The circular economy at Disney World

Harvest Power Orlando - Energy Garden copy

Alas, you won’t be able to take a tour of this new “attraction” next time you visit Disney World. But inside those giants vats, through a process called anaerobic digestion, something cool is happening — food waste, used oils, fats, grease and treated human sewage are being turned into electricity and compost.

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

But this facility, which is owned and operated by a company called Harvest Power, is a potential solution to the problem of food waste, which is a bigger problem that you might think. Food that winds up in landfills is not only a waste of money, and a source of methane pollution, but the water and energy required to grow that food (and the greenhouse gas emissions created in the process) are also wasted. Addressing the problem of food waste requires taking steps up and down the supply chain, from the farm to the table, if you will, but anaerobic digestion will likely be part of the solution.

Last week, I wrote about Harvest Power for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Millions of people a year visit Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park. These days, some of the food that they don’t eat – as well as some of the food they do – ends up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.

How? Food waste – including table scraps, used cooking oils and grease – is collected from selected restaurants in the Disney World complex, as well as area hotels and food processors, and sent to a system of giant tanks at a facility near the park. There, the food waste is mixed with biosolids – the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after sewage is treated – and fed to microorganisms that produce biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas is combusted in generators to make electricity, and the remaining solids can be processed into fertilizer.

The circular economy at Disney World may not be as pretty as Cinderella’s Castle, but this process for turning organic waste into energy, which is known asanaerobic digestion, could turn out to be the best way to extract value from food scraps and treated sewage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.

“We’re able to turn all of the waste stream into productive products,” saysKathleen Ligocki, the chief executive of Harvest Power, a venture capital-funded clean-tech company that built the Florida facility. “This is our goal – pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

I met Kathleen Ligocki recently at a clean tech event in DC. Impressive lady–she’s had a long and successful career in the auto industry, then joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner before taking over as CEO of Harvest Power early this year. The company is a bit disjointed and unfocused; it was put together through the acquisition of composting operations around the country. Her job is to scale up the operation, and eventually take the company public. You can read the rest of the story here.

Bill Caesar: Don’t let waste go to waste

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

Just ask Bill Caesar, who runs the recycling and organic growth units of Waste Management, America’s biggest trash company, which has $13.3 billion in revenues last year.

20120815-112349.jpgIt’s hard to get many cities and towns to embrace recycling.

It’s hard to get homeowners to figure out which plastics go into which bin.

It’s expensive to build out the infrastructure needed to separate materials, and ship them to customers.

And now, to make matters worse, the prices that buyers are willing to pay for cardboard, used paper, metals and plastics have fallen, on average, by about a third. A ton of solid waste used to yield about $150 in recycling revenues, more or less. Today, it’s closer to $100. Here’s a chart.

“The commodities are global in nature,” Bill told me the other day. “When the French stop buying things, the Chinese stop making things, and when that happens, they need fewer boxes and the price of recovered paper in the US falls.”

Who would have thought that the EU’s troubles would slow progress towards zero waste?

Bill and I met this week to after he spoke at Wastecon, the big convention organized by SWANA in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, where I cam across the recycling robot, above. (Of course you know SWANA as the Solid Waste Association of North America. Some time ago, garbage became solid waste and the city dump turned into a sanitary landfill.) Waste Management still takes most of the garbage municipal solid waste that it collects to dumps sanitary landfills–it owns more than 250 active landfills–but Bill’s job is keep stuff out of the ground. His unit looks for ways to extract more value from waste, either by recycling, or composting organic waste, or turning waste into energy. [click to continue...]