Follow the Leftovers To the Money Trail

Coverted Organics

From Sludge to Oil in Trenton

Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April 19,

2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Cover Story: Trash Talk

Striding across the campus of the Lawrenceville School, Priscilla

Hayes mutters darkly. A committed environmentalist, a woman who has

always had saving the world at the very top of her agenda, her lowered

tone may reflect her ambivalence at uttering a recycling heresy.

"Recycle plastic?" she says, with a what’s-the-point shrug. "And what

do you get, a bottle?"

Hayes, coordinator of the New Jersey Solid Waste Policy Group, a

grant-funded organization headquartered at Rutgers University, is not

opposed to recycling plastic – far from it – but she has bigger

ambitions for waste. She is currently zeroing in on the half-eaten

pork chops, lasagna casseroles, and Caesar salads that get tossed into

the trash in homes across New Jersey every day. She is also keen on

putting expired salad bar fare, past-prime cabbage, and un-served

restaurant dinners to work – along with plate scrapings from prisons,

prep schools, and institutions of all kinds. On this day, she is at

the Lawrenceville School to observe its food separation efforts. The

school is close to the point where it will be able to recycle its food

waste, and she is providing advice on doing so.

Food waste makes up a full 25 percent of the weight of the country’s

waste stream. It is often thought of as harmless, because, after all,

it’s organic. It will just decompose and return to the earth, right?

Well, only sort of. First of all, it needs a place to go, and

landfills across the Tri-state area are more full than a typical

buffet aficionado after his third pass by the steam tables. Some

landfills have closed, and others are reaching capacity.

Even food waste able to squeeze into a landfill is not completely

benign. For one thing, it leaches out, potentially harming nearby

streams and soil. And as it rots, packed down and deprived of oxygen,

it also produces flammable methane gas in quantities large enough so

that landfill operators often need to burn it off, a process that

pollutes the air and promotes global warming.

Use that gas, Hayes urges. While recycled plastic can just make more

bottles, the methane from recycled food waste can power our cars and

trucks, thereby, she points out, delivering all of us from dependence

on foreign oil – or indeed on any oil at all.

The discarded food can also be turned into compost or fertilizer that

will enrich our state’s badly depleted soil.

The Solid Waste Policy Group, formed in 1996 and fueled by grants, is

working to put last night’s leftovers to work. It is trying to

persuade institutions of all kinds to separate food waste and to ship

it to companies that are turning it into useful products – including

dinner for the state’s pigs. At the same time, it is providing

assistance to start-ups with plans to build profitable businesses

around food waste. "It’s 90 percent outreach," says Hayes. "It’s door

to door."

It’s not easy work, and problems keep sprouting up. Hayes, an attorney

who graduated from Princeton in 1975 and earned her J.D. from Duke,

has been with Rutgers for some 10 years. She was with the New Jersey

EPA before that, and appears worn down from trying to make something

positive from the mounds of garbage accumulating throughout the state.

Really, it is always something. Right now, a problem is mad cow

disease – and it’s a typically vexing, largely nonsensical problem.

"Envirofeed in Perth Amboy was having problems with permits, but it

was mad cow that killed it," says Hayes. That start-up, an off-shoot

of a larger company, was one of only a small number of businesses

which would accept "mixed" food waste, that is, waste from which meat

has not been separated from vegetables. The company turned food waste

into pellets and sold them to animal feed wholesalers. "But then

people didn’t want to buy animal feed containing plate waste," says

Hayes. "They didn’t want to take a chance." This, in Hayes’ view, is

crazy. "That food had already been served to humans," she points out.

One of the very few options now is to ship plate waste to pig farms.

Both Rutgers University and Princeton University do this. "Princeton

has money," says Hayes. "It puts the waste in a refrigerator." Rutgers

may not have as much cash at its disposal as does Princeton, but it

has commitment to spare. "Rutgers has been doing it for ages," says

Hayes. "They have a guy there, Jim Vernere, who has been doing it

forever. He bought a piece of equipment that pulps it and squeezes a

lot of water out. Water is not good for the pigs."

The universities pay the farmer to take the food away, but the cost

for disposing of it this way is less than they would have to pay a

garbage hauler to take it to a landfill.

