UVM researchers get grant to study anaerobic digestion

Figuring out what to do with food waste is a big topic the EPA is looking to tackle.
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 8:42 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Figuring out what to do with food waste is a big topic the EPA is looking to tackle.

University of Vermont researchers are being offered $200,000 to study anaerobic digestion through the lens of food waste, and in doing so, they are offering some education to local students as well.

“These challenges are going to exist across the state, across the nation and across the world for that matter,” said Matthew Scarborough, an assistant professor at UVM.

Scarborough is looking at what to do with food waste through the lens of Vermont’s on-farm anaerobic digesters.

“Take a holistic look at the impacts of accepting food waste at existing on-farm digesters,” said Scarborough.

There are 15 on-farm digesters in Vermont. Scarborough and his team will spend the summer visiting them, learning more about the current capacity to accept food waste, and concerns about accepting more.

They can also take the digestate, the substance that breaks down the food waste, and measure the biogas produced when given food waste.

“If farmers can generate more biogas, then they can create more electricity and potentially sell it,” said Scarborough.

Scarborough says they can also take a look at microplastics and nutrients in the food waste stream. All of this with the help of some young learners at Winooski Middle School.

“They will be working with two teachers, there with an existing program that’s looking at food waste,” said Scarborough.

“Just getting kids out to understand what food waste is, probably in their cafeteria, in their lives,” said Christine Beling, with the EPA New England.

This funding also supports an existing program between the middle school and UVM researchers so students can get out, learn more, and even see a digester in action.

Beling says part of food waste diversion is all about education, and this goes to the root.

“I just love that this will mean field trips, hands-on science like you said with the kids,” said Beling.

Beling says while the digestion process isn’t new, this research will be. Vermont is a leader in the technology and policy that diverts food waste from landfills.

“We are ahead of the curve on this. This is going to be an issue everywhere, states, cities and municipalities are trying to figure out what to do with food waste, so these challenges are going to exist across the state, across the nation, and across the world for that matter,” said Scarborough. “The next steps include figuring out what roadblocks remain for farmers accepting more food waste.”

Scarborough says those could include farmers being at capacity. It could be nutrient overloads that could come with food waste, or it could be the microplastics that find their way into the food waste stream, something they are very conscious of and hoping to learn more about as well.

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