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Food waste represents opportunity for eco-manager

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  January 3, 2012 12:04 AM

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By Cindy Atoji Keene

As an “eco-citizen,” Molly Bales once dove across a kitchen counter to rescue an aluminum can from the trash barrel. “I have done some pretty silly things to get people to recycle and be sustainable,” said Bales, who said that her job at Harvest Power, a Waltham-based cleantech startup, also brings out her passion for environmental progress.

Harvest Power is working on the new frontier of using organic waste – anything biodegradable from animals and plants – for renewable energy. Although anaerobic technology is well developed in Europe, the use of airtight reactors to decompose organic waste and change it into biogas for energy is still taking root in the U.S. “From pizza crust, bagels, to leftover spaghetti, food waste can end up being put to good use,” said Bales, who oversees management for facilities such as municipalities, colleges, military bases, grocery stores and even theme parks. With food scraps accounting for more than 900 thousand tons of waste each year in Massachusetts, commercial composting plants can conserve scarce landfill space and turn waste into fertilizers for use on lawns, athletic fields and farms. “We are basically creating a facility where bacteria happily feeds on waste and produces lots of useful bioproducts. This closes that carbon cycle loop instead of throwing something away,” said Bales.

Q: Is it a smelly, dirty process to compost waste?
A: Worries about a bad odor is one of the biggest concerns people have around organic waste management. This is a logical train of thought: if you keep food waste in a trash can, it starts to smell after a while. But in reality, the beauty of an anaerobic facility is that the process is completely controlled, because we want to harness the gas.

Q: San Francisco’s urban composting program is a leader in organic waste recycling. Can this happen in Boston?
A: 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 green bin for organics. Massachusetts is doing a great job trying to get up to speed, but this requires educating regulators and government officials. One of disadvantages of being an innovator is that many people haven’t heard about what you do.

Q: Before coming to Harvest Power, you worked at a solar industry company. What did you learn about organic waste when you came here?
A: Everyone talks about solar and wind but the case for biogas is very economically compelling. Learning that it exists as a form of renewable energy offers great potential.

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

Q: Obviously organic management has its drawbacks or difficulties. What are some of these?
A: The biggest challenges are related to developing these projects, which can be complex with so many moving parts. Another is just finding sites where you can 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.

Q: You graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and science and subfield in earth and planetary science. How did you go from that to clean tech?
A: Knowing how planetary systems work makes you realize how out of whack we are with the current systems. The carbon cycle is not working the way it was before humans arrived. That’s a big problem we want to help address.

Q: Do you drive a Prius?
A: I did own a Prius, but I sold it. Now I don’t have a car at all, which of course is even greener.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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