The Anaerobic Digestion Update: Using Operational Efficiency & Better Policy to Solve Current Challenges



In this episode, we bring you a detailed update on the current status and challenges facing the Anaerobic Digestion sector today. With industry experts Jing Liu and Mario Rosato, we discuss the need for a better understanding of the AD process to improve operational efficiency, policy changes that support renewable energy and environmental safety, and for closed-loop systems that favour local abundant feedstocks over the use of energy crops.

And in part two of our episode, we bring you a briefing from Ecomondo 2015, sharing insights from the key figures we spoke to at the event last month. You can find video briefings and material from this event on our Events Page.


Lund University is recognised globally as one of the top research-led comprehensive universities. The university and its Faculty of Engineering is consistently ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world. Responsible for research and postgraduate education in different engineering subjects, architecture and industrial design, Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering is today world-leading in a number of fundamental and applied fields, such as nanotechnology, combustion physics, automation, chemical & environmental engineering and biotechnology. For more, the Lund University website, and the Department of Biotechnology page.


Bioprocess Control Sweden AB is a technology provider in the area of advanced instrumentation and control technologies for research and commercial applications in the biogas industry – exporting to more than 45 countries around the world. With a portfolio of smart instruments in the area of substrate analysis and process simulation, Bioprocess Control offers technology solutions that both stabilise and unleash the true potential of a biogas plant. For more, visit their website.




Main picture by Peter O’ConnorSome rights reserved.



State of Biogas Today – Operational Efficiency and the Volume-Driven Approach


THE ORGANIC STREAM: So today we’re going to be talking about the state of the anaerobic digestion sector today, and what we need to do in order for the sector to expand and improve, and you both have many great things to say on this matter. But when we were discussing the content of the show together, the key point you both brought up was that the A.D. industry is not focusing enough on optimising operational efficiency in biogas plants. So for our audience, we should start with a simple introductory question. So Jing, can you tell us what operational efficiency is, and what does it look like for A.D. or biogas plants?


JING LIU: Well first of all we need to understand the difference between the efficiency and the performance of the operation. Also, I think the efficiency and performance should match the goal of the process – the goal of the operation needs to be clarified. In fact, the goal of the operation might vary. For instance, in the traditional operation for waste and wastewater handling, the goal is to match the discharge standard. However, for renewable energy production, the goal is to maximise the energy production and to insure the profitability by improving the utilisation of the process unit, and increasing the mass and the energy throughput. And there might be conflicts between those two operational goals. So finding a balance is the key. We need to know that it’s seldom the case that plants are designed for optimum performance.


TOS: Right, so they’re not always designed with this in mind. And Mario, can you share your thoughts on this as well?


MARIO ROSATO: Yes, I have more field experience in this sense, and I can say that an anaerobic digestion plant can be considered optimal if it has been designed to be optimal by producing the maximum amount of methane per cubic meter of digester, and producing the maximum amount of methane per tonne of feedstock fed to the digester. These are usually opposite criterions, because one excludes the other. And at the same time, the plant must be stable enough in its operation – and I mean stable in the sense of maintaining a constant gas production with varying quality and quantity of feedstock, which is quite a tough goal to reach. So this is why a plant, to be optimal, must reach a compromise between these opposite constraints in the management.


TOS: Okay so it’s all about compromising, which can be quite tricky. So Mario, if there isn’t a focus on operational efficiency, what is the focus? Can you maybe give us a brief overview of the AD sector today in terms of the trends?


MR: Yes. In the European Union and the United States, the trend is to build plants as big as possible. The reason for that is a kind of economic scale. Usually the plant builders say that plants must be very big in order to be stable in operation, which is not completely true. A plant is not more stable or efficient because of its size; the plant is efficient because of its management. The other extreme is India or China, where the policies have lead people to build very small plants, usually at household level. In this case, the plants are poorly managed but nevertheless they are efficient for the scope they have, which is just to produce a bit of energy for household use.

