Wasatch Resource Recovery will be the first food waste anaerobic digester in Utah. The project, based in North Salt Lake, expects to be fully operational in fall 2018, and Morgan Olsen Bowerman, sustainability and resource recovery manager at Wasatch Resource Recovery, can’t wait.
Olsen Bowerman oversees the sourcing of food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, food manufacturers, distribution centers and other companies to encourage them to partner with Wasatch Resource Recovery to divert their food waste from landfill. She feels excited to be part of this pioneering, statewide initiative.
She also does community outreach about how to manage food waste, and she is president of the Utah Recycling Alliance.
Olsen Bowerman, who is a 2018 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, spoke to Waste360 about her passion for recycling, including the project she initiated and managed in Uganda and her work with Wasatch Resource Recovery.
Waste360: Since the food waste anaerobic digester has not yet officially launched, are you taking partners’ waste now or are you lining them up for the fall when the center opens?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: A little bit of both. Wasatch Resource Recovery is a public-private partnership between ALPRO Energy & Water, which is sort of a water energy firm, and South Davis Sewer District, which is a wastewater treatment plant. The current wastewater treatment plant has some existing space within their digesters, so we are currently able to take some waste in. But because we are not fully operational, it is not being utilized as efficiently as it will be once the food-only digester is up and operating.
We are taking small, limited amounts of manufacturing waste. It is mostly liquid that is going into the digesters now. For the most part, the people who I am working with will be sending us their food waste in the fall.
Waste360: Why does Wasatch Resource Recovery want to be the first food waste anaerobic digester in Utah? Why is that a need for the state?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: We really don’t have anywhere for food waste to go right now. There is not really another option.
Some of the landfills have smaller composting facilities that are able to do the green waste, the yard waste and maybe some fruits and vegetable scraps or coffee grounds; however, our anaerobic digester will be able to take the full plate of food waste. We can do all of the meat and the dairy, the baked goods, the processed foods, the sugars, etc. In fact, we will have a de-packaging facility as well so that we can take expired foods.
Grocery stores, for example, won’t need to empty out their cartons of yogurt before they put it into their load that will come to us. We will be able to do the de-packaging for them. We also will have a bottle receiving station. We have a number of soda bottling companies around that will be able to just send us their expired or off-spec bottles of beverages. We can de-package that and take the stuff that is in there, digest it and make energy from it, and then we will be able to recycle the packaging.
Waste360: Where does it go once it has been digested?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: How anaerobic digesters work is just like the human body or any other animal. There are little microorganisms that are naturally occurring within the food and that will grow within the digester. The anaerobic digester will get heated to about body temperature, and then these microorganisms, when they are present without oxygen, will break down that food waste into methane gas. We will be able to capture that methane, stick it into our pipeline, and then use it and sell it as a renewable natural gas.
There are also the solid products that will come out at the end, and we will be able to use those as a high-quality fertilizer. There is a lot of agriculture that happens here in Utah. We will be able to use that to help our soil stay healthy or get healthy.
Waste360: Where were you before joining Wasatch Resource Recovery?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: Before this, I was at the Salt Lake County Recycling office. I did all of the education and outreach for the recycling office. Previous to that, I worked for Eco-Cycle out of Boulder, Colo. Prior to that, I was in Uganda, where I started the first recycling initiative for Northern Uganda called Recycling for Hope.
Waste360: How did Recycling for Hope come about?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: I have always recycled. I cared about the planet, but I didn’t quite know what a passion it was for me until I moved to Uganda. In Uganda, up in the northern part where I was, there wasn’t really any sort of waste removal infrastructure to speak of at all. A lot of waste was dumped in canals, alleyways and streets, and people who were being responsible were keeping it in their backyard and then burning it. There was just a lot of open burning going on.
I was sort of smacked in the face with what it is we do with our waste worldwide. It’s just that it was much more in your face in Uganda, and I knew that in America we were doing the same things—we were just better at sweeping them under the rug. While I was there, there wasn’t potable water to drink out of a tap. I drank a lot of bottled water, and I had this large pyramid of bottles building up in my room. I asked somebody where I could recycle it, and they sort of patted me on the head, like ‘Oh, you naive ex-pat. There is nowhere to recycle these bottles here.’
I was like, how is that possible? Northern Uganda was ravaged by civil war for 20 years, and then when the cease fire happened, all of the developmental and emergency organizations flooded [in]. The area was so busy with these organizations. I just thought, how is it that the environment was completely left out of this story?
I started asking around, and I found a few different organizations that actually used [recycled] materials. There was an organization that made sanitary pads for girls out of recycled paper, and there was an organization that made huts out of water bottle bricks. I talked to both of these organizations, and both of them were thirsty for more materials.
I would go and collect from the bars after a Friday night. There were a million water bottles left over, so I would collect them and bring them to this organization that used them. I would go to all of different NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and convince them to give me their paper, and I would take it to Living Hope, which was the organization that made the sanitary pads.
As soon as I saw the need—and I saw the solution at the same time—something just woke up inside of me. I was like this is my calling. I am here to do this.
It was tough. I spent about a year and a half there trying to do it. I got really, really sick. I got malaria and nearly died. I had to come home before it was in a place to survive without me there. Leaving was one of the toughest decisions that I have ever had to make, but the fire in me did not die.
When I came back to the U.S., I got the job at Eco-Cycle, and I knew that this was the beginning of a new path.
Waste360: Do you also do community training about food waste for residents in Utah?
Morgan Olsen Bowerman: That is part of what I do. I have spoken on a few panels. If the discussion goes toward food waste, I often get called. I am really happy to go and discuss the state of food waste in our nation and in our community, what Wasatch Resource Recovery is doing about it, what we can do about it personally and how we can make that change in our every day lives.