Preserving the Environment

Inside the Business of Turning Your Leftovers Into 33 Million Bags of Mulch

March 19, 2015
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Inside the Business of Turning Your Leftovers Into 33 Million Bags of Mulch
One of Harvest Power's biogas storage tanks, in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy Harvest Power
This company wants to do something about the 251 million pounds of trash produced on this continent annually.

Waste, energy and agriculture. These three massive topics will affect how our ecosystem fares in the future. Harvest Power, a company founded in 2008, is providing local solutions that intersect all three. And they start by changing one unlikely place: the municipal dump.

Harvest Power takes discarded organic waste headed for incinerators or landfills and recycles it into usable electricity and soil. The company’s facilities use anaerobic digestion, a process where zillions of natural, microscopic bacteria eat away at the leftovers from your dinner plate and your front lawn, releasing a renewable biogas (essentially methane and carbon dioxide) that can be combusted to fuel electric generators. Any residual solids become nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Based out of Waltham, Mass., (a town north of Boston known for sparking the Industrial Revolution back in 1813), Harvest Power’s conversion results in 65,000 megawatt-hours of heat and electricity annually — enough to power 5,960 homes for a year — as well as 33 million (yes, million) bags of soil and mulch that are sold at Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart. The company derives all that power and compost from just 2 million tons of organic waste, which is just a sliver of the 251 million tons of trash (organic matter is the largest component) that North Americans throw out annually.

“We are proud of our current infrastructure to process organic waste, but this is only the beginning of what we hope is an organics waste revolution,” Kathleen Ligocki, Harvest Power’s CEO, tells NationSwell. “Organic waste processing is still a nascent market in North America. Harvest Power is already the leader in the space and we recognize that many more communities need our organics management solutions.”

One of the company’s most successful facilities is in Orlando, Fla., which accepts pizza crusts, fry trap grease and 130,000 tons of organic waste from the local hotels and restaurants at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The electricity generated — 5.4 megawatt-hours — powers some of the rides and resorts at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” “We’re able to turn all the waste stream into productive products,” Ligocki tells the Guardian. Like something out of a classic Disney tale, the company transforms “pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

Another hub is located in California’s Central Valley. Known as America’s food basket, a significant portion of this country’s hay, alfalfa, tomatoes, grapes, garlic and almonds are harvested in the region, so it makes sense that Harvest Power put roots down in the region, accepting brush, branches and weeds for processing at its Fresno, Tulare and Lathrop locations.

The next step? To increase the amount of waste captured and processed for reuse. To do so, operating capacity at Harvest Power’s 40 existing sites will need to be expanded and more locations will need to be added, Ligocki says.

Getting there requires local action. Although Harvest Power operates across North America, from frosty Vancouver, Canada, all the way down to orange groves in Orlando, the company talks about “local renewable energy” and “local soils” nearly as often as they refer to the big picture across the continent. Commitment will have to begin in mayoral offices and neighborhood associations before a waste revolution can begin.

For this to happen, “the first step is recognition,” Ligocki says. “Communities identify organic waste as a panacea for interlocking issues [like] overflowing landfills, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, reduced soil health and the demand for clean energy.” As soon as cities realize there’s no need to truck organic scraps to faraway dumps, the Harvest Power model can take hold.

From there, the organic waste revolution could take two forms, Ligocki predicts: top-down or bottom-up. On one hand, government leaders could change trash heaps simply “by setting rates and policies in a way that divert the organic fraction [away] from the landfill-bound waste stream,” she explains. On the other, a grassroots movement could take hold of neighborhoods, leading innovators to step in and provide recycling services to “forward-thinking customers,” she adds.

Policy, financing, land, permits, community outreach and product distribution still must come together, but that’s where companies like Harvest Power, which oversees the process from start to finish, are making a real difference.

The movement already seems to be catching on. The company has won a trophy case of awards, including Bloomberg’s New Energy Pioneer Award in 2013 and has been named to the Global Cleantech 100, a list of the top private clean energy firms, for five years running. And recently, Harvest Power surpassed $300 million in financing, including support from Generation Investment Management, the firm Al Gore co-founded, and Waste Management, Inc., North America’s largest residential recycler.

Clearly, Harvest Power is onto something good.
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