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Casella working with UVM researchers to find food scrap composting solutions

Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 6:01 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont law last year banning food scraps from going to the landfill is proving problematic when it comes to packaging. Now, Casella, with the help of University of Vermont researchers, is testing a new machine to explore solutions.

At Casella’s Williston waste facility there’s a lot more happening than just trash-hauling.

“We’re looking at technologies and obviously partnering with UVM to understand how do we use science to engineer solutions,” said the company’s Michael Casella.

The big, red machine is called a de-packager. It’s been the center point of research since January. “This de-packaging facility is one way in which food waste can be recovered and potentially turned into something valuable,” said Eric Roy, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at UVM.

The machine separates food, recyclables, and non-renewable waste. Then, UVM researchers come in to determine how that food waste can be used, via compost or anaerobic digestion. While many are familiar with compost, anaerobic digestion is similar but different. Liquid food waste produced at Casella, is put into an oxygen-depleted metal stomach of sorts and converted into methane-rich biogas. Then, it can be used to generate heat and energy.

“And the energy is just one part of it, because at the end of the process, the leftover liquid is really rich in nutrients that plants need to grow and so that material can be used to offset synthetic fertilizer,” said Kate Porterfield, a UVM Ph.D. candidate.

Sounds great, but it’s not that simple. There are a lot of microplastics that can be left behind throughout the process., which could contaminate agricultural soils. So, Porterfield says UVM researchers are focusing on how to quantify challenges and opportunities for these processes. “There’s a lot we don’t know about microplastics in food waste, and just like using food waste in general. And so we’re trying to fill an information gap and give practitioners the data they need to make choices surrounding food waste and what it should and should not be used for,” she said.

Porterfield studies pre-consumer waste, specifically ice cream. “These are pints of ice cream that have never made it to consumers and need to be disposed of for one reason or another,” she explained. She also analyzes post-consumer waste like food scraps by analyzing the food sludge that comes from the de-packager. She’s looking to see how much plastic and what kind of plastic is left behind. “We would like to generate information that is going to allow practitioners to adjust the processes they’re using to recover value from food waste so that we’re maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs.”

From there, waste management facilities like Casella can work upstream with manufacturers to create packaging that can be better broken down and recycled to reduce microplastics. “If it’s material that can’t be recycled, then we’ll either work with the manufacturer to say, ‘Hey, is there a process we can put in to actually handle this material as well?’ That’s the unique part with the partnership with UVM, is there’s more research that we can do on engineering solutions around these problem products and packages,” Casella said.

He says the long-term goal is to help clarify sometimes confusing environmental laws and generate scientific data for legislators to work with. “The organics industry is such a new industry that we really need to understand, you know, what are the microplastic concerns? How do we control that value? And then how do we make good legislation regulation to make sure that we’re not doing more harm than good?” Casella said.

“Part of an ambitious law is that it’s going to create some situations where there’s a lack of information, and we need to continue to produce that information so that we can best implement the law,” Roy said.

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