Floating through bioluminescent forests, Disney’s newly opened Pandora—The World of Avatar wows visitors with glowing trees and singing humanoids. For eco-friendly types, however, the real magic begins in the nearby Harvest Power Central Florida Energy Garden, located within the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). Into massive tanks goes a mountain of biodegradable waste, out comes natural fertilizer and biogas. The latter powers two generators making renewable electricity. The electricity goes to RCID’s grid, illuminating Pandora and other Disney attractions.
“We turn approximately 130,000 tons of organic waste into 25,000,000 kWh per year,” says Javier Corredor, Harvest Power Orlando’s facility manager. “It’s enough to power 2,300 homes.” Most of the kitchen scraps, leftover pizza crusts, unfinished steaks and fries and other plate scrapings are collected from the surrounding theme parks and resorts. Unlike backyard composting, Harvest Power Orlando’s facility welcomes dairy, meat and grease (and a lot of it).
“It’s one of the largest plants of its kind in North America,” says Corredor. Inside their two anaerobic digesters—oxygen-free, 1.2-million-gallon tanks—microorganisms break down food waste, releasing biogas. The biogas is used to produce electricity. What’s left after a few weeks of gassy digestion is dried out and becomes a class AA granular fertilizer for Central Florida farms.
Portions of the kitchen scraps that feed the omnivorous Harvest Power facility are hauled by City of Orlando trucks. This public-private partnership started rolling early this year, when the city’s commercial food waste collection program switched from a composting facility in Apopka to the anaerobic digesters in Harvest’s Energy Garden.
“We diverted nearly 2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill since the beginning of the program,” says Ian Jurgensen, Orlando’s sustainability project manager. To encourage green practices, the city offers a case of compostable bags, staff training and a three-month pilot service for free.
“We work with businesses to help them find value in reducing their garbage,” explains Jurgensen. “Between a standard recycling and food waste program, a restaurant or hotel can save a lot.” A monthly cost for the business can be as low as $14.25 per cart collected once a week.
Among 21 participants, there are food service providers of all sizes. “IKEA is an awesome partner,” says Jurgensen. The furniture giant’s Orlando store eagerly signed up the day the city launched the program in August 2014. Between their cafeteria, food store and bistro, IKEA fills up seven 65-gallon food waste carts collected three times a week.
On the other end of the scale is the Juice Bar, a twice-weekly, one-food-waste-cart operation. “With 90 percent of our ‘trash’ being compostable, it was such a waste throwing it away to the normal trash bin,” says Susan Buttery, Juice Bar’s owner. She partnered with the city almost two years ago. Amway Center, Camping World Stadium and Dr. Phillips Center started putting their organic waste to work this fall.
The Commercial Food Waste Collection program is a part of Mayor Dyer’s Green Works Orlando initiative. His ambitious goal: zero waste for the city by 2040. “We run our entire solid waste division in-house, which gives us a unique opportunity to develop food waste programs,” explains Chris Castro, Orlando’s sustainability director. Although the residential organic waste collection is not yet in place, the city diligently promotes backyard composting by offering free 80-gallon composters to any homeowner within the city limits. For those living in an apartment complex, the central composting program for farmers’ markets will be piloted in the Parramore neighborhood later this year. If it all works out, your future may be partly powered by your own kitchen scraps. Find out more about the Commercial Food Waste Collection program here; for a free composter, educational materials and a composting workshop schedule, go here.