You Say ‘Food Waste,’ I Say ‘Renewable Energy’: New DEP Regs Create Pathway for Anaerobic Digestion

Walker Larsen

Burying our garbage in landfills is a waste of resources, but it’s also a convenient way to get rid of stuff we don’t need or want. If there were clear alternatives to trashing our resources, would we use them? The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believes the answer is yes.

The DEP has finalized new rules that provide a permitting pathway for operations that process source separated materials – stuff like food waste or recyclable plastics that are not mixed with other wastes in the general trash stream. Source separated materials are distinguished from “waste”, so qualifying facilities will not be permitted as solid waste facilities. Previously a facility that sought to collect discarded material for recycling or some other reuse was considered a solid waste facility. This created barriers to the productive use of materials like food waste. The new regulations are a good step toward better management of our discarded materials.

Under the new rules, finalized November 23, DEP has created three size-based categories:

  1. Small facilities (no permit required)
  2. General permit facilities (certain activities permitted by-right)
  3. Facilities that will require a new Recycling, Composting, and Conversion (RCC) permit

The good news is that these rules create a permitting pathway for anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. AD is a process in which organic material, like food waste, is processed in an airtight container to create a gas similar to natural gas (high in methane). AD facilities can use the gas to fuel energy generators to create electricity and heat that can be used onsite or sold in the energy market.

AD facilities, if properly sited and appropriately operated, offer a win-win by managing food waste and generating a renewable gas for energy production. Rather than putting our food waste into a landfill where it does more harm than good, the energy in the food can be efficiency recovered for productive use.

“But what about composting?” you may be asking. DEP’s goals, as stated in the current draft Solid Waste Master Plan, include diverting 350,000 tons of organic waste per year from landfills. Some of this will be accomplished by AD facilities, but some diversion will be accomplished by composting. The new rules clarify which operations are permitted by DEP and which are permitted by the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR).

Whether we create high quality fertilizers and soil amendments through composting, or energy and fertilizer through AD, we will be diverting organic material from landfill disposal. DEP’s new rules are a step in the right direction to better manage our resources for economic advantage and environmental gain.

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