“The world needs to embrace a suite of solutions”: Divert on food waste and climate change

Kit Million Ross hears from Divert CEO Ryan Begin about an innovative solution to the twin crises of food waste and climate change.

Divert CEO Ryan Begin Credit: Divert

With so many issues facing the world today, it’s a rare and exciting thing to find a solution to multiple problems at the same time. One such multi-faceted solution comes from Divert CEO Ryan Begin, who founded the company in 2007 to tackle the twin issues of food waste and the urgent need for clean energy. 

Divert takes a holistic overview of the food waste crisis, and they’re involved at every stage. Firstly, they prevent waste by developing technologies to keep food fresher for longer, and work with food retailers to rescue unsold edible food and donate it to food banks.

Any waste that can’t be prevented is converted to clean power at one of Divert’s facilities, through a process called anerobic digestion (AD), providing a clear energy benefit for this process, which otherwise focuses on humanitarian work.

With 119 billion pounds of food wasted annually in the US, 34 million Americans facing hunger and the deadline to avert irreversible global warming ticking ever closer, both minimising food waste and mitigating the effects of climate change are more valuable than ever, granting Divert a unique opportunity.

Kit Million Ross: In your own words, what does Divert do?

Ryan Begin: Divert is an impact technology company on a mission to address the wasted food crisis. Our end-to-end solution of advanced technologies and sustainable infrastructure prevents wasted food, driving social and environmental impact. We work with food retailers across the US, providing technology, logistics and anaerobic digestion facilities to help retailers reach their sustainability goals. 

Since Divert’s inception in 2007, we’ve grown tremendously and evolved our business model. Our initial vision was to build ADs in the back of individual food retail stores. Early conversations with investors led us to food retailer Hannaford, in Massachusetts. 

That first customer was incredibly important to our business for many reasons. It opened our eyes to just how much unsold food is thrown away daily, and it showed us that we needed to broaden our business model to have a real impact on the wasted food crisis.

Kit Million Ross: How has the company grown since being founded?

Ryan Begin: In 2011, we began working together with food retailers to build large scale AD facilities that could serve hundreds of storefronts. We put this new approach to the test with a facility with Kroger in California. 

As part of this journey, we knew we needed to prevent wasted food upstream too, which led us to develop new technologies and solutions for our customers, like reverse logistics and artificial intelligence. 

Today, we’ve honed our end-to-end solution that prevents waste by maximising the freshness of food, recovers edible food to serve communities in need, and converts wasted food into renewable energy. 

We’re incredibly proud of how far we’ve come. Over the last year we expanded significantly, adding over 1,500 new retail stores, with plans to expand to 1,000 more in 2023. 

Lately, we’ve been making deeper inroads around renewable energy. Last October, we announced a 10-year renewable natural gas (RNG) offtake agreement with BP. Under this agreement, BP will purchase RNG generated from three Divert facilities which has the potential to offset 36,905 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. 

Finally, food donations are a key component of our business. We partner with food banks and food recovery programs to ensure that edible unsold food goes to those most in need. In 2022, Divert facilitated the donation of over 2.2 million pounds of food.

Kit Million Ross: How does the anaerobic digestion process work?

Ryan Begin: AD is a naturally-occurring process where organic material is consumed by microorganisms in an oxygen-depleted environment. In nature, AD occurs in wetlands to purify the earth’s wastewater. Divert recreates this natural process to cleanly convert the energy in wasted food into a biogas. 

When we receive unsold food that cannot be saved via donation, we turn it into a clean food slurry. First, we remove packaging and other residuals. The food material is liquefied, purified and processed into slurry, which is then pumped into the on-site anaerobic digester and turned into biogas. We then remove impurities from the biogas, upgrading it into pipeline-quality RNG to meet utility company standards.

Anaerobic Digestion Facility

Kit Million Ross: What are the major advantages of producing energy this way?

Ryan Begin: Divert’s AD process has many benefits. One is its ability to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by preventing wasted food from entering landfills, where it emits harmful methane into the air. Through this process, we’re also recovering water that would otherwise end up as hazardous leachate in landfill. With wasted food made up of 80%-85% water, this is an important differentiator; processes like composting are not well equipped to handle wet wasted food. 

AD transforms food that can't be sold or donated into carbon negative renewable energy, which can be used to produce heat and electricity. By diverting wasted food from landfill, a net reduction in equivalent GHGs is achieved. Converting this food waste into RNG has the added benefit of eliminating GHG emissions generated by the production and usage of fossil fuels, adding to the net negative carbon intensity.

Kit Million Ross: What role does energy from waste play on the path to net-zero?

Ryan Begin: Generating more energy from waste will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and aid in the transition to a renewable future. To do that, we’ll need to grow the number of AD facilities in the US. 

That said, this isn’t the only renewable energy resource we’ll need to achieve net-zero. I believe that our future energy landscape will be a mix of renewable sources: solar, wind, biogas and more. 

One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is awareness of the wasted food problem. New legislation, like California's AB 1826 state-wide organics recycling, is chipping away at that, but we have work to do to drive broad change and action. 

Another is the cost of developing the infrastructure needed to manage wasted food; AD facilities can cost $50m-$100m. Legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year in the US is a step in the right direction, paving the way for incentives that will accelerate the clean energy transition.

Kit Million Ross: What should the world be doing to reach our climate goals faster?

Ryan Begin: To reach our climate goals, the world needs to embrace a suite of solutions. We’re seeing an increase in federal and private investments for new technologies that will reduce GHG emissions. That said, it’s not just about how fast we can reach our climate goals; it’s equally important to deploy solutions thoughtfully. 

One of our core principles at Divert is responsible infrastructure development. We believe this process allows for a holistic approach – in our case, eliminating wasted food while also mitigating its impacts – and will create a more sustainable, long-term suite of climate solutions.