Depackaging: A Sustainable Business Practice for Dealing with Food Waste

By Ryan Harb – Senior Organics Market Manager at Vanguard Renewables


Food waste is one of the greatest challenges of our time and one that directly impacts people, planet, and profit. That being said, the average person may not realize how the food they throw away can have a negative impact on climate change.

According to the USDA, food waste is estimated to equal 30 to 40 percent of the food produced in the US.[1] Some of this can be attributed to household overconsumption, but in food manufacturing, there is waste evident at even the most advanced and conscientious manufacturing facilities. The disposal of inedible food oftentimes cannot be prevented: spoilage can occur through equipment failure, faulty or incorrect packaging, foreign material in the process stream, transportation delays, and more.

One familiar solution to sustainably discarding food waste is composting. Individuals can collect scraps of food and designate an area outside that allows for the organics to decompose and be used as garden fertilizer. In this example, recycling food waste into compost can be done without much effort. However, the issue of what to do with leftover food becomes much more complicated when scale transitions from a single home to a grocery store or packaging facility.

Food processing and manufacturing companies create tons of food and liquid products on a daily basis, most of which is packaged. Inevitably, some of this food needs to be recalled or disposed of for health concerns, expiration dates, or damaged packaging. When this happens, these products go from consumer goods to waste and most often this waste ends up in a landfill or incinerator; the cost of sorting and separating the products by hand from their packaging is simply too time-intensive and costly to be an option rather than just disposing of the food in a landfill.

Disposing of this unavoidable waste via landfill or incineration is tremendously wasteful and expensive, and until recently there were very few options available to remove the waste from its packaging at such a large scale. What’s worse is that in the landfill disposal scenario, all of the nutrients from the food products decompose or are melted away in the incinerator. When that happens, the nutrients become lost to the natural nutrient cycle and contribute to the emissions of CO2, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

Vanguard’s Organics Recycling Facility (ORF) in Agawam, Massachusetts, depackages commercial food and beverage material that is no longer fit for consumption and repurposes that material into renewable energy. The ORF is capable of processing up to 250 tons of food and beverage waste per day. The organic material, even if trapped in packaging made of plastic or metal, is processed and broken down into a slurry that is pumped into trucks and delivered to one of several of Vanguard Renewables’ Farm Powered anaerobic digesters where it is combined with dairy manure in a sealed tank.

Agawam depacking facility

In the digester, the food waste goes through the natural process of anaerobic digestion. This process creates biogas, digestate, and heat. The biogas can be used to generate renewable electricity or renewable natural gas (RNG). The digestate liquid is used as a low-carbon fertilizer for farmers, reducing the reliance on artificially-created fertilizer that helps to lower the environmental footprint of the farm. The solids remaining from the process are used for animal bedding. As an added benefit, the digesters also add jobs to the local area.

The leftover packaging is gathered on-site by a conveyor belt that sweeps it into a collecting bin. The majority of the packaging collected at the facility is recycled. Some packaging is even bought from the facility, such as aluminum from cans.

In recent years, state legislatures and public opinion have pushed back on the wastefulness prevalent at such a large scale in the Northeast and other parts of the country. One example of this is in Massachusetts, where the 2014 Commercial Food Material Disposal Ban prevents companies that produce greater than one ton of food waste from being able to incinerate and send to the landfill any of that food waste within the state. Vermont is another state that is leading the nation with an aggressive organics ban: the 2020 Food Scrap Ban that was put into effect there does not allow disposal of food waste into trash or landfill at any level of the consumer chain. Furthermore, calls for greener business practices from consumers have pushed companies to look for earth-friendly alternatives to the dump.

Understanding what the food industry needs and the desire of these companies to meet decarbonization and sustainability targets, Vanguard Renewables offers an alternative for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers unusable excess organics produced in the packaged food and beverage industry. Established before the 2014 and 2020 bans, Vanguard is a step ahead of the laws that fuel the high demand for a green alternative to deal with organic waste.

Vanguard’s facility also provides important data back to the companies that provide packaged waste to the facility. This data, given to the feedstock providers, informs them on the amount of food and beverage waste processed and the final destination of the organic matter and its packaging. This information provided by Vanguard is essential for a company to track their waste and see the tangible positive impact they have had by using the depackaging facility. The statistics can be recorded and reported to shareholders and consumers, allowing for environmentally-focused branding and public relations, as well as helping them to meet sustainability goals.

As more and more companies are required by law to repurpose their organic waste, and public outcry grows ever louder for greener company practices, the need for depackaging facilities will only increase. Vanguard Renewables is ahead of the curve, with years of experience running these facilities, sites for the organic matter produced to be repurposed into renewable energy in anaerobic digesters, and established connections for recycling the separated packaging. The data provided from the facility also gives companies invaluable information that they can then use to track their waste and environmental impact to meet their sustainability goals as we all move toward a more sustainable future, together.


About the Author
Ryan Harb
Senior Organics Market Manager at Vanguard Renewables
[email protected]

Ryan Harb is the Senior Organics Market Manager at Vanguard Renewables. He is responsible for feedstock acquisition across Southern New England. Prior to joining Vanguard, Harb was the first Sustainability Director for UMass Amherst Dining Services. He created the renowned UMass Permaculture program and was invited to meet and speak alongside former President Barack Obama in 2012. Harb holds a BBA in Business Management and was the first person in the nation to receive a Master of Science degree in Green Building. He also served as Food Service Director for Amherst Regional Schools.