Conference Report: Northeast Leaders & Food Waste Recovery

At Global Green USA's Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) food waste conference in New York City November 7, we brought local government leaders together with key players in the nonprofit and private sectors to allow for a one-of-a-kind regional dialogue at a critical juncture for organic waste diversion in the Northeast. This timely conference comes a week after Mayor Bloomberg voiced his concerns over our climate's potential linkages to Sandy and called on "all elected leaders to take immediate action" on climate change. The climate crisis is one of the factors creating a greater urgency to the work we do with CoRR -- if we stop burying food scraps in landfills, we can then reduce the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

At the conference, Global Green USA revealed results of our economic analysis of large-scale food waste recovery solutions, including a comparison between composting and landfilling for New York City's waste, and a financial analysis of siting anaerobic digestion and composting facilities in New York City or New Jersey. We presented opportunities that we see for cost reductions beyond existing food waste diversion practices, and how these opportunities can help improve participation more broadly in food waste recovery programs. Each opportunity was explored further by having speakers address target areas throughout the day.

Topics covered included building closer processing infrastructure either inside or near the city; increasing participation in food waste separation and recovery programs by businesses, residents, and schools; and increasing demand for end-products such as compost and biogas produced from food waste. Starting with source reduction, leading hotels, grocers, and restaurants Marriot, Ahold, and Pret a Manger described solutions that they have used for recovering food waste, ranging from source reduction to the deployment of front-of-house bins for collecting food waste and recyclables. Steve Storer, Chief Engineer at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, described the hotel's success in both saving money and composting food waste using the on-site storage "Biobin" system. While showing the detailed economic and waste diversion results of the hotel's successful program, Steve also described the environmental ethic that motivates him. "There is only one earth and we need to protect it from ourselves for now and for our children," he said.

Now is an exciting time in the Northeast for organics recovery. As a part of their strategies for recovering the value of food waste, the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont all have landfill bans scheduled or already in place for large generators of organic waste -- these businesses will now need consider source reduction, send it to animal feed, compost, or use anaerobic digestion facilities. Connecticut's law started in October and applies to commercial waste generators of more than 104 tons per year located within a 20-mile radius of a processing facility. Both Connecticut and Massachusetts are carefully planning their diversion programs so that processing capacity can match increases in food waste diverted from landfills. The Massachusetts regulatory ban will begin in 2014 and will apply to businesses that generate more than one ton of food waste per week. The ban is a part of the the state's larger plan to divert at least 35% of food waste from disposal by 2020.

"Each state has its own strengths and vulnerabilities," said Diane Duva of Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection."Here in Connecticut, we have almost no landfill capacity and are committed to recycling and energy recovery, including closing the food scrap infrastructure gap. If the infrastructure exists in one state for one type of materials management, such as composting or anaerobic digestion, then other states can benefit from that. We can all realize better waste diversion opportunities by planning at a regional level."

State officials from New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were joined by a diverse group of New York City officials, including Emily Rubenstein, Assistant Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability for New York City Department of Sanitation, who outlined the City's goal to divert additional food waste from landfills as a part of its plans to double its waste diversion by 2017.

Geoff Rathbone, Toronto's former Director of Solid Waste Policy and Planning (and current Vice President of Resource Recovery for Progressive Waste Solutions) presented on Toronto's city-wide food waste collection and processing system. Clean River presented on their work with school recycling and composting programs in Toronto.