Solid waste authority plans to recycle wasted food in 2019

Published Oct 12, 2018 at 4:00pm

If all goes as planned, sometime early next spring a truck laden with uneaten food from somewhere in the Mohawk Valley will dump its load of stale bread, uneaten donuts, past-its-prime bacon, sour milk, rotten cheese and not-yet-moldy-but-already-wilting kale. And a few hours later, the chemical remains of all that waste will power Oneida County’s main sewer plant.

There, at the eastern transfer station of the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority in Utica, a machine called the Thor package separator made by Minnesota-based Scott Equipment Company will tear into every bag, box and package of leftover cereal, milk, bread and coffee. The packaging will be shunted off to join the stream of recyclable materials processed there since 1991, all sold to companies turning it into new packages, cartons and newsprint or office paper.

The food will come from supermarkets, colleges and schools, hospitals, nursing homes and perhaps senior housing complexes and large apartment buildings, as well as food makers and processors like wholesale bakeries and food packagers. They will get a break on the price they pay for waste disposal if they separate uneaten food and scraps from regular garbage.

The food will be ground and watered into a slurry taken next door to the county’s new plant, where it will be mixed with wastewater, and the methane from the decomposition captured and used to power turbines to make electricity to run the plant.

The $3.4 million project is the next step the authority is taking to reduce a major form of the waste that goes into the regional landfill in Ava: Food.

According to federal and state estimates, about 23 percent of what goes into landfills is food. It’s the next big thing in waste reduction, after solid waste managers have diverted recyclable commodities like newsprint and office paper, glass, aluminum and steel, and various petrochemical-based plastics. Green waste — such as yard and landscaping material — constituted about 8 percent, and that’s been largely taken care of through the authority’s composting program, which takes in yard waste from municipalities and many commercial accounts and produces compost for sale.

The motivation to tackle waste food comes from more than one direction, authority Executive Director William Rabbia said. State officials have talked-up food-waste reduction the past few years, both because rotting food produces greenhouse gases and because getting rid of ever more garbage is a perennial problem, particularly in the New York City area. While there’s no mandate to divert food waste, many in the industry expect one soon.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his 2018 budget document, proposed proposed large waste generators — those that make two tons a week or greater, meaning most supermarkets, colleges and hospitals — separate and recycle food waste. The proposal didn’t become law but it’s clear the intent exists, Rabbia said.

Then there’s the cost. “We have to load waste onto a truck. We have to pay the fuel, transport it up to the landfill. There’s costs there.”

The clincher, though, was the chance to recover some costs by disposing of the food-waste slurry next door. Oneida County’s new sewage treatment plant is being built with domes that capture methane, which then burn it to run power generators. Waste will power the plant that treats it.

The solid waste authority will take truckloads of slurry the few hundred yards to the plant and in return get a steep discount on its waste-disposal fee. In effect, instead of having to dump food in the landfill, it gets paid for providing supplemental fuel.

“If we were to put in the food processing equipment and try to build our own digester for the quantity of food waste in the two counties, it wouldn’t be cost effective,” Rabbia said. “But since this is able to be co-digested, that’s what makes it work.”

“We designed this program so that it would stand on its own, mandate or no mandate. We believe the economics will make it work for certain large generators. And we’re not proposing a local mandate on this.”

Instead, getting rid of separated-out food will cost $40 a ton, versus $60 a ton for mixed-up garbage. No one will be forced to do it, but Rabbia believes the $20-per-ton savings will make it worthwhile for many institutional and commercial enterprises.

Residential and small-business food recycling could come later. For example, some trash haulers might offer a savings to restaurants that separate food from recycling and garbage. Haulers might find it worthwhile to outfit trucks for separate food-waste hauling and hit restaurants along Black River Boulevard in Rome or Commercial Drive in New Hartford someday.

As for homeowners, some communities have experimented with household-scale food collection for composting. That will largely be up to municipalities, Rabbia said. For the bulk of people, backyard composting is still best.

“We’re a rural community where most people have back yards,” Rabbia said. “If you manage your food scraps properly, most people could compost in their back yard. So whether a municipality would want to pay that extra money to figure out how they send another truck down the road to grab food waste, I think it’s down the road a ways.”

