Fast Food Industry Can Become Fastest Growing Player in Clean Energy

Posted on May 22, 2014
Posted By: Shlomi Palas

When a company produces 150 tons of food waste every day that is either a huge problem or a great opportunity to innovate and produce energy. Grocery stores, restaurants, sports arenas, schools, and hospitals in the U.S. generate an average of two tons - 4,000 pounds - of food waste per week. An estimated 35 million tons of food waste from commercial and residential sources end up in U.S. landfills each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Operators of commercial kitchens and other waste generators are increasingly looking for more environmentally sound ways to manage food waste than sending it to a landfill and with good reason: waste is expensive.

According to a Natural Resources Defense Council Issued Paper titled: Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Form to Landfills (August 2012), the author, Dana Gunders, noted that food in the United States today goes 40 percent uneaten. Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year. Also, that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. At the processing level, the losses come mostly through trimming, when both edible and inedible portions (skin, fat, peels, and end pieces) are removed from food.
In-store food losses in the United States totaled an estimated 43 billion pounds in 2008, equivalent to 10 percent of the total food supply at the retail level. Most of the loss in retail is in perishables-baked goods, produce, meat, seafood and increasingly, ready-made foods. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruit and vegetables alone.

Fast food fueling methane
Fast food companies may take note of the White House's recently published Climate Action Plan which seeks to cut methane emissions. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases: It's 20 to 25 times more powerful in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When food is disposed in a landfill it rots and becomes a significant source of methane - a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Landfills are a major source of human-related methane in the United States, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions.

Landfills are the largest anthropogenic emitters of the greenhouse gas (GHG) methane (CH4) in the U.S. In 2006, landfills in the U.S. emitted 6,211 tons-34% of the total U.S. methane emissions (equivalent to 130.4 million tons of CO2), according to the EPA GHG Inventory Report 2009, and second in overall methane emissions to enteric fermentation (methane produce by livestock digestion). Reducing methane emissions is a good way for the fast food industry to take action on climate change; and become better citizens by supporting local economies with a source of clean energy that generates revenue, spurs investment and jobs, improves safety, and leads to cleaner air. When fully implemented, the policies in the methane strategy will improve public health and safety while recovering otherwise wasted energy to power our communities, farms, factories, and power plants.

When not flipping burgers, a UK-based McDonald's is turning food waste from its London fast-food restaurants into energy. The store is working towards a zero waste to landfill strategy and 25 London restaurants are implementing an energy from waste program. According to David Fairhurst, senior vice president of McDonald's UK & Northern Europe, they were proud to be the first quick service restaurant chain to commit to energy from waste as one solution to reducing the amount they send to landfills. Fairhurst's team found it to be a viable way to reduce their carbon emissions and were able to roll out the program to 25 restaurants in London. The initiative is diverting 2,500 tons of waste from landfills annually and generating enough energy to power 22 million light bulbs for one hour - the equivalent of an evening's worth of light for every home in London, McDonald's said.

Since June 2010, the fast-food chain has reduced its carbon emissions in waste management by 48 percent in London and diverted its non-recyclable waste from landfills. Food waste in landfills creates significant amounts of methane. The program has reduced McDonald's carbon emissions in waste management by 48%, according to The Carbon Trust.

From Waste to Resource
The waste-to-energy process starts when food is brought to the center and put through a blending system that removes any inorganic material -- namely packaging, such as plastic, metal and glass -- and liquefies the food. The organic material that is mixed with wastewater from the creamery is all that remains. That mixture goes into an anaerobic digester, an oxygen-free piece of equipment full of microbes that break the food down, producing biogas and a mix of nutrients and minerals. The biogas is then compressed and purified on its way to the campus' micro turbines and boilers, where it takes the place of nearly all of the natural gas that the center previously used. In the case of Kroger's, their biogas now provides 20 percent of the campus' power and has delivered an 18 percent return on investment for the project so far.
This approach will now help fast food restaurants to allow consumers the option of properly disposing uneaten food for renewable waste. The resulting increase in recycling will provide jobs and help to save the planet.

Return on Investment
The use of WTE offers the following returns:

  • - Reuse of dead stocks - with nearly 16 percent of raw materials lost during manufacturing, according to a WRAP UK study, WTE may help draw back returns on this loss.
    - Reuse of both their solid and liquid organic waste coming out of their production facilities.
    - Reuse of the residual heat created by the CHP systems during the energy production process, for their internal needs, like: steam, heat, cooling and hot water, and reduce dramatically their energy cost.
    - Big brands which are processing animals as part of their production process can implement the same program also in the farms growing the animals, like: chicken farms, pig farms and cow farms to eliminate the contamination created by the animal manure.
    - The waste-to -energy plants can be installed and operated both on site in the production or central logistic facility and save the transportation cost or in a separate facility.
    - The projects can be implemented by the food companies or by companies such as Bluesphere which is ready to establish and operate these facilities on a Build, Own and Operate basis.

Aside from evaluating where large fast food companies should save, they should also take a careful look at wastes and evaluate their own waste streams and adopting best practices. The ultimate decision of understanding the environmental benefits of efficient resource use, and the financial benefits of significant cost savings is a win-win approach.

Authored By:
Mr. Shlomi Palas, CEO, is a clean-tech executive and entrepreneur with a large network in private and government sectors in North and South America, Europe, China and Africa. Prior to Blue Sphere, he was a business entrepreneur in the biodiesel industry, carrying out activities in China, Brazil and Africa. Earlier, as a Senior Partner at Mitzuv, a leading management consulting firm, Mr. Palas worked in China with the IFC (International

Other Posts by: Shlomi Palas

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June, 04 2014

Amber Rhodes says

This has implications on multiple levels...I wonder, truly, if there would be such problems with hunger and the creation of waste in the world if humans worked harder to consume what they created and provide to those who are going without; and the trimming losses used to create cleaner energy.

January, 06 2016

James says

I have found some informative info-graphics about this topic that highlights how much we consume each day.

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