The farmers add vitamins to the student leftovers, and produce a

tasty, nutritious meal for their porcine charges.

It sounds like a win-win, but in Hayes’ world there tend to be dark

clouds aplenty. In this case, it’s the disappearance of pig farms.

Once an announcement of the northerneastern border of the Garden State

more potent than any billboard could ever be, the pig farms that

perfumed the northern end of the Turnpike long ago gave way to venues

for the New York Jets and Giants, and their numbers continue to

decline. Hayes says that the number of pig farms in the state –

potential recyclers of plate scrapings – has dropped from 30 to 19 in

just the past few years.

But there will be new ways to turn food into useful products. Hayes is

working with Trenton Fuel Works on its plan to turn an abandoned

industrial facility in Trenton into a plant for the production of

vehicle fuel (see page 15). Adding food waste to an alternative fuel

mixture cuts the use of ethanol, a relatively expensive product that

is made from corn. And, of course, food waste does not need to be sown

and harvested, which also saves energy.

Hayes is working to help all of the Trenton Fuel Works of the state to

get up and running through everything from networking to lobbying. She

has been meeting with legislators and says "I want to meet with the

governor." She is pushing for financial incentives and rebates to

encourage food recycling "like the rebates and grants for solar."

"Low long can we buy overpriced oil?" she asks.

Hayes is nothing if not intense. Saving the world is not a hobby for

her, nor is it a new interest. The graduate of a "weird little high

school in New Mexico" (graduating class size, 12), she began her

career as a civil rights lawyer for the state before switching to

environmental law with the NJ EPA. After chasing polluters, she went

to Rutgers to work on the underpinnings of the state’s Right to Farm


And why should such a law be necessary in the Garden State? "People

have an idea of a Fischer Price farm, she says. "Two cows, and a

chicken. Very pretty."

But when suburbanites, having bought a house because of the charm of

living next door to such a bucolic venture, discover that farms emit

noise at all hours and don’t always smell like a meadow in summer,

they sometimes try to shut down the operations and rarely give in to

its expansion.

Laws needed to be tightened to protect the farmers from their

neighbors, and Hayes did the analysis to make it happen. "I’m very

proud of that accomplishment," she says. But asked to talk about just

what changes her analysis prompted, she says that language was

tightened up, but beyond that, she doesn’t know exactly. Her demeanor

leaves no room to question the reason for this lapse. "I always have

so many projects," she says.

Not hard to believe, in part because she took a lengthy cell phone

call from one of the start-ups she’s helping as she walked to lunch

and stopped by at the office of the headmaster of the Lawrenceville

School on the way back from lunch to check on details for an

environmental conference she is putting together for this year’s

Princeton University reunions.

Oh, and there was also a call from her younger son, Doug, a student at

Notre Dame High School. "I like to know when he’s gotten to where he’s

going," the world saver says. She and her husband, Peter Patterson, a

plant pathologist with the NJ DEP, have another son, Dan, a freshman

at Princeton University.

She grew up all over the world as her father, Stuart Hayes, pursued

teaching jobs from the American Southwest to islands in the Pacific.

"I spent my senior year in high school in Guam," she says. Right after

that, the family, including her mother, Louise, a home-schooling

teacher, moved to Lawrenceville, where her father taught for many

years at the Lawrenceville School.

There have never been an easy victories in Hayes’ work, just a

two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of progress. But she understands

the big picture, sees the big goals, and has a good idea of how to

reach them.

What’s more, she has achieved something which has eluded the vast

majority of 21st century working people. Says Hayes, "I have loved

every single job I have ever had."

New Jersey Solid Waste Policy Group, 55 Dudley Road, Rutgers Cook

College, New Brunswick 08901-8520. Priscilla Hayes, coordinator.

732-932-9155; fax, 732-932-8887. E-mail:

Top Of Page
Follow the Leftovers To the Money Trail

The good thing about food recycling is that it can make you money

coming and going. Money comes from fees paid by waste haulers at the

front end, and from sales of recycled products at the back end. Given

the rising cost of disposing of food waste in landfills, making a

business of turning over-ripe berries and brown bananas into new

materials is starting to make economic sense. But the road from

rotting food to riches is not a smooth one.

