Anaerobic digestion, nature’s recycling engine, must be harnessed as a climate solution


Shawn Kreloff is the CEO of Bioenergy Devco, an anaerobic digestion technology developer based in Annapolis, Maryland. The company has built more than 240 operational AD facilities around the world and currently has two projects under construction in the United States, with more to come.

We’ve read the headlines and seen the data. The climate crisis is real. As the recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change States, we are in a race against time to combat its causes and effects. Much of the problem is the methane gas released into the atmosphere by the decomposition of organic material. So where does this organic material come from and how do we manage it properly?

Every human being has to eat, and that means we all create food waste. But, unfortunately, this universal need also poses a universal problem with the management of excess organic matter. The solution: enact laws on waste diversion, against incineration and against land spreading at the national level, like the avant-garde legislation promulgated by the State of Maryland this summer.

To dig deeper into the problem: our country wastes around 103 million tonnes of food every year. In total, we send around 36 million tonnes of organic material to landfill. For industrial food residues, nearly 10 million tonnes are spread annually. The hospitality industry alone sends nearly 10 million tonnes to landfills, while over 15 million tonnes go from homes to landfills. We also burn nearly 8 million tonnes of organic matter that pollutes the air. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that food waste alone produces about 8% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a nation state, it would be the third carbon emitting country in the world, after China and the United States. “Landfill overflow” is not the answer.

Like Maryland’s new law, waste diversion legislation prevents excess organics from entering obsolete and unsustainable waste streams such as landfill, land application and incineration. In the case of Maryland, the new law requires food producers that generate more than two tons of organics to send the discarded materials to sustainable alternatives such as anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. AD is a natural process using the same microbes that have naturally recycled organic material on our planet for 4 billion years.

We’ve been talking about recycling for a long time and how it can help reduce our waste. AD is a proven technology that takes recycling even further, ensuring that what is thought to be waste is reused into two valuable assets. The natural ‘magic microbes’ that break down these residues turn discarded organic material into renewable energy and a nutrient-rich, odorless soil amendment, bringing us one step closer to achieving a truly circular economy. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go when it comes to education on the effectiveness or impact of AD in the United States.

Since 2018, 23 states have classified incineration as “renewable” in their energy standards and guidelines. Landfills are also rapidly approaching capacity In certain regions, and unlike anaerobic digestion, they fail to turn organic material into valuable products. Land application has many harmful effects, including odors and excessive nutrient runoff into our watersheds. The US EPA even highlighted these issues over 20 years ago.. DA facilities use a natural microbial process to break down organic material in large, closed tanks. No burning. No landfill. No cremation. More business ecology for the economy, AD being the first pragmatic and fiscally responsible way to solve the problem. Finally, ecology meets economy.

Every state in the country should demand organic recycling programs that deliver long-promised environmental benefits. Specifically, every state should pass laws like the Maryland Waste Diversion Act that prohibit the incineration, land application, and landfill of organic waste. Simply put, organics recycling facilities allow businesses, residents and our government officials to share the responsibility of eliminating the use of GHG-emitting landfills, incineration and land application.

While the leaders in this field are in Europe, the United States continues to mismanage organic waste. Instead of sustainably managing these organic residues, we are continuing the same cycle that led us into the climate crisis through incineration, landfill and land spreading. Fortunately, with laws like those created in Maryland that require the use of organic material recycling, we know they can have a productive and valuable second life. The time to act is now.

The articles provided do not reflect an editorial position of Waste Dive.

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