Looming Food-Scrap Ban Sparks Processing Demand

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

When the Massachusetts industrial food waste ban goes into effect July 1, 2014, there is going to be tons of garbage for the taking.

Commercial and industrial generators of more than a ton of food and organic scrap each week — including about 1,700 institutions such as universities, hospitals, hotels, supermarkets, convention centers and large restaurants — will be required to either donate it to food banks and shelters, or divert it to composting sites, anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities or to farms as animal feed.

The commonwealth hopes this ban, the first of its kind nationwide, will divert up to 200,000 tons of food scrap by 2020 — roughly doubling its current efforts, according to John Fischer, a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) branch chief of waste planning and commercial waste reduction.

But the key question remains, who is going to take all that material?

There are nearly 30 food and organic material composting operations spread across the state that, combined, could accept nearly 150,000 tons per year, according to DEP. Fischer said he has heard from nearly a dozen composting facilities and farmers interested in expanding their operations or starting up new ones to meet upcoming demand.

Peter Britton of Brick Ends Farm is not among them. He started his South Hamilton composting facility in 1975 and accepts about 100 tons of food scrap each week from at least 60 Hannaford stores, Save That Stuff, and the towns of Hamilton and Wenham. He’s also piloting a curbside pick-up program with Cambridge. No major commercial operators have approached him to accept their food scrap, and he believes some have brokered deals with out-of-state composters. He maintains high standards and has chosen not to work with big companies such as Waste Management and Casella in the past.

“They’re trying to test us out,” Britton said, “and we send them back rejected loads.”

Before he takes on anything else, Britton must consider how his local elected officials and neighbors would react and whether he wants to disturb the delicate balance he’s established with his existing operations. He said he’s not the only facility doing these careful calculations.

“When July 2014 comes, is there going to be a lot of scrambling out there?” Britton said. “Probably.”

Some businesses may choose to send their organics to AD facilities, and communities such as Bourne, Springfield and Lexington are exploring ways to fill that demand, Fischer said. UMass-Amherst and correctional facilities in Shirley and Norfolk, he added, are considering adding a digester to their sites.

To encourage these efforts, Gov. Deval Patrick announced last month that $3 million in low-interest loans to private companies and $1 million in grants to municipalities would be available for the planning and construction of digesters.

State financing has already pushed several projects forward. DEP and the Department of Energy Resources awarded the first grant of $100,000 to the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency so that it could modify one of its 12 AD chambers on Deer Island to accept food scrap, according to DEP spokesman Joseph Ferson.

And, in February, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center awarded two grants totaling $400,000 to the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District and CommonWealth New Bedford Energy LLC to help develop a pilot program for the anaerobic digestion of food scrap, fats, oils and grease, and sewage sludge.

The agricultural industry is buying into the movement as well. Pine Island Farm in Sheffield and Jordan Dairy Farms in Rutland have on-site digesters that convert a mixture of cow manure and food slurry into renewable energy.

Jordan Dairy Farms in particular processes 45 tons of organic material daily and plans to build two more digesters of similar capacity in Hadley and Deerfield in the coming year. The digesters sequester methane from cow manure and burn it to create electricity — 10 percent of which powers the farm while the rest flows back into the grid. Waste heat from combustion is collected and used to keep the farm’s buildings warm during the winter, nearly eliminating the farm’s heating costs. Any remaining materials are used as fertilizer over the hay fields, which in turn feed the farm’s herd. Nothing is wasted in the process.

“For every cow whose manure we collect, we sequester the equivalent yearly of what three cars put out in greenhouse gases,” said Bill Jorgenson, a managing partner of AGreen Energy LLC — a partnership that includes Jordan and four other dairy farms dedicated to renewable-energy production and sustainable management of manure practices. “Every cow produces enough electricity with organics to power one home with renewable energy.”

Adding an AD facility to the site has allowed Jordan Dairy Farms to stay in business, hire more workers and help commercial operators comply with the upcoming state ban.

“It’s an economic and an environmental good that comes to everyone,” Jorgenson said.