Eastern Organic Resources (, owner of the Woodhue

Composting Center in Wrightstown, is a company so confident that there

is a business in doing well by doing good that it is getting ready for

a major $40 million expansion of its recycling facilities. But its

Burlington County neighbors, like garbage dump neighbors everywhere,

are increasingly disgusted by the odors emanating from Woodhue, and

are threatening to close down its operations and thwart its expansion.

On its way to creating a multi-site food recycling operation in

several states, Eastern Organics has been assessed some $700,000 in

fines by the DEP for everything from inadequate odor control to

failure to submit a plan for installing ground water monitoring wells.

Richard Kish, general manager, says that the fines were reduced to

about $200,000 in exchange for site improvements, and that the

expansion – which will do away with the odor – is on track. Still,

Burlington County residents are less than thrilled with having a

garbage collection facility in their backyards – despite the fact that

it is turning waste into useful products – and vow to battle on.

Headed up by David Goodemote, a Boston resident who is on his second

career, Woodhue receives 200 tons of vegetative waste at its 160-acre

Wrightstown facility each day and turns it into compost that is used

for everything from wetlands restoration to enriching dead soil at

Toll Brothers’ housing projects so that new residents will be able to

grow grass. Contractors, landscapers, and garden centers are the

company’s biggest customers.

Goodemote, who commutes home every weekend to see his family, is

heading up operations at the Wrightstown operation, of which he is a

part owner, for a Boston consortium of real estate developers "who

wanted to do something with solid waste." He is an enthusiastic

supporter of the Rutgers Solid Waste Policy Group, where he enjoys

networking with others in his relatively new business niche.

Prior to joining Eastern Organics, Goodemote, an RPI graduate (Class

of 1972) and an environmental engineer with more than 30 years

experience, was part owner of Sea Consultants (, a

multi-location New England-based company that designs landfills,

transfer stations, picking stations, and general public works

projects. He left Sea Consultants to help form Eastern Organics, a

three-year-old company, because, he says, "I wanted to operate, not

just design."

At present, Eastern Organics operates an open-air landfill that is the

only New Jersey facility allowed to accept food waste. It’s hard to

get rid of food waste, Goodemote points out. Landfills are expensive,

and, in some part because of odor problems, there are fewer pig farms.

"Farmers plow some food waste into the ground, but it’s hard to

control and not all that environmentally sound," he says.

At his facility haulers bring in source-separated, pre-consumer

vegetative waste – no meat and no dairy. "A good portion comes from

area grocery stores,"says Goodemote. He receives food waste from all

of the major chains in New Jersey, and some in Pennsylvania and New


Another big supplier is Ready-Pac, a Florence company that puts

together pre-made salads. "Forty-percent of the greens in salads are

disposed of," explains Goodemote, "the outer leaves, etc. It has to go

somewhere. It can go to a landfill, but we’re less expensive."

Still, getting waste generators to sign on is not easy. "Supermarkets

are the toughest sell," says Goodemote. "They run on such a low

margin." They also tend to have high personnel turnover, making

training a challenge. But Goodemote does have a powerful hook to use

with supermarkets. "Saving money is important to them," he says.

Landfill rates in New Jersey run between $75 and $100 a ton. In New

York the rates are $125 to $150. Eastern Organic charges haulers about

30 percent less.

The loads that haulers drop off cannot contain fish, meat, metal,

glass, or plastic. "We call all of that contamination," says

Goodemote. "It it’s more than 1 percent contaminated, we reject the

load," he says. "Haulers can take it away or we will – for the normal

tipping fee plus the landfill fee." This becomes an expensive

proposition, and, says Goodemote, "it doesn’t take too many of those

trips to get people to comply."

Napkins, by the way, are fine. In fact, paper products, including

shredded cardboard, are added to the composting process. One benefit

is that they cut down on odors, so Woodhue is using even more paper

now in an effort to mollify its neighbors.

The food waste materials, broken down by naturally-occurring microbes,

and churned to allow oxygen to help with the process, are now turned

into compost in about 10 to 12 weeks through aerobic, or oxygen-aided,

digestion. At the end of the process carbon materials, including wood

chips, leaves, and shredded cardboard are added. Some of the compost

is enriched with clean soil and turned into topsoil. Both the compost

and the topsoil are sold only in bulk, by the truckload, 25 to 30

yards at a time. Some goes to garden centers, which sell it to

consumers, but most goes to contractors, who use it for everything

from capping landfills to landscaping roadsides for the state.

