Recycling food waste in Connecticut: Slow as molasses

A rendering of the Quantum Biopower anaerobic digester proposed for Southington.

Quantum Biopower

A rendering of the Quantum Biopower anaerobic digester proposed for Southington.

The folks at Quantum Biopower thought Connecticut’s pilot project for anaerobic digesters was a good idea when they first saw it four years ago. Designed to help the state get rid of the enormous amount of food waste that was winding up as municipal trash, the digester’s biological process would turn that waste into combustible gas that would then be harnessed for electricity. There’d be some compost left over to sell for gardens.

Quantum reasoned it would also be a good way for its parent company, a land clearing business with a lot of wood waste on its hands, to get rid of that too. So Quantum came up with a plan for a site in Southington, started securing financing and sources of food waste, applied for permits in late 2013 and waited.

It’s still waiting.

“Unbelievable,” said Brian Paganini, Quantum’s vice president and managing director. “We get that there is a learning curve. However, 26 months for us presents a challenge.”

Getting financing for the $11-million project for starters. “It’s difficult to respond to a lender when frankly, the process is out of your control,” Paganini said.

The anaerobic digester pilot along with a mandate that certain large food waste producers keep that waste out of the trash stem from legislation passed in 2011. But five years later not a single one of five proposed anaerobic digesters has started construction and food waste is increasing. A lot.

According to a waste characterization study done last year for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s new Comprehensive Materials Management Strategy – a plan that would overhaul trash management in Connecticut, food waste increased from about 321,500 tons in 2010 to about 520,000 tons in 2015 – a more than 60 percent jump. It also increased from 13.5 percent of non-recycled municipal waste destined for landfills or trash-to-energy facilities to 22.3 percent.

Total municipal waste went down over that time from 2.38 million tons a year to 2.33 million tons. The state generates about 3.6 million tons of trash a year. About 30 percent of it is recycled, a number the state has been stuck on for years despite a longstanding goal to get to 60 percent recycling by 2024.

Other initiatives, such as mattress, paint and electronics recycling have taken hold, and proposals such as packaging and battery recycling and banning single-use plastic bags are being considered by the legislature.

The anaerobic digester program has required a number of legislative fixes and is in need of more this session.

Digester difficulties

Overall commercial food waste recovery has lumbered along. The 2011 law mandated that certain large commercial and industrial food waste producers within 20 miles of food waste processors have to separate their food scraps and take them there. The waste producers include facilities like grocery stores, food production operations, wholesalers and distributors that generate 104 tons of food waste a year (that’s two tons a week). Those volumes drop by half in 2020. Restaurants and universities are exempt.

Other than the proposed digesters, there are still only the same three open-air composting facilities that have existed for several years. They are in corners of the state far from the main clusters of food waste generators. The 20-mile radius for two of them extends into neighboring states.

“It’s a huge arrow that points to here as an opportunity if we want to meet our 60 percent diversion goals,” said Rob Klee, DEEP commissioner and a trash expert. “The management of organics is going to be a big piece of that.”

Though he likes to profess an “if-you-build-it-they-must-come” philosophy of food waste recovery, he admits the uptake has been slow – the anaerobic digester permitting in particular.

“These are new things in the agency so the first few are taking a little while to sort of figure out,” he said.

Julie Cammarata, an energy and environmental lobbyist and consultant working with Quantum, said the permit process needs to be streamlined but worried that it might get worse instead because of budget cuts and diminished staffing.

“It does seem we’re stuck between this ideology of where we want to be and actually kick-starting it in a way that it’s actually going to go in the right direction,” she said.

“I think it’s a really fantastic example,” she said of the Quantum situation, “of how DEEP is like ‘WE’RE COMMITTED.’ And we’re like, ‘really? You’re really committed? This was fast-tracked?’”

The slow permitting is only one of the problems facing digester construction. The other is a bit wonky, but critical to how developers make money to pay back investors. The initial legislation said the power from the digester could only be used on-site, which meant a lot of that power would go to waste. That version of the pilot project had no applicants.

