A tremendous amount of value leaks out of our society every day in the form of waste. Sensing an opportunity, entrepreneurial thinkers have found ways to recapture that value by recycling everything from aluminum, steel, and lead, to cardboard, paper, and plastic. Landfills collect methane and waste treatment facilities produce fertilizer from sludge. Agricultural residues and forestry wastes are being converted into cellulosic ethanol.
These innovations help bolster our economy while making it more sustainable by reducing the threat of resource depletion and the mountain of waste. But one area is being ignored, considered too messy or too difficult to deal with: food waste. Other than being used by organic gardeners in compost piles, 96 percent of food waste, despite its nutrient and energy value, goes into landfills. This fact led Graham Fennie to an epiphany: to start Epiphergy, a holistic waste processing operation that spins off energy and other byproducts.
Epiphergy’s facility in Rochester, N.Y., processes some 50 tons of food waste per day and turns it into a combination of ethanol, animal feed, and compost. The indoor facility is surprisingly less malodorous than one might expect.
Epiphergy’s customers generate food waste and need to get rid of it. Epiphergy can charge less for waste disposal services than conventional trash haulers because it extracts marketable value from the waste, a little like the legendary alchemists who turned lead into gold.
Food and beverages distributors, for example, find it more economical to truck their expired product to Epiphergy than to dispose of it through conventional means.
Epiphergy removes out-of-date beer from cans, which are recycled separately, and feeds it into their process. They also receive household food waste through Community Composting that picks up curbside and delivers clean compost back to participants.
“Out job is recover that value, as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible,” Fennie said.
For guidance, Epiphergy follows the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy:
- Feed hungry people
- Feed animals
- Make energy
- Make compost to feed the soil
Food that is still edible is handled by FoodLink, a local affiliate of Feeding America, which is co-located with Epiphergy. They take the edible food that Epiphergy receives and also pass along any food that they are not able to use.
At Epiphergy, a single process takes in all the food waste and in five days, after a certain amount of pumping, mixing and incubating with a proprietary mixture of what Fennie calls “herbs and spices,” converts it into a liquid from which both ethanol and a highly nutritious animal feed can be produced. The residual solid material has all the right properties to be converted into organic compost 30 days later.
“By the time we get to the compost, we’ve used 100 percent of everything we’ve collected,” Fennie said. “Anything that isn’t passed along to feed people, or dairy cows, or create ethanol, becomes compost. The animal feed is a cultured product that we grow using the nutritional value contained in the food waste. It’s kind of like making yogurt or Brewer’s yeast, very high in protein, amino acid content, and energy.”
Unlike biofuel companies, Ephiphergy is not optimizing for energy — it’s optimizing for food. ”We’re not a biofuel company; we’re a waste disposal company,” said Fennie. “The Food Bank needs more available food to feed to people in need. We can help them with that. The Food Bank also has high waste disposal bills. We can help them with that, too.”
Epiphergy entices customers to bring the food to them by charging them less than more conventional, and less sustainable methods. The business can afford to do this because it extracts significant value from everything it recieves. In fact, Fennie noted, ”Sometimes it’s worth it to us to accept their material for no charge.”
Fennie insisted his operation does not have a secret formula — as least as far as technology is concerned. “There is nothing particularly exotic about our equipment,” he said. “We use grinders, tanks, separators, pretty basic stuff. The innovation lies in the ingredients we add, and the way we do the processing. If we just ground it up and left in a pile, this place would really stink. But the bacteria and other organisms get rid of most of the smell. After five days spent ‘digesting,’ we’ve broken that waste down, we’ve recovered the energy as ethanol, and we’ve grown a very nutritious cell mass that then goes into a separation process. The solid material, which contains unrecognizable bits of fibrous material, then goes into the composting process, and the liquid is converted into ethanol and animal feed.”
The process also creates cellulosic ethanol, which is used to help reduce the energy requirements of the plant. ”By the time it gets to this stage, the energy has already been extracted, both from the cellulosic material as well as from the starches and sugars, all in one process,” Fennie said. “We have found how to combine a lot of steps without losing efficiency or adding cost. We do the conversion of cellulosic material to ethanol at the same time and in the same process that we’re converting sugars and starches.”
Exactly how Epiphergy does this is the real secret, which Fennie said is patent-pending. “We’ve decided to retain our recipes as trade secrets, much as Coca-cola has done,” he said.
Fennie envisions having a facility like his in every city in America. “I’d like to push waste treatment out into the field to not only minimize the environmental consequences of waste, and to recover the maximum economic and social value back from it, but to reduce transportation costs as well,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been working so hard to achieve. It may not seem like a lot because there is only one facility right now. But the fact that there is one proves that there can be as many as you want.”
But first, he insisted, the business model needs some refining. “We need investors that understand systems thinking,” he said. “With so many moving pieces, we’re not a classic business situation. If we can do it here, where landfill costs are very low, we can do it anywhere, and we will.”