Each year, humans produce billions of pounds of waste. Of that waste, a significant percentage is produced by food manufacturing processes, which could range from unused potato skins to random food particles left behind in the food production and processing process. While these waste products become useless (and, in many cases, a cost incurrence to companies producing food products), these food products also become waste that ends up in landfills and sewers, presenting a ecological conundrum as well that could contribute to climate change.
Recently, researchers have turned to processes called valorization, which is the process of finding some use for “useless” food waste. A team of researchers at Ohio State University are looking into new ways to take food waste, analyze the contents of food ways, and use those results to find a range of uses for food waste, which could include eco-friendly fuels or even electricity. The team’s work is described in Science of the Total Environment.
As part of their work, the team searched for potential uses for a range of food waste samples, 46 in total. From these samples, researchers were able to sort the samples based on their constituent components. The team identified four key groups of compounds found in waste samples: vegetable, fat, starch, and industrial sludge. The team conducted chemical tests as well to better understand the makeup of each sample, with a particular focus on starch materials. The team looked for starches that were good candidates for fermentation with acetone.
To identify food waste products with the most energy-producing potential, however, researchers looked big picture, looking at energy density and carbon-nitrogen ratios, which could indicate what kind of food waste products are best suited to fuels or biogas, for example. Vegetable compounds, researchers found, were not great options for producing energy. However, because they contain certain health compounds, they could be used to produce health products.
Though only a first step, researchers hope their study inspires major food producers to find new ways to do something with their food waste other than disposing of it in a landfill.