University of Vermont to test food de-packaging system

Researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) have partnered with Casella Waste Systems to test a new food de-packaging system.

One-third of food waste in Vermont is still packaged, creating difficulties when it comes to the mandatory diversion of food waste away from landfills under the state’s new Universal Recycling Law (Act 148 banned food scraps from landfills from July 2020).

“It’s very exciting for us to bring this technology to our home state,” said John Casella, chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems. “This facility will allow us to separate valuable organic and recyclable feedstock from waste material, put them to a higher and better use, and preserve natural resources.”

Casella has funded two UVM graduate students to conduct this sustainable waste management research. Assistant Professor Eric Roy and two of his students are determining if food waste, once separated from its packaging, can be used for anaerobic digestion and composting.

AD produces biogas, a clean, renewable source of energy, as well as liquid and solid digestates for use on farm fields as fertiliser or animal bedding. But what happens if the separated food waste still contains small particles of packaging – mostly plastics? The de-packager’s manufacturer claims 95-99% effectiveness in isolating food from its containers, leaving a small fraction of microplastics that can make their way into the environment in the digestate.

Roy, a UVM faculty member in both the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS), said: “Casella is being very proactive in determining how well its de-packaging facility works to maximise environmental benefits and minimise cost.

“We are trying to establish data that can guide food waste management into the future in Vermont and beyond.”

The research will focus on two main streams of packaged food waste: pre-consumer – usually large quantities of packaged, but unsaleable product from food producers, and post-consumer – which can contain packaging or other contaminating materials.

Kate Porterfield, a PhD student in CEMS, started her research at the facility in January, on the day Casella ran its first load in the de-packager. The support from Casella has allowed Porterfield and Roy to pioneer new ways to measure plastics in food waste. Porterfield is working on methods that quickly and easily isolate and quantify the abundance of microplastics – similarly to how marine scientists conduct their work in oceans.

“Once we identify the types and amounts of contaminating plastic, Casella and others in the industry can go back upstream to the food manufacturers or waste suppliers to seek ways to remove unwanted packaging or other contaminating materials,” said Roy.

Look out for more information on this study and other food waste-related news in our January/February edition.

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