How a Compost Pile in Danbury is About to Get Richer

|| January 7, 2014

A new law went into effect January 1 requiring certain businesses to start recycling their food waste. According to the state, the legislation is aimed at gradually bringing more composting facilities to Connecticut.

Jeff Demers operates a composting yard in Danbury. I met up with him to stare at his gigantic piles of steaming hot horse manure. Very quickly, it became clear there's something different about Demers's compost, peppered with bits of oranges, pears, and pineapples. Actually, there's a whole smorgasbord of food in there, which Demers said he collects from nearby supermarkets.

That food used to go into the trash, but now a new state law is driving some of it to composting facilities. "The vegetables that you are planting are now getting the nutrition from that food waste," he said. "It just makes a higher-quality and a better compost." Demers has composted for 13 years, but it's only recently that he started taking in food waste. Thanks to the new state law, Connecticut could soon see a lot more people following in his footsteps.

K.C. Alexander, with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the new law works like this: if you manufacture food, own a supermarket, resort, or conference center, and it produces more than two tons of food waste per week, "you're going to have to separate your food scrap from the rest of your trash, and get that recycled at one of the facilities, if you are within 20 miles of a facility that can take it," she said.

But here's the issue: there aren't a lot of those recycling facilities in Connecticut. In fact, there are only three: Demers's compost yard in Danbury, one in nearby New Milford, and another in Ellington.

Alexander said the new law aims to drive that number up. In 2009, roughly one-third of Connecticut's 2.3 million tons of waste was compostable. And businesses are starting to see dollar signs in that trash. They've been scouring state maps, looking for areas highly concentrated with big-time food waste generators, to set up shop and capitalize on the new state law.

Brian Paganini, with Supreme Industries, is working to build an anaerobic digester in Southington. It is basically a fancy composting unit that turns food waste into energy. Or, as Paganini put it, they're big cow stomachs. "Organic waste goes in through the mouth," he said. "The stomach does its thing, working with bacteria and microbial activity to break down food."

Out the other end comes compost, and also methane, which can be transformed into sellable electrical power. Paganini said his company already filed permits with the state, and he's optimistic their anaerobic digester will be taking in food waste by December.

There's also Covanta, which handles trash for 42 communities in Connecticut. They've announced plans to build an anaerobic digester in the Bristol area, which could get food waste from, among other places, ESPN. 

Back at his composting yard in Danbury, Jeff Demers said a lot of what he is doing now is educating people about the law. "It's hard," he said. "People don't like change, and it's going to be a difficult thing. But I think once it gets implemented, and people realize that it's an easy thing to do ... then it's almost going to be like second nature. It's like separating your plastics from your aluminum cans."

That's what DEEP is betting on -- as the new law incentivizes composters to build out the state's recycling infrastructure, more and more businesses will voluntarily choose to compost their food waste, whether the law mandates them to or not.