It must be noted that regardless of the different national policies towards big or small-scale plants, there is very little political drive to make the plants efficient. It’s a pity, because a plant, which is not efficient in its operation, regardless of the size, produces a digestate, which is usually used as fertiliser, but if the plant is not efficient enough that digestate is not completely digested. This means it still has a residual methane potential and this residual methane potential means that greenhouse gasses will be emitted to the atmosphere. So the main environmental benefit of anaerobic digestion is being lost because of inefficient management. And on the other side, if you see the management of the plant from the economical point of view, an inefficient process is not extracting all the methane possible from that feedstock, so the result is that the economic performance of an inefficient biogas plant is also poor.


TOS: Okay so inefficient management is impacting the profitability of biogas plants – whether they are big or small, as well as the environment and there is very little political drive to change this at the moment. Jing would you agree here?


JL: Yes I fully agree, but maybe I should add some additional comments. In my point of view, a big plant does not necessarily have high efficiency, although big biogas plants should have a much higher interest in achieving high efficiency because the economic and performance impact is so big. But unfortunately this is not always the case. The businesses are focused on the plant construction and really little has been done to ensure a better understanding of the process, the process dynamic – basically, how to improve the operation.

So as a consequence, in many cases we treat the biogas digestor or plant as a “black box” machine. People receive unknown substrates and just dump them in, without knowing what they’re putting into the plant – and how can you expect to get an efficient and stable performance without knowing what you’re dealing with? In fact, the A.D. plant should be considered as, for example, a bacterial farm, or living organism – just like an animal farm that requires care and follow up. So we need to really care for the healthy level and growth of the bacteria, make sure they’re in the best condition to be able to convert biomass to bioenergy. So this is the situation. Even though the European biogas industry is considered more advanced in general, I think this also applies to European counties as well. So the situation really applies to the whole biogas sector, which urgently needs to improve.


Energy Crops & Other Current Challenges For Anaerobic Digestion Industry


TOS: So right now we’re operating without much knowledge of the process itself – and there are a lot of areas that the sector needs to improve on. Mario, you’re quite aware of the issue on the ground, can you share an example of the environmental and economic consequences of our current situation?


MR: Yes, I know the Italian biogas market well, and in the Italian reality, the industry does not earn money on making efficient plants or on the engineering of the plants, what actually gives money to the plant builders is the size. That is – the amount of concrete casted, or the amount of steel employed for building the plant. So this means that such gigantism can only be reached for plants which are in the range of a hundred kilowatts to one thousand kilowatts. And these plants are mainly designed for running on corn silage. Corn silage is not necessarily the most sustainable feedstock for making biogas, but it is very stable in its production, and so since said plants are owned by banks and capital groups, this substrate somehow ensures the owner of the plant that he will be able to recover the investment in a certain amount of time and have a certain profitability.

But if we analyse some statistics that have been conducted by an agricultural association in Italy, in this moment ninety percent of the energy produced in such biogas plants comes from the corn silage, and not from the manure. And on the other side, only a small amount of the manure (let’s say about ten percent) is actually being digested. The ninety percent remaining manure is just being thrown to the field without being digested, so the ecological potential of anaerobic digestion is being lost, which is actually polluting the manure before sending it to the field as a fertiliser.


TOS: Right, so instead of using the available manure, they’re growing energy crops, which goes against the notion of sustainable distributed energy and closed loop systems.


MR: Sure. Another aspect is that growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel input for pumping water, etc. So producing electricity with biogas means that about sixty percent of the total potential energy of the biogas itself is being lost as heat. This energy lost as heat must be added to the energy put to the cultivation of the corn. That means that altogether, the amount of Co2 emissions to the atmosphere is higher compared to other renewable energies.

Finally, these plants that are owned by banks and capital groups were built with the purpose of benefitting state subsidies. So it’s actually the Italian citizen who is paying for the subsidies for renewable energies, and this means an increase in the cost of the electric bill; and a kind of unfair social treatment of the resources, because that excess money being paid by the citizen is going to banks and capital groups which sometimes are foreign and they then take the money out of the country. So the volume driven approach has brought, at least in Italy, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in biodiversity, and to the rise of citizen committees who are protesting against biogas plants – even those plants that are run correctly.


