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Concord startup is diverting supermarket food waste to generate clean power

Originally written by Aaron Pressman and published on The Boston Globe on October 24, 2022.

Ryan Begin, chief executive and cofounder of Concord-based startup Divert, sometimes has to take on the role of grocery store detective.

Recently, he was standing in a produce section watching a store associate shelving iceberg lettuce. The associate was throwing one out of every six heads into a box for damaged produce, which ultimately ended up in the food waste stream that Divert recycles.

Wasted food is a surprisingly large culprit in global warming, responsible for 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In the United States, food loss and waste are responsible for 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas, equal to the annual output of 42 coal-fired energy plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Divert’s aim is to help the grocery industry reduce its food waste by 50 percent by 2030, consistent with US and United Nations goals. Stores send Divert expired and damaged items, which the company sorts with optical scanning technology. Edible goods are sent to food pantries, while other waste is converted into renewable energy.

So, even as the company has found ways to turn food waste into a renewable energy source, Begin is seeking to reduce the amount of waste produced by the grocery industry at every turn.

In the case of the 17 percent lettuce waste, the associate hadn’t been trained properly on identifying damaged vegetables and decided on his own to toss one out of six, Begin said.

Whenever Divert detects a repeated pattern, as with the lettuce, the company investigates.

In another case, associates at a national pharmacy chain were pulling boxes of Tazo Tea off the shelves because they confused a “produced on” date with the “sell by” date. Divert’s systems sent the boxes to food pantries, but the pharmacy chain was needlessly losing money. Begin let them know about the issue.

For food waste that cannot be diverted to food banks or other uses, Divert turns it into clean energy via a process called anaerobic digestion. Food waste is combined with bacteria, whichturn the waste into renewable natural gas, or RNG, which can be used to produce electricity, heat homes, or power vehicles.

With 250 employees, Divert now operates 10 plants processing 232,000 tons of wasted food per year from more than 5,000 retail stores.

Reducing waste at the retail level, as Divert does, is one of the most promising strategies for cutting overall food waste, according to Emily Broad Leib, founding director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

“Focusing on retail seems really promising,” she said. “All of the food that’s there, at the right moment, is safe and fresh and ready to be sold…. So for them, focusing on the retail sector is really genius.”

Divert’s plants are producing enough RNG to attract a big partner. Global energy giant BP this month agreed to buy $175 million worth of Divert’s RNG. The renewable gas production will offset almost 40,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the company said.

Divert’s focus is still on reducing the overall amount of waste sent to landfills rather than energy production. “We don’t think about RNG as a product,” he said. “The energy is a byproduct of what we do.”

Begin, who grew up in Maine, worked in the hydrogen production industry after getting a degree in electrical engineering at Clarkson University. A few years later, while working at Raytheon, he met Nick Whitman and they came up with the idea for Divert. (Whitman is thechief operating officer.)

The company, originally called Feed Resource Recovery, got its start in 2007 behind a grocery store in Burlington.

In 2014, Massachusetts regulators passed a rule limiting the amount of food waste thatcompanies could put in the trash. So Divert built a plant in Freetown to convert expired food from 200 regional Stop & Shops into energy to power the grocery chain’s distribution center there.

Stop & Shop aims to send zero food waste to landfills by 2025 and reduce by 50 percent the amount of food waste by 2030. The company works with food banks and an app called Flashfood to distribute food that’s still safe to be eaten. “From there anything that is unsellable and not donatable, that’s where we look to send it to our digester,” Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan said.

Divert was acquired last year by private equity firm Ara Partners, in a deal that pumped $100 million into the company.

The 2021 funding will allow Begin to open more plants and continue hiring, he said. “We are growing very fast and going aggressively.”

Only nine states, including Massachusetts, have enacted food waste disposal bans, but many more are considering adopting similar laws, Broad Leib said.

“There’s growing demand and a growing number of businesses that have food waste goals,” she said. “So it’s a great time to get into this space.”

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