Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.
SoCal Connected

A Great Use for UC Irvine’s Garbage

Food scraps from UC Irvine’s commissary used to be sent to landfills where it  produced destructive greenhouse gases. But in Orange County, a state-of-the-art recycling plant takes that yucky garbage and turns it into a grey “smoothie,"a potent fuel that helps power engines at a water treatment plant. As reporter Nic Cha Kim discovered, this cutting edge technology may become more common as a new law goes into effect, requiring food waste to go somewhere other than landfills.


Nic Cha Kim: As a kid, my favorite movie was “Back to the Future,” and my favorite scene is at the end, when Doc Brown powers the DeLorean with garbage. Thirty years later, we're getting really close to that. I'm not saying garbage will take us back in time just yet…but it can power an enormous water treatment facility -- turning sewage into clean water. So how does this…(food scraps)... become fuel for this (water treatment plant)? To find out, I had to follow the garbage. The trail starts here at a student dining commons at UC Irvine. What they don't eat... gets scraped into bins, and then wheeled away into bigger bins.So how much garbage are we talking about? Tons.Anne Krieghoff is the Facilities Manager at UC Irvine. She helped pioneer the food waste recycling program.

Anne Krieghoff: You put those food bins where the food is being prepared. Things like cantaloupe peels, pineapple rinds. All those things would go just right into the bin.

Nic Cha Kim: And why are they going through all this trouble? Because food waste, when it goes to a landfill, produces methane and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. That's bad for news for the environment. But if food is recycled and we collect that methane, that methane can become energy and that's good. That's why they're collecting all this garbage, diverting it from landfills and turning it into energy.

Anne Krieghoff: Right now, we’re collecting somewhere in the neighborhood if 660 tons every year.

Nic Cha Kim: That’s a lot of organic waste.

Anne Krieghoff: Yes, it is.

Nic Cha Kim:  Now, UC Irvine has expanded the food waste recycling program to all 26 restaurants on campus. And now, back to our garbage trail. Every day, truckloads of food waste make the 10-mile trek up the 5 to the city of Orange. Destination? This state-of-the-art recycling center. Tom Koutroulis gave me a tour. He likes to call it a recycling park. So, on this side, what do you collect?

Tom Koutroulis: On this side is our organics. Our food waste recycling program. This is actually called the CORE.

Nic Cha Kim: Step one -- dump everything onto the floor.

Tom Koutroulis: The food waste is dumped onto the floor. It's then loaded onto the hopper......where it's mixed and blended to separate out all of the contaminants, and then a power smoothie is made to be sent to the waste water treatment facility.

Nic Cha Kim: The technical term for "smoothie" is "bio-slurry." If oil is black gold, bio-slurry is grey gold. So this is where the bio-slurry comes out?

Tom Koutroulis: Yeah. Let's take a look.

Nic Cha Kim: Wow, it's got a funky consistency. Is there a particular recipe to the bio-slurry like two parts banana peel, one part coffee grinds?

Tom Koutroulis: It's actually a little bit more complicated than that... much like our facility being proprietary, so is our blend. We know exactly what recipe we have and exactly how much gas it's going to make and we know exactly what we need to deliver.

Nic Cha Kim: Deliver? Deliver to whom? I mean, who actually wants this stuff? That takes us to the final stop on our food-to-fuel journey. This fuel truck takes the bio-slurry 32 miles west to Carson.This is a waste water treatment facility... and it handles half of all the sewage produced in Los Angeles County. And this plant is fueled by… guess what? Methane. And the methane is created by sewage… and... Bioslurry. It all happens in this digester.

Mark McDannel/Supervising Engineer, Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts: So a digester, you're looking at that tank, that's about four million gallons, that's basically a four million gallon cow's stomach. If we add 10% food waste into that digester, we'll get twice as much methane off.

Nic Cha Kim: And when you handle sewage for 5 million people, every bit of methane helps.

Mark McDannel: It looks like a smoothie, it acts like rocket fuel when you add it to the digester. We're collecting all that methane, we're running it in our power plant on-site and we're meeting all of our electricity needs.

