Paul Sellew [ TEDx Boston ] I’ve been involved with agriculture just about my whole life — this is a picture of me on my family’s farm with my brother and sister in a few of my cousins — and, just like any good farmer, I know that in compost amended soil, rich in organic matter, you can grow just about anything
Over the last 25 years I basically have been involved with building out two of North America’s largest organic recycling businesses.
First being, green waste. Things like leaves, grass and brush. When I got started they were being thrown away in landfills, they were being incinerated, they were being burned. Now we’ve got a network of nationwide composting operations that are recycling these organic materials into a valuable compost product.
Secondly, biosolids – the residuals from wastewater treatment. There was no regulatory framework in place, to use these materials, now there is.
When I got started they were being dumped in the ocean and they were being dumped in landfills — disposed of.
Now, if it meets the regulations, you can beneficially use those, and put them back on farmland.
What I’m doing now is really the 3rd big organics recycling opportunity — and I think the biggest challenge of my career — and that deals with food waste.
I’m going to provide a little context about food waste and how we have become essentially the United States of food waste
Where does it all start? It starts on the farm.
And there are some disturbing trends.
We are losing farmland to development and erosion. That’s a serious issue and it’s something now that scientists have called Peak Soil. We are losing way more soil than we are creating.
And then you combine that with a growing global population and the need to feed more people -unsustainable.
These farms are completely different than the farms of our grandfathers and great grandfathers.
They grew multiple crops, they often have livestock, those organic materials were put back in the ground — you had a sustainable farm.
Today they grow very few crops – even just one.
They don’t often return organic matter back to the soil. You’re subject to the long-term soul depletion, soil loss – again unsustainable.
You combine that with the cost of these chemical inputs: fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides — they’re going way up over what the farms are getting for their own crop.
So farming has always been tough and today it’s no different. But I think we also have an additional challenge on our hands.
That food is part of a complicated global logistics system.
It is being transported by planes, by ships, by trains and especially diesel trucks.
It’s fossil fuel laden distribution system and additionally by the time that food is picked, and by the time it’s ending up on your plate, time has elapsed and that equates to additional waste.
We are used to going to grocery stores and seeing a beautiful and effective cornucopia of food, and the grocery industry does a great job, but what we don’t see is, from production through what ends up on our plate, enormous waste. Enormous waste. And that waste is expensive.
Billions of dollars a year of cost to our economy, and the North American economy, over $2,000 per household that is a huge amount of waste – and we are a contributor to this waste.
And it’s called breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It’s when we go out to eat.
We can’t get away from that. We need the sustenance to live.
Oftentimes, what we don’t eat off the plate, what do we do it? We put it in the garbage.
It’s mixed in with everything else. Where does it go? It goes to the street side, gets picked up by a garbage man, put into a truck, driven to a transfer station. Once it gets to that transfer station, it’s loaded into a bigger truck and that truck can go 100 of miles away.
New York City alone, 23,000 tons a day of waste, full of food waste, going half a million miles away, moving this material around to places like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania.
This is a system that needs to be changed.
Now where do those trucks go?
Over 60% of waste in our society, garbage, goes to landfills.
And these landfills are ultimate repositories.
That food waste, that’s mixed in with the garbage, is rotting in a landfill, generating methane emissions. Landfills collectively are responsible for 20% of methane emissions – which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
And you also don’t get the benefit of the organic matter and the nutrients in that food waste. It’s lost forever, trapped in this landfill
Now what does not go to a landfill, goes to an incinerator. Food waste is wet – 80- 90% water, so it generates no energy.
All it does generate ash, and you guessed it, that ash goes to a landfill.
What I’ve just described is actually what we are doing
It’s contributing to loss of farmland, loss of soil.
We are mixing the food waste in with the garbage. We are sending it, the waste, to landfills and incinerators.
We are the most modern economy in the world, the world’s largest economy, and I think there clearly is a way to make this a better way and to change the way we’re handling food waste right now
Where does it at all start?
It starts with us.
Everybody, through their relationship with food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – should separate the food waste, put it into a separate container, that separate container can go to another container that’s picked up by a specialized organics collection route.
A few towns are doing this right now, in North America, and the good news is that that’s happening, but there’s thousands of more that are ready to go.
Those containers go to my company’s facility, located in Richmond, British Columbia.
This basically takes the food and green waste. We put it into our anaerobic digestion system – a true gift from mother nature – and that goes into our digesters where micro-organisms break down that food and green waste and what do we produce?
We produce biogas.
And biogas is an incredible sort of renewable energy.
The other product, that comes out, is a compost based organic fertilizer.
So all of those nutrients, all of that organic matter, is recovered and put back on the land. At the same time we’re extracting valuable energy out of these materials.
If you are to have a thought experiment and you were to say “let’s design the ideal form of energy”, what would be the attributes?