"We sell everything we make, and if we could make more, we could sell

it," says Goodemote. "Last year we sold 100,000 yards of compost and


Eastern Organic hopes that soon it will be turning a lot more food

waste into not only compost and topsoil, but also into methane gas,

which is destined to power McGuire Air Force Base and to heat its


The company is financing its new facility through New Jersey’s

Environmental Infrastructure Trust, to which it has applied for a $35

million low-interest loan, and through a $4 million grant from the

Board of Public Utilities (BPU). This will provide the capital to

build a 10-acre enclosed facility on its 100-acre site. The new

facility, which is expected to be under construction in July, will

convert waste into energy and into compost through anaerobic

digestion. In other words, the foodstuffs will be broken down in a

controlled, heated, oxygen-free environment.

This method has a number of advantages over open-air composting.

"Because it’s completely enclosed, we capture all the air, which

allows us to run it through bio-filters. That takes out all the odor,"

says Goodemote. "We can control the heat and moisture – no rain. That

makes a good habitat for the bugs." Those would be the single-cell

microbes that do the work of breaking down the food waste. They like a

hot environment, and an enclosed facility provides it. Because

conditions are so good for the microbes, the process proceeds much

more quickly than it would outdoors. Only five to six weeks, rather

than 10 to 12, are required to break down the waste. The enclosed

environment also expands the types of waste than can be recycled.

"Once it’s totally enclosed, we will be able to bring in plate

scrapings," says Goodemote. "That’s when life becomes really

interesting." The food waste his company receives now must be

separated – vegetables from meat. "It’s expensive," he says. But when

plates can simply be scraped into a garbage pail, "there is very

little labor." Even more significant, this vastly increases the pool

of potential waste suppliers. The facility will be able to take in

food waste from "prisons, colleges, schools, casinos, and large

cafeterias. He has already signed on the 60 McDonald’s restaurants in

the greater Trenton area.

Goodemote explains how anaerobic digestion will break down waste at

the new, enclosed facility, which will be able to process 650 tons per

day. "In the first phase, we add water, and everything goes through a

grinder pump to create a slurry. We keep tanks at a constant

temperature. Gas rises to the top and solids sink to the bottom." The

methane gas is siphoned off and piped into McGuire Air Force Base,

where it will be processed and then used to generate power. The solids

sink to the bottom and go into a compost building where they are mixed

with carbons and put in 300-foot bins with mixing units on top. "They

ride the rails," says Goodemote. "Water is added to the mix to keep

the bugs happy."

Materials that don’t belong in the mix are removed at several stages

of the process. Specially-made bag grabbers take out any plastic bags

in the mixture, metals sink to the bottom, and a final screening is

done with a 3/8-inch strainer that, says Goodemote, "removes whatever

is left."

The technology to turn food waste into something useful "has been out

there for a long time," says Goodemote, "but now it’s economically

feasible." His company is "just barely at break even now," but expects

to move well into the black when the enclosed recycling facility comes

on line. Its Woodhue facility employs 20 people and expects to add 35

more when the new facility is fully operational.

Goodemote, a cheerful, enthusiastic man working in a field where few

have dared to try to make money, has had to deal with everything from

the DEP to citizen outrage. But there is one problem that has yet to

arise. "When I told people I was going to New Jersey to work with

garbage, they all said `Oh! the mafia,’ but this is not the same as

the Sopranos. We have not had any problems."

Eastern Organics; Woodhue Composting Center, Saylors Pond Road,

Wrightstown, 609-723-6211. Fax, 609-723-1594.

Top Of Page
Coverted Organics

Jack Walsdorf, CEO of Converted Organics, ticks off the advantages of

turning food waste into organic fertilizer. "It’s a green technology,"

he says. "It preserves the life of landfills." The end product, used

mainly by agribusiness and by golf courses, ensures that the

inevitable run-off that follows rain storms will not pollute streams

or harm wildlife, as chemicals might. And, he adds, "it’s an

opportunity to make money."

