Large grocery stores, restaurants and fresh produce distributors in Maryland send their food waste to landfills, mostly because there is no other option in the state for such large amounts of waste.
But that is expected to change as a result of a recent state law that will require large food generators instead to donate servable food, send it to farms where it can be used as animal feed or to transport it to organic recycling facilities.
Those options include sites which compost food waste, leaves, branches and paper to create a “sludge” that is watered and mixed daily for months until it creates nutrient-rich soil. Anaerobic digestion facilities, which use microbes to break down organic material into biogas (mostly methane and carbon dioxide), are also an option.
Starting January 2023, large supermarkets, convention centers and public and private cafeterias that generate two tons or more food waste weekly must divert it from landfills, as long as there is an organic recycling facility within 30 miles where recycling fees would cost them, at most, just 10% more than dumping fees. In 2024, the law will also apply to food producers that generate at least one ton of food waste a week.
The goal is to create a sustainable composting market in Maryland, said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the bill.
Currently, there are only small-scale composting facilities and anaerobic digesters in the state, none of which could accept all food waste from large food operators such as Coastal Sunbelt, a fresh produce distributor and processor based in Howard County that serves the Mid-Atlantic region.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Jason Lambros, the vice president of facilities for Coastal Sunbelt. “For years, we’ve been working with compost facilities, but they generally cannot handle our volume and have been very transient.” Some would begin working with Coastal Sunbelt, but then shortly go out of business, he said.
“We have several decent-sized farms that can take a fair amount of food waste, but it’s not nearly enough. The vast majority goes to landfills, which is very frustrating,” he continued. Coastal Sunbelt produces around 200 tons of food waste a week, Lambros said.
“We have really bent over backwards to try to do everything we can to get it diverted anywhere but landfills.”
But that will soon change for Coastal Sunbelt, when Bioenergy Devco finishes constructing what will be Maryland’s largest anaerobic digester located on Maryland Food Center Authority campus in Jessup, one of the largest food terminals on the East Coast and only six miles away from Coastal Sunbelt’s headquarters. The facility will be able to divert 125,000 tons of organic waste per year, according to Bioenergy Devco.
Right now, Coastal Sunbelt sends 80% of its food waste to landfills and 20% to farms, according to Lambros. But the company hopes to divert all of that 80% waste to Bioenergy Devco’s anaerobic digestion facility once it begins operating by the end of the year. And since the facility is nearby, there will be less transportation time, and thus, less greenhouse gas emissions.
Bioenergy Devco is a global company that designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion facilities, with 240 plants across the world. The facility under construction in Howard County will be its first project in the United States.
“There are food processors all around this area, within a five mile radius, and there’s 100,000 tons of waste material that gets thrown out every year. So we put our facility right in the middle [of the Maryland Food Center] to keep truck traffic down and to help reduce costs,” said Shawn Kreloff, chief executive officer of Bioenergy Devco.
He likened anaerobic digesters to “a cow’s stomach.”
“This is really a cow’s stomach on a very, very large scale,” Kreloff said. “The same microbes in a cow’s stomach process our organic material and turn it into renewable energy and a compost-like fertilizer.”
More specifically, two three-story tall cylinder machines will grind organic waste in a “slurry,” which then goes through a heated, airtight tank called a digester. What comes out is a mix of water, solids and biogas — which is mostly methane and carbon dioxide and can be used as energy to fuel cars or be converted to electricity and heat.
When Coastal Sunbelt built its headquarters six years ago, they incorporated systems that could separate clean organic matter such as fruit and vegetable trimmings from congregated waste that may be contaminated by paper and plastic and put them in sealed containers that a truck can easily take to a farm, composting facility or anaerobic digester, Lambros said.
“We have very few takers for this really desirable product,” but that will change once Bioenergy Devco’s facility goes online, he continued. “We’re ready as soon as they’re ready.”
According to a map created by Clean Water Action, there are at least seven composting facilities and three anaerobic digesters in Maryland.
The Hogan administration granted more than $460,000 to support the new facility, which will create up to 50 construction and maintenance jobs, according to Bioenergy Devco.
“Our state generates nearly a million tons of this food waste every single year, which puts unnecessary stress and strain on our already overworked and overcrowded landfills. We can and we must do better, and that’s why facilities like this one are so exciting,” Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said at a press conference.
State legislatures in at least eight states — including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — have passed similar food waste disposal bans, and food donations increased by 30% in Vermont after it instituted its ban, Charkoudian said during a bill hearing. In this year alone, lawmakers from 18 states introduced at least 52 bills about food waste management.
When food rots in a landfill, microorganisms present in the waste break down organic material and produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that can warm the planet 86 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Methane also contributes to ground-level ozone, which can lead to asthma and other health problems if inhaled.
Anaerobic digesters basically recreate what happens in a landfill, but more efficiently and in an enclosed space, said Ryan Maher, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental watchdog organization. The methane that is generated can be redirected to a flare, where most of it burns into carbon dioxide and water, or used in natural gas pipelines, Maher continued.
Last month, the Environmental Integrity Project disclosed that the Maryland Department of Environment had substantially underestimated the amount of greenhouse gases produced from its landfills due to calculation errors. Since then, MDE has revised all of its greenhouse gas emission estimates.
Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles touted Bioenergy Devco’s new anaerobic digestion facility in Howard County as an effective way to address the food waste that contributes to air pollution.
“MDE supports bold action such as this Bioenergy project to take a big bite out of food waste and grow a clean energy economy that will help the state meet one of the most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction plans in the nation. It’s a great example of technology and partnership to divert food waste from landfills and recover valuable resources along the way,” he said in a statement.
Maryland must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, according to the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act. But earlier this year, MDE released an accelerated plan calling for a new goal of 50% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030.
There are concerns about anaerobic digestion facilities. For one, the natural gas industry uses them to justify building more pipelines, Charkoudian said.
“The danger is that a lot of folks who promote fracked gas are also promoting ‘renewable gas energy’ as an easy replacement to fracked gas, as an excuse to build out the natural gas infrastructure,” Charkoudian said.
Renewable natural gas is typically more costly to produce and it cannot sustain natural gas pipelines in the way that the industry often suggests, Maher echoed.
Even if Maryland produced all the biogas it possibly could through anaerobic digestion, it could only replace 10% of the state’s current natural gas usage, according to a 2020 report by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change.
When an Eastern Shore pipeline, which will deliver natural gas from Wicomico to Somerset County, was being contested, Chesapeake Utilities Corp. proposed that it would use anaerobic digestion to break down agricultural waste to produce renewable natural gas that it would funnel into the pipeline. Last year, Chesapeake Utilities Corp partnered with Bioenergy Devco to use Bioenergy’s biogas in its pipelines.
Bioenergy Devco also has another anaerobic digestion facility under construction in Seaford, Delaware, which will take in poultry processing waste from the Delmarva region, including from Salisbury, said Peter Ettinger, the chief development officer of Bioenergy Devco. It is expected to start operating in early spring of 2022.
Its Delaware facility, however, has received some backlash from environmentalists, who worry that this would lead to an expansion of “factory farms” throughout the region, as well as lead to potential gas leaks and explosions.
“I think we can balance a strong environment with a strong poultry industry,” Ettinger said. “We have to provide the poultry industry with an opportunity to manage their waste in a productive and environmentally smart way. That’s what anaerobic digestion does — not only by managing the waste, but also removing it from the land and ensuring better soil health.”
Biogas will still be critical for the sectors that are the hardest to electrify, Charkoudian said, but “we need to not be fooled by the greenwashing of the natural gas industry.”