When are trash incinerators and landfills considered recycling facilities?
Under a bill up in both houses tomorrow, the answer is when they burn methane gas from food waste to generate electricity.
The legislation (S-1206), a political football kicked around by lawmakers for the past five years, aims to get a start on better managing the millions of tons of food waste each year discarded by large generators of garbage, most notably restaurants, hospitals, prisons, supermarkets and higher education institutions.
As much as 40 percent of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the United States is never eaten, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Much of it ends up in garbage dumps, where it rots and releases methane into the air, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat from Middlesex County who chairs the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. It originally sought to direct food waste to licensed anaerobic digesters, or composting facilities, where the methane can be captured and reused.
Capturing methane gas
But late amendments to the legislation on Thursday will allow food waste to continue to flow to garbage dumps — as long as they have methane-gas capture systems — and incinerators, a move that irked the recycling sector and environmentalists.
“It’s meaningless. Needless to say, we don’t think it does anything,’’ said Marie Kruzan, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, who predicted most of the food waste will end up in landfills or incinerators without being recycled.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “Now you have a bill that is going to increase greenhouse gas emissions and subsidize landfills and incinerators that we should be closing,’’ he said.
For his part, Smith said he accepted the amendments as the price of moving the bill out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it faced opposition from lawmakers in Union County fearful the incinerator there would lose a big portion of its waste stream.
The state’s waste-to-energy sector is struggling, in part because of recycling and efforts to restrict certain waste flow to its four remaining incinerators, in Essex, Camden, and Gloucester counties, and Rahway in Union County. One facility, operated by Covanta Energy, in Oxford Township in Warren County closed in March.
“They’re all protecting their money,’’ Kruzan said, referring to the increased waste flows that make the facilities profitable. Host communities also want to protect the financial benefits they receive from having the facilities located there.
‘A difficult bill’
“It was a difficult bill, a very hard bill,’’ Smith said, in explaining how he could live with the amendments. He noted the existing incinerators will only be allowed an exemption to burn food waste for four years, unless they build a food-waste digesting system on site.
“I’m trying to get the food waste from going into landfills,’’ Smith said. Existing landfill gas-recovery systems are falling apart and he argued the dumps have a diminishing shelf life. He plans to introduce another bill to tighten emission standards for landfills, a proposal that will hasten that process.
If this bill wins passage in both houses, it would take effect next January for large food waste generators, those that have a projected volume of 104 tons per year, which drops to 52 tons per year in January 2023.
According to a fiscal estimate by the Office of Legislative Services, the bill would have a potentially significant annual cost impact on the state and state institutions of higher education to comply with requirements for separating food waste from other garbage and recycling it.
A three-year-old study by Rutgers Agricultural Experimental Station suggested New Jersey is not utilizing the potential energy from biomass — organic materials like plants and food waste that could be used to produce energy.
New Jersey hopes to reduce food waste by 50 percent under a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2017.