There is increasing concern among sophisticated consumers about the

dangers posed both by chemical-laced fertilizers and by "closed" signs

on full-to-capacity landfills, but still, few greet the plants that

produce a green alternative with open arms. "We had a very difficult

time finding a location in New Jersey," says Walsdorf. "It’s a NIMBY


Scouting for his company, which has yet to decide on a headquarters,

but is leaning toward Boston, despite the fact that he lives in

Fanwood, he found suitable space in a recycling zone in Woodbridge.

"We’re in the process of finishing the lease and should get going in

90 days," he says.

The company, which has a successful test facility in Canada and is

networked in with the Rutgers Solid Waste Policy Group, is planning to

operate a 60,000-square-foot in-vessel recycling plant. The term "in

vessel," Walsdorf explains, simply means that all recycling will take

place indoors under controlled conditions. This means that there

should be no odor, and that the atmosphere can be kept at exactly the

right temperature to allow microbes to break down food waste quickly –

in about six days, which is about 25 times faster than they could work

in an open site.

He compares the process to making sour dough bread. "The agent used,

yeast, goes back to the 1800s," he says. "It’s the same with microbes.

You reserve a portion to put in the next batch." Microbes are

naturally occurring in rotting food, but Converted Organics adds more

garbage-loving microbes, thereby speeding up the process of breaking

down the food.

Converted Organics plans to use everything from plate scrapings to

Coke that has passed its freshness date to deli waste as its raw

material. "We’ve had conversations with at least two leading

supermarket chains already," says Walsdorf. "We’ll take pure food

waste – no knives and forks, and a minimum of plastic bags." The

company plans to charge haulers about 20 percent less than they would

have to pay to dump at a landfill.

After the food is broken down, the oxygen being fed in to speed decay

will be shut off, excess water will be squeezed out, and what remains

will be liquid fertilizer, some of which will be sold as a liquid and

some as pellets. Walsdorf thinks there will be a substantial market

for the chemical-free fertilizer in the agricultural community. "There

is a general trend," he says. "People want organic. It’s better for

you. I know that when my wife and I go shopping, we look for organic."

The popularity of supermarket chains like Whole Foods, which has

earned the nickname "whole paycheck" for its above-average prices, but

which continues to grow, suggests that Walsdorf’s start-up may be on

to something.

The company plans to market its fertilizer to a broad range of

agribusinesses, including those involved in growing cotton,

blueberries, and cranberries. After agribusiness, the next biggest

market will be golf courses, which have had serious image problems

because of the enormous amounts of chemicals they use. Other turf

environments, including soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and parks,

are target markets.

Walsdorf is not concerned about competition on the input end of his

business, assuming that there is enough garbage to go around, but does

worry about competition for sales of its products – "all of the time."

Still, he says that "intuitively, I know that golf courses, and

agribusiness, and people are moving toward this."

His background is not in recycling, manufacturing, or even in product

sales. Walsdorf, a Chicago native with a B.S. in finance from Southern

Illinois University (Class of 1970) and MBA from Loyola, has spent

most of his working life in commercial real estate, first for Trammell

Crow, where he worked solely on the Mobil account, and then for

Amerada Hess.

He got involved in Converted Organics through a friend in Boston. Most

of the partners in the business are in Boston, and they are now

completing financing arrangements for the new facility in Woodbridge.

Four more facilities, probably in or near New England, are to follow.

Walsdorf, who points out that money starts to roll in along with the

first load of bruised bananas or stale bagels, says that the company

expects to be profitable within one year.

A lot of work has gone into preparation for turning out garbage

by-products, and Walsdorf, a man who freely and happily chose to be

immersed in a successor to the venerable New Jersey pig farm as a

second career, wants to make sure that credit is given to ELM

environmental consultants, a company based at 218 Wall Street in

Princeton. "They are absolutely aces," says Walsdorf.

ELM has helped to clear the way for garbage to start rolling into

Converted Organics’ facility. That will just be stage one. The company

is in an infant industry, and only time will tell whether the era of

serious food recycling has begun – and whether a profitable business

can be built around left-overs.

– Kathleen McGinn Spring

Converted Organics, Headquarters: 7A

Commercial Wharf West, Boston, 02110, 617-624-0111; New Jersey

contact, Jack Walsdorf, 99 Madison Avenue, Fanwood, 908-490-1058.

