May 29, 2012 | last updated May 29, 2012 11:56 am

Trash To Cash

PHOTO/JACQUELYN GUTC
PHOTO/JACQUELYN GUTC
Executive Chef Stephan Naleski, left, and Mike Reno, sous chef at UMass Memorial Health Care's University Campus in Worcester, prepare to remove food waste from the kitchen. The waste is stored in 50-gallon drums until a pig farmer picks it up, eliminating the need for the campus to pay a trash hauler to take it away.

At Metech Recycling, housed in an 80,000-square-foot warehouse on Blackstone River Road in Worcester, workers hack at old television sets and telecom electronics cabinets with long hammers.

They separate the glass, circuit boards and other components, which are then sold to smelters, metal dealers and others.

The facility sorts through more than half a million tons of so-called "e-waste" per month, and a good chunk of it comes from some of the area's most prominent companies, said Chris Ryan, president of the Worcester facility.

"Of that, maybe 75 to 80 percent goes out as material we get revenue for," Ryan said.

The process creates jobs. And it ensures that the appliances and gadgets don't end up in a landfill, where lead and other chemicals could leak out.

Most businesses Ryan encounters are now not only cognizant of the rules, but also of industry certifications and standards. That means higher recycling rates and a healthier environment.

"I think people's consciousness has been raised," he said. "There's increasing awareness of the e-waste issue."

Though many businesses complain about regulations stemming from e-waste and recyclables bans enacted in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, recycling rates have climbed and an industry has emerged around it.

And now, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is at work on the next big thing in garbage: banning commercial food waste from going to landfills or incinerators with the rest of the trash.

Food waste makes up about 1.25 million tons of 5 million tons of waste generated in the state each year, said Greg Cooper, deputy commissioner of the DEP.

"It's the biggest category of what's remaining in the waste stream," Cooper said. "It serves no purpose taking up space in a landfill or incinerator."

But it could serve a greater purpose as compost or, as the state hopes, as fuel for anaerobic digestion systems, which use methane gas to produce electricity.

Such systems are few and far between in the state now, but there is one in Rutland and several more are proposed, Cooper noted.

The state hopes investment in those facilities will start flowing as a result of the food waste ban.

Getting Ready For 2014

The DEP has been in discussions with larger producers of food waste – supermarkets, colleges, hotels and restaurants – with a target of 2014 in mind to impose the ban.

"That's to kind of give people a chance to ramp up," Cooper said. "To try to make sure it's not a giant surprise."

A number of businesses and institutions in Central Massachusetts say their preparations for the food ban are well underway.

UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care have installed composting bins in their kitchens, where a Holden pig farmer picks up the material periodically, said Melissa Lucas, the campus' sustainability and energy manager.

The campus is still throwing away food not consumed by patients and customers, but Lucas said she's confident UMass will be ready for 2014.

"We're probably already halfway there because of what we're doing in the kitchen," she said.

She credits the DEP for giving big waste producers ample warning about the regulations.

Clark University is even further ahead. It composts all food and paper from its kitchen, cafeteria and café, and has started a pilot program for the smaller kitchens in its dormitories.

The university diverted 206 tons of organics in 2011, said the university's sustainability coordinator, Jenny Isler.

She said Clark is not only diverting the food waste, but looking to reduce the total amount of waste generated by preparing sauces and other foods from scratch, providing knife skills training for its culinary workers, and having tray-less dining, which helps avoid students from filling up a tray and then not eating.

Supermarkets Are Part Of The Mix

The DEP has placed a special emphasis on supermarkets, which are large generators of food waste, Cooper said.

Big Y Foods, which has 31 supermarkets in Massachusetts, including several in the Worcester area, has been working on its composting program for much of the last decade, said Sandy Giancola, a manager who helps oversee those efforts.

Of the company's Bay State locations, 28 are diverting their food waste. A new store set to open in Franklin this year will have a recycling program. Big Y's Worcester-area stores started composting last year. Giancola described the savings Big Y is realizing through compositing as "modest."

"You have to pay the hauler," she said.

Big Y's food waste mostly goes to farms, and some even goes to a zoo in Ludlow.

"Wherever we can divert, obviously, we do," Giancola said.

That's one barrier the DEP recognizes: There are not yet enough places for 350,000 additional tons of food waste to go.

But Cooper said advance notice of the food ban will send a message to the market that could help change that.

"There's going to be this opportunity," he said. "There's going to be a pile of material that's aggregated somewhere and that material has value. Time and time again, we see significant investment come into the commonwealth to solve that problem waste and turn it into a resource."

Supply Meeting Demand?

Cooper believes there are enough haulers offering food pickup to meet demand for 2014.

Among them is E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough, although CEO James Harvey said he's concerned about there being enough places to bring organic waste once regulations kick in.

"First of all, we've got to get places to dump it," Harvey said. "Because of the odor from these things, you can't just dump it anywhere."

Harvey said his company started picking up food waste separately because his customers asked for it.

E.L. Harvey sends out several trucks a day to pick up food scraps from larger companies like Raytheon and EMC Corp.

Harvey said there are potential savings for those who produce enough organic waste to divert their food waste, but he noted that customers must rent a compacter, which can eat into potential savings.

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