You’d want it local. You’d want it available anytime you need it. You’d want it transportable. You’d want to be able to use it for all the different things we need energy for, and we’d also want to have no net carbon emissions.
That’s biogas. We can make electricity and, unlike wind and solar, that’s intermittent. Wind has to be blowing, sun needs to be shining. We have captured the solar energy in the plant material.
So we then make base load power 24/7.
You also can upgrade the biogas and put it into the natural gas pipeline and deliver that wherever a customer needs energy.
Lastly, you can take this upgraded biogas and you can make it into compressed natural gas. CNG. For transportation fuel, for cars, for buses, for trucks.
This is truly a miraculous form of energy, and completely derived from the food waste that is being transported all around the globe using fossil fuels
The other thing: if you were to design the ideal type of fertilizer – what would be those attributes?
You’d want something that would improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil.
You’d want it to have beneficial microorganisms that fight disease in the soil.
You’d want to have the ability to hold water, so you don’t have to put as much irrigation on the land.
you’d want to have macro and micro nutrients, everything the plant needs to grow, and is released when the plant needs it.
You’d want it affordable and you’d want it locally available.
This is compost. Truly another gift from mother nature. This compost can be delivered back to local lands and we can build farmland.
We can amend soils and we can create farmland – instead of losing farmland.
We can support the production of local food, stronger communities, healthier soils.
Now anaerobic digestion, was this invented by some brilliant scientist?
On the contrary, it is basically occurring everyday in the stomach of a ruminant. a cow, a sheep, a goat.
They are fed plant materials. They are mini anaerobic digesters. Those microorganisms, the same ones that are in my digesters, are breaking down that material, and I think we do mother nature one better.
The cow farts out the biogas and we capture it. We have taken what mother nature has designed and improved upon it.
And this is truly another fantastic technology. But it’s really mimicked, and we’re borrowing from mother nature and I think improving upon it.
Likewise with compost.
I walk in the forest and I see a composting operation. Sir Albert Howard, the renowned British botanist, said “farmers ought to farm, as nature does in the forest.”
And what he means by that is that the leaves dropped, the pine needles drop, and then a year later you go back and you see compost and you see all those nutrients released. That is a sustainable ecosystem.
They are returning organics back to the soil.
And really modern agriculture needs to borrow an example from nature in this case as well
So the system that I’m describing here, the cycle, the change, that I think we need to make – to build a more sustainable future – it really starts with everybody.
We need to separate out the food waste from the rest of the garbage.
When we do that, you can direct it into innovative technologies, like anaerobic digestion and composting.
You can create valuable biogas that has a multitude of applications.
You create valuable compost that goes back to the soil, to grow more plants, to grow food and to sustain the cycle.
And the other thing around the cycle. It’s an economic engine as well
You have all kinds of job opportunities, green jobs to build these facilities, energy entrepreneurs to utilize the biogas, all kinds of opportunities in lawn, garden and agriculture to use the compost, to support local agriculture, multiple jobs can be created locally – with the waste material that we’re throwing out and sending down the road hundreds of miles.
This is a real opportunity
Now am I talking about something that is just a pie in the sky? On the contrary. In Europe, the biggest economy is Germany, it’s the 4th largest economy in the world. They’re recycling 75% of it’s organic waste.
In the United States we are disposing 95% of our food waste in landfills incinerators.
So that’s what’s happening.
It’s in a hugely important source of renewable energy in Germany, where they’ve got thousands of these facilities in operation.
Good news! It’s happening here in North America, in Canada, the western United States and right here in the home state of Massachusetts. We’re going to begin a ban of commercial organics going into the landfill beginning in 2014.
So it’s really important policy and I’m glad that our Governor put that through.
One thing I’ve not talked about is scale.
We live a very energy consumptive lifestyle in the West and the developing world wants what we have.
We need energy at scale.
And from our own calculations, if you’re taking all of the food, all of agriculture, human waste, all kinds of other organics that we generate here, as part of our society -including dedicated energy crops – if we were to direct that through a network of anaerobic digestion facilities, we would generate enough energy to completely replace the amount of diesel fuel used in the United States trucking fleet.
I think this demonstrates that this is the real opportunity and it’s not some cute niche feel-good type story.
It can be a real engine for renewable energy and organics management in the 21st century.
I’ve talked about this being the most challenging part of my career.
I’ve been doing this for a long time and the reason why this time it’s a little different is that it involves everybody to cooperate and work together.
Everybody has a relationship with food.
It’s a daily essential of our life.
The good news: we’ve done a great job in separating out other recyclables from the garbage, from the municipal solid waste.
We’ve seen that. We shut off the water, we turn off the lights. So I’m optimistic we can do it and I challenge everybody here to step up to the plate.
Let’s work together and let’s create the next great recycling revolution here in North America.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Mandy Kaye