Top Of Page
From Sludge to Oil in Trenton

For nearly 15 years John Magennis has meticulously maintained an $85

million building on Duck Island, just across from Trenton’s riverfront

marina. Its lights are burning, its circuit boxes are immaculate, its

machinery looks freshly painted – brand new. But there are vines

growing in the chain link fence that protects it from intruders, and

its parking lot is empty.

Magennis, manager of information systems for the Mercer County

Improvement Authority (MCIA), is keeping watch over the Regional

Sludge Drying Facility, a never-used plant that was to have turned

treated sewage from Trenton, Lawrence, Hamilton, and Ewing into

fertilizer. The building, first proposed in the early-1980s, and

completed in 1992 in what turned out to be a stroke of almost

unbelievably bad timing, is now on death row. Its land and equipment,

with a salvage value of just $2.2 million, will soon be sold to the

highest bidder – unless a savior steps in.

Stephen Paul, a Ph.D. physicist with Princeton Plasma Physics Lab

(PPPL), badly wants to be that savior. Having painstakingly raised

$5.5 million in seed money, he is tantalizingly close to taking the

first steps toward realizing his dream of using the plant to turn food

waste and other elements into P-Series automobile fuel.

P-Series fuel, named by Paul after Princeton University, is a

renewable biomass-based fuel, which was classified as an alternative

fuel by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1999, and is the only fuel

to be added to the list of alternative fuels since it was created

under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The Department of Energy is

counting on alternative fuels such as P-Series products to power

government fleet vehicles. P-Series fuel can also be used with the

millions of privately-owned flexible fuel passenger cars now on the

road – and the impetus to do so rises in direct proportion to the

price of gasoline.

Magennis, a Hamilton native and Chesterfield resident, has worked on a

wide range of projects for the MCIA. A graduate of Bordentown High

School he is married to Lynn Magennis, a real estate agent with ReMax

in Hamilton. They have a son who will be a freshman at New York

University in the fall.

He became involved in the sludge drying facility in 1990. By then it

was already mired in problems, but it had started out to be what

sounded like a smart, cost-efficient solution to an expensive waste

disposal problem. "It used to cost $300 to $600 a ton to dispose of

sludge," he says. Trenton decided that a better alternative would be

to build a plant where the waste could be turned into granular

fertilizer. "They were going to send it to orchards in Florida," he

says, "because of the long growing season there."

Only four such plants were ever built in the United States. In

addition to the Trenton plant, there was one in Ocean County and there

were two in California. Only one of the plants, the one located in Los

Angeles, ever operated. Now all are closed. A mid-sized plant, the

Trenton facility "could have handled 400 percent of the area’s waste

flow," Magennis says wistfully. "We could have taken from other


The plant was nearly complete in 1988. "It was to be the first on

line," says Magennis. But then there a contractor dispute arose. In

the meantime, the Los Angeles plant got started, and it was

immediately apparent that it had a design flaw. "We had to go back and

redesign the plant," he says.

It was complete in 1992, the very year in which the DEP declassified

sludge as hazardous waste. "The shit hit the fan in 1992," is how Paul

puts it. "Everyone was looking to point fingers. The timing was

terrible. It was still a good idea, but it wasn’t economically


It was going to cost $400 a ton to turn sludge into fertilizer at the

plant, but, suddenly, Trenton and surrounding towns, freed from

treating the sludge as hazardous waste, could dump it for $60 a ton.

The sludge now is trucked to farms. "I’m not sure what kind of farms,

probably sludge," says Magennis, "and golf courses, too, but it’s not

approved for vegetable farms."

Rendered a dinosaur just as it was about to open, the sludge drying

facility had economic issues. The federal government had provided $30

million in grants. These grants are usually forgiven if promising new

technology does not pan out, but the feds did not want to forgive

these grants. Magennis’ position was "why spend $6 to $8 million to

start it up to prove that it wouldn’t work economically?" He helped to

argue this case for eight years, and, in 2000, the grants were


The $55 million the county had kicked in, however, is largely lost. It

will recoup $2.2 million if it sells to Paul’s company, Trenton Fuel

Works. It will also save the $160,000 to $200,000 it has been paying

to keep essential light and heat on. All of the municipal players

involved have agreed to sell to Paul. In turn, his investors are just

waiting for the county’s approval of the feasibility study he has

commissioned from Biomedics, a company based in Waltham,


"Both parties, the buyer and the seller, are highly motivated," says

Paul. "The sale is imminent." He doesn’t actually cross his fingers as

he says this, but he knows that getting to the point where he is

actually turning supermarket leftovers into fuel – even getting to the

point where he can claim the building as his own – will be, if not a

miracle, than at least a feat akin to finding a parking spot on Nassau

Street at noon.