Designing the Anaerobic Digestion Plants of the Future


TOS: So this approach is really doing damage to the whole industry, the environment and the local citizens in Italy. So clearly something has to change, and we’ll be focusing on this change now. Jing – can you tell me your thoughts on what we should be doing – where should our focus be, what are the challenges we face, and how should we approach planning and designing A.D. plants in the future?


JL: Well this is rather a big question! Although I mentioned that the A.D. industry has focused on plant construction and not on improving the operation, I want to emphasis that this doesn’t mean construction isn’t important. It is super important to make sure that design, construction and operation are tightly connected to each other. I consider the following challenges or aspects that are important to address:

The right technical knowledge and facility that’s well able to increase the efficiency of the plant and consequently lead to a more profitable operation. The right feedstock is super important. Feedstock is the fuel for the A.D. plant. Without knowing the feedstock or how to properly select and manage feedstock, it’s hardly possible to enough good quality fuel to power the A.D. plant. I mean, this is the number one priority in many cases.

The second aspect is having the right plant design and construction. In reality, this is not always the case. Imagine that the steering wheel is locked when you drive a car – how can you turn your car? If there’s an object in front of you, you will hit the object. That’s sometimes the situation in the A.D. plant. So the future biogas plant and design should meet the new operational demand.

The third challenge, or aspect, that I’d like to bring up is that we really need to have the right instrument, process optimations, and supervision control. Nowadays, many A.D. plants lack basic instrumentation needed to understand the status of the operation. In the control world we say, “If you don’t understand the process, you are never able to control the process”. With too little process information it’s impossible to steer the process towards optimum conditions. So there is an urgent need and we need to get more information and analyse more.

The last aspect that I’m thinking about is having sufficient process knowledge and competence of the operator. Again, even if you get all the infrastructure – the right fuel, the right plant, the right instrument – somebody still has to manage, or drive, it. And this requires knowledge and competence of the operator. Only in this case can the industry move forward.

Quite often I use two examples. In one I refer to the A.D. plant as a bacterial farm, and in the other I refer to it as a car. A car is like the biogas plant itself, and you need a good car. The fuel is like the feedstock, and you really need the right feedstock to feed into the plant. And the driver…even if you have the best car and the best fuel, the car doesn’t move without a skilled driver. It’s the same for the biogas plant. You need to have experienced, knowledgeable operator and process engineer to steer the operations.


TOS: So with the right technology, knowledge and training, AD plants can greatly improve their operation. I’d like to discuss an example of how exactly this can work on the ground, and the benefits it can have. Now, Mario, you were involved in rescuing an AD plant in Italy – where the owner had invested millions in trying to figure out what was going wrong with their plant. The plant was rated as 1 mega watt, but only reached 60% in its of its capacity even though they were feeding it with more than 50 tons/day of corn and triticale silage. So Mario you were brought in to help figure out what the problem was, and – tell us what you did to find the answer?


MR: So most of the time, the plant is being fed with fifty tonnes per day of corn silage, which is a lot of money if you consider the fact that corn silage is a valuable feedstock. And the problem was easily solved with just eighteen thousand euros. This amount was used to install a small laboratory in the facility. I trained the workers of the plant – who are not engineers or biologists, they are just manual workers. And this plant, I must say, was under-dimensioned, so I focused the strategy on producing the maximum amount of methane given the size of the plant. So I trained the workers to check the potential of the corn silage with the laboratory. We did some experiments with different mixtures of silage, cow dung, chicken dung, and some minerals that tend to activate the biological activity of the bacteria.

So after a couple of months of tests with the instruments, we identified where the problem was. It was a lack in minerals, which was caused by using corn and triticale as feedstock. By adding these minerals – which are just mineral fertilisers that can be bought in any agricultural shop – the owner of the plant was able to bring the electrical production from a hundred and ten kilowatts to nine hundred and ninety-nine kilowatts, which is the legal limit allowed for that category of plant in Italy. So since then it’s been more than one year and the plant has been running stably. And I noticed a secondary situation as well, that the people working in that plant were highly motivated. You can imagine that going around with a dumper or bulldozer, loading silage from the trench and loading that in the digester is not a very interesting or amusing job – it’s quite a dead-end job. These people are now motivated because they’re not manual workers anymore, they are laboratorists. They are in charge of a very sophisticated instrument. Now any time they do something, they know why they are doing it, which is quite important because they are ready to assume risk and responsibility. So that is a side-effect that was quite positive for the operation of the plant and demonstrates that professionalisation of the operators is of utmost important to bring the plant to an optimum working condition.