In fact it took three tries to change it so the power could be sold through a concept called virtual net metering. It allows other businesses not directly attached to the digester to buy the excess power the digester puts into the electric grid. But virtual net metering is a very limited program in Connecticut – utilities are not fond of it because it cuts into their business – and projects face a one-year deadline to get built and operational from the time their developers sign a virtual net metering contract.

Quantum’s one year is up in June. It faces a $400,000 fee to hold its place for another six months or else go to the back of the line and risk not qualifying for virtual net metering at all. But even if Quantum got its permits today, construction would probably take well over a year.

A legislative fix is pending. It wouldn’t start the “clock” until all the permits are in place and then the projects would have 18 months – still cutting it close, Paganini said.

“I would love to see 24 months,” he said. “It takes on average 12 months to build a digester. It take three months to commission a digester – so there’s 15 months right there. So 18 months is still a tight timeframe.”

But if the legislation is approved said Rick Ross, associate director of statutory and infrastructure programs at the Connecticut Green Bank, which created the anaerobic digester pilot project, “that takes a big monkey off their backs.”

Quantum at least has its financing ready to go, he said. Another project in Bridgeport, which recently received its final permits, is now facing a delay for as long as a year to remediate the worse-than-expected brownfield site it will be on. It does not have all its funding, nor do the other three proposed projects – a second in Southington, one in Milford and one in North Haven.

“These are enormous projects,” Ross said. Although in terms of power, Quantum will produce a little over a megawatt, enough for 1,000 homes, “a lot of people underestimated what it was going to take to get these built. Including us.”

It’s not that there’s been no progress on dealing with food waste; it’s just that the movement has come through small projects. In some cases very, very small projects.

Small projects

Two years ago Jen Iannucci, director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, was brimming with optimism as she started the state’s first residential food waste pickup program in Bridgewater, one of 11 communities covered by the HRRA.

But as of March 18, it is no more. With participation stuck at about 120 households, pretty much where it started, and the trash hauler finding the free pickup no longer cost-effective, Iannucci had to transition it to a drop-off system.

“I suppose to be honest, it’s slightly disappointing,” she conceded. “But I’m also very encouraged that the program will continue.”

All American Waste picks up food waste at curbside as part of a pilot project in Bridgewater.

Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority

All American Waste picks up food waste at curbside as part of a pilot project in Bridgewater in 2014. The free pick-up program proved to be not cost-effective, and it was recently cut back to a drop-off program.

She’s also adding food waste programs in Newtown and Ridgefield. Both are drop-offs. Newtown’s is free. Ridgefield’s will cost $3 per drop-off. Newtown has more than 260 households signed up; Ridgefield has 225.

“So I’m encouraged,” Iannucci said. “I’m still excited about organics recycling. I think it’s just going to be one of those programs like recycling was in the ‘70s. It’s going to be slow and a little painful, but in the end we’re going to make it happen. We just need to change people’s habits.”

In New Haven, New Haven Farms began its Peels and Wheels program in September 2014 using a specially outfitted bicycle to pick up food scraps from about 40 homes. The cost is $7.50 per pickup. The food waste is composted, mainly for use by the organization’s nine urban farms.

Domingo Medina, who runs the compost program, said he’s looking for grant money to expand it.

In Mansfield, Ginny Walton, the town’s recycling coordinator has been pushing food scrap composting for 20 years. That’s how long ago the first school-based program started. Food scrap separation and composting is now the norm at all three elementary schools and one middle school.

Last August she started a food waste drop-off pilot. “What we’re hoping to demonstrate is that very small municipal leaf piles can be suited for food scraps in the right amount,” Walton said. “Right now there really isn’t any provision under the transfer station permit to allow that.”

Kathy Ward’s is one of the 40 households participating. She’d been looking for a way to get rid of scraps. “When this came up this was perfect,” she said.

She drops off the food waste from her family of five and her neighbor once a week. “The amount of trash that we have in our container now between recycling and the composting, it’s unbelievable the difference,” she said. “The amount of trash is reduced, I would say, by 75 percent.”

The food waste compost pile demonstration project in Mansfield.

