The food recycling infrastructure in the U.S. offers several different landfill diversion options within the U.S. EPA Wasted Food Scale, including feeding animals, energy generation, compost, and beneficial use as fertilizer. All of these recycling options ensure valuable nutrients (and potentially energy) are recovered from wasted food and other organics, and all are preferable to landfilling and incineration. These ways of diverting organic “wastes” – and capturing value through recycling – also are all interconnected with our food systems, land management, and ecological impact. Organics recycling and other options are very regionalized throughout the U.S. and all facility types have associated specific permits and/or regulations to ensure material is handled appropriately. This article will focus primarily on wasted food but can apply to other organic byproducts, depending on the material, outlet, and infrastructure.
Feeding Animals is the first food waste recycling option on the Food Waste Hierarchy after prioritizing waste reduction and donation to people. The U.S. economy is highly dependent on livestock for food and products, and growing crops to feed animals can be very energy, water, and land use intensive.
Recycled animal feed is exactly how it sounds. The process utilizes a byproduct resource (food waste) to make an animal feed product. Recycling “wasted” food to feed animals can either be done by processing it into a feed product or as a direct feed to livestock. There are different types of farmed animals that can be fed with recycled feed products, and although each requires a slightly different formulation, the concept is the same for all. By mixing recycling feed in with standard feed products, farmers can lower their carbon footprint and add nutrients at an equal to lower cost to using all standard feed. Recycled animal feed can be produced with a range of food wastes, but carb-heavy products such as bakery, sweets, and breads are great foundation ingredients for processed feed especially for cattle.
Anaerobic digestion (AD) is another food waste recycling option that utilizes an enclosed system using microbes to break down food waste without oxygen present, generating biogas which primarily consists of methane, as a byproduct that can be used for energy generation. The outputs of the anaerobic digestion process are a solid material called digestate, which consists of the remnants of the organic inputs that the microbes can’t break down further, along with water. One important consideration with AD is that the digestate needs to be managed after the AD process and is generally composted or applied to land as a synthetic fertilizer alternative.
Although it can be a great process to produce biogas for energy, AD can be challenging because it is a biological process that relies on microorganisms to both maximize methane production and effectively digest the organic waste mix that is placed into the digester. The microorganisms are often very specific as far as their preferences, and the right balance of “waste” or feedstock type and volume is crucial to efficient operations.
Composting is an aerobic (with oxygen) process that converts organic materials, such as food, plant material and manure, into a nutrient rich soil amendment through a natural decomposition process. Although composting can be done in a smaller, at-home setting, here we are referring to large-scale commercial composting. This process relies on large volumes of organic materials and can be done in piles, rows, or vessels, and not all compost facilities can accept the same materials. The majority of facilities accept yard (or “green”) waste, many accept food waste, and most of those should accept certified compostable products. The right mix, or “recipe,” of organics, equipment, and handling are crucial for a successful and timely compost process.
The finished product at these facilities is called compost, a valuable contributor to soil health, and is an important part of regenerative agriculture. Growing plants in healthy soils requires less water, less (or no) synthetic fertilizers.
Organic byproducts can be applied to land, to be beneficially used as fertilizer. This includes farms and mine reclamation sites, applied for soil enrichment or as a synthetic fertilizer alternative. The most common organic byproducts that are beneficially reused for this purpose are food processing residuals and biosolids from wastewater treatment facilities. According to the U.S. EPA, the practice of applying this material to land has been occurring for decades and is still the most common method to recycle biosolids. Application of this byproducts to the land offers several advantages, including improvement of soil health and water holding capacity, less run-off, and slower release of nutrients as compared to synthetic fertilizers. If maintained with other regenerative farming practices, this process can help build healthier agroecosystems that have the potential to sequester more carbon, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. This alternative can also reduce the farmer’s expenses on synthetic fertilizers.
No matter how organic byproducts are recycled, there are benefits to each recycling method. All are more beneficial than landfilling or incineration. The inherent nature of organic waste is that it is exactly that, “organic.”
If you are a business or manufacturer that would like to learn more about recycling your food byproducts or other organic waste streams, contact us at Denali. We can help you set up a customized program to fit your service needs, organic waste streams, and provide the best value.
Denali is a leading expert and recycler in the U.S. organics recycling industry. In food waste alone, Denali was responsible for managing over 600,000 tons of food waste from retail, foodservice, and industrial food processors in 2022. In recognizing the impact that food waste has on the climate, Denali is committed to working with customers to find innovative, data-driven solutions to reduce waste on the front end. Denali views what others consider “waste” as a valuable resource, manages multiple recycling facilities in the U.S., and has a sizeable fleet to transport organic wastes to a diverse network of recyclers. As a contributor to the circular economy, Denali closes the loop by producing valuable products from recycled organics, including animal feed, biodiesel, compost, tire lubricants, and mulch.
“Turning Food Waste into Feed: Benefits and Trade-offs for Nature.” WWF, July 12, 2021.
“Connections: Why Regenerative Agriculture Needs Recycled Organics.” Biocycle, May 12, 2020
“Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting.” U.S. EPA.
“Land Application of Biosolids,” U.S. EPA