Transforming Table Scraps into ...

Good Stories In The Making 1

Compelling storytelling in business often threads together anecdotes and numbers into a single tale.

This dynamic comes across loud and clear in the USA Today article “Utility Turns Table Scraps into Electricity” by Julie Schmit

The story focuses on the East Bay Municipal Utility District in the San Francisco Bay Area and its first-of-a-kind treatment of wastewater.

Great anecdote sets the stage for the process:

Upon arrival via truck at the plant, the food scraps look like mounds of wet dirt. They’re dumped into 20,000-gallon underground tanks. There, grinders turn the scraps into a mud-like substance. Bigger items, such as rocks and utensils, fall out.

On a recent morning, it took just minutes for a 20-ton truck to unload. Pressure pulls most of the odors into the tank. Still, the smell of cheese was present.

“That all comes from last night’s dinner plates,” Williams said as he watched.

Schmit puts the reader at the scene.

I confess I have a weakness for bad puns:

The food-scrap project “hasn’t been a cakewalk,” said David Williams, the director of wastewater for the utility.

This is also a story where the numbers deliver context:

  • 2,300 companies provide food scraps
  • 30 million tons of food waste go to landfills each year
  • The utility processes 100 to 200 tons of food scraps a week
  • Food scraps provide enough to power for 1,300 to 2,600 homes
  • If the utility secured all 1,800 tons of scraps from commercial enterprises in the region, it could power 25,000 homes
  • 50% of U.S. food waste could power 2.5M homes

It’s no easy task to explain the science behind taking half-eaten burgers, overcooked veggies, etc. and magically transforming the stuff into electricity.

While the narrative does an admirable job, depicting the process visually makes it easily understood (even if most people are going to stumble over the word “anaerobic”).

Good Stories In The Making 2

(For a larger version, click here.)

Why this graphic only shows up in the print version remains a mystery. If you’re going to take the time to create such a visual, why not insert it into the digital version as well? Perhaps USA Today was running short on bytes that day.

It’s revealing to contrast the USA Today graphic with the one on the utility’s Web site:

Good Stories In The Making 3

(For a larger version, click here.)

Needless to say, USA Today simplified the information and increased the visual appeal.

All in all, it’s a good story and one that an enterprising youngster can seize upon; i.e., “I’m not wasting food; it’s going to make our electricity.”

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