Policies & Government Action Needed to Support Biogas & Renewable Energy


TOS: So it’s really a shift in perspective – that the AD plant is a biological organism, or farm, and the workers are laboratorists/biologists rather than just operators. So that’s a great example of how this can work…

So we’ve covered a lot of the challenges and what needs to be addressed for the sector to be successful. But let’s talk about the bigger picture. For example – when we talk about increasing efficiency, it’s hard to justify increasing the quality and quantity of the output if there is no support or market for them. So Jing, I’ll put this to you: what key steps do we need to take for the sector to move forward in terms of policy and political support?


JL: If you look at nowadays, biogas has been generating quote an interest in the last decade, in particular we see the transition from using A.D. technology for only waste handling towards combined waste handling and renewable energy production. Even though right now the price of the energy is low, in the long we all know that the basing our economy on fossil fuels is not sustainable – not only because of the cost, which will increase as there’s less and less fossil fuel and will create the greenhouse gas effect – but it will also have a negative impact on national security. Fossil fuels are not always equally distributed, so there are national security issues as well. So that’s also the reason why we’re coming out with renewable energy, and so on. But just in recent years the renewable energy is not as developed as it should be because of the return of investment – maybe it takes too long, and so on.

In my point of view, moving from fossil fuel to renewable is a decision of the politicians, because we are in the transition based on the energy sources of one of very few big players towards renewable – which should be operated and managed by many ´, many local players. Locally produced, locally utilised, and spreading out the risk and so on. And this is actually a political decision – it’s not only marketing, it is a decision. And that’s one aspect.

In my point of view, the market competition is also a bit unfair. Indeed, renewable energy is still in the relatively early stage and the market maturity and business model maturity is not as well established as it should be, compared to fossil fuel. And people say that there is too much support or too many subsidies for renewable energy, but in fact actually, the fossil fuel, I think, is getting much more support from the government or from the big players.

So my message is: we know the current energy system is not sustainable. We need to move from the fossil fuel economy to renewable – there’s no doubt about that. It’s for our future generations. And that’s actually a decision for the government, and government need to provide infrastructure and policy support to facilitate, grow and mature the business and help renewable companies move in that direction. It is also important to make sure there will be many, many local players involved in renewable energy production – it’s not one or a few big players. And that’s very important because that’s a great way to create jobs, which is another big benefit. So I think, once again, that this is a political decision and without the right political support, this industry will find it hard to move forward.


TOS: Great answer, Jing, really interesting points. Mario, what are your thoughts on this?


MR: In my personal opinion, the policies should incentivise the use of anaerobic digestion mainly for waste management. In that case the subsidies should go to those who demonstrate the lower greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest value of anaerobic digestion is the ecological value, apart of producing energy. It’s a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and to produce a fertiliser that means saving fossil fuel energy for the production of chemical fertilisers. So these repercussions have an enormous value from the political point of view. Compared to other energies, anaerobic digestion is probably the best technology that allows a complete circular economy.

On the other side, the education is also very important. In order to drive a truck, you need to have a special license and undergo a lot of exams, which is absolutely logical because if you don’t know how to drive a truck, you can cause a lot of accidents. How can you explain, then, that nobody has ever thought about imposing the need of having a license for managing a biogas plant? An average Italian biogas plant has the power of ten trucks, and the damage it can cause to the environment if not correctly managed is enormous – it’s really a big environmental threat. So education of the operators of the plants is of utmost importance in my opinion. And this is an aspect that the policy makers have not considered until now.

