LEFTOVERS TO GOLD? Converting food waste to energy could mean $ for towns

Journal Inquirer || July 13, 2019

That rotten banana peel could turn out to be gold for some communities.

A year-old recycling program in Glastonbury, which converts residents’ food waste into renewable energy, has the potential to cushion the town’s rising solid waste disposal costs if more people commit to it, officials in that town say.

Superintendent of Sanitation Michael Bisi said the town partnered with Southington-based Quantum Biopower and All Waste, Inc. in July 2018, giving residents the option to drop off their everyday food leftovers at the local transfer station.

The food waste — such as breads, dairy, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, egg shells, fats, produce, and meat products — are kept in a specialized container that the town leases for $100 each month. All Waste then hauls it to Quantum’s facility.

For $45 per ton, Quantum accepts Glastonbury’s food waste at their Southington anaerobic digestion facility where the food waste decomposes in a million-gallon tank.

That’s about half the cost the town now pays to haul garbage and recycling to the regional trash-to-energy plant in Hartford.

Quantum also recycles commercial organics, since under state law commercial food distributors and supermarkets must send their food waste to a recycling facility if they produce over 100 tons per year and are located within 20 miles of a facility.

In the tank, millions of microscopic bacteria consume the waste in the absence of oxygen and produce methane gas, said Quantum Biopower Managing Director and Vice President Brian Paganini. That gas is used to power a unit that generates electricity to municipal buildings in Southington.

Slow start for lifestyle change

Food waste collection in Glastonbury “was off to a slow start” when it first began, Bisi said.

For many people, he said, it’s an unfamiliar lifestyle change that means storing foul-smelling food scraps at home and taking time to drop it off.

It’s a “cultural change,” Paganini agreed, one that takes education and awareness. But when residents understand the benefits, he added, they get excited about it.

More and more Glastonbury households began participating in the past year, and the town has collected, on average, about 900 pounds of food waste each month, Bisi said. That’s resulted in about 4.5 tons of what would have been trash going into an incinerator, he said.

While it’s not generally widely embraced among Connecticut residents, local Public Works leaders say that separating out food waste can aid the state with the ongoing crisis that’s raising towns’ tipping fees.

Connecticut municipalities “are getting hit really hard with increased disposal and recycling costs,” Paganini said, which may be an incentive for more towns to separate their food scraps in the future.

Food waste, the heaviest trash item, makes up 13 to 15 percent of the state’s solid waste, according to a 2010 report by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In 2010, that was calculated at 322,000 tons of food items thrown away each year in Connecticut.

Both financially and environmentally, there are benefits to removing heavy food waste from the waste stream, Bisi said.

Glastonbury’s disposal bill to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, the Hartford-based regional facility that incinerates solid waste from various towns, has increased from $72 per ton last year to $83 per ton this year, Bisi said.

Tipping fees went up for multiple towns who send trash to MIRA after the facility suffered mechanical failures in December 2018 and was forced to spend $100 per ton to divert trash to facilities out of state.

East Hartford’s tipping fees increased from $70 to $83 per ton this year; Ellington’s rose from $69 to $85 per ton; and Windsor’s went up from $72 to $83 per ton, among other towns, according to Public Works officials.

Curbside collection of food waste

While Glastonbury and West Hartford are now the only Connecticut towns to partner directly with Quantum, a small number of households across the state pay $20 to $30 a month to have Hartford-based Blue Earth Compost collect their food waste curbside on a weekly or biweekly basis.

That company collects from commercial businesses and residential units in about a dozen towns in Connecticut, including East Hartford, Manchester, South Windsor, and Windsor.

According to Blue Earth Compost Director of Operations Alexander Williams, the company collects 25 to 30 tons per week and takes the majority of the food waste to the Quantum Biopower facility, as well.

Recycling food waste locally is “where we should be turning our focus,” Williams said. “Getting material out of the waste stream to be used for something proper can have a massive impact economically and environmentally.”

The more people that know the better, Williams said, explaining that their biggest marketing tool is word of mouth.

Glastonbury, too, is promoting its program and educating residents about the importance of keeping plastic waste out of their food waste when they visit the transfer station.

If people spread the word about the benefits of food waste recycling, Bisi said, “I think it’ll eventually take off.”