Sustainability in Practice: Texas A&M Research Turns Food Scraps to Fuel

Technology was developed at the university.

Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

David Riddle, executive director for University Dining at Texas A&M University, in College Station, was in the right place at the right time when he was working at his prior job at the university’s office of technology commercialization. It was while working there that he learned about university research that could turn food scraps into energy.

“I knew the researchers were working on a way in which they could extract energy from a variety of by-products,” Riddle says. “I started talking to the CEO of the company Terrabon, which produces biofuels, and we started discussing how we could take the scraps from the dining halls and put that into their research project. They built a proof of concept facility and we’re beginning to need high volumes of scraps and waste in order to further the research. For us, it worked out quite well. It cost me money to send [the waste] to the city dump, from hauling fees to tonnage charges. By diverting it over to Terrabon we were supporting university research with food scraps from our dining halls and at the same time reducing the expenses we had with waste management.”

The process to collect the food scraps for Terrabon is simple. Dining scrapes food scraps and some paper products into 50-gallon drums, which are covered and rolled to the dock where Terrabon comes and picks them up. The program is in addition to comprehensive composting and recycling programs on campus. The difference in waste that goes to Terrabon and waste that goes to composting lies in the type of waste collected.

“The waste that goes to composting has a much higher volume of biodegradable and compostable plateware than what we are sending to Terrabon,” Riddle says. “What Terrabon gets is mostly food scraps. It’s probably 90% food scraps that are going to Terrabon whereas for our composting program is probably 80% compostable serviceware.”

Riddle says there haven’t been many challenges with the food-to-fuel program except lack of dock space in buildings where dining is not the primary tenant.

“There are so many universities doing this type of research right now,” Riddle says. “[A lot of research teams are] looking to create alternative fuels from municipal waste, food waste or agricultural waste and extract some value from it. A lot of big research schools should have faculty on staff that is doing this kind of thing. [I would recommend] finding out if your university is doing something similar. We’re lucky because we have a bio-refinery right here in town. Once you have to start shipping this stuff it may not be a viable alternative for food scraps. If you do have a bio-refinery nearby make contact with them and try to become a supplier for the raw product. At this point we don’t collect any money for the scraps, but they come and get it for free. Anything we can do to divert this waste from the landfill is a step in the right direction.” 

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