Los Angeles Business Journal

Food Waste Feeds Renewable Energy Innovation

OP-ED By Mary Leslie Monday, June 24, 2013

Recently, I joined community and business leaders at the opening of a first-of-its-kind renewable energy facility, tucked away off the 91 freeway in Compton. The latest in our region’s growing number of clean technology innovations, the Ralphs-Food 4 Less Recovery System is an example of how businesses can invest in their bottom line in ways that make sense both financially and environmentally – and how Los Angeles has positioned itself as the right place for that investment.

It also shows how food waste, rather than filling up landfills and contributing to air pollution, can end up powering buildings, refrigeration units and, in this case, even the making of ice cream.

The recovery system sits in the middle of the company’s distribution center and corporate headquarters. It makes use of a naturally occurring process called anaerobic digestion, such as happens in a wetland. Microbes break down organic material in a natural way that generates renewable gas. While anaerobic digestion has been used to produce biogas and fertilizer for more than 100 years, this new system runs via innovative Web-based programs that maintain the oxygen-free environment at optimal levels, maximizing the energy it produces.

And here’s what really makes this such a perfect waste and energy solution: The fuel comes from the company’s existing unsellable food waste. Only a small percentage of what you see on shelves ends up as waste – each year Ralphs-Food 4 Less donates millions of dollars worth of perishable food – and what is left, including the plastic containers, will produce 13 million kilowatt hours of clean energy each year, enough to provide 20 percent of the distribution center’s energy needs. Previously, this waste had to be shipped to regional landfills. Eliminating those trips cuts about 500,000 miles of diesel truck trips each year, the equivalent to taking 3,500 cars off Southern California roads.

Clean tech leader

That is innovation at its best, and it is this type of cutting-edge problem-solving that has made Los Angeles and Southern California the leader in clean tech investment and development in the country. We now are home to the nation’s cleanest port complex. Our region will be coal free in a decade. Tesla Motors recently announced it is profitable for the first time. Our political leaders are committed to expanding the area’s rail service. Earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles launched Clean LA Solar, the largest urban solar rooftop program in the country.

All of these initiatives, new companies and new ventures are helping clean up Southern California’s air and water while creating jobs and strengthening our economy. The Clean LA Solar program, for example, is expected to create upwards of 4,500 jobs. Expanding the program only multiplies the job growth for Los Angeles. The Ralphs-Food 4 Less Recovery System produced about two dozen construction jobs and will create about 40 permanent jobs, both on site and off. Even more importantly, by saving the grocer millions of dollars each year, this system makes the company more competitive, protecting thousands of union jobs at stores throughout Southern California.

That’s a win for everyone, from cashiers to customers to communities that will enjoy cleaner air and less truck pollution. We’re proving that ingenuity, risk-taking and innovation add up to cleaner air, economic growth and a more competitive region. Thanks to Ralphs-Food 4 Less for playing such an important role in our city’s green future.

Mary Leslie is president of the Los Angeles Business Council.