The road to this point has been anything but smooth. Paul,

interestingly enough, reveals this as he swats away a question on

financing, politely labeling it dumb, and at the same time

demonstrating his own keen grasp of the subject – way too keen for

your average research scientist.

Refitting the plant for his process will cost about $50 million, he

says. So, has he started to raise the difference between the $5.5

million committed to his company and that amount? "Of course not," he

says, explaining that everyone knows that a start-up wants to reduce

the risk for investors as much as possible before asking for money,

thereby securing better terms.

The feasibility study has provided some comfort. "I’m very, very

pleased with it," he says. "I did do a complete lay-out and cost

analysis. Investors will want a detailed engineering study next." The

study will take about six to nine months.

Paul, who holds a patent on the P-Series fuel mixture he will

manufacture at the plant, didn’t always know so much about business.

Originally, he licensed his patent to a group of businessme. The

arrangement did not work out well. He now has nothing but contempt,

not only for businessmen, but also for American business. "We don’t

make anything," he says, throwing his hands up in despair. "It’s all

buying and selling, selling and buying."

After substantial wrangling, Paul got the license back, and is still

smarting, but is also much smarter about how business works. From now

on, it will be hands on. "You need that passion," interjects Magennis.

Paul, who earned his undergraduate physics degree from Cornell (Class

of 1975) and his graduate degree from Columbia, has passion to spare.

Asked when he decided to devote himself to formulating an alternative

fuel, he shoots back: "The last Gulf War. The last time that people

died over oil."

In addition to decrying dependence on Middle Eastern oil, Paul is

appalled over the garbage that we oh-so-casually toss away.

"Priscilla Hayes says we send 1 1/2 million tons of food waste to

landfills," he says, referring to a statement made by the coordinator

of the New Jersey Solid Waste Policy Group. "They’re just

bioreactors," he says of the garbage mountains. "They’re full of

gasses, including methane – a very potent gas that reflects 21 percent

greater heat than carbon dioxide. It creates totally needless

greenhouse gas. We have to keep organics out of landfills. The climate

of the planet is hanging in the balance. Every piece of orange that

you throw away will decompose and get in the atmosphere. It will end

up as gas."

While few think twice about chucking a half-eaten orange into the

trash, Paul paints a picture of the fate of that fruit that could well

make its way into a horror film. "You should see a landfill in the

morning," he says. "Huge plumes of gas suddenly erupt and shoot up

high into the air."

Perhaps that’s a reason that "Garbageland: On the Secret Trail of

Trash," the popular 2005 book detailing the attempts of its author,

Elizabeth Royte, to follow the trail of her garbage, features so many

scenes wherein she is chased away from landfills by aggressive

security guards.

In any case, Paul is on a mission fueled by the dual 21st century

dilemmas of an increasingly unstable Middle East, with all the

implications that holds for conflict, misery, and soaring gasoline

prices, and an increasingly unmanageable landfill situation, with

implications ranging from out-of-control dumping fees to global


Paul’s fuel will use one problem to solve another. If widely adopted,

it could go a long way toward erasing both.

This is how it will work. Garbage trucks will bring organic waste to

the Trenton plant. There will be food waste, probably from

supermarkets, schools, and institutions of all kinds. There will also

be grass cuttings, food-contaminated paper (think burger wrappers),

sawdust, and leaves. It will all be dumped into the hoppers that were

to be used for sludge, and, through the addition of mineral acids and

heat (450 degrees Fahrenheit), turned into a clear liquid in something

like 20 seconds.

