SANDY BAUERS, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
POSTED: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2014, 1:08 AM
Sustainability managers throughout the region were left scrambling recently when the region’s largest composting facility, in Wilmington, closed because of ongoing foul odors and other problems.
What would happen now to the meat bones, vegetable peelings, uneaten portions and other food scraps they had been so diligently collecting?
The demise of the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center, which had been processing 160,000 tons of food waste a year, came just as interest in composting it is burgeoning nationwide.Several large cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have begun composting programs. Vermont and a few other states passed laws requiring facilities with a large amount of food waste to compost it, and similar legislation has been introduced in New Jersey.
In their moves toward sustainability, many area institutions – from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to the city’s prisons and the Eagles, from restaurants to
to be composted.
This month, two Philadelphia City Council committees held a hearing on food waste composting, exploring how the city could get into the action.
“When I was growing up, my mother always told me not to waste food because there were starving children somewhere in the world,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a Democrat from the Eighth District. “Fast forward to today, when my 5-year-old daughter instructs me not to throw food away, but to compost it.”
Food scraps are seen as the next frontier for waste reduction. Philadelphia’s curbside recycling rate for bottles, cans, paper, and similar materials has nearly topped out. Since food waste is about 24 percent of the household waste stream, that’s an obvious next step, many say.
The committee heard from operations small and large – from Tim Bennett, who runs a curbside collection service for 1,400 city homes, to a New Jersey company that collects tractor-trailer loads all over the region.
Their message: It can be done. It also can create jobs and save the city money. For a city that aims to be the greenest in the nation, it would help the environment by reducing methane gas from landfills and by creating lush soils for city gardens.
Maurice Sampson, president of Niche Recycling Inc., a waste reduction firm, passed out bags of finished compost, urging the committee to take a whiff.
“This is really magic,” he said. “It’s nature. No chemicals involved.”
But those who testified had few kind words for the Wilmington facility, which opened in 2009, and which many fear has given composting a bad rep.
Andy DiSabatino, president of EDiS Co., which built the Wilmington plant and was a small investor, said in an interview that there were operational, equipment and engineering issues, plus one overarching and stubborn problem: “Plastic bags. You can’t get people to stop putting in plastic bags.”
With a food stream contaminated by bags and other nonfood items, odors weren’t the only problem. The soil produced at the end was subpar, too. In October, state environmental officials formally ordered the closure, which had already occurred.
While many in the region had to find new places for their food waste – or simply resume sending it to a landfill – companies like Organic Diversion L.L.C. of Marlton had seen it coming and had made contingency plans.
The company is a sort of middleman, collecting food from large organizations and making its own arrangements for where to take it to be composted.
Starting about six years ago with one customer, it now has several hundred, said its president, Rocco D’Antonio. He delivers loads as far as Virginia seven days a week – not ideal for overall sustainability, but necessary until there’s more composting infrastructure.
In late 2015, Organic Diversion plans to open a new facility in Gloucester City that would produce biogas from fermenting organic material, then compost the waste.
One of the businesses many turned to was Two Particular Acres, a small composting facility in Royersford owned by lawyer Ned Foley. Recently, he expanded to composting in several area quarries.
He views the process as not taking in food waste, but producing a product – soil. “This is something that is very, very valuable,” he said.
Although city recycling coordinator Phil Bresee told the committee that starting a curbside program throughout in the city could cost $37 million a year, others presented their programs as ones that could be built on more gradually.
Brenda Platt, a member of the U.S. Composting Council, told the committee that it should develop a diversified composting infrastructure rather than relying on one site.
“One of the beauties of composting is that it could be small-scale, large-scale, and everything in between,” she said.
One of the betweens would be W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, which takes in food scraps from the Weaver’s Way co-op, Bennett’s company and others. It adds in “Zoo Poo” from the Philadelphia Zoo and manure from its cow barns.
This year, they took the compostables from the Philadelphia Marathon.
The finished product is delivered to community gardens, arboreta and, after being bagged by the students, “more than 300 additional customers,” said Scott Blunk, a volunteer who runs the program.
The University of Pennsylvania composts about 150 tons of food waste a year – mostly from cafeterias – saving about $4,000 compared to landfilling it.
But Penn’s sustainability director, Daniel K. Garofalo, said the initiative is more about education than money. “Arguably, the biggest impact is teaching students” the importance of waste reduction.
Whether the city ultimately gets into composting or not, Bass herself has already waded in.
“I never thought I would be so excited about dirt,” said. Within days, Bennett delivered a collection bin to her home.
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