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Food, gas, power: Anaerobic digesters and Long Island’s untapped market

A rendering of the American Organic Energy anaerobic digester facility in Yaphank.
JPN Studios
A rendering of the American Organic Energy anaerobic digester facility in Yaphank.

The foundation is laid for an organic waste processing facility in Yaphank that is poised to harness greenhouse gas emissions and provide a renewable source of natural gas and fertilizer — a major move in making Long Island’s infrastructure greener.

Waste handling is an urgent issue for Suffolk County’s town supervisors, with the closing of the Brookhaven Landfill approaching in the next few years. The pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle the garbage of more than two million people on Long Island is building, especially when communities of color are disproportionately burdened by waste disposal and transfer infrastructure.

Organic materials from food production and yard trimming make up 25% of all waste in New York, said Sally Rowland, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“When we talk about organics recycling in general, we are talking about large amounts of the waste stream,” Rowland said. Usually, this waste winds up in an incinerator — burned into ash that will sit in a landfill — both producing greenhouse gases for up to the next 30 years.

“That’s not a small component,” she added.

In a landfill, chemical reactions naturally occur during anaerobic digestion, producing biodegradable organic solids and greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide. Organics are buried under layers and layers of other garbage, causing the waste to decay in a way that generates methane on a massive scale. A processing facility would harness this process to capture the byproducts for reuse.

The Yaphank anaerobic digester will be one of the largest in the world, according to Charles Vigliotti, CEO of American Organic Energy.

“One of the advantages of a facility like this on Long Island is that it has a lot of people — We all eat all day, every day, and we produce food waste,” Vigliotti said during an environmental symposium at Stony Brook University in mid-March. “But there are neighbors on Long Island. And you have to be conscious every day, all day of being a good neighbor. ”

Expected to open next summer at the earliest, the facility could take in 210,000 tons of organic waste, fats, oils and greases annually. Each year, Long Island produces about 500,000 tons of organic waste, according to state data.

The process could generate 500,000 MMBtu of natural gas. The resulting natural gas will be connected directly into the National Grid pipeline for thousands of homes in the Town of Brookhaven. In addition, 260,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer and 45,000 tons of compost would be produced. The facility would also avoid the emission of 85,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually — the equivalent of taking offline approximately two natural gas-fired power plants in one year.

Many anaerobic digesters already exist — the first digester to use municipal solid waste as a feedstock in the U.S opened in 1939 — and are often depended upon in the agricultural industry to dispose of livestock manure. However, the irregular production and erratic composition of food waste makes this technology more difficult to introduce in residential areas, Vigliotti said.

This type of residential anaerobic digester is rare — another example is from the Green Era campus in Chicago, where a worker-owned cooperative facility is projected to reach completion this year.

On Long Island, there is significant interest from municipalities, Vigliotti said. He added the trouble is planning where to put waste management facilities in the suburbs, and how to encourage residents to change their relationship with garbage.

Martin Bellew, commissioner of the Islip Town Department of Environmental Conservation, said collecting food waste is a challenge. Much like how similar programs function in European countries, he said it could require separate waste trucks to enter circulation and add another day of the week for people to put out their garbage. This is all in addition to the startup costs of making the facilities in the first place.

To get past those initial obstacles, Bellew, who also serves as president of the Islip Resource Recovery Agency, said transparency will be important to motivate residents to participate in recycling.

“We’re all visual animals,” Bellew said. “If we see something [being accomplished], it goes a long way.”

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, anaerobic digestion is one of the recycling programs that would support creating a circular economy — which views waste as a product that still has use, rather than something that is tossed away. In January 2022, a state law took effect to mandate 1,300 large companies and institutions — that’s statewide, excluding New York City, and 512 of which are on Long Island — to scrap food waste and donate viable products.

“Basically, if you generate, as a business, more than two tons of food scraps per week, you have to donate edible food to the maximum extent practicable,” Rowland said. “And you have to recycle what's left over if there's a facility within 25 miles. Of course, that's the catch. You have to have a viable recycler within 25 miles.”

Right now, 42,000 tons of organic waste generated from large institutions on Long Island — less than 10% of the region’s total organic waste stream — is picked up by the law because of the distance requirement. “It means we need more [food] recycling facilities,” she continued.

A draft of the state solid waste management plan through 2032 supports expanding the food scrap and donation law to include smaller businesses and create a per-ton disposal disincentive surcharge for all waste, not just organic, that is combusted and landfilled in New York or sent out of state.

The plan also seeks to push New York to grow its recycling industry through training and financial assistance, and empower residents to compost at home or through community programs — for example, in the shadow of the Brookhaven Landfill, the North Bellport community started a composting effort during the pandemic to reduce their contribution to the waste facility.

The Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG) was also organized to be a part of conversations with the Town of Brookhaven to urge zero-waste strategies and create a decade-overdue local solid waste management plan. Still, Town Waste Management Commissioner Christine Fetten this week asked the state to entertain “new technology that can achieve [greenhouse gas emissions] that is separate and apart from compost.” The town did not respond to questions about its support for community composting.

“You gotta talk to your community,” Vigliotti said in mid-March. “Without that community support, it’s just a long, hard slog — no matter how good, well-worthwhile your project.”

When the anaerobic digester broke ground in April 2022, BLARG accused the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town of working behind the scenes without public discourse amid concerns that the Yaphank facility planned down the street from the Brookhaven Landfill would have disproportionate environmental and health impacts on the nearby community of color. This April, American Organic Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

“It's critical that you engineer this facility to the absolute highest standards so that this facility has zero impact outside of its property line,” Vigliotti said. “We have multiple layers of ensuring that our neighbors don't suffer any negative impacts because of the operation of this facility."

While the anaerobic digester will help, Mark Haubner, president of the nonprofit North Fork Environmental Council, said he is in favor of multiple programs to cut down on waste. The secret to success, he said, is to make recycling economically viable, which will incentivize businesses and consumers to behave in environmentally friendly ways.

“It’s all about the markets,” Haubner said. “If you don’t have a market for a recyclable material, then, essentially, it’s not recyclable.”

A part of raising demand is reframing what New Yorkers put in the trash, he said. Language alone can influence whether residents see these organic materials as a part of a waste stream or a value stream—garbage, or an untapped resource. Haubner said reclaiming the value of waste could support earlier steps of production. The state agrees, asking New Yorkers to consider waste as “a concept of the past.”

“Once you start recreating the value in people’s minds, they can start seeing the market for it,” Haubner said. “It’s not food waste, it’s food scraps. It’s not yard waste, it’s yard trimmings.”

Other types of waste already handled this way: Electronic devices that are disposed of properly are already mined for their components for reuse; Some plastics and paper can be “upcycled” into other products; and over 330 anaerobic digesters on farms that find new use for animal manure are a few examples

Haubner said organic waste reduction could also open local conversations about curbing other waste streams, like material from construction and demolition debris.

Joseph D’Alessandro is a former news intern at WSHU.
A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.