In this week’s episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with John Hanselman, CEO of Vanguard Renewables. The company was founded in 2014 with three goals: to produce renewable energy from organic waste to power homes, businesses, and communities; to sustain farms by reducing on-farm methane emissions and providing a diversified income stream and beneficial byproducts; and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food waste by diverting tons of food waste from landfills.
We spoke with Hanselman about the process of food-waste-to-energy, how food-waste recycling can help companies show concrete data on meeting ESG goals and more.
Here’s a sneak peek into the discussion:
Waste360: How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Hanselman: It has been very interesting trying to deal with it. The thing most surprising to us is we’ve been able to really continue to move forward with expansion and lots of new anaerobic digesters—but almost more importantly, bringing some major players in the food and energy-utilities businesses into partnerships and alliances, moving the needle on doing our work at scale.
Waste360: Can you tell us more about the new strategic alliance you entered into last year?
Hanselman: It’s probably one of the most exciting things we did last year. We set out to find a different pathway for Fortune 500 companies to decarbonize their manufacturing facilities by using food-waste recycling. We met with several large food-manufacturing businesses and showed them a path we thought would really change their decarbonization strategies. We want to show them there is a simple way internally to get to some of their goals. The alliance was formed with the founding members: Unilever, Starbucks, Dairy Famers of America, and us—to start the organization, with plans to grow much, much larger. With the alliance, the idea is that the partners make a commitment to send all their food waste to an anaerobic digester on a farm, to be used for regenerative agriculture — and then taking the gas removed from the process to be used in the partners’ facilities. Most importantly, this will help create best practices we can disseminate to the rest of the industry.
Waste360: Is there a plan to capture and document the data around these initiatives?
Hanselman: Absolutely. The goal is to create a wonderful feedback loop where we’re monitoring the amount of greenhouse gas we’re capturing from the food waste, and we’re monitoring how much renewable natural gas they’re using in their facility. These data points are extremely impactful.
Waste360: Can you tell us about your new facility in Agawam, Mass.?
Hanselman: We built what we think is a state-of-the-art system, and the first one is in Agawam in a hub-and-spoke type model. It depackages and pre-process food and beverage waste before sending it to one of our farm-powered anaerobic digesters and can process any type of material except glass. This was an important first step to get one of these up and running. The facility is permitted for up to 250 tons per day, and we’ve seen remarkable uptake already. We’re about half-full at this point.
Waste360: Are you seeing more buy-in across the board, since we last talked?
Hanselman: Yes. One of the greatest things about my job is, I get to talk to farmers every day. And I’ve never met one who didn’t want to be a better steward of the land; they understand climate change in their gut. The buy-in there is immediate. But the challenge for us, when we started seven years ago, was that a lot of the farm community had had either no experience or a negative experience with some of the old agricultural digesters that were around in the 1980s and ‘90s. Those weren’t particularly effective and required the famers to do all the work. What we did is create a very different, tech-heavy model; most importantly, taking back the management of those facilities. Word gets out quickly in the farm community, and I think they’ve appreciated our efforts to be a good partner — which has allowed us to grow exponentially.