That said, the authority expects to be ready.

“Say the city of Rome some day says we’re gonna collect food waste. We’ll have the capacity for that,” Rabbia said.

Some institutions are already separating food waste and recycling it. One is Hamilton College in Clinton. There, workers with Bon Appetit, the college’s food-service contractor, separate food waste into its own containers — both peels, husks and the like from preparing meals and what’s left on plates after serving. The scraps are hauled to a nearby farm, where they’re composted. The college cut its annual landfill waste nearly 20 percent in the first year of the program.

Hamilton can tout its efforts to environmentally minded prospective students, but it’s also preparing for what it sees as a likely mandate.

“My assumption is that the college/university sector will then be regulated as a ‘large food waste generator,’ which will then carry a compliance/conformance burden,” said Brian Hansen, the college’s director of environmental protection and safety. “So it’s best to work out the kinks right now, rather than wait for regulatory enforcement.”

The college is tackling other ways to cut food waste. One was to get rid of trays: They encouraged students going through serving lines to take whatever fit, but now, they take only what will fit on a plate. Many other colleges and institutions have done the same.

Hamilton is also trying to reduce contamination in food scrap bins in smaller eateries on campus. Hamilton is rolling out special bins for food waste that require the customer to lift a lid. The thinking is no one wants to be the bad guy.

“Most folks take two seconds max to select an appropriate waste container, and by adding a small step to the organics option we’re confident this will dissuade the casual non-conformer from undoing the efforts of others,” Hansen said.

Other institutions are cutting waste, too.

Mohawk Valley Community College formed a chapter of the nationwide Food Recovery Network. Twice a week, student volunteers transfer unserved food set aside by staff of contractor Sodexo to disposable aluminum pans, weigh and mark it and ready it for transport to two Utica-area food kitchens for the needy. Since the chapter started work in November 2016, it’s diverted 12,000 pounds of food.

“We have hungry people and we’re throwing away perfectly good food. There’s something wrong with that,” said Kelly Fleming, coordinator of MVCC’s iServe Mohawk Valley volunteer program.

Other institutions are preparing. Rome Memorial Hospital is looking at ways to address food waste retention and alternatives for waste separation, said Fred White, director of building services for the hospital, which has a comprehensive recycling and solid-waste program.

Food Services Director Elizabeth Nadeau added that food waste is reduced by monitoring needs.

“For example, menu planning, ordering and bi-weekly inventories are adjusted according to the hospital’s inpatient census, residents and anticipated visitors in our cafeteria,” Nadeau said.

Reducing food waste at the source, as Hamilton College aims, is at the top of the food-recovery hierarchy recommend by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Next is to feed hungry people, feed animals. Using it industrially is next, followed by composting.

The best thing to do with uneaten food, though, is get it to people who need it before it spoils.

Oneida and Herkimer counties already divert a higher-than-average amount of unsold but still-wholesome food, Rabbia said. The area has a strong network of food donated to the needy, such as at food pantries and soup kitchens, much of it from markets, wholesalers and processors. About 44 percent of recoverable food is diverted, authority surveys have found.

What will be accepted and what won’t

The Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority has a flyer on its Food2Energy plan coming in 2019. It says food scraps may be delivered in bags, and there’s no requirement to remove packaging, as it will be separated from food scraps. Here is a list of what’s accepted and not:

Accepted

All meat and fish, including bones; all fruits and vegetables; cereals and grains; bakery waste, including flour; restaurant food scraps; cafeteria food scraps, plate scrapings

Dairy products; expired food; liquids like milk, soda or beer; pet food; packaged food waste; food processor byproducts;
coffee filters

Greasy pizza boxes and paper bags; paper cups and plates; paper ice cream containers - a metal rim is OK; paper napkins, tissues and paper towels; and paper takeout boxes and
containers

Not accepted

Waste containing antibacterial chemicals; municipal solid waste; non-food related industrial wastes; leaf and yard debris

Waste with greater than 5 percent contamination; clean recyclables such as paper plastic, metal, glass; plastic film intended for recycling; foil-backed or plastic-backed paper; juice or soy milk boxes with foil liner; cooking oil and diapers.