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 law.

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: hayes@aesop.rutgers.edu. www.swpg.rutgers.edu

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