One Person’s Trash is Another’s Energy

Carlton Hemphill, MJLST Staffer

It comes to many as a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air to see the new administration’s interest in reducing the effect we have on the environment, but achieving a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 is no small feat for such a large country and requires leaving no stone unturned. Much of the recent focus in the media has been on increasing the prevalence of electric cars and switching to renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, such as wind and solar. That being said, there is another often overlooked process that, while not the end all solution, can still help us achieve this goal of reducing greenhouse gases, and in my opinion should be getting more attention than it is currently receiving. I am referring to the use of anaerobic digesters.

The Dirty Details:

Let’s face it, people generate a lot of waste, both food waste and excrement. Everybody eats and everybody poops. Moreover, the animals we raise for food also generate an enormous amount of waste. Methane, a byproduct from the decomposition of organic matter such as excrement, acts as a greenhouse gas if released into the atmosphere before being burned. Compared to CO2, methane is 25 times as powerful as a greenhouse gas. Anaerobic digesters use microbes to break down organic waste to produce methane (referred to as biogas) which is then burned to generate electricity.

This is not a novel concept either. Some cities and farms have already taken steps to implement anaerobic digesters for harnessing biogas from sewage and manure. States like Connecticut and New York already implement biogas programs, and many dairy farms across the nation have anaerobic digesters that produce methane from manure. A town in Colorado even powers vehicles using poop . . . yes, you read that correctly.

However, across the country the potential of biogas has not yet been fully realized, meaning there is still a large amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas that could instead be captured and transformed into electricity. The American Biogas Council states that there are currently over 2,200 biogas production sites across the U.S. with the potential for an estimated 14,958 additional sites “ripe for development.”

The biggest barriers to widespread implementation of biogas production stem from a combination of economic feasibility, infrastructure, and lack of political support. Biodigesters can require a large capital investment to setup with financial benefits not being immediately realized. Additionally, while wastewater treatment plants and landfills have existing infrastructure better suited for conversion to biogas production and utilization, rural farms would need either pipes to move the gas or connection to the electrical grid to sell back the generated electricity. Without the necessary political support, in the form of government programs financially incentivizing anaerobic digestion, these issues will continue to act as a deterrent.

Federal eye on Biogas:

While the recent executive orders dealing with the climate crisis do mention mitigating methane emissions, the focus is instead on mining in the oil and gas sectors and not repurposing existing organic matter. It seems then that in our nation’s quest to go green we are overlooking the potential to transform the very waste we create. With food waste constituting the second largest category of solid waste sent to landfills, and cities producing millions of tons of sewage annually, implementing anaerobic digesters would provide numerous environmental advantages. They save landfill space, prevent methane from leaking into the atmosphere, and generate electricity reducing our reliance on other forms of electrical generation.

Fortunately, the EPA recognizes the value in biogas production and, if Biden’s proposed $14 billion in spending towards climate change materializes, the EPA may be able to allocate some of that funding towards developing new sites. When creating new laws and policies aimed at climate change perhaps it is best to always keep in mind the universal law of conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but rather transformed; what we flush down the drain or discard as trash still has energy and it is up to us to utilize it.