The other aspect is that a biogas plant, if correctly and rationally managed and run with adequate instruments that can measure the methane potential of the feedstock, can be run on any feedstock – that means many residual feedstocks. And this is the most sustainable way to obtain energy, rather than cultivating energy crops. So this is another aspect that in many countries in the European Union is missing. Many policies are still pushing the cultivation of energy crops instead of the production of energy with waste through anaerobic digestion.


JL: I was thinking about adding one thing. I fully agree that the education and knowledge transfer is critical on the professional level, but I think also it’s very important to increase the public awareness – not just for the people but also politicians. There has been an increasing scare, you can say, about A.D. People say, “Oh, A.D. and biogas process is too complex”. It is a complex process, but it can be well managed. It is a naturally, existing biochemical process, and what we need is just to intensify it and make it more efficient. And with the right education and increased public awareness, I think we can utilise this gift from nature and get the most out of it.


Seldom can you find technology that can handle all kinds of biodegradable waste and stabilise it (which we need to do anyhow because waste is always there), and at the same time generate renewable energy. There’s no other technology that I can think of that’s comparable. So what we need is education and knowledge transfer to make sure that we see the benefit, we know how to operate it, and we create a good policy to support the development. Then, with this all in place, the right technology and good technology will naturally move to the sectors and be utilised, and consequently we will have much more profitable, economic, feasible and efficient process – and we can gain the benefits from the A.D. process.


Interview End.


TOS: That was Jing Liu and Mario Rosato sharing their insights and experiences on the state of the AD sector today – and giving us some very interesting points to think about.


From the discussion, we learned that first of all, we are not prioritising efficiency in plant operation today and this is having a negative impact both for the plant and for the environment. We need to build plants with efficiency in mind, invest in the right technology and in education and knowledge transfer systems so that plants can be run stably and efficiently, and feedstock can be managed properly. Education and understanding seemed to be key for both our guests. As Jing described – if the A.D. plant is a car, without a skilled driver in the front seat, the car will go nowhere.

In terms of impacts on the environment – policy played a huge role in our discussion today as well. We heard from both Jing and Mario that policy which favours large-scale plants and the use of energy crops – as opposed to using locally abundant feedstocks and closed-loop systems – has lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction of biodiversity and even a bad public image in the case of Italy, for example. A political decision needs to be made to support renewable energy and more small and local players, in order to build a truly sustainable AD sector, and plants should be rewarded for low greenhouse gas emissions.

So, we have a lot of work to do, it seems, to get where we want to be. Let’s make it happen!


Briefing from Event: Ecomondo November 2015, Rimini Italy


TOS: The Organic Stream team were at Ecomondo last month to take part and report on the event. For those who don’t know, Ecomondo is the largest showcase in the Euro-Mediterranean area for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste. The event takes place in Rimni, Italy and was four days of conferences with over a thousand international speakers, and an expo with 1,200 companies taking part.

This year the focus was on the green economy and how Italy is currently focusing on boosting the green economy in the country. The key message seemed to be that building a green and circular economy is possible today, and that they will play a central role in all industry sectors. Of course, there are challenges to face, however the companies and enterprises attending the expo were eager to find and demonstrate solutions – showing that there is an appetite for change.

This year saw the introduction of new areas to focus in the circular economy context areas – particularly food, biorefineries, and integrated water cycle management.


The generation of waste in the food system was a popular topic – as was the conference “Towards a zero-waste food chain: enabling technologies for the sustainability of the food industry and waste management in a perspective of circular economy”. Many different topics were discussed: the importance of separate collection schemes for organic materials, charges for pay as you throw systems, improving process efficiency in the food-chain, and strategies to reduce raw material losses. During this conference, we caught up with a few key figures to discuss the main points of interest at the event, and get more of a sense of the Italian situation.

We caught Marco Ricci – Chairman of the Working Group on Biological Treatment of Waste at the International Solid Waste Association, and former guest of our talk show – and he filled us in on the importance of biowaste recycling for Italy, and the challenges they’re currently facing.


