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 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 York.
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 topsoil.”
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 water.
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. 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 thing.”
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.
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.