New Jersey Considers Food Waste Recycling
In the environmental field these days, few topics are as hot as “resource recovery.” Here in New Jersey, the State Senate is considering a new bill sponsored by Senator Raymond Lesniak (S2494) that will require the largest generators of food waste (and other organic wastes) to bring this material to a composting or food waste recycling facility instead of a landfill or incinerator. The bill targets commercial, educational, and other facilities that generate at least 104 tons of food waste per year (two tons per week).
In New Jersey, solid waste disposal can cost $80-100 per ton. Recycling and composting facilities often manage organic wastes at a tipping fee closer to $40 per ton or less – roughly half the cost of disposal.
New Jersey is not alone in this effort. The proposed bill is based upon similar bills passed in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. New York City and Seattle are also investigating opportunities to recover nutrient and energy value from food waste. The process of resource recovery is common throughout the European Union, where it helps reduce the purchase of expensive natural gas and conserves valuable real estate that would otherwise have to be dedicated to landfilling The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is firmly behind the push for resource recovery, as the environmental benefits can be significant (see the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy pyramid adjacent).
With food and other organic materials representing anywhere from 20-30% of the municipal solid waste stream, there is an immediate opportunity for New Jersey municipalities to realize significant cost savings.
Once organic waste reaches a composting or food recovery facility, there are two basic classes of treatment that can be used to treat the waste. The facility can implement either basic composting (or some variation of) or energy extraction using an anaerobic digester that converts organic matter to biogas. The result of composting or anaerobic digestion is far less waste going into a landfill or incinerator, and much more value being recovered from this fraction of the waste stream. When biogas is recovered through anaerobic digestion, greater amounts of biogas are recovered in a shorter period of time compared to landfill gas recovery systems. The result is locally-produced renewable energy out of what was formerly a waste, achieved while cutting the cost of managing it and reducing the environmental impact. It can be used to generate electricity or heat, or even be purified further for use as vehicle fuel or other applications. Residual nutrients recovered from either composting or anaerobic digestion can also help offset the need to purchase commercially-produced nitrogen/phosphorous based fertilizers.
The majority of methane gas released from organic waste in a landfill is lost to the atmosphere. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas, with an impact at least 21 times greater than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to global climate change.
All of this sounds good until you realize that New Jersey has very few facilities available to accept food waste. The NJ Environmental Joint Insurance Fund has been working with some of its utility authority members to anticipate the new bill, as their facilities often have much of the infrastructure required to manage organic wastes. The sludge from wastewater processing is a type of organic waste, and some authorities already use anaerobic digestion as a way to reduce sludge volume and use the resulting biogas to reduce the purchase of commercial natural gas and electricity, resulting in significant cost savings. This process can also benefit authorities by making them more energy resilient in case of an emergency event that takes the local electrical grid offline. The ability to generate renewable energy onsite also helps insulate authorities from future increases in energy costs. By finding opportunities for authorities and municipalities to work together, difficult organic waste materials such as fats, oils, and grease (FOG) can now have an economic value that helps direct them to an anaerobic digester rather than down a sewer line, which in turn enables municipalities to save on maintenance costs for their wastewater systems.
There are currently at least four new commercial food waste processing facilities undergoing the NJDEP permit and approval process. Large renewable energy and waste management companies are currently looking at New Jersey as a good place to invest to construct private facilities to manage organic wastes for resource recovery. This could turn what was once a waste material that was hard to manage into a commodity of sorts, producing a long term feedstock to supply facilities with the raw materials necessary to maintain their anaerobic digestion processes.
New Jersey municipalities, counties, and authorities will have more than a few challenges in figuring out how to best take advantage of this rapidly changing environment, but the payoffs for doing it well abound.
The result of anaerobic digestion is locally-produced renewable energy out of what was formerly a waste, achieved while cutting the cost of managing it and reducing the environmental impact
Rich manages First Environment’s state and local government sector work, encompassing environmental consulting and regulatory compliance services. He specializes in working collaboratively with municipal utility authorities and wastewater treatment plants to develop environmental programs that maximize resource use and recovery of derived waste, as well as identify available public funding for such projects. By integrating sustainability objectives and solutions with existing systems, Rich helps agencies create new revenue streams, promote beneficial reuse, and realize significant cost savings over time. He also has experience creating, revising, and invigorating recycling programs to help clients reduce solid waste and the disposal costs associated with it. All of the recycling programs he has developed and managed have been coordinated into a multi-media approach for pollution prevention planning and environmentally sound sustainable development. Rich also helps public and private clients manage corporate environmental requirements such as Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), pollution prevention plan design, stormwater permitting, spill prevention and control, hazard communications, Title V facility air permitting, air pollution, and hazardous waste reporting.