How Ralphs Is Using Rotten Food

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Quick: Head to the nearest refrigerator, whether that's in your place of residence or place of employment. Open it up and take a glance at what's inside, making sure to account for everything on the door shelf, inside any of the crispers, and all that long-neglected stuff way in the back. Now realize that, if recent studies are accurate, half of that food is probably going to be thrown away.

How does that make you feel?

(Note: I don't mean that half of that specific food will be thrown away; just that half of the food produced in the world is wasted.)

Not very good, most likely. Especially when you consider the massive number of people on the planet going hungry every single day. While the specific numbers for people starving aren't easy to ascertain, the general consensus is that approximately one billion of the world's near seven billion people are malnourished. That's one in seven people. And yet, still, half of the world's food is thrown away.

Now, this edible food destruction has mostly to do with poor refrigeration and inadequate shipping methods, both of which are problems without any quick solutions. The next best thing to solving those conundrums, then, is finding a way to get some kind of positive output from the massive amount of unused items. At the very least, it would make the 1,452,946,287,969,816 gallons of water used yearly on crops that are never eaten be a number that's a little easier to swallow. And a successful attempt to use these spoiled foods has come from an unlikely source in our own city: Ralphs.

Instead of funneling foods that expire on the shelf into landfills to simply rot away, the grocery store chain (along with their supermarket partners Food 4 Less, both of which are subsidiaries of Kroger Co.) have started shipping their unused items to a 59-acre site in Compton where some real technological magic happens.

Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of how their new contraption works, I'll let the L.A. Times piece describe the delicate process:

[I]t is dumped into a massive grinder -- cardboard and plastic packaging included. After being pulverized, the mass is sent to a pulping machine, which filters out inorganic materials such as glass and metal and mixes in hot wastewater from a nearby dairy creamery to create a sludgy substance... From there, the mulch is piped into a 250,000-gallon staging tank before being steadily fed into a 2-million-gallon silo. The contraption essentially functions as a multi-story stomach. Inside, devoid of oxygen, bacteria munch away on the liquid refuse, naturally converting it into methane gas. The gas, which floats to the top of the tank, is siphoned out to power three on-site turbine engines.

And, voila: Power is created. According to a spokesperson for Kroger, the electricity created through that process can amount to 13 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to power more than 2,000 homes in California in that same year.

Which isn't to say that Kroger, Ralphs and Food 4 Less will be acting that altruistically. A company that size doesn't spend untold millions of dollars and man-hours developing such a process without making sure it will benefit them monetarily. And in this case, the benefit is quite clear: They're putting that energy back into their stores, cutting down on their energy costs. On top of that, the money it costs to haul excess food to the landfill will also be drastically reduced. Meaning, Kroger is going to be reaping the benefits from this machine of theirs (officially called an "anaerobic digester") for years to come.

There are some ancillary benefits for us: Methane emissions should be fewer because less food will be rotting away in the landfills, but that will be hard to calculate; a more direct positive outcome for the area is that the machine produces a sludge that can be used to fertilize roughly 8,000 acres of soil. So all good things around, even if the electricity being created doesn't go back into the city's own power grid. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a downside to any of this at all, from an environmental or public relations standpoint.

Your move, rest of the grocery store industry.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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"And, viola"? Cellos don't get no love?