Un-Packaging the Food Recycling Revolution

Vanguard Renewables Recycling facility

Photos by Adam DeTour

Guinness and Nutella are the smell of success. At least that’s true if you are John Hanselman, co-founder and CEO of Vanguard Renewables, a Wellesley-based company that produces renewable energy from organic waste.

Vanguard’s six facilities, located on dairy farms across Massachusetts and in Vermont, convert a combination of food waste and manure from farms into natural gas using a process called anaerobic digestion. Food waste used in Vanguard facilities comes from a number of sources around New England: manufacturers such as Cabot and Gorton’s, grocery stores, colleges, restaurants.

But whatever the source, the one common denominator has always been that the food had to be in bulk form. It had to be able to be loaded into a Vanguard tanker truck and pumped into one of their massive digesters. That meant Vanguard could accept trimmings from a grocery store or butcher shop, but not packages of spoiled meat from those same stores. Those might well end up in the landfill.

Or at least they did before October 2020, when Vanguard opened its latest facility in Agawam, Massachusetts.

Known officially as the Organics Recycling Facility, the new 13,000-square-foot location allows Vanguard to begin accepting packaged food for use in its digesters—up to 250 tons of it a day. Hanselman knew there would be demand from food manufacturers to take care of products that are unsafe to sell because they are off specification, past their expiration date or have been unrefrigerated for too long.

He expected it to take a year or more to secure a constant stream of food waste for the new recycling facility, which Vanguard located near the interchange of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 for easy access throughout the region. But food producers were more than eager to get started.

“We were just kind of running the equipment to see how it runs. But from the moment that we told people we were willing to take food waste, we’ve had a constant stream going into the system—much, much, much more than we expected,” Hanselman says.

It all started with Nutella and Guinness.

“The first day of operation was probably the best that the system will ever smell. We were still finishing up a lot of the work inside with lighting and things like that. These workmen see 300 cases of Guinness beer getting squished—I think there were tears in their eyes,” he says.

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