MARCO RICCI: Italy source separates roughly fourty-two percent of all municipal solid waste, and biowaste is the key element to reach this result. One of the challenges is to expand the separate collection scheme of biowaste to the southern region where there is a lack of composting and anaerobic digesition infrastructure and where the separate collection schemes are realised spot-wise and not on a general area. The other point is that we had a recent report by the Italian environmental agency, which shows that intensive recycling schemes for municipal solid waste, including biowaste and especially food waste, are highly cost competitive to traditional solutions, which just rely on low recycling rates and high rates of landfilling and disposal.


TOS: Exciting news from the report that helps to support separate collection, which many municipalities in Italy have been having great success with as well.

Now, how to manage and the resources in rural areas was another key theme, and something that we sometimes tend to neglect when we discuss sustainability. Here is Fabio Fava, coordinator of the scientific committee for Ecomondo, sharing his thoughts on the matter:


FABIO FAVA: There are for sure new areas on which, in my view, we should work more in the future. Over sixty percent of the lands that we have in Europe are rural areas in which the environment is different from more populated ones. Often we are not exploiting the potential of this area in an efficient manner. So we need strategies and research and innovation tailored for promoting small industrial activities in this area – industrial means agricultural companies also – that are exploiting in the proper way the biodiversity that are specific for those areas.


TOS: There was much to cover over the course of the event, but particularly interesting was our chat with Andrea Miorandi – Ex-Mayor of Rovereto City, who implemented a separate collection scheme there. Mr. Miorandi was keen to stress the importance of citizen engagement in implementing organics recycling schemes, and shared some inspiring words that really summed-up the feeling at Ecomondo – that we’re ready to change.


ANDREA MIORANDI: The biggest challenge is to make citizens be participants in a good project. Citizen awareness and participation are the biggest challenges for these projects. Citizens must become protagonists even before the local administration or local authority. And we started a communication program that is both precise and locally-based. Well-informed citizens are enabled to participate in separate collection recycling. Citizens also need to be rewarded and local authorities need to thank citizens once expected results are reached.

Citizens must understand that their power in sorting waste end up a good result in recycling for a better future and as an investment for the future of their children. I do suggest that other mayors not fear to introduce revolution in the scheme and demand for changing its habits regarding waste collection. Citizens are ready. New generations fully understand how important it is to preserve the environment.


TOS: So that’s it for our round-up of the Ecomondo 2015 highlights, and for our episode today. I hope you enjoyed the show! For a longer briefing from Economdo, head over to our Events page where you will find resources, pictures and video briefings from the key figures we spoke to.




Lessons Learned from San Jose, CA: Building Anaerobic Digestion Facilities for Municipal Organics

San Jose City

This episode corresponds to Lesson 5 and Lesson 7 (coming soon) of our online course.

This week we speak with Jo Zientek, Deputy Director of the Environmental Services Department at the City of San Jose, California, about their new high solids anaerobic digestion/composting and biogas facility. We take a retrospective look at the city’s achievement in order to learn about their experiences, their challenges and successes in the development and operation of the facility. We discuss the permitting process, feedstock contract awards, the advantages of public/private partnerships, and the request for proposal process in order to highlight typical key success factors and pitfalls to expect with such a project.

Thank you to Zero Waste Energy Development Company LLC, and Republic Services for making this episode possible.

In December 2013, Zero Waste Energy Development Company LLC (ZWEDC) opened the first large-scale commercial dry fermentation anaerobic digestion facility in the United States. With the goal of taking organics recovery to the next level, ZWEDC desired not only to compost organics but also to extract its energy value. For more information, visit their website.

Republic Services provides innovative Wet/Dry collection services to all businesses in the City of San José. The Wet/Dry system has nearly tripled the business recycling rate from 25 to over 70 percent since July 2012! All businesses receive wet collection service which includes organics collection such as food waste and food contaminated paper products. Dry waste includes recyclables and everything else. The materials are processed at the Newby Island Resource Recovery Park’s Recyclery. For more information, visit their website.

In the show, we mention two upcoming events that are on our radar this week:

Ecomondo – the 18th International Trade Fair of Material & Energy Recovery and Sustainable Development which takes place 5th and 8th of November.


The Venice 2014 5th International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste, between the 17th and 20th of November.





History & Project Journey of the Anaerobic Digestion Facility


Q: Tell me about the facility in San Jose and how it’s operating at the moment?

