Food waste, the future of recycling at Stony Brook

Stony Brook University may soon be converting its food waste into electricity thanks to plans for a new waste processing plant pending regulatory approval.

On June 24, Long Island Compost announced plans for a $50 million anaerobic digester in New York’s metropolitan region. LIC claims the plant would turn 120,000 tons of food waste per year into energy and compost and could be operational by the end of 2014.

Stony Brook’s Director of Sustainability & Transportation Operations, James O’Connor, is excited about the project but stresses that plans for the digester require environmental approval from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and other bodies.

“Obviously if they receive [approval] and were compliant with the federal and state requirements, we would look to do something that innovative,” O’Connor said, adding that discussions on the plant are “a little premature.”

Anaerobic digestion refers to breaking down biodegradable material with microorganisms— a system that can turn food scraps into biogas energy and reduce methane, a strong global warming agent.

According to LIC’s announcement, the digester would reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 500,000 tons per year, “or the equivalent of removing over 80,000 cars off the road.”

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the economy,” Charles Vigliotti, Long Island Compost President & CEO, said in the statement. “Everybody wins.”

LIC came to an agreement with the DEC, the town of Brookhaven, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment and other public groups to begin plans on the digester, although the plans will require further approval once completed.

The DEC is currently investigating a threat to Long Island’s groundwater from composting. According to Newsday, health officials have found that processors of vegetative waste, such as compost facilities, could be increasing levels of manganese in Long Island’s groundwater, which currently accounts for all of Long Island’s water supply.

Manganese levels of 49,000 parts per billion were recorded near a composting site in Yaphank, grossly exceeding the drinking water standard of 300 parts per billion. These high levels of manganese can damage the central nervous system, according to Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The findings came as a surprise for Vigliotti, who said in a Newsday article that LIC has contributed to the lengthy approval process for the digester.

“I guess the groundwater issue was the tipping point because we probably moved from debatable nuisance to something that needs to be seriously addressed,” Vigliotti said.

The digester would reportedly convert compost in a mostly enclosed, air-locked compartment, which will reduce its potential to contaminate groundwater. These plans, and the inclusion of a groundwater monitoring plan, offer relief to Esposito, who supports the improvements and said the findings show that “unequivocally, DEC needs to change the storage regulations and these materials need to be on an impervious surface and covered.”

The Office of Sustainability’s Recycling & Resource Manager Michael Youdelman strongly advocates food waste processing, referring to it as “low-hanging fruit.”

Although he stressed the premature nature of LIC’s plans, he is a vocal supporter of the idea.

“I hope that by the end of 2014, we’ll have the largest compost generator on the northeast right in our backyard,” Youdelman said. He added, “I will contact them to move the process forward” when the generator is approved.

O’Connor believes that, while turning food waste into energy is “the home run option,” the department is currently focused on expanding campus compost services.

The Department of Sustainability’s website says the university’s only composter, located behind Roth Cafe, turns items such as “fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds and other pre-consumer food scraps” into compost.

O’Connor is interested in expanding compost services from just pre-consumer content, or scraps disposed of in the preparation stages, into post-consumer content, which equate to leftovers.

“Until the plant receives approval, we’re looking more internally,” O’Connor said. “Can we look at more of our dining halls, and work out more of a logistics plan to collect the pre-or-post [consumer content] and ultimately bring that to a location to process it?’”

“We know we can do more,” he said.

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