SOUTHINGTON — Two recycling plants hoping to start in town could be the first in the state to generate electricity from food scraps.
A law that went into effect in January requires companies that produce large amounts of organic waste, such as wholesalers and conference centers, to recycle it as long as there’s a recycling facility within 20 miles. The law has provided the certainty needed for food waste-to-energy plants to start up, according to state officials.
“Sometimes a project needs a little certainty,” said Chris Nelson, recycling group supervisor for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “You could build it but there was nothing to obligate people to bring (waste) there.”
“You’ve just got to get the ball rolling at times,” he said.
Quantum Biopower, owned by Supreme Industries Inc. of Harwinton, intends to expand its existing mulching operation at 49 DePaolo Drive to process 40,000 tons of waste a year. Turning Earth, based in Pennsylvania, hopes to open in early 2016 at 111 Spring St. and process 50,000 tons of food annually as well as 25,000 tons of leaf, wood and yard waste.
Waste processed includes packaged or unpackaged food products, food that may have spoiled at the store or scraps from dinner plates. Compost and methane are produced by decomposing organic matter, and the latter can be burned to produce electricity.
Current composting facilities don’t produce electricity, Nelson said.
Biopower received Planning and Zoning Commission approval on Tuesday. Turning Earth still needs to submit a site plan to the town.
Nelson said the companies will also need a number of state permits concerning air, water and emissions. The application from Biopower is being evaluated.
Establishing a plant in Southington puts it within 20 miles of a number of urban areas, ensuring that any establishments that produce 104 tons of food waste or more per year must recycle their scraps according to law. From the north end of Southington, a twenty-mile radius covers Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury, Middletown, Torrington and a section of New Haven.
Another bill passed last year expands the recycling mandate further starting in 2020. Any wholesaler, conference center or supermarket within 20 miles of an approved organics recycler must recycle their food waste if they generate 52 tons per year or more.
Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, represents many of the companies that will be required to recycle under the new law. He called the requirements a “realistic approach to helping the environment.”
The original proposal required any food waste producers within 50 miles of a recycling facility to haul their waste there. Sorkin said the association argued successfully for a 20-mile radius instead.
Companies must pay what’s called a tipping fee to dispose of waste. Both facilities planning to start up in Southington will charge tipping fees, and Sorkin said state officials will be monitoring those rates. Since the law requires companies to take their waste to recyclers, Sorkin said there’s nothing stopping such plants from charging exorbitant rates.
Food waste producers have been told that the tipping fees will be lower at recycling facilities. That’s the case for Lake Compounce, which was the first organization to sign an agreement with Turning Earth and its partner, Covanta, to take food waste.
Lake Compounce General Manager Jerry Brick said he’s not sure exactly how much food waste his park generates per year but that about 20 percent of its garbage is organic material. That will now go to a recycler at a lower rate than what’s paid to burn the general trash at the Bristol trash-to-energy plant.
Turning Earth’s plant isn’t projected to begin operation until 2016, but Brick said he wants to begin training park employees in sorting garbage this year. That’ll mean a smoother transition once recycling is required, he said.
Studies of garbage show that about 30 percent of what’s currently burned could be composted, according to Nelson. That’s already being done by a handful of companies in the state but state officials hope the law will increase the scale of food recycling.
Nelson also projected savings for companies bringing food waste to composting facilities.
“From what we’ve heard from developers, their fees will be less,” he said.
The law has support from state Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, and state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, officials who often disagree on policies.
Markley said recycling food waste is well established in Europe.
“I’m glad we’ve got something up in place,” he said. “Sometimes to get something started, it’s necessary for government to give it some encouragement.”
Mushinsky said the law helps divert garbage from landfills and improves the overall recycling rate.
“Thirty percent is not too shabby,” she said.
Mushinsky also cited the European example of waste management. The United States, with more land, hasn’t had to be as deliberate about trash. “It’s our turn now to get into this,” she said.