NORTH SALT LAKE — It is the only one of its kind in Utah, or the West for that matter, and it quietly occupies a patch of land in North Salt Lake, gobbling up the food waste from yogurt manufacturers, used restaurant oil, bad batches of beer, soda pop and discarded produce from grocery stores.
“What we did is build a synthetic animal out here,” said Morgan Bowerman, sustainability manager for Wasatch Resource Recovery.
Food waste is the largest waste stream in the United States, with an estimated 40% of the food produced in the country ending up never consumed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says about 94% of that food ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. As an example, the Natural Resources Defense Council points out that over the Thanksgiving holiday week, about 200 million pounds of turkey — and all the water, energy and money it took to produce it — will go in the trash can.
This $43 million Wasatch Resource Recovery facility, which is just in its beginning phase, aims to change that statistic. It takes what is unwanted and turns it into something vitally wanted: A clean source of natural gas that is regarded as “renewable” for European countries and fertilizer that drastically improves crop yield — all the while eliminating the methane pollution that comes from food tossed in landfills.
Bowerman pointed to four cylindrical containers, including the two “anaerobic” digesters that lack oxygen. The organic material is liquified and microbes break down the food matter, producing gas as they do. That gas is then captured, purified and transformed into biogas, or renewable natural gas.
“That is where the magic happens,” she said.
The promise of energy from food waste is significant. A study by East Bay Utility District in Oakland, California, found that food waste has over three times as much energy potential in the form of biogas produced per ton of materials as biosolids. It has 15 times as much energy potential as manure from cattle.
Bowerman led the EPA’s regional administrator, Greg Sopkin, and others on a tour of the facility while he was in Utah this week in recognition of local recycling efforts and as part of the federal agency’s push to increase the nation’s recycling rate.
“This is pretty cool. I wish every one of my states had one of these,” Sopkin said. “I am very impressed with this facility. The problem of food waste is severe.”
The plant began taking shipments in February and gets about 30 truckloads a day of waste from companies like Kroger, Dannon and Nestle.
Clients who can hire haulers to discard the food waste include restaurants, grocery stores, breweries, schools, universities — anyone with wasted food that piles up.
On this day in a huge warehouse, there are cases upon cases of bad beer and bins overflowing with full soda pop bottles, iced coffee and more.
Produce is piled in the corner as well as a large mound of the discarded material from the manufacturing of pelletized brine shrimp. In this de-packaging area, machines will crunch the glass and other man-made materials into a form where it can then be recycled. Any organic products are destined for the digesters.
Tanker trucks roll in hauling waste oil or yogurt byproducts.
All this will eventually end up in the digesters and become transformed into fertilizer and natural gas.
Dal Wayment, general manager of the South Davis Sewer District — the public partner in the project — said the facility will be able to produce enough natural gas for 40,000 people, or a city the size Bountiful. The gas will be fed into Dominion Energy’s pipeline to sell on the domestic market.
The anaerobic digester process is nothing new — sewer districts use microbes to break down solid material and having been doing that for more than 100 years. The first plant was built in India in 1859, and in 1895, biogas was recovered from a facility in England and used to light up street lamps.
This facility is unique because of its capacity, its plan to be self-sustaining and the state-of-the-art technology that draws visits from engineers from the around the nation as well as other countries.
The district and its private partner, ALPRO Energy & Water, will direct the construction of more digesters to double the facility’s capacity in the final phases of the project.
That buildout will be key for the Wasatch Front because of the digesters’ ability to stop food from ending up in a landfill, where the organic waste emits ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.
According to its website, Wasatch Resource Recovery estimates that with the anticipated amount of organic waste diverted to its digester process, it will be the equivalent of zapping the pollution from 100,000 cars.
In addition to its nutrient-rich fertilizer and renewable natural gas, the facility is separating the carbon dioxide made in the biogas production and using it to grow algae.
The algae will then be used at the sewer district to remove the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen in its wastewater treatment, another plus for the environment. Those nutrients in wastewater, once discharged to other water bodies, can build up and contribute to the formation of harmful algal blooms toxic to both people and animals.
Bowerman says the list of clients hiring haulers to take their organic waste to the facility continues to increase as word of the facility grows.
“My job has completely changed. It went from me calling people asking them to send their waste to them calling me, all the time.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the natural gas produced at this plant would end up in Europe. Although the product will meet the European standard for its renewable qualities, it will be sold in the United States.