College effort reduces food waste, saves money

Rochelle A. Shenk, contributing writer//May 10, 2019

College effort reduces food waste, saves money

Rochelle A. Shenk, contributing writer//May 10, 2019

Over the last decade, Elizabethtown College has been reusing food waste while providing a learning opportunity for its students.

It began with Joe Metro, the college’s former director of facilities management and construction, said Eric Turzai, the college’s director of dining services.

Metro had been working in the mid-2000s with Brukaber Farms in East Donegal Township on a project that would have generated electricity from the college’s organic waste. It never came to fruition. But in 2009, the college was approached by a company called Somat about the possibility of field-testing a new waste pulping system that would reduce the volume of organic material and allow for reduced water consumption in the college’s main dining facility, called the Marketplace.

A waste-pulping system at Elizabethtown College helps turn food waste into fertilizer. (Photo: Submitted) –

Fast forward 10 years, and the college, Brubaker Farms and Somat are working together to collect and reuse food waste to create electricity and ancillary products.

The process has an academic component as well. Jeffrey Rood, an associate professor of chemistry at Elizabethtown College, has been teaching courses connected to it for several years.

“Just last year, I started teaching a first-year seminar about energy and I use this project as a case study/example of some local ways we can generate energy and be mindful of waste,” Rood said.

From dish room to dairy farm

Turzai said the college’s process begins in the dining hall’s dish room, where paper products are separated from organic waste such as apple cores, banana peels and pizza crust. The organic waste is dropped into a trough-like component and then conveyed to a machine that he likens to a garbage disposal in that it chews up the food waste. Water is extracted from it, leaving behind a pulp-like substance.

Elizabethtown paid an estimated $40,000 for the system eight years ago, according to Steve Eno, an engineering manager for Somat, which was founded in the Coatesville area in the 1950s but has been located in the Greenfield Industrial Park in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County, since the early 2000s. Today it’s a subsidiary of Illinois Tool Works. The cost can rise to $300,000 depending on the complexity of the system.

Elizabethtown College takes the water and food-waste pulp to Brubaker Farms, which then feeds them into an anaerobic digester, along with cow manure.

Turzai said the methane gas produced by the digester is harvested and used to run a motor for a generator to create electricity. According to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy website, “The generator produces 200 kilowatts a day, enough to power approximately 200 local homes through the local utility grid.” The website also indicates that the system’s excess heat is also used to pre-heat water for the dairy operation.

The digester also produces a dried manure that’s used on the farm as ultra-hygienic bedding for the cows, while the liquid portion of the digested manure serves as a replacement for commercial fertilizer. Turzai said the fertilizer, which is 98 percent bacteria free, is used not only on the farm, but also shared with the college and applied to a one-acre organic garden that is on campus and tended by students. The garden produces an average of 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of vegetables annually, which he said is used in the college’s dining room and on its catering menu for summer conferences.

Turzai said that since the new pulper system was installed in 2010, overall water consumption in the dining facilities has been cut by 80 percent and annual waste-hauling charges were cut in half to $15,000. The compactor also is capable of holding 10 to 12 tons of non-recyclable waste and is now removed from the school once a month instead of every two weeks.

“This is a win-win-win,” Turzai said. “We’re doing our part to reduce our carbon footprint, but it also reduces cost. It’s also a win for Brubaker Farms and for our students, who have a hands-on learning opportunity,” Turzai said.

Rood said feedback from students about those hands-on learning opportunities tends to be positive.

“At first, students might find the idea of working food waste a bit gross, but they enjoy the process of forming a hypothesis and designing an experiment to test it. They also connect to these experiences because it is all happening right here at the college,” Rood said.