Nic Cha Kim: That's right. They produce all the energy they need to run the entire treatment plant. And it all started in that kitchen at UC Irvine. In the meantime, you're going to be seeing a lot more of these. Why? Because a new law is requiring that organic waste --- like this-- be kept out of our landfills.That means food businesses and restaurants will have to start separating their food waste. Del Frisco’s is one business affected by the law. Restaurant Manager Katie Pavkov had to retrain her staff.

Katie Pavkov/Restaurant general manager: The staff knows the program, they're scraping the plates the right way, and it's always setup the same way is probably the only challenge we see.

Nic Cha Kim: And despite the additional work, Katie didn't mind the change.

Katie Pavkov: It made sense. There wasn't any real negative reason for us not to do it. Obviously, if laws are getting implemented, it's something we have to do anyway.

Nic Cha Kim: Now, don't freak out. The new law does not apply to us regular folks at home. But it will over time apply to all restaurants, big and small.
Is it all worth it?

Anne Krieghoff: It's very much worth it. It’s just a small process change with a huge environmental difference.

Katie Pavkov: I think that it's our responsibility to make sure we're doing our part. You know I think it's important for us to make sure we're doing what we can for the environment.

Nic Cha Kim: How important do you think this bill is?

Tom Koutroulis: I think it’s very important. It will help motivate and give reason for our businesses to recycle for those that are not motivated. We wanted to find a beneficial reuse for everything that we touch...and food waste being one of our final frontiers... we had to come up with a creative solution.

Nic Cha Kim: When it comes to garbage, turning food waste to fuel is one creative solution whose time has come. I'm Nic Cha Kim for “SoCal Connected.”

Read more
Support Provided By
Full Episodes
City of Fullerton police cars in a parking lot | Still from SoCal Connected's "The Fight to Know"
SoCal Connected

The Fight to Know

In 2019, California, one of the nation’s most secretive states when it comes to police files, put SB1421 into effect. But a year into the new transparency law, journalists and the public are realizing that the law may not be as transparent as expected.
Season 10 Episode 1108
SOCAL CONNECTED “Fire Station 9”
SoCal Connected

Fire Station 9

Take a rare behind-the-scenes look inside the busiest fire station in the country, where firefighters act as both primary care providers and emergency responders for the nearly 5,000 people living on Skid Row.
Season 10 Episode 1107
Marijuana plants with law enforcement officers behind it | Still from SoCal Connected "Cannabis Country"
SoCal Connected

Cannabis Country

State and local regulators are overwhelmed and outgunned when it comes to closing down California’s poisonous pot pipeline.
Season 10 Episode 1106
Students sit at a desk | Still from SoCal Connected's "Under Pressure"
SoCal Connected

Under Pressure

Parents are willing to spend thousands to get the competitive edge in the college admissions process, but at what cost? Socal Connected takes a revealing look at the high stakes world of the for-profit education consultant business.
Season 10 Episode 1105
Girl in foreground stretching, with teammates stretching behind her | Still from "Born to Run", SoCal Connected
SoCal Connected

Born to Run

Socal Connected looks at what happened to LA Jets’ Obea Moore and the current state of youth track and field today.
Season 10 Episode 1104
Private Property sign in foreground with beach behind it | Still from "Access Denied" on SoCal Connected
SoCal Connected

Access Denied

An investigation reveals how the state and many cities have let developers get away for decades with not paying their fair share when they replace affordable lodging with luxury hotels up and down California’s coast.
Season 10 Episode 1103
Two people hugging at memorial with photo of deceased next to them | Still from SoCal Connected, "Who Killed Josiah?", Courtesy Mark McKenna
SoCal Connected

Who Killed Josiah?

A Humboldt town is polarized over allegations of racism and police incompetence surrounding the death of college student Josiah Lawson.
Season 10 Episode 1102
Recycling center employees sorting through materials | Still from SoCal Connected episode, "Life in Plastic: California's Recycling Woes"
SoCal Connected

Life In Plastic: California’s Recycling Woes

As California deals with the fallout of a global waste crisis, plastic manufacturers continue to spread misleading information about recycling, while spending big on lobbying efforts to keep their products on the shelves.
Season 10 Episode 1101
Active loading indicator