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News / Business / Clark County Business

Facility planned for Longview will convert surplus food into carbon-negative renewable energy

Divert will process up to 100K tons of food waste annually, offsetting 23K metric tons of carbon dioxide

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 13, 2023, 6:07am
8 Photos
Sydney Bennett, customer success manager for Divert, left, brings a donated food box to Casey Shea, director of industrial solutions, after the groundbreaking of the company's new integrated diversion and energy facility in Longview. The operation will transform surplus food from Washington and Oregon producers and manufacturers into renewable natural gas. At top, Divert celebrated the groundbreaking of the company's 66,000-square-foot facility in Longview on Thursday morning.
Sydney Bennett, customer success manager for Divert, left, brings a donated food box to Casey Shea, director of industrial solutions, after the groundbreaking of the company's new integrated diversion and energy facility in Longview. The operation will transform surplus food from Washington and Oregon producers and manufacturers into renewable natural gas. At top, Divert celebrated the groundbreaking of the company's 66,000-square-foot facility in Longview on Thursday morning. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

LONGVIEW — A company aiming to redirect a torrent of food from hitting the landfill and, instead, turn it into energy is moving to Southwest Washington.

Divert, a Massachusetts-based company, is putting down roots in Longview for a plant that will convert surplus food from regional grocers, restaurants and other retailers into carbon-negative renewable energy.

Currently, this site is merely a bare 16-acre dirt plot. However, it is planned to host a 66,000-square-foot integrated diversion and energy facility in 2024.

Ryan Begin, the company’s CEO and co-founder, projected the facility will process up to 100,000 tons of food waste annually, offsetting 23,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas reduction is equivalent to removing 5,000 gasoline-powered cars off the road annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is a small dent and a very large problem,” Begin said to stakeholders at a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning. “We’re hoping that with our leadership, others will follow and understand that this investment is worthwhile.”

Divert’s development will rise among other manufacturers in Longview’s Mint Farm Industrial Park, west of the city’s downtown core. Ann Rivers, Longview assistant city manager, said the location was chosen because of its proximity to a natural gas pipeline and regional waste distribution centers. This is the company’s second renewable gas facility. The first is in California, and it is also expected to open in 2024.

The company’s plans align with Washington’s new organic waste management law. Under the law, waste generators of a certain size must redirect food from a landfill by donating, composting or transforming it into clean energy.

It’s just a piece of Washington’s vision to reduce food waste by 2030 to 50 percent of 2015 levels, said Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, chair of the Environment and Energy Committee.

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The facility will also benefit from Oregon’s Metro Food Scraps Policy, which requires businesses to separate food scraps from garbage.

How does it work, exactly?

Tons of food are discarded annually. Waste occurs at every stage of a product’s life — from the farm to distribution, from grocery stores to a family’s home.

The Clark County Food Bank alone collected roughly 2 million pounds of recovered food from 25 stores in 2022, a quarter of the organization’s overall food supply. Items varied between deli meals, breads and fruits and vegetables.

Much of the recovered food is edible and in near-perfect condition, according to Alan Hamilton, the food bank’s president.

“The amount of recovered food is significant,” he said, adding that the issue is indicative of a grocery store’s overordering, abundance or obsolete business models.

In 2021, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that food entering the state’s waste stream — both edible and inedible — surpassed 732,000 tons within a year. Out of this, more than 446,000 tons were still good to eat.

Think of Divert’s operation as repurposing inedible waste, similar to composting vegetable scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds to make a nutrient-dense fertilizer.

Chris Thomas, a Divert executive, said composting is a great practice for a household but can become muddied when expanded to a commercial scale. Businesses may generate waste with burdensome bits of moisture and finicky contaminants — think an indestructible, noncompostable fruit sticker.

Divert catches these bits and transforms the waste into a liquid slurry with a consistency “just like baby food.” The mush travels through an anaerobic digestion tank to create biogas, which is purified to resemble a renewable natural gas that meets pipeline quality standards. The process prevents methane from being released into the atmosphere, making it carbon negative, Thomas said.

The facility is expected to serve about 650 stores in Washington and Oregon, including small retailers and big-name partners, such as Kroger, Target and Albertsons.

Divert is aiming to establish 30 of these facilities by 2031, placing them within 80 percent of the nation’s population, Thomas said.

Once the facility begins operating, it will generate gas within four to six weeks for Cascade Natural Gas, which serves communities in Central and Eastern Oregon, as well as Central and Western Washington — including Longview.

A silent problem

On too many occasions, Ilona Kerby has seen rows of people lining outside the Lower Columbia Community Action Program to receive boxes of food. She knows many of them are working upwards of two jobs, still unable to buy food. The bundles “help stretch their dollars.”

Kerby, executive director of the assistance program, said more than 15 percent of families are food insecure in Cowlitz County, defined as having inadequate access to nutritious food.

Divert’s integrated diversion and energy facility will support Lower Columbia’s food recovery program through food donations, as well as other local banks who opt into a partnership with the company.

This process begins before gas production. Divert takes photos of retailers’ food bins to determine waste trends, enabling the company to provide recommendations to grocers who can reshape their sales and donations — averting future waste and addressing food insecurity.

Farther south, the Clark County Food Bank coordinates with dozens of grocery stores daily through its Fresh Alliance program to recover perishable goods. A cadre of volunteers wake early in the morning to gather, sort and repackage food before delivering it to local agencies.

Hamilton said the Clark County Food Bank and Divert have cooperative agendas. Both entities want to feed hungry people, reduce waste and better the environment.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer