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Turning trash to a source of power

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2012
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As an “eco-citizen,’’ Molly Bales once dove across a kitchen counter to rescue an aluminum can from the trash. Today, she helps to turn pizza crusts, leftover spaghetti, and other food waste into methane gas to fuel electric generators.

Bales, 23, is project development associate at Harvest Power, a Waltham alternative energy start-up that uses airtight reactors to allow plant and animal wastes to decompose and produce biogas and other useful products, such as fertilizer. Bales researches and develops composting facilities for municipalities, colleges, military bases, stores, and even theme parks.

“We are basically creating a facility where bacteria happily feed on waste and produce lots of useful bioproducts,’’ Bales said. “This closes that carbon cycle loop instead of throwing something away.’’

Is it a smelly process to compost waste?

Worry about odor is one of the biggest concerns people have around organic waste management. But the beauty of an anaerobic facility is that the process is completely controlled, because we want to harness the gas.

San Francisco’s urban composting program is a leader in organic waste recycling. Can this happen in Boston?

I visited the Bay area and was delighted when I was handed a pail for food scraps, which were put into a bin and got picked up, just like recycling and trash. I would love for Boston to also have a bin for organics.

Before coming to Harvest Power, you worked in the solar industry. What did you learn when you came here?

Everyone talks about solar and wind, but the case for biogas is economically compelling.

You are caretaker of your office’s composter. Is this a lot of work?

I basically take our food scraps, put them in the composter (which is nicknamed Herbie), then add baking soda and some horse bedding, and turn the arm to mix the pile.

Obviously organic management has its drawbacks or difficulties. What are some?

The biggest challenges are related to developing these projects, which can be complex. Another is finding sites to place facilities; they need to be close to urban centers, where there is the highest concentration of food waste, but it’s hard to find space in these areas.

You graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and subfield in earth and planetary science. How did you get to clean tech?

Knowing how planetary systems work makes you realize how out of whack we are with current systems. The carbon cycle is not working the way it was before humans arrived.

Do you drive a Prius?

I did own a Prius, but I sold it. Now, I don’t have a car at all.

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