New Plant May Soon Convert Food Waste to Energy in NYC

Photo: Flickr/jbloom

Earlier this year, Long Island Compost announced plans to build New York’s first anaerobic digester. Photo: Flickr/jbloom

Residents, businesses and universities in the New York metro area may soon convert their food waste to electricity thanks to plans for a new processing plant that’s pending approval.

Earlier this year, Long Island Compost (LIC) announced plans to build New York’s first anaerobic digester, which will have the capacity to accept 120,000 tons of food waste annually and convert it into energy by using anaerobic bacteria.

Unlike the aerobic bacteria that typically break down waste in landfills, anaerobic bacteria can digest organic waste in the absence of oxygen — meaning plant operators can produce and extract methane in a completely sealed environment without fear of fugitive emissions.

Once extracted, methane produced from decomposed food waste can be used to generate electricity — a process LIC said will greatly improve air quality in the area, reduce carbon and solve food-waste disposal dilemmas.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the economy,” Charles Vigliotti, president and CEO of LIC, said in a press release. “Everybody wins!”

The proposed $50 million plant still requires approval from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and other bodies before construction can commence, but locals are already buzzing about the prospect of turning their food waste into energy.

“Obviously if they receive [approval] and were compliant with the federal and state requirements, we would look to do something that innovative,” James O’Connor, director of sustainability and transportation operations at Stony Brook University in Long Island, told college newspaper The Statesman.

While O’Connor noted that discussions on the plant are “a little premature,” he said the university is excited about the opportunity to turn food waste into something useful.

So, what’s the holdup on plant construction? According to a recent article from Newsday, New York’s DEC is currently investigating a threat to Long Island’s groundwater from composting.

After finding elevated levels of manganese in groundwater near a composting site this summer, the DEC made plans to test other sites that process “vegetative waste,” such as commercial composting operations.

The findings came as a surprise to Vigliotti and LIC, who originally projected the new anaerobic digester would improve groundwater quality in the region.

“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 told Newsday.

Since food waste will be processed in a sealed enclosure at the new plant, risks to groundwater contamination are less likely, but LIC said it will continue to work with the DEC on testing before moving forward with plans for the new facility.

While waiting on plant approval, Stony Brook University officials said they’re looking into expanding campus composing services to reduce food waste.

“Until the plant receives approval, we’re looking more internally,” O’Connor told The Statesman. “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.”

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Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.
Mary Mazzoni