned into clean energy.

MORAN: Most of the time, food waste is a climate problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each year, food waste generates about the same amount of greenhouse gas as 42 power plants burning coal. But the reject cookies from Fancypants face a more climate-friendly fate. They're shipped off to a facility called an anaerobic digester, like this one at the Bar-Way dairy farm in Western Massachusetts.


MORAN: It doesn't smell as nice as the cookie factory, but the cows contribute an important part of the process.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So we're going to walk over here and start with the manure pit.

MORAN: How great.



MORAN: Manure gets mixed with food waste inside a huge tank where microbes eat the mix and belch out methane or bio gas.

STEVE MELNIK: You're taking two products that nobody wants. You're mixing them up. The little microbes do their thing and eat. They make the gas. And the generator puts the power on the grid.

MORAN: That gives Steve Melnik, a third-generation dairy farmer, a discount on his electricity. The digester also makes free fertilizer for his farm.

MELNIK: And that is a huge savings for really doing nothing. And it's going to keep us so we can keep farming for another generation or two.

MORAN: Melnik receives a stipend from Vanguard Renewables, which runs the digester on his farm. John Hanselman is chief strategy officer for Vanguard, one of the largest operators of digesters in the country.

JOHN HANSELMAN: So we have a full dispatch and logistics center in Wellesley. We have 400 monitors on every one of our systems. Bringing all of that in-house was kind of the key to our success.

MORAN: Vanguard runs 10 digesters and plans to build 140 more across the country. According to the American Biogas Council, the number of farm-based digesters increased by 21% last year. It's a surprising trend for a technology that's been around for decades but never really took off in the U.S. But the financial equation has changed, at least in some places. Food waste regulations like the one in Massachusetts have spurred the growth of digesters and composting, and it can now cost about the same to recycle food waste as to trash it. Gretchen Carey is president of the nonprofit MassRecycle.

GRETCHEN CAREY: If you're in a state like ours where there were a lot of landfills, a lot of them have filled up and closed and you don't have a place to put trash, then diverting 30% of your waste into a local renewable energy source, basically, is a great idea.

MORAN: Advocates say the best way to reduce food waste is to not make it in the first place. But since there will always be some wasted food, finding ways to keep it out of landfills can be a powerful climate solution.

For NPR News, I'm Barbara Moran in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Moran