The Clean Plate Club: The search for value from food waste finds a center of gravity in Hawaii

August 7, 2014 |

food-poster

All that food waste, all that potential value. What’s being done about all that material heading from the garbage pail to the landfill?

Turns out, the State of Hawaii and BioTork are doing a lot. The Digest investigates.

The EPA tells us that there’s an epidemic in food waste dumped in landfills — which is pretty sad given the hungry people around the world, and all the things we can do with that waste even if it is past the point of suitability for the hungry.

In the US alone, in 2012, “more than 36 million tons of food waste was generated, with only five percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting,” according to EPA.

If you remember that Wonder Bread “built healthy bodies in 8 ways,” it’s just a small step to remember that taking six daily steps to reduce food waste helps build a stronger society in 8 ways.

Here’s what you get.

1. Feed People, Not Landfills.
2. Reduce Methane From Landfills.
3. Reduce Resource Use Associated with Food Production.
4. Create A Valuable Soil Amendment.
5. Improve Sanitation, Public Safety, and Health at Your Facility.
6. Lower Disposal Costs.
7. Reduce Over-Purchasing and Labor Costs
8. Receive Tax Benefits by Donating Food

And here are the six steps:

1. Preventing food waste before it is created
2. People. Donating fresh, wholesome food to those in need
3. Farms. Feeding food scraps to animals.
4. Industrial. Turning wastes into bioproducts or biofuels. 
5. Composting. Turning food waste into a soil amendment
6. Anaerobic digestion. Turning food waste into renewable energy and a soil amendment

BioTork and Hawaii’s initiative

biotork-logoMost of us know that Hawaii grows a lot of fruit and other food crops, that the state lacks any fossil fuel resources, and that in Pearl Harbor it is on the front line of Asia-Pacific security, and energy security. So, there are a lot of reasons to suspect that Hawaii would be a leader in finding industrial applications for food waste. Turns out, they are.

The State of Hawaii recently passed legislation to assist in funding a zero-waste project that converts crops, crop residues, dedicated energy crops, and agricultural waste into economically and environmentally sustainable biofuels and value-added co-products. Hawaii’s Department of Budget and Finance is now authorized, with the approval of Governor Neil Abercrombie, to issue special purpose revenue bonds in an amount not to exceed $50,000,000 for the purpose of planning, permitting, design, construction, equipping, and operating BioTork Hawaii’s commercial facilities.

BioTork’s bioconversion development efforts in Hawaii date back to 2010 when it launched proof of principle research for its technology. Using a proprietary evolutionary optimization approach, BioTork enhances the performance of non-GMO microorganisms under real-world industrial conditions in an unrivaled cost efficient way. The conversion process takes a few days to cycle in a heterotrophic environment, meaning no sunlight is needed, to create oil for biofuel and high-protein feed.

ZeroWasteProject

By 2012, the company had demonstrated in the lab that it could convert unmarketable Hawaiian papayas to fatty acids that can be refined into green fuels. The company successfully developed strains of microorganisms, algae and fungi, which can eat papaya culls and convert the sugars in that waste stream into high value oil suitable for the production of advanced drop in green diesel and jet fuel. They also had a research collab with BASF to optimize certain microbial strains for the industrial production of bio-based polymers and green chemicals.

First laboratory results showed that BioTork, in partnership with the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, have found a means to turn an economic liability for Hawaiian papaya farmers into a high value co-product while addressing at the same time the need for domestic production of renewable non-petroleum-based biofuel.

In early 2013, the state invested $200,000 into the papaya-based biofuels program. The grant, coming from the state’s Department of Agriculture, was awarded to the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, now eamed up with a new BioTork subsidiary, BioTork Hawaii.

Hawaii-papaya

This year, the State of Hawaii, recognizing the progress and potential global impact of this project, committed $4,800,000 in research, development and capital improvement funding through a contract with DKI-PBARC to focus on BioTork’s evolution technology. Some of these funds have been committed through the state’s barrel tax allocations, which target energy and food security initiatives. Other funds have been appropriated through legislative capital improvement program allocations.

