Open up a refrigerator and the chances of finding limp lettuce or soggy squash are pretty high. Here in the U.S., it’s likely that this food will find its way into the garbage — according to the USDA, at least 30 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted.
A new program launched Wednesday by ecomaine aims to get that food out of the trash and give it a second life as compost or energy.
When confronted with produce past its prime, says ecomaine’s CEO Kevin Roche, there’s really one major roadblock that steers people toward dropping it in the trash versus a compost bucket.
“The ‘ick’ factor is what I call it,” he says.
Rotten food is messy, it smells and it attracts fruit flies. But Roche says ecomaine now has a unique way to manage the ick factor: by sealing that food waste in a clear plastic bag.
“You go to the grocery store, and when you buy your oranges or your head of broccoli, and the first thing you usually do is put it in a clear bag. And we feel that could be an avenue for us to contain the ick factor and get a second use out of that plastic bag,” he says.
Starting Wednesday, ecomaine accepts food waste knotted up in plastic bags. Ecomaine doesn’t collect the bags itself. It consolidates waste picked up by commercial services, such as Garbage to Garden or WeCompostIt!, at a cost of about $55 a ton.
On Wednesday morning, a collection truck from Agri-Cycle Energy unloads a giant salad of rotten corn, peppers, tomatoes and other produce at ecomaine’s facility in Portland.
“We’re collecting from restaurants, colleges, hospitals, and a variety of other generators of food waste,” says Dan Bell, manager at Agri-Cycle Energy in Exeter, where all of this produce consolidated at ecomaine will eventually go.
A special machine at Agri-Cycle Energy removes the plastic bags, which are returned to ecomaine to be burned for electricity. The food waste, meanwhile, is blended with an equal amount of cow manure from a nearby dairy farm, then heated and churned for about 30 days using a process called anaerobic digestion.
“We have two large domes, and it’s essentially enclosed, so we’re capturing all of the gases in the process of breaking down food waste,” Bell says.
The biogas is used to produce heat and electricity. And the food waste, he says Bell, turns into fertilizer and animal bedding.
“This is material that’s been in the waste stream forever. And it always will be. And it’ll always be something that has to be handled. But pulling it out and removing it and source separating it allows companies like ours and other digesters across the country to put that material to work for us, versus just sitting in a landfill,” he says.
Because food generally doesn’t break down in landfills. A couple years ago, Roche says ecomaine dug down into one of its landfills.
“We found chicken breasts that were 25 years old, tomatoes, Ruffles potato chips that were 25 years old,” he says.
Roche says businesses and consumers can prevent food waste through correct planning. But when lost or forgotten food is discovered in the dark recesses of a fridge, that’s where ecomaine’s food waste recovery program comes in.
Initially, he says, it won’t account for a huge chunk of what ecomaine processes, which amounts to 170,000 tons of trash and 45,000 tons of recycling per year.
“Even if we can get upwards of five tons a year, we feel that would be a good start to our program,” Roche says.
It’s an important step, he says, toward reaching Maine’s statewide recycling goal of 50 percent by 2021.