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  • Writer's pictureRashi Watwani

Feeding the Circular Economy, One (Big) Apple at a Time

Love food but hate waste? You’re not alone. For the first time in US history, the White House has set a national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030.

It’s been a long time coming. After all, food waste in America accounts for a staggering 31 percent of total food supply available in the country. That’s an astounding one-third of the nation’s food being discarded.

It’s also been estimated that if the nation reduces its food waste by a mere 15 percent, there would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans every year. Imagine what that would do to improve overall food security!

While there is little doubt that this is a positive step forward, a number of states across the country have been proactive in implementing schemes, enacting legislation, developing models – you get the drift – to encourage recovery of organic waste.

Take New York City for example. In December 2013, New York City passed a historic bill mandating large generators of food scraps to implement a recovery system for organic waste.

Mandates like these shine the spotlight on the potential to recover organics and they open the door to greater investment in resource recovery as opposed to polluting assets.

To capture the potential of the bill and the impacts on New York as well as the tri-state region (i.e. New York, Connecticut and New Jersey), Global Green USA has put together a report – a status update of sorts – that looks at the existing and developing food waste recovery infrastructure in NYC, explores the end markets of recovered materials and turns to its neighbours that could serve as models for improvements in the region.

Who’s Doing What?

Across the country, less than five percent of food scraps are being recovered for beneficial reuse. Everything else is typically sent to landfill, which then leads to a range of environmental problems including the release of millions of tons of greenhouse gas.

In addition to the bill, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a goal in April that will provide New Yorkers with residential composting by 2018. But does New York have the capacity to process both commercial and residential food waste?

According to Global Green, there is currently a little over 105,000 tonnes per annum of food waste processing capacity in the New York metropolitan area, including seven facilities across Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Of the seven, two are within 100 miles of New York City.

Some of these facilities include Wilenta Feed in Secaucus, Hudson County NJ, which processes 60,000 tonnes per annum of bakery waste to animal feed and McEnroe Farms in Millerton, Dutchess County NY, which produces 30,000 cubic yards of compost a year.

Meanwhile, a new survey by Global Green has revealed that approximately 512,000 tonnes per annum of food waste processing capacity is currently under development. Specifically, nine food waste digestion facilities are being developed in the tri-state region.

All nine facilities will go down the anaerobic digestion route, which, simply put, is a process where microorganisms break down organic waste in the absence of oxygen. What comes out of the process are materials such as biogas, a natural gas replacement and slurry, which can be further processed into compost.

Broadly speaking, anaerobic digestion comprises three main categories: the simple, straight up anaerobic digestion, anaerobic digestion coupled with composting and anaerobic digestion done at wastewater treatment plants to create additional outputs like biosolids.

It is an exciting time for the tri-state region, what with the development of infrastructure. But there are hurdles to be crossed. The main one being feedstock availability.

These facilities require capital investment and creditors need the confidence that site developers will have a reliable and consistent long-term flow of feedstock. The issue at hand is that commercial food businesses may be reluctant to enter into long-term contracts. There are also regulatory hurdles – in NYC, long-term contracts are prohibited.

Then, for food waste processing to remain economically sustainable, robust end-markets must be developed and promoted. In its report, Green Global identified a diverse range of urban and rural compost applications including its use in parks, agriculture and green roofs.

Perhaps one of the more interesting applications is the opportunity to use compost for roadways. In fact, NYC Arterial Roadway Repair and Maintenance said as much of the 1700 acres of in-city Department of Transportation land, of which half are lawns and the rest woodlands, could benefit from absorbing “large amounts” of compost.

If the DOT applied two inches of compost to its woodlands and an inch to its lawns every year, 227,000 tons of finished compost could be theoretically applied.

There are also opportunities for compost to aid in the improvement of urban water management. Historically, cities use large and expensive underground sewer systems to manage storm water and while they are efficient in carrying runoff from streets, the water that goes into these systems often contain pollutants which then flow into nearby surface waters.

Green infrastructure is an alternative worth exploring and an idea pitched in the report is to create an area of soil and plants to absorb rainwater and apply compost to filter runoff, remove pollutants and prevent soil erosion.

Moving Forward

Global Green noted that there are certainly examples from other states that the tri-state region could learn from or replicate, though these models would still need to be tailored to suit local conditions.

One shining example is Boulder, Colarado, where the use of compost has been integrated into the building permits process. Through two programs, Green Building and Green Points, residential developers are incentivized through a points system to use organic material for landscaping.

Massachusetts is also doing good work. In October 2014, it introduced a disposal mandate on all commercial food waste, stipulating that businesses and institutions that dispose of at least one ton of organic waste per week must divert material from landfill by either generating less food, donating unused food or processing waste at an appropriate facility. To ensure compliance, its Department of Environmental Protection has hired three employees to enforce the disposal ban and has established the RecyclingWorks program to educate and assist businesses.

Ultimately, Global Green believes that collaboration is the way to go if the tri-state region wants to maximise its existing and developing infrastructure. And of course, any good report would offer recommendations, which Global Green has done, particularly around collaboration opportunities in the region. These include:

  • Developing unified cross-agency approaches to address the needs of each state;

  • Using incentives to increase food scrap recovery;

  • Continually evaluating the compatibility of residential and commercial food waste collection programs;

  • Conducting a gap analysis of developing infrastructure to assess what needs to happen to achieve the best chance of success;

  • Funding education to encourage holistic solid waste management;

  • Promoting regional partnerships in developing end-markets;

  • Improving transparency in purchasing standards in construction and roadway projects in order to utilize compost;

  • Encouraging best practice through regulatory performance requirements for projects and by promoting best practice companies.

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