Looks like an onion skin, but it could be electricity

Sergio Squatrito knows all about food waste. At Carla’s Pasta, his family’s company in South Windsor, in addition to an array of easy-to-prepare pasta and other Italian specialties, the company produces 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of food waste a day.

“We’ve tried four different ways of getting rid of our food scraps and all of them have failed,” said Squatrito, who is vice president of operations. “I have nothing against the waste companies handling our trash, but there’s got to be a different mousetrap.”

That’s pretty much Connecticut’s thinking, too.

Faced with statewide data that showed food waste is, by far, the largest component of waste material that could be composted but instead is dumped in the trash, last year the legislature at the behest of the Department of Energy and Protection took bold action to change that.

It was a mere half-dozen paragraph piece of legislation, but it did something unheard of in this nation: It forced major commercial food producers — like Carla’s — to recycle their food scraps. That means at the very least, turn them into compost, though what the state would really like is to turn them into energy.

But the mandatory food waste recycling doesn’t kick in until the facilities for it are built. And that’s what many hail as the law’s genius. Instead of just mandating recycling, it stipulates that within six months of food waste recycling facilities actually being up and running, grocery stores, food processors, wholesalers and distributors within 20 miles of them would have to begin separating their food scraps and taking them there. That of course guarantees that whoever builds a food waste recycling facility will have the product to support it.

Food Scrap bar chart

CT’s Food Scrap Recycling Infrastructure Gap: Value to be Unlocked (State DEEP)

“It’s the best regulatory policy we have seen in the U.S.,” said Paul Sellew, CEO of Harvest Power, a Massachusetts-based company pioneering the kinds of food waste-to-energy mechanisms called anaerobic digesters common in Europe. Anaerobic digesters use food waste and other organic material to produce both electricity and compost.

Harvest Power is close to completing two in Canada, and its first in the U.S. — in Florida — is set to break ground. Sellew hopes Connecticut will be home to his second. He said he’s been talking to a number of Connecticut communities. Bridgeport, the only one he would name, is furthest along — with discussions under way since before the law was passed.

One possibility mentioned is to add a food waste anaerobic digester to the large waste-to-energy plant operated by Wheelabrator Technologies in Bridgeport, a Waste Management subsidiary.

“I think it has legs,” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. “We’ll be as pragmatic as we need to be. The most important thing is to keep it moving.”

Sellew said he’s not concerned that in the year since the law was enacted Bridgeport’s and other potential projects are still only in their earliest stages. “This takes time,” he said. “We’re playing the long game. Food waste is now where yard waste was 15 years ago.”

But unlike yard waste, food waste and anaerobic digestion have huge educational hurdles to overcome, including a basic understanding of what it is, and possibly more important, what it isn’t.

No odor, and a job-builder

It is not the same as classic waste-to-energy, which essentially is burning trash to make electricity. “It’s biological, it’s not thermal,” Sellew said. “It’s what happens in a cow’s stomach.”

It’s also not smelly when it’s done right.

So what is it? Best to start at the beginning.

Food waste is generally described as pre- or post-consumer. Pre is preparation remnants — onions skins, banana peels and the little moldy cheese edges you cut off the only piece in your fridge when you must have that late-night grilled cheese. Post is all the stuff scraped from cafeteria trays, or the half of the grilled cheese sandwich you just pried out of the dog’s mouth.


Waste pie chart

What’s in Connecticut’s trash? (Courtesy of state DEEP)

 All of it can be composted. It’s mixed with a carbon source — wood chips, dead leaves, even compostable paper — and left to decompose with oxygen present. In about six months, it will be garden-quality compost.

Do the same thing without oxygen, and it’s called anaerobic digestion. You get compost, but you also get bio-gas that can be purified and used for energy. Sewage and water treatment plants have been known to run their sludge through an AD and use the power to run the treatment system. Small ADs on farms use manure to create power.

Connecticut views anaerobic digester technologies as drivers for green jobs and new industry, said Diane Duva, assistant director of waste engineering at DEEP.

“There’s plenty of studies that show every time you mange materials through recycling, you produce more jobs than you would if those materials were being managed at a landfill or even a waste-to-energy plant,” she said. “There’s also numbers related to how much money people would save whether they’re businesses or municipalities every time they manage waste at a recycling facility instead of a disposal facility. That differential is typically $30 to $40 per ton and that adds up pretty quickly.”

In addition to Harvest Power, Duva said her office has been in contact with three other companies. Her hope is that once digesters are running, municipalities, schools and others not required to recycle food waste will decide to anyway.

Facilities in New Milford, Ellington

In a related, though separate effort, the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority earlier this month released a request for proposal for on-site anaerobic digestion as part of a three-year, $6 million pilot project. While the parameters don’t specify food waste, it’s expected that many of the projects will propose using it.

In the meantime, recycling food waste in Connecticut means composting, but is largely the domain of backyard enthusiasts. There are only two commercial composters in the state that handle food waste. New Milford Farms, an indoor facility open to the public since 2008 on a site where Nestle once recycled its own food waste, has capacity for about 1,000 tons a month, but only takes in about half that now. While some comes from in-state including Whole Foods stores in Fairfield County and Yale University, half of the current intake is coming from New York.

The Glastonbury Whole Foods and other grocery stores bring their food waste to GreenCycle in Ellington, which technically is still a demonstration project. It’s been making compost outdoors for 18 years, but only added food to the mix two years ago.

It, too, is running at half its capacity of 300 tons a month, though Vice President Chris Field concedes if food businesses in the area embraced food waste recycling in a big way: “We could do a fraction of it,” he said. Field added, “I could envision a sort of seamless transition from our composting to anaerobic digestion as the volume and the diversion rates increase.”

Sustainability at Connecticut College

With no easy access to composting at either of these, Connecticut College in New London has taken it upon itself to turn food waste that isn’t being used by a local piggery into compost for the school’s organic garden.

Conn college composting

Connecticut College students work at the school’s composting Earth Tub.

Work-study students are responsible for food scrap pick-up and compost maintenance in two large composting vessels seven days a week. The school’s new sustainability coordinator, Josh Stoffel, is also working with the state on two fronts. He wants to develop a better system for the stray plates and other items that often end up in the not always well-sorted food waste, and he’s exploring the possibility of using food scraps for energy generation in a soon-to-be built hoop house.

“We’re very much open to using this in any way possible,” he said of the food waste. “Just so long as it doesn’t go in the trash.”

‘Incredibly progressive’

As committed as folks like Stoffel are and as intent as the DEEP is on making the state a national showpiece for food-to-energy innovation, concerns remain.

Food companies worry that the requirement to recycle food waste could make them captive audiences to potential high rates. The law includes monitoring to make sure that doesn’t happen, something the Connecticut Food Association insisted on.

“For sustainability we are very much in favor of this,” said Stan Sorkin, the association’s president. “But the cost of sustainability should be measured.

“It’s a safety valve. If it doesn’t seem to be kosher, we’ll bring it to DEEP’s attention.”

Jonathan Bloom, a food waste expert and graduate of Wesleyan University, now based in Durham, N.C., called Connecticut’s compulsory composting law “revolutionary and incredibly progressive.”

But he said it was important to remember that the first line of defense in food waste is to not create it in the first place. And that there’s a home for a lot of discarded food in soup kitchens and other enterprises that provide food to those in need. “There’s a chance that in creating all these progressive uses for waste that we will not try to reduce all the waste we’re creating,” Bloom said.

“When we look on a macro level, we need to reduce overall levels of waste. It’s the No. 1 step.”