The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 40 percent of food is never eaten and simply thrown away. That means tons of rotten, spoiled or just plain unwanted victuals must be disposed of. It’s a nationwide problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a variety of methods, which the agency ranks from most to least preferable, on how to get rid of excess food. For one, businesses could avoid creating excess food in the first place by reducing production.
Beyond that, the EPA suggests sending the food to soup kitchens and food banks, using it as animal feed and then using it as compost for plant soil.
The least-preferable option is sending the waste to incinerators or landfills — considered the dirtiest disposal methods.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature sent to Gov. Phil Murphy what could have been a landmark measure, Senate Bill 1206, aimed at curbing food waste and stimulating a market around greener technology. But an amendment tucked into the bill shortly before it was approved maintains incinerators and landfills as acceptable destinations.
That was never the intention of the legislation. But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th District, said he needed to add in those provisions to secure the bill’s passage through the full Assembly and Senate.
S1206 would require businesses producing more than 52 tons of food waste a year to separate it from other trash and recycle it.
Institution-level businesses – hospitals, supermarkets, prisons and government facilities – would be affected most. Additionally, starting in 2020 businesses within 25 miles of a “food waste facility” such as those that specialize in anaerobic digestion – which produces methane – or composting, would have to send the food there.
“What this will do is generate the market. This is a chicken and egg situation, where you’ve got to have a market, you’ve got to have the fuel in order to build the digesters,” said Smith, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee. “It’s guaranteeing that they’re going to have a product.”
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-36th District – who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, wanted to add in the provision for landfills – he could not be reached for comment on why.
Assemblyman James Kennedy, D-22nd District, added in the provision for incinerators. He contended that the incinerator in his city of Rahway produces a massive chunk of the region’s electricity.
“Forty percent of its waste is actually food waste, and you’re going to take that out, you have to make some sort of balance so you don’t bankrupt a good thing,” Kennedy said.
“The bill is far from perfect,” Smith conceded, but it “moves the ball forward.”
He acknowledged that the exemptions were unpopular — he did not want them, saying to put food in incinerators is “not a great public policy.”
Many environmentalists worried that the exemption would dilute the effect of the bill to the point it would not accomplish its intended goal.
“What this bill now does instead of reducing carbon, it actually allows carbon to continue going the way it’s been going, even worse because we’re bailing out incinerators,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel. “In order to burn [food] waste, incinerators have to burn natural gas, because it’s wet and hard to burn.”
Most incinerators are in lower-income communities, and advocates such as the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark worry that those residents will bear the brunt of the negative environmental effects.
“This bill will effectively generate more greenhouse gases and contribute to air pollution in overburdened communities through the burning and burying of waste that could be diverted via more sustainable mechanisms like composting,” the group said in a statement.
James Regan, a spokesperson for Covanta – which owns the state’s four incinerators – conceded that food waste disposal by incineration is less than ideal. He added that Covanta opposed the exemptions for both landfills and incinerators.
But with the landfill exemption having been added – one of the EPA’s two least preferred methods of food recycling – Regan said Covanta could be placed at a disadvantage in the state if incineration was not permitted.
So it’s not just people dumping food waste in the landfill. There’s a ton of things that a landfill has to be in compliance with before it can even qualify for the exemption.
– Ted Schwartz, an environmental lawyer at Scarinci Hollenbeck LLC
While landfills would get an indefinite exemption, and allowance as an acceptable form of food recycling under the bill, incinerators only get four years.
“Landfills are exempted kind of in perpetuity, whereas our facilities are a four-year limit, so why should an inferior technology like a landfill have an advantage over technology like ours that’s proven to reduce greenhouse gases,” Regan said.
Smith said that if the incinerators develop more environmentally friendly methods of reducing the food waste – such as anaerobic digestion or other means of biologically breaking down the food – they would not be out of the game and can still handle the waste.
In the most acceptable disposal methods, methane is captured and then burned to generate electricity.
Landfills would have to implement some kind of methane recovery system in order to be a food waste recycling facility, Smith said.
“So it’s not just people dumping food waste in the landfill. There’s a ton of things that a landfill has to be in compliance with before it can even qualify for the exemption,” said Ted Schwartz, an environmental lawyer at Scarinci Hollenbeck LLC, who has represented several municipal and county-run landfills and waste management systems.
Schwartz contended, as did Covanta’s Regan, that the loss of food waste would hit landfill operators’ bottom lines.
“What happens if you reduce the amount of waste coming into your landfill? You have less customers to spread the cost of operations and … have to increase rates,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that the methane could be used to power a variety of government or private facilities.
Nonetheless, Smith disputed the rosy depiction of the landfills, pointing out that the methane tends to leak and the garbage truly goes to waste. A push for greener technologies could mean that the importance of landfills will wane over the next decade, Smith suggested.
“They’re falling apart” and can’t compete “due to capitalism,” Smith said. “There’s not enough money.”
Still, Jay Fischer, owner and founder of AG Choice Organics Recycling in Newton, contended that his composting food waste recycling business frequently contends with roadblocks erected by local officials and the landfill industry.
“You’re talking about billions of dollars,” he said. “When it comes to made-for-compost, they lose their revenue from the trash.”