Scientists Send Food Waste On the Road for Good

road trip

Driving is far from the most sustainable way to get around, but current trends in scientific research seem to point to a reduction in its carbon footprint thanks to an unlikely partner: food waste. First, we saw food waste finding its way into the gas tanks of British delivery trucks, and now, Ohio State University scientists have discovered a way to use food waste to partially replace the petroleum-based filler used in car tires.

This discovery responds to a rapidly escalating problem in tire manufacturing. While tires are made of rubber, about 30 percent of a typical car tire is made of carbon black, a filler that makes the rubber durable. But carbon black is problematic for a number of reasons.

This material is made with heavy petroleum products, which means that its production isn’t just unsustainable, it also requires American tire makers rely on foreign oil. Add to this the fact that carbon black has been deemed possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and an alternate solution has been a long time coming.

The answer, it seems, was in uniting two sustainability issues: Katrina Cornish, an Ohio Research Scholar and Endowed Chair in Biomaterials at Ohio State, has created a new filler that replaces carbon black, made with porous, mineral-rich eggshells and heat-stable tomato peels. This new filler not only allows the rubber to stay both strong and flexible but also exceeds industrial performance standards. The added bonus: it keeps these food byproducts out of landfills.

Different studies put our national food waste at between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply, or an estimated 70 billion pounds of food every year, according to non-profit Feeding America. And while we could all do our share at cutting back on waste at home, some of the biggest food waste culprits aren’t individuals – they’re commercial producers.

According to the USDA, Americans consume nearly 100 billion eggs each year, about half of which are used by commercial food factories, and 13 million tons of tomatoes per year, most of which are canned or processed. Cornish and her team are sourcing the eggshells and tomato skins for their product from these commercial producers, cutting down on landfill waste in the process – and that’s a huge deal.

A 2012 report from the NRDC noted that only about three percent of discarded food is composted in the United States; the rest ends up in landfills, where it creates about 23 percent of U.S. methane gas emissions. Replacing carbon black with these food byproducts that would otherwise be contributing to that 23 percent improves our carbon footprint on all counts. (Just be sure to carpool, too!)

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.