21 February 2006

Tough challenges when you renew and reuse

    Ooooh that smell
    Can't you smell that smell
      Lynyrd Skynyrd

"Organic recycler faces regulatory wrath" is the headline of this article in Monday'sTimes of Trenton, but you might wonder why after reading the opening paragraphs:

Eastern Organic Resources has big plans for the decomposing fruit, vegetables and grass clippings it collects at its composting plant in Springfield, Burlington County, hoping to enclose the pungent piles and generate enough methane gas to power a 5-megawatt cogeneration plant at neighboring McGuire Air Force Base.

If the company wins approval from regulators, it would be the first commercial food waste composter in the state to produce both soil and fuel, solid waste experts say.

Eastern Organic's plans sound like a win-win scenario. But read on and you'll
understand the problem in a story that highlights the pitfalls and promise of
recycling and renewable energy.

Over three years, the company increased production from 50 tons of material each day to 200 tons. In 2005, they sold about 200,000 cubic yards of compost produced from a combination of food waste, grass clippings, leaves, and shredded wooden pallets. They have also been assessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines by county health inspectors responding to local residents' complaints about the smell. Not the DEP may force them to stop operation.

Ironically, the complaints and possible DEP action threaten plans that could actually solve the odor problem. Eastern Organic is currently approval not only to generate methane in a "anaerobic digester" that would generate methane, but also to enclose the smelliest part of the operation, filtering out the stench. McGuire AFB, seeking to fulfill energy saving mandates, has already said they would buy the methane.

There is cause to question their ability to deliver. The DEP contends that Eastern Organic has failed to comply with environmental management issues like water storage and wetland protection, in addition to controlling the odor. The breakdown of a machine designed to turn the compost resulted in a more intense stench. Burlington County officials have complained about what they call the company's inaction.

There is a little bit of everything here. There is a company that is probably not doing all it can to minimize its environmental impact. There are regulations threatening to squash a valuable growth industry. And there are residents in favor of recycling but against having it in their back yard. These problems are incredibly universal, and solving them is undeniably crucial.

At the end of the article, local planning board member Lisa Specca sums it up this way:

"It's a great idea to take the waste from restaurants and supermarkets and turn it into soil -- the concept is absolutely sound," said Specca. "The problem is rotting garbage really stinks."

"We're all crossing our fingers and hoping," Specca added. "If they don't put in the digester, it will be shut, and that would be a loss for everyone."

It would indeed. We need companies like Eastern Organic to succeed. When they fail, we all lose. I hope we're up to the challenge.

Cross-posted at BlueJersey.

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