Ginny Walton

The food waste compost pile demonstration project in Mansfield.

Walton has more up her sleeve. She’s also starting a “Food, Too Good to Waste” campaign – a kind of competition among families to reduce their food waste. “I’d like to see more backyard composting,” she said. “Keeping the nutrients at its source is the most intelligent way to proceed, instead of sending it off somewhere.”

But Iannucci would like to see more forceful and mandatory action from the state. “I think the only way it’s ever really going to happen at the residential level,” she said of food waste recycling, “is you’ve got to pass legislation like you did for commercial. You’ve got to make it a mandatory recycle item just the way you do other items in the blue bin.”

Asking for help

DEEP has gone looking for help to figure it all out.

And that meant heading across the border to Massachusetts, which is much further ahead on food waste reduction. Two organizations there, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Center for Eco-Technology, recently began working with Connecticut.

Harvard’s senior clinical fellow, Ona Balkus, said even with cities like San Francisco, Seattle and New York far into food waste recycling, including pickup, Connecticut actually is ahead of the game. Most states and cities are just starting to look at the issue and the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture only last September announced a first-ever national food waste reduction goal – 50 percent by 2030.

The two agencies also unveiled a food recovery hierarchy – a reverse pyramid that values source reduction and donation as most desirable and landfill or incineration followed by composting as less desirable.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is part of a national push to standardize sell-by/use-by dating on food to keep perfectly good food from being thrown out the way it frequently is now.

Harvard is developing guidance sheets for Connecticut on laws around date labels, tax incentives for donating food, food waste for animal feed and liability.

All states have liability protection of some sort, but Balkus said more than two-thirds of food manufacturers surveyed said they don’t donate food because of liability concerns. “They might be less worried about being sued,” she said. “And more worried about just the PR concern.”

There are federal tax incentives for food donation, though typically are only useful for large-scale donors. Eight states have their own. Connecticut does not.

Ultimately Balkus and her team will offer advice on how Connecticut can go beyond its current commercial diversion law.

The Center for Eco-Technology is literally mapping out needs and existing services so the state can establish the kind of food waste infrastructure Massachusetts already has. “That business development piece and going from zero to something is very challenging,” said Lorenzo Macaluso, the center’s director of green business systems.

Macaluso and others like to point to the Big Y supermarket chain, which splits its more than 60 stores evenly between Connecticut and Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts Big Y has food diversion programs in all its stores, including food donation, farm food use and composting. Until February, in Connecticut Big Y participated in composting at only about 10 stores. Now a Massachusetts farmer is picking up the waste for animal feed and by the end of April  will include all Connecticut stores.

Big Y – and most grocery stores in Connecticut – do some level of food donation to food banks. Big Y’s newest addition is a “rescue meat” operation. “Fresh meat that is not sold, we freeze it right away, and that is donated to food banks,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president for corporate communications and a member of the chain’s founding and ownership family, the D’Amours. “While we’ve always donated food,” she said, “we want to minimize the donations.

“We have very sophisticated systems to track and know what to produce, what day, what time so we won’t produce as much waste,” she said. “Secondly we continue to explore repurposing.” Things like taking leftover rotisserie chickens and making them into chicken pot pies for sale or to freeze and donate.

But education and information remain key. Getting the word out about existing regulations and opportunities for food waste recycling and donation may seem obvious and simple, but they’ve proven difficult in Connecticut. DEEP is working with the Connecticut Food Association and others to publicize the efforts.

They are also reminding municipalities and others that wasting food is expensive. For consumers it’s money spent unnecessarily; for towns it’s spending money to dump waste that they could have dealt with more cheaply; for people who stand to benefit from donated food, it’s having to spend more than they can afford.

“It’s working with the grocers and the others on how to better prep and process,” said DEEP commissioner Klee. “And for consumers – only buying what you need and slowing down the amount of food that becomes waste because our eyes are bigger than our stomachs when we’re in the grocery store.”

“It’s a little shocking how much we just purchase, sits in our fridge and becomes waste and never gets eaten,” he said.

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