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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It’s not just garbage

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
New England's six states are taking on food-scrap diversion in different ways. Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire all agree that this nutrient-rich material is too valuable to be dumped into the waste stream, and even see it as an economic engine.

Vermont has the most progressive take on food scrap, envisioning it as a fuel for its farming sector and a valued “Vermont-made” product, much like cheese and maple syrup. “We’re really working to connect organics diversion to agriculture,” said Pat Sagui, director of the Composting Association of Vermont.

The state’s food hierarchy ranks composting fourth behind making less food, donating it to the needy and feeding it to farm animals. Using food scrap to create energy is last, while burying it in a landfill isn’t even mentioned. In fact, using a landfill or incinerator to dispose of food scrap will be eliminated for good in 2020, when residential composting becomes law.

The main idea is to get leftover food to either pantries or farms, where it can be used to feed the hungry, or as livestock feed or fertilizer. The handling and processing of organics is seen as a job creator, with an eye on alternative uses such as helping create fuel for farm machinery or for heating greenhouses.

Vermont is the only state in New England to include residential food scrap in its composting plan. Large institutions start composting in 2014.

Massachusetts announced a commercial food-scrap ban in July. The plan is still open to public comment, but if approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), all businesses creating more than a ton of food scrap weekly must donate it as reusable food, send its organic scrap to a farm for animal feed, or send it to an anaerobic digester or compost facility.

The 1-ton threshold is expected to be lowered in the future to entice participation from smaller businesses and from residents, but so far no lower levels for mandatory composting have been announced. Large commercial facilities expected to participate in the initial program include hospitals, universities, hotels, large restaurants, supermarkets and food manufacturers. Half of the state’s supermarkets already participate in a voluntary food-scrap collection program, which began in 2006.

The state currently has anaerobic food digesters on farms in Rutland and Sheffield. Pilot facilities are underway at prisons in Shirley and Norfolk. Others composting facilities under consideration are in Amherst, Dartmouth, Fall River, Deer Island, Millbury and Boston. Ten new facilities are expected by 2016. The DEP is helping with $ 4 million in grants and loans, with hopes of generating 50 megawatts of power from anaerobic digesters by 2020.

Connecticut passed its organics recycling law in 2011 and amended it this year. Starting in 2014, all businesses must divert food scrap if they generate more than 104 tons annually — provided there is a facility within 20 miles. Soiled and unrecyclable paper must also be composted. Currently, more than 90 percent of the state’s waste is processed at six incinerators.

There are no digesters in the state yet, and only two large-scale and one smaller compost facility. 

Loans and grants totaling $5 million are available to start new organic waste processing operations, such as anaerobic digesters. So far, only one is planned, but the site has yet to be determined. The law applies to commercial operations such as resorts, conference centers, food makers and distributers, wholesalers and supermarkets. There are no provisions for residential food-scrap diversion.

“We’re going for the industrial, commercial and institutional (food scrap) first, which is the low-hanging fruit,” said K.C. Alexander, organics recycling specialist with the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.

Rhode Island has a handful of small pilot programs but no ban on throwing food in the trash. 

Providence is running three community drop-off food-scrap collection hubs. There are proposals for commercial waste-to-energy anaerobic digesters in Johnston and at the Quonset Industrial Park in North Kingstown. 

So far, no announcement has been made relating to a statewide compost plan through legislation or the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). But the state is addressing food scraps as it updates its long-term solid-waste plan.