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Los Angeles is turning your trash into fuel

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How does the saying go? "One man's trash is another man's...gas?"

Inside a facility in Whittier, California, that might be the case. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County is turning 60 tons of trash into fuel and electricity everyday. Instead of putting waste in a landfill, the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility has been trying something else.

"It's like a giant cow stomach," said Mark McDannel, the energy recovery manager with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles.

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An employee removes pieces of cardboard from a load of food waste that arrives at the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility.

They create the fuel through digestion, a process that's been around for years, but never been done at this scale. But before that, the waste must be cleaned, if that makes sense. Physical contaminants like utensils and cans are removed from the food waste that enters the facility. The waste is then turned into a slurry that enters something called a "digester."

It's like a giant cow stomach.
Mark McDannel, Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County
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These bio separators turn the food into a slurry that is then placed into a digester.

"[It has] the same bugs we have in our guts," said McDannel. "And there's bacteria there that can basically make a living in the absence of air by taking food, getting the energy they need to live in off the food waste, and they generate methane from that."

That methane then becomes natural gas that can be used to power a car or is turned into electricity. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles Country just concluded a 4-year pilot program and will start the permanent phase this month. The goal is to process 310 tons of food waste everyday.

California is calling for a 75% reduction in organic waste disposal by 2025.
Source: CalRecycle

"Now the regulations are in, and it's going to go into widespread use in California in waste water treatment plants in the next 5 to 10 years," said McDannel.

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The food waste recycling program is part of California's efforts to reduce food waste. The state is calling for a 75% reduction in organic waste disposal by 2025 to curb the production of methane gas and other greenhouse gases in landfills. But such a massive undertaking requires generous amounts of money. Simply dumping trash in a landfill costs about $45 per ton, according to CalRecycle. But recycling food waste?

"When we're processing this, the all-in costs start-to-finish is probably about a hundred dollars a ton," says McDannel.

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Mark McDannel, energy recovery manager at the Sanitation Districs of Los Angeles County, gives us a tour of the Puente Hills facility on Feb. 26.

That price tag hasn't discouraged other cities from starting similar porgrams. According to the EPA, food scrap recylcing programs have nearly doubled in size since 2010. And in 2015, MIT researchers found that almost half of midsize U.S. cities had some kind of food recycling program.

"I've been doing environmental engineering for 39 years, and it's really cool to have something new, exciting and worthwhile to work on four decades into your career," said McDannel.

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