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How these Massachusetts farmers are turning manure and food waste into power

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, about 204 million pounds of turkey meat will be thrown away this Thanksgiving. That’s an estimated $293 million worth. As we continue our look at innovative solutions to food waste across the country, NPR’s Allison Aubrey visits a state that is keeping its food waste out of landfills by sending it to farms to turn it into electricity.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the final episode of our special series this week on food waste, we look at some innovative solutions being developed to deal with the growing problem of spoiled and surplus food in this country.

    Special correspondent Allison Aubrey visited a state where dairy farmers are using it to power their farms and more.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    It's burger night at Barstow's Dairy and Bakery at Longview Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, and the Pioneer Valley String Band has drawn a crowd.

    As advertised, the burgers are born and raised here. But the cows on this farm produce more than just meat.

  • Denise Barstow:

    Our cows are producing about a hundred pounds of cow manure per cow per day, and we're treating it through this system and getting electricity, renewable energy that's coming right here from the farm.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    The system that seventh-generation farmer Denise Barstow is talking about is an anaerobic digester. Those green towers are part of it. She's one of a handful of dairy farmers in Massachusetts using this technology.

    Just down the road, dairy farmer Peter Melnik is using it, too.

  • Steven Melnik:

    We are taking food waste from all over the greater Boston area and our very own cow manure. We mix them together in the digester vessel and make electricity.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    This land has been in Melnik's family for four generations. But times are tough for dairy farmers, so Melnik has diversified. His land is now part farm, and part renewable energy plant. The process starts here.

  • Steven Melnik:

    This is the manure pit, as we like to call it.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    But he needs more than manure. The trick to making this waste-to-energy system profitable is volume, and Melnik has found an abundant source.

    Millions of pounds each year of surplus and spoiled food that would otherwise be destined for a landfill now arrives at his farm in trucks like this. The food scraps are ground up into a liquid slurry that gets pumped into this pit.

    The more you add, the more electricity you can make. The waste comes from all over. There's unsold produce from whole foods, scraps and whey from a Cabot butter plant, and spent grain from a local brewery.

  • Steven Melnik:

    Inside the digester, it's about almost a million gallon tank. It's heated to 105 degrees. And inside there are tiny microbes.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Microbes from these cow's digestive tracks and the rotting food produce methane, which is usually released into the atmosphere, playing a role in climate change.

    But, here, when the gas is captured, it's stored in these big black bubbles, and Melnik can actually generate power from it.

  • Steven Melnik:

    We produce a megawatt of electricity every hour.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    How much is that?

  • Steven Melnik:

    A megawatt is enough to power the digester and the dairy farm, our houses and outbuildings out here, and we still have 90 percent of our electricity left over to be put back on the grid.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And the other 90 percent? It powers some of the businesses that send their food waste to the digesters. It also powers two local towns. They're able to purchase the electricity at a 10 percent to 15 percent discount.

    So, what is it that you get from this? How does this help your bottom line?

  • Steven Melnik:

    We are getting about $100,000 a year in savings.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    The digesters are built and run by a company called Vanguard Renewables. The company pays farmers a fee for the use of their land and gives them free electricity to power their farms and houses.

    In addition to the economic boost, Melnik says he likes the environmental benefits.

  • Steven Melnik:

    I don't need an app or an environmental calculator to tell me that this thing just makes sense. Having such a closed-loop system, it's really been neat to see the connection between all the food companies.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    One player in this loop is Whole Foods. Seventeen of their stores participate. They ship 50 to 100 tons of food waste every week to their digesters. At the stores, they grind up food they can't sell or donate, and then truck it to Melnik's farm.

    Whole Foods' Karen Franczyk explains.

  • Karen Franczyk:

    Anything that ends up going to landfill or incineration costs us more money. That is the most expensive way to get rid of waste in our stores.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So, sending the waste to the anaerobic digester is cheaper, and can help reduce the ecological footprint.

    Up to 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food waste. And in 2014, Massachusetts passed a law to ban food companies from sending their waste to landfills. It applies to all businesses that generate over a ton of food waste a week.

    So far, four other states in the U.S. have passed similar bans.

  • John Majercak:

    Each part of the food waste stream.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    John Majercak is president of the Center for EcoTechnology, a nonprofit that helps businesses in Massachusetts save energy and reduce waste.

  • John Majercak:

    To transport food waste super long distances is very expensive and also wasteful. So the idea was to try and put dots on a map all across the state close to where the waste is produced, so that it could be used to produce energy. And the state did this by incentivizing the development of these digesters.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Those dots are now sprinkled across the state, and incentives came in the form of grants given to the companies to build the digesters.

    John Hanselman is Vanguard's CEO. He says he is inspired by what has happened in Europe, where there are over 17,000 digesters and government policies to promote renewable energy.

  • John Hanselman:

    So we saw what was happening in Europe, where anaerobic digestion is extremely widespread.

    Across the United States, we don't have that incentive program. We don't have the federal energy policy or any federal benefits for anaerobic digestion. I think we are at the cusp. We are at the early days. We have finally got the economics to work.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Hanselman says, after six years in the making, he expects to make a profit this year, and he's optimistic about the growth.

    This waste-to-energy approach is new in the U.S., and the extent to which it can take off may depend on how much states or the federal government are willing to incentivize it.

    In Massachusetts, it took two new laws, a food waste ban, and a renewable energy law, plus grants to make it happen.

    Farmer Denise Barstow is glad it's all worked out.

  • Denise Barstow:

    You can't just work really hard anymore and make it in the dairy industry. You have to work smarter, not just harder.

    And part of that is diversifying in a way that is better for the land, better for the animals and better for the next generation.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News in Hadley, Massachusetts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can see all of our stories on the topic of food waste on our home page. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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