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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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 (www.eorcompost.com), 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 (www.seacon.com), 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
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
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. www.eorcompost.com.
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
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
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, www.convertedorganics.com. Headquarters: 7A
Commercial Wharf West, Boston, 02110, 617-624-0111; New Jersey
contact, Jack Walsdorf, 99 Madison Avenue, Fanwood, 908-490-1058.
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
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