Composting problems into solutions
Written by Katherine Hoey
On March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Long Island Power Authority’s board of trustees voted to approve a food digester that will not only reduce the amount of food being sent to landfills, but also compost it and create renewable energy to go into the island’s power grid.
This comes four weeks after Cuomo announced the state’s $175 billion budget that mandates food establishments,such as grocery stores and restaurants that produce more than two tons of food waste a week and are within 25 miles of a facility, to comply, effective in 2022.
“This common sense legislation, designed to reduce waste, feed hungry New Yorkers, and produce clean energy, and clean energy jobs, is a win-win-win,” Michael Haynes, Chief Government Affairs Officer of Long Island Cares, said.
The nonprofit food bank works alongside corporate partners, like BJs, Target, Walmart, Costco, Aldi and King Kullen, to expand food recovery. It salvaged 616,920 pounds of food from ending up in landfills in the first quarter of 2019.
“As this bill is phased in, it’s going to evolve. The devil’s in the details; a lot of the implication is still to be determined,” Haynes said.
While Long Island Compost, a facility in Yaphank, has traditionally focused on yard waste, like leaves and grass clippings, it is gearing up to take on food waste with its anaerobic digester, which will compost the waste and create renewable energy.
“Historically, all of this material was landfilled—well, we’re the anti-landfill people,” Charles Vigliotti, CEO and President of Long Island Compost, said.
Long Island Compost is the parent company of American Organic Energy, an entity formed to operate the anaerobic digester. Originally, these machines were employed in an agricultural setting to handle animal waste. Arnold and Charles Vigliotti began developing the digester eight years ago, which will debut on Long Island by this summer and be up and running by the end of 2020.
The facility is expected to take in 600 tons of locally produced food waste per day; the equivalent of 45 garbage trucks.
Anaerobic digestion is the natural process in which microorganisms break down organic material, with no air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’ll use the stuff that people won’t purchase or we wouldn’t donate, which can definitely be composted,” Jennifer Ross, co-owner of Heartbeet Farms in Centereach, said.
Composting occurs when there is brown and green organic material and air and water. These microorganisms digest the food leaving behind the product of compost. Heartbeet Farm has three compost bins for its excess waste, with the compost in turn providing nitrogen-rich soil to be used back on the farm.
“The microbes generate heat, like a bunch of fifth graders in a room,” Jean Bonhotal, Director of Cornell University Waste Management Institute, said. “You don’t have to heat the room because they’re generating plenty and that’s what’s happening in a compost pile.”
When organic materials begin to decompose in landfills, they are unable to get the proper amount of oxygen, leading to the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas. Organic waste in landfills accounts for over 15 percent of the nation’s emissions of methane, according to the bill that was proposed by Senator Todd Kaminsky of District 9.
Inside the 60 by 60 foot tanks, the food waste becomes liquified and emits methane, which is captured and converted into CNG, a renewable gas, then distributed into the National Grid pipeline for gas usage, as well as provide four megawatts of electricity through an agreement with LIPA and Public Service Enterprise Group.
Upon its initial startup, the facility is expected to provide enough energy to power over 2,000 homes and create an additional 500,000 gallons of renewable natural gas for vehicle use, Vigliotti said.
“Instead of it being put in a truck and sent to a landfill in Virginia, it’ll wind up creating clean renewable energy for Long Islanders,” he said.
Fifty to 60 percent of waste on Long Island has gone to four incineration plants across the island, where it is burned.This process came after all residential landfills were closed in the 1980s The steam emitted from the fire is processed to create renewable energy, Michael Des Gaines, Landfill Facilities Manager for Brookhaven Town Department of Recycling and Sustainable Materials Management, said. The remaining waste goes to landfills in other states.
For the last 20 years, Stop and Shop has partnered with Long Island Harvest in a program called “Meet the Needs,” Don Miller, public relations for Long Island Harvest, said. Stop and Shop collects meat products nearing expiration date and freezes it, which is then distributed to provide a protein source for those that experience food scarcity.
“We work with a local partner that picks up perishable food waste, which is then taken to compost or digester facilities, or used as animal feed, as opposed to going to a landfill,” Jennifer Brogan, Director of Communications for Stop & Shop, said.
The demand for education on composting has increased, Cary Oshins, education director of Composting Council Research Foundation, said.
From August 5 to 9, Cornell University will be hosting the Composting Council Research Foundation’s Compost Operations Training Course that teaches people interested in becoming compost operators. The foundation, which began 10 years ago, sold out its five annual classes this year, where 40 participants learn how to be successful from an operational standpoint.
“Contaminated waste is more costly to decompose because machinery and manpower is needed to sift out trash,” Oshins said.
While composting machines can handle a certain amount of pre-consumer waste, it cannot handle any packaging or contamination whatsoever. Pre-consumer waste materials are those created during the process of manufacturing or delivering goods prior to its delivery to a consumer, whereas post-consumer is the remaining scraps after it is purchased by a consumer.
“In order to handle post-consumer food waste, either scrapings off a plate or kitchen scraps that may have other things in them like utensils and plastic bags, we had to graduate to what we consider the gold standard of technology for this,” Vigliotti said.
American Organic Energy’s system will be able to separate out non-food waste from the digestion tanks, like extracting tuna fish from a can, and recycling the can.
“Their plan is to start off with large producers of waste,” Des Gaines said.“Eventually, we, meaning residents, will recycle our food waste. It’s not easy, but it will happen”.