A while back, we all remember biofuel being introduced as the new trend that was going to save our planet and let us keep driving non-electric cars. I, too, got excited thinking about driving a plant-powered car. But unfortunately, the name “biofuel” turned out to be a classic case of greenwashing. Biofuel, until recently, was created by processing crops, such as corn, or wood to fuel our vehicles rather than fossil fuels. What this meant is that the biofuel industry started setting aside plots of land to grow the crops and the trees to use for fuel. This sounds all too familiar to the vegan community as the meat and dairy industry clear thousands of acres of land to produce the crop to feed livestock. Likewise, monoculture plantations for biofuel wreaks havoc on the environment.
Clearing land for biofuel devastates the biodiversity in the region. It also takes away land that could have been used to grow food for people and uses up more water. When the crop is converted into biofuel, it still releases carbon dioxide into our atmosphere (albeit not as much as the burning of fossil fuels).
Given this track record of biofuel, the recent announcement by the city of Toronto to introduce biogas is met with a more cautious optimism. The city will be introducing biogas, a new type of biofuel, to strive toward circular economy. Biogas is harnessed energy from the gas released during the anaerobic decomposition of organic matter. In plain English, this means the city of Toronto is using the city resident’s composted waste (food scraps) to fuel garbage trucks. Thus, creating a circular economy because the waste the garbage trucks pick up is then converted into fuel for the same trucks. By using biogas to fuel garbage trucks, their carbon footprint will effectively be net neutral.
China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts of Europe have already started to implement biogas into the countries’ energy systems. Some countries are even starting to inject the fuel into the energy grids. However, while trying to learn more about this new energy source that could be the answer to our waste problem, all the while fueling our transport sector, I came across a chilling story. Just this October, Times of India published a story about three men that passed away due to asphyxiation after entering a biogas plant during cleaning. This made me wonder about the conversion process from food scraps and animal waste to fuel that can power vehicles and cities.
Our at-home compost piles have access to oxygen as they break down, so as they are turning back into soil, they release carbon dioxide. On the other hand, the organic matter used for biogas is held in a chamber devoid of oxygen, this means the gas released by the decomposing matter is methane instead. The reason that methane is used rather than carbon dioxide is that methane is highly flammable, making it a better source of energy. Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that have wreaked havoc on our ozone layer. By harnessing its power, methane is not released into the atmosphere. The byproduct of biogas is carbon dioxide, just like our cars today. However, proponents of the new fuel are arguing that the quantity of carbon dioxide and methane they are taking out of the waste stream effectively makes the system carbon neutral.
Although I believe this is a good step in the right direction and repurposing waste is currently needed in our generation, I do think that with our current technology, biogas is missing the bar in a sense. Biogas is a wonderful alternative to clean and renewable energy in countries that may not be able to afford wind or solar panel technology at this time. On the other hand, developed countries such as Canada and the United States should be focusing their efforts on powering communities with the safest and cleanest energy: wind and solar.
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Photo: Nick Rowland via Flickr