Cases of unsold foodstuffs arrive in bulk on pallets at Bright Feeds, a high-tech startup that Gov. Ned Lamont sees as engaged in the next-generation alchemy of spinning dross into gold — or, in this case, food waste into animal feed.
With reporters and television cameras in tow, Lamont toured the Bright Feeds plant last week, an odorless and brightly lit facility that opened six months ago in the Hartford suburb of Berlin and already processes 80 tons of garbage daily.
“What the rest of us see as garbage, entrepreneurs see as gold,” Lamont said.
The story of Bright Feeds and other companies vested in converting food waste to other products, or using it as the raw material to make natural gas and generate electricity, is central to Lamont’s advocacy for a waste-disposal and recycling bill that will get its first test vote Wednesday.
His host at Bright Feeds was Scott Kalb, a one-time equities and hedge fund manager from Greenwich whose interests have shifted from global finance and sovereign wealth funds to responsible asset allocation and, yes, garbage.
Bright Feeds has the capacity to process far more waste than it is getting.
“We’re the largest solution provider for processing food waste in the state and in all of New England,” said Kalb, a co-founder and chairman of Bright Feeds. “We have a permitted capacity of 450 tons per day, or 160,000 tons per year.”
Quantum Biopower tells a similar story. It uses food scraps and other organics in an anaerobic digester to produce natural gas that generates electricity at a plant in Southington. The residue is sold as compost.
Like Bright Feeds, it could handle far more food waste than it is getting.
Overall, the state estimates, the capacity already exists to divert more than half of the 500,000 tons of food waste that is annually shipped to out-of-state landfills or burned in one of four waste-to-energy plants.
“Yet, we’re only processing something like 15,000 tons a year right now with the food waste that’s being generated in our state,” Kalb said.
The problem is that a system to separate food from other waste in residential settings does not yet exist on any scale.
The financial incentive exists: Municipalities, on average, pay $102 to dispose of every ton of solid waste collected in their towns. Bright Feeds charges little or nothing to take food waste.
On Wednesday, the legislature’s Environment Committee will vote on House Bill 6664, a measure the Lamont administration says would exponentially increase the collection of food waste — the raw material for Bright Feeds and Quantum.
The outcome is not assured.
Among the bill’s provisions is a section that would impose a $5 per ton fee on municipal solid waste that is not recycled or composted. The Lamont administration says the fee would help finance a food waste collection infrastructure, saving money in the long run.
Another would implement a policy to force packaging changes and shift costs for recycling from municipalities to the makers of consumer goods.
The packaging policy is known as “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR. Connecticut already has single-industry EPR programs for products that cannot be practically or safely dumped or recycled: paint, electronics, mattresses and propane cylinders.
Waste haulers oppose an EPR program directed at nearly all consumer packaging, saying it could destabilize the state’s current single-stream recycling and interfere with the ability of municipalities to control recycling and contracts with haulers.
“Our members are just concerned they invested over 20 years of sweat and tears into this industry and then face the possibility it can be wiped out,” said Lewis Dubuque of the National Waste & Recycling Association.
Katie Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, said the administration is well aware of the objections, which were expressed at a public hearing last month and in a private meeting last week.
“I think that the committee process has successfully surfaced a lot of the different concerns that people have,” she said. “It’s going to need more discussion and more work.”
Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, said he expected a party-line vote on the bill, with him assuring fellow members of the Democratic majority that negotiations will continue.
“But at this point, we want to get out of committee at least what everyone agrees on, and that is food diversion, and that is minimal recycled content for products,” Gresko said.
By requiring certain percentages of recycled content in packaging, the bill could increase the value of recycled material by creating a larger market.
In much the same way, a previous law setting standards for large businesses to separate food wastes helped make Bright Feeds and Quantum Biopower viable. And the bottle bill drew investments into recycling 30 years ago.
Brian Paganini, the vice president of Quantum, said Lamont’s bill would be another step forward.
“A lot of folks here in this room believe here today that we’re on the verge of that innovation again,” said Paganini, who was on the Bright Feeds tour. “And we believe that the governor’s legislation is going to be the catalyst for the future of a really innovative waste system here in the state of Connecticut.”
The solid-waste fee would provide $11 million in annual funding to continue a one-shot $10 million grant program the state is now offering municipalities to experiment in waste food diversions.
“Municipalities want this,” Dykes said. “We had 45 different towns that applied.”
West Haven is beginning a city-wide collection program. Deep River is experimenting with a food-scrap drop-off program at its transfer station. West Hartford is offering curbside food waste pickup to 680 homes, Dykes’ among them.
It’s unclear how much personal political capital Lamont is investing in passage of the bill. He paused when asked that question at Bright Feeds.
“I’m right here talking to the people of Connecticut, urging you to talk to your legislators,” Lamont said. “This is important, because it’s got the potential to save you money. It is the environmentally smart thing to do.”