Turning food waste into other products, including compost and

fertilizer, requires de-watering. Food can easily contain 50 percent

water, a percentage that rises to 95 percent for watery vegetables

like lettuce. For the creation of compost, this is a bad thing, or at

least something that must be wrung out of the product. But Paul’s

P-Series fuel process requires water, so no de-watering needs to be

done before the waste can be dumped.

Once the food waste has been liquefied, though, the water does have to

be removed. "You can’t have water in your gas tank," says Paul. That’s

the next step, and the equipment to accomplish it is in place. The

water will go off as steam, and that, says Paul, is the only emission

that will emanate from his plant.

After being dewatered, the food waste destined to become P-Series fuel

will be sent off-site, to tank farms, where ethanol and the liquid

by-product of natural gas production will be added to it. The mixture

will be 20 to 25 percent food waste, 30 percent natural gas, and 40

percent ethanol. Paul says that the 89 octane fuel will sell for about

10 to 15 percent less than mid-range gasoline.

An early customer could be the government. Under government mandates,

these fleets must use alternative fuel where it is available. He

believes that any car that can use ethanol can use his P-Series fuel,

and says there are 6 million such vehicles now on the road, with 1

million a year more expected.

Seasoned businessman that he now is, Paul acknowledges that each car

manufacturer will have to agree that the P-Series fuel, a clear liquid

that can be used alone or mixed with gasoline, will not damage cars or

void warranties. He thinks that this will happen.

The next step would be P-Series fuel pumps at gas stations. But will

gas stations install the pumps? "If they don’t, I will," declares

Paul. "I’ll go as close to retail as I have to. Exxon did, and I will


The plant will also use some of the food waste it takes in to produce

a granular substance that, when mixed with small pieces of coal, can

be used to power industrial equipment. "We’ll use it here, for our

operations," says Paul. Some may also be sold to other manufacturers.

Because of the high water content of food, it will take a lot of

garbage to keep the plant running at capacity. Paul and Magennis do

the math, taking into account the high water content of food waste and

the amount that can be packed into a garbage truck or tractor trailer.

They figure that it would take about 45 loads to get to capacity. It

won’t be easy getting that much raw material, but Paul is confident

that Hayes, who shares his passions, is working hard to get it


He also hopes that there will soon be a day when householders will add

their apple cores, dinner plate scrapings, and gunked up pizza boxes

to the mix. He points out that Burlington County ran a pilot program

in which it asked residents to separate food waste. The response was

enthusiastic, says Paul, "and they went into it knowing that there was

no place for the food to go." Imagine the response, he says, if people

knew that their leftovers could reduce their tax bills through lower

disposal costs, could lower their gasoline bills, and could help the


He will charge haulers about half the $105 a ton tipping fee they

would ordinarily pay to dump their loads, and hopes that that will be

incentive enough for waste producers to sign on with haulers who use

his facility.

With his dream so close that he can almost smell the leftovers, Paul

says that his employer, PPPL, has been "enormously supportive." The

lab encourages scientific advances by allowing its scientists to spend

20 percent of their time on their own projects. For the rest, he can

use vacation. And any waking hour he can steal. "I was up until 3 a.m.

last night," he says.

Paul is the father of three, one of whom is a year ahead of Magennis’

son at NYU. His wife, Gilda, is a psychologist who works for Princeton

University, doing administrative work and research.

Completing a tour of the proposed Trenton Fuel Works plant, Paul

points out a hopper that had been installed to shoot the fertilizer

that was to have been made there onto railroad cars. He points through

the bushes to railroad tracks, and says that it would be easy to

restore the rail link. He walks past a power box, full of new-looking

coiled wires, which Magennis opens to flip on a blower. Moving toward

the blower, Paul gets a bit tangled in briars.

"By summer there will be bees and wasps here," says Magennis.

Paul just smiles. If he is indeed here this summer to battle the bees,

so long used to having the place to themselves, it will mean that

P-Series alternative fuel from his plant is really on its way to

powering cars and trucks. "In two years," he says, "I’ll have it

gushing fuel enough for 15,000 cars."

Bees, watch out. The whole sludge thing didn’t pan out, but maybe,

just maybe, the constellations are lined up just right, and the time

for Trenton Fuel Works is here. Perhaps the timing for turning last

night’s leftovers into fuel is just as good as the timing for turning

sludge into fertilizer was bad.

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