As the world population continues to grow, so does the food waste it produces. The United Nations projects that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030. This means more garbage to manage.
Notably, food waste constitutes 21 percent of the waste produced by humans-and only 5 percent of this waste is recycled. According to Brian Blair, who has worked over 20 years in energy efficient recycling solutions, recycling food waste has the potential to be both cost-effective and environmentally sound.
“When we look at what need we to do to improve and reduce our waste, the next most logical thing is to focus on organic content that goes into the landfills,” Blair says. “This waste produces methane, and when it decomposes in a landfill in a controlled environment, that methane can be used to produce energy.”
Blair will discuss the means, methods and technology of energy-efficient recycling at an upcoming conference at Rutgers University titled “Food Waste-to-Low Carbon Energy Conference.” The conference, on Wednesday and Thursday, April 27 and 28, will feature more than 20 innovators in the food waste industry, ranging from policy makers to technology experts.
While recycling programs have made huge strides in reducing carbon emissions in the last decade, steps can still be taken to further innovate and improve recycling facilities, says Blair. “The next logical step is to extend capacity, so we’re not just filling a hole in the ground and building a mountain and one day needing more land,” says Blair.
Blair’s latest work with Trenton Biogas has been focused on creating a facility to convert food waste into usable energy. In 2014 Trenton Biogas obtained approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection to operate a facility at an empty sludge plant on Duck Island in Trenton. The seven-story building had been planned as a wastewater treatment plant for Trenton, Hamilton, Ewing, and Lawrence. The four towns spent $50 million building the facility in 1992 only to abandon it before it was finished after realizing its operating costs would be too high.
Blair says Trenton Biogas will begin operating in April of next year, and hopes to process up to 100,000 tons of food waste annually.
Trenton Biogas, headquartered on Lamberton Road in Trenton, was founded with the help of principal investor and current Chairman of the company, Peter Joseph. Joseph, a private equity investor who previously founded Joseph Littlejohn & Levy in 1985 and Palladium Equity partners in 1998, employed a team of experts in anaerobic digestion to study recycling technology and ultimately Trenton Biogas selected to use technology presented by a Danish company. Blair, along with researchers from Rutgers, chose the Danish technology because it was the best anaerobic recipe for digestion. One of the benefits of the technology is its simplicity in use, says Blair.
“One of the things you learn in the industry is that complex systems create a complex operating scenario and typically an expensive operating scenario,” says Blair. “Simple is better-and anaerobic digesters are very simple.”
The team also experimented and developed a machine capable of sorting garbage into different fractions-an organic fraction, a shredded plastic fraction and a metals fraction. Once groups are separated, the three can be recycled. The machine is capable of processing about ten times as much material per hour as compared to the standard rate.
“We’re pretty excited about [this technology],” says Blair. “It’s very important to talk about this machine that is capable of sorting garbage, that’s a big deal and I think that’s the next big thing in the industry and an important game changer.”
The company hopes to market the new technology to other waste facilities, says Blair. “Landfills that are looking at capacity issues should incorporate this technology to separate organics before the material is landfilled. We think that this technology can save money and extend the life of the facilities.”
Blair has been working on creating Trenton Biogas for the past decade. Previously, he had worked in the bio-solids gasification industry converting wastewater sludge to energy. Blair also worked in the automotive waste industry, where he began to recognize the lucrative side and demand for waste innovators, as companies were extremely interested in reducing waste cost in their manufacturing process.
“If you can process the material in an environmentally sensitive way and recycle material, as well as compete with the cost of throwing it in the ground or transporting it a long distance, you’ve got something,” says Blair.
Blair, the son of a hairdresser mother and machinist father, grew up in Ohio and majored in business and mechanical engineering at the University of Akron. He says he became interested in environmental issues after college, when he worked for Caligo, a Canadian company that cleaned up hazardous waste for the automobile industry. The process of working with waste material exposed him to the importance of waste management. In 1997 he founded his own company in that line of business, Hydrosolve Inc. Describing his interest in pursuing environmentally friendly waste disposal, Blair says, “Some of it is business opportunity, some of it is maturity, and some of it is just having a conscience.”
Blair says he is hopeful that Trenton Biogas and new technology it employs will provide a solution to dealing with increasing amounts of dangerous and environmentally damaging waste.
“With the help of a very large company in Germany and a little bit of elbow grease, we’ve stumbled across a solution that works,” says Blair. “And I think that’s the next big thing.”