The latest news

The State recently authorized the Department of Budget and Finance, with the approval of Governor Neil Abercrombie, to issue special purpose revenue bonds in an amount not to exceed $50 million for the purpose of planning, permitting, design, construction, equipping, and operating BioTork Hawaii LLC’s commercial facilities.

With the additional support of special purpose revenue bond funding, BioTork Hawaii will be able to fuel the third step of its development program. This would involve scaling up to build and operate commercial facilities that will have the capacity to convert agricultural crops and by-products such as albizia, sweet potatoes, papaya, sugarcane bagasse, glycerol and molasses to biofuels and high-protein feed.

Back to the larger problem of waste, production and distribution

There’s quite a bit of chatter about food, intermixed with amateur analysis of agricultural practice — generally simplified into unhelpful slogans like “food vs fuel” which simply pit vital interests against each other for no reason. The problems of the world, with respect to food, relate to food distribution, not production.

In fact, the globe is awash in carbohydrates — we produce more carbs per capita than at any time in human history. But it’s badly distributed — not reaching the poor in sufficient quantities, and too often diverted into the unhealthy foods demanded by the affluent.

The problem is that we talk too much about food — equating it with crops — and not enough about pre-food, which is what crops really are in the Industrial Age. Crops are food precursors, not food — in industrial economies. Subsistence economies are different — as are foods raised in organic veggie patches. But what you see at the supermarket — that’s the result of an industrial supply chain that includes pre-food, energy, innovation, labor and rent.

Which is why and how ten cents of corn (the pre-food) becomes 5 dollars’ worth of Corn Flakes (the food you actually eat).

Looked at that way — the problem in food waste is that the supply chain has not been sufficiently extended to include recovery, re-processing, and re-distribution.

It’s not as if industrial societies don’t know how to move waste. The problem is that, by and large, waste is an externality. The public subsidizes waste disposal, as a health measure. The lowest cost means of dealing with waste, to this point, has been landfill dumping. So we dump and dump until there’s no place left to dump locally. Then we dump it with our neighbors until they scream for mercy. Or dump into the river until the fish all die. Then we barge it somewhere else until the developing world or the oceans are filled with it.

Thank God we’re talking about visits to Mars and the Moon — two very nice, very large, interplanetary dumps.

So, let’s chat for a moment about the profit motive. Which is the absent friend in all our societal discussion of waste. Put in CoinStar at your local supermarket — and all those wasted pennies and nickels seem to magically appear out of glass jars and get brought back into the system. Offer money for aluminum cans, and suddenly you see people picking them out of the trash. Profit is the death-ray of waste. It naturally extends supply chains.

If we were a smart society, it follows, we might be thinking about creating profit opportunities instead of running food scrap collection drives. Because volunteerism rarely changes society in a sustainable manner — some of the people change all of the time, and all of the people change some of the time but all of the people do not change their habits all of the time, because of voluntary “do-good” drives. So we work at soup kitchens during the holidays — and bless those who do — then go back to dumping our 35 million tons of food into the garbage come New Years.

Just as the United States made huge progress on food waste and efficient distribution during the First World War — then went right back to the old ways as soon as the war was over. The War brought Victory Gardens, and the Clean Plate Club. Then, phfffft.

How to make a profit out of food waste?

The solution lies in the market, not in good intentions. It’s all about finding industrial process, adding value — and heading for the chemical markets, followed by fuel markets. Just like you get about $8 per pound selling Fritos at retail, and about 6 cents a pound selling raw field corn into the supply chain.

In the case of papaya, when it perishes out of the food chain, the value plummets. Creating a huge opportunity for a technology that can reconnect the biomass with a supply chain by upgrading it to a precursor for something, anything.

So, there’s the BioTork opportunity. Take something worth close to nothing — in fact, given the landfilling cost, it has negative value. If it can be upgraded back into a precursor, value is reestablished, the profit motive surfaces. In come the fingers to snatch all that papaya waste out of the garbage before it heads for the landfill.

Want to see someone put their fingers into a bunch of slimy waste? Why, toss a diamond ring into it.

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