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The Ideal Circular Solution for Food Waste at Colleges and Universities: Anaerobic Digestion

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Colleges and universities have a significant responsibility to foster sustainability and environmental stewardship among their students and staff as they prepare the next generation of leaders. A critical challenge they face is managing the substantial amounts of food waste generated on campus. Fortunately, anaerobic digestion offers a promising circular solution to address this issue while simultaneously promoting renewable energy production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and cultivating a culture of environmental consciousness.

The Food Waste Dilemma on Campuses

Colleges and universities are bustling hubs of activity, where dining halls, cafés and events generate substantial food waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 million tons of food waste are generated annually in the United States alone. American universities produce 22 million pounds of food waste per year according to the National Resource Defense Council, so campuses contribute significantly to overall food waste in the U.S. Many universities and colleges have conducted internal food waste audits to better understand the types of waste generated and to begin to mitigate the problem with appropriate waste solutions. A sample of data from an actual audit done by the EPA is below, and this guide is a resource for conducting food waste audits at schools and universities. 

Chart by Stephen Sturdivant, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Anaerobic Digestion: The Circular Solution to Food Waste

Anaerobic digestion is a natural biological process in which microorganisms break down organic matter, such as food waste, in the absence of oxygen while generating renewable energy and biofertilizer. This process offers a perfect circular solution to address food waste at colleges and universities in the following ways:

1. Waste Diversion

By diverting food waste from landfills, colleges and universities can significantly reduce their contribution to the growing waste management crisis. Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. Anaerobic digestion prevents this methane release and instead transforms the waste into valuable resources.

2. Renewable Energy Production

One of the most significant advantages of anaerobic digestion is the production of biogas. The microorganisms in the digester break down food waste, producing methane-rich biogas. This biogas can be captured, purified, and used as a renewable source of energy from food waste to power the campus, and/or to integrate with other renewable energy projects on campus. By using biogas, educational institutions can reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and lower their carbon footprint while at the same time building curriculums to prepare students for careers in climate technology and renewable energy,

3. Nutrient-Rich Biofertilizer

Another byproduct of anaerobic digestion is digestate, a nutrient-rich liquid that can serve as an excellent organic biofertilizer. Instead of relying on chemical fertilizers, colleges and universities can utilize digestate to enhance the soil fertility of campus gardens, landscaping, and agricultural research projects.

4. Educational Opportunities

Adopting anaerobic digestion systems on campuses provides unique educational and environmental awareness opportunities. Students studying environmental science, agriculture, engineering, policy, or sustainability can engage in hands-on experiences, research projects, and internships related to waste management, renewable energy, and circular economy principles.  Similarly, faculty members can use the project to expand their curricula and their research.

5. Marketing & Community Engagement

Embracing anaerobic digestion provides campuses with a range of advantages, while also fostering a strong sense of community engagement. Through collaborative efforts, students, staff, and faculty unite to drive waste reduction initiatives and spearhead campus-wide awareness campaigns to promote responsible waste disposal and resource recovery.

Furthermore, the implementation of a food waste solution holds immense potential for attracting prospective students. Recent research from Veritrove reveals that an impressive 30% of college-bound students prioritize sustainability among their top three factors when selecting a college, while 10% rank it as their primary consideration. Such initiatives not only benefit the environment but also serve as a compelling draw for an environmentally conscious generation of learners.

Anaerobic Digester Implementation Challenges and Solutions

While anaerobic digestion offers a multitude of benefits, its implementation can present certain challenges. Initial capital investment, technological infrastructure, and community involvement are key considerations. However, with strategic planning and commitment, these hurdles can be overcome and offer valuable partnership and learning opportunities:

1. Collaborative Partnerships

Colleges and universities can form partnerships with private companies or local governments experienced in anaerobic digestion projects. These collaborations can provide funding, expertise, and operational support to establish and maintain efficient anaerobic digestion facilities.

2. Grant Opportunities & Tax Incentives

Numerous tax incentives, grants and funding opportunities are available to support sustainability initiatives in educational institutions. Biogas and food waste anaerobic digester projects may be eligible for several tax incentives under the recent Inflation Reduction Act, where both tax-paying and tax-exempt entities can benefit.  For eligible tax-exempt entities and projects, the IRS will make a direct payment back to the owner equal to the credit that would have been earned by a tax-paying entity. Leveraging these incentives can significantly ease the financial burden of implementing anaerobic digestion systems. Learn more about tax incentives available for anaerobic digestion. 

3. Student Involvement

Student-led initiatives, competitions, and clubs such as the Campus Race to Zero Waste, which are focused on sustainability, can promote awareness and generate support for anaerobic digestion projects. Students' passion and engagement can be instrumental in securing institutional commitment to sustainable practices. 

Universities Implementing Anaerobic Digestion on Campus

Princeton University's Anaerobic Digester

Princeton University installed an anaerobic digester to manage food waste in the fall of 2018. By processing food waste from the university's dining facilities, the anaerobic digester generates biogas, which is then harnessed to produce renewable energy. This environmentally-friendly approach not only reduces the university's carbon footprint but also provides nutrient-rich biofertilizer that can be used to enhance campus landscaping. As stated by the Director of Sustainability, Shana Weber, “[The biodigester] shows the value of working at a tangible, local level to combat major sustainability challenges”. The biodigester broadcasts Princeton's commitment to sustainable waste management and renewable energy initiatives.

Boston University's Anaerobic Digestion for Food Waste

In 2022, Boston University (BU) revealed its innovative approach to managing food waste through a four tier strategy including repurposing, donation, composting and anaerobic digestion. They work to prevent food waste through smart menu planning and repurposing edible food scraps in recipes. Next, they donate uneaten edible food to local organizations to help those in need. Finally, the food waste which can’t be repurposed or donated is sent to farms for composting or to a local anaerobic digester. The anaerobic digester converts this organic waste into renewable energy and biofertilizer. BU's anaerobic digestion project exemplifies how educational institutions can take proactive steps towards environmental conservation by integrating eco-friendly waste management solutions.


Anaerobic digestion is a powerful circular solution that colleges and universities can adopt to tackle their food waste challenges while advancing their sustainability goals and attracting students. By harnessing the potential of this eco-friendly process, educational institutions can lead by example, while profoundly impacting the amount of food wasted in this country to build a greener and more sustainable future. Contact us to get more information. 

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