Jo Zientek: The facility, which we just commissioned in November 2013, takes the organic waste from our businesses in San Jose. San Jose is a big city; we’re the third largest in California and the tenth largest in the United States, and we have about eight thousand businesses in San Jose. In 2012, we implemented a brand new business recycling program, and all our businesses are required to participate. Prior to that, businesses could select their own hauler and their own recycling service, but we weren’t getting a lot of good recycling out of our business community. So we went to a new system that all businesses are required to participate in, but that new system allowed us to have sufficient feedstock to open two big, high-tech waste processing facilities to process the waste, and one is this zero waste, dry anaerobic digestion facility.

The facility takes organic waste – some is direct hauled from businesses, and others is first processed by another recycling facility, and the organic waste comes out of it. The facility, which is phase-one, can accept about ninety thousand tons a year, and it’s permitted to add two more ninety thousand tons phases for a total of two hundred and seventy thousand tons a year. And we’re working on the owner of the facility on ways we can help jump-start that expansion now.

The facility has sixteen digester tunnels now and each is capable of generating about 1.6 megawatts of energy. The facility is interesting, because there’s a lot of anaerobic digestion facilities in the world – almost all are wet systems, and this facility is unique because it’s dry. We don’t need that much water in, and we don’t need to deal with pumping the water out to make a more usable product. And it’s fully enclosed, so that allows it to be next to highly populated urban  areas, because there are obviously odours associated with anaerobic digestion. Also, in-vessel composting tunnels (after the organic waste is inoculated with the digestate and goes through the twenty-one day process), then the material is moved to composting tunnels to continue curing, and that’s also inside.

So, this initial ninety thousand tons phase is commercial waste, but we are looking at potentially moving residential organics to that facility – a lot of which we’re not collecting now. And then also other jurisdictions in Silicone valley can also bring their material here.

Q: For our audience who’d like to learn more about positioning/choosing this type of technology in the AD sphere, please refer to Lesson 7 of our online course (which will be released soon). And can you talk us through the beginning of the project, in terms of the Request For Proposal process especially: how did you get it off the ground? 

JZ: It was actually a couple of different efforts that came together. It was an opportunistic project, I’m not sure if everything hadn’t come together quite as it did, we would have been able to get this first project off the ground, but certainly subsequent projects and the expansion will be much easier than the first project. But it began at the end of the year 2007 when our Mayor adopted a Green Vision that was the city’s economic development strategy. And certainly several cities in North America and I assume Europe too had a green technology spin to their economic development strategies as we were all grappling with recession and the economic downturn taking place.

But in San Jose, ours was called the Green Vision, and it included some really aggressive goals to reduce water and increase renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, clean vehicles, trees, trails – those kinds of stretch goals to get our city more sustainable by the year 2022, and two of those goals came into play for this project were adopted by our council at the end of 2007 were increasing renewable energy in San Jose, and getting to zero waste. They were the two goals in that ten-goal Green Vision.

So, we immediately had interest from one of our local haulers. The Bay Area is a little unique than other cities because we tend to have a lot of very independent, very creative local recyclers and haulers – not as many large, corporate, multinational haulers that are in other cities in the United States. And one of them said that they were interested in doing a renewable energy park. They wanted to do it on city land, and we have about two-thousand acres in the southern tip of San Francisco Bay that’s been our buffer lands, because we operate a large, regional wastewater treatment facility that serves San Jose and other cities in Silicone Valley, and we were looking at ways – concurrent with this project – that we can dry our biosolids that would help mitigate odour and get the process done faster and liberate some of that land that we’ve been holding as buffer land.

So this proposal that came unsolicited after the Mayor’s Green Vision was adopted, was to use the buffer land for this project and potentially some other renewable energy projects. One challenge we had with this buffer land was that it was on an old, closed landfill that we knew very little about. I joke that the city probably bought it in a bar in the nineteen hundreds, and there wasn’t a lot of history on it, no one knew exactly what was in the landfill. The benefit, though, was the landfill was old so there’d been a lot of settling already done and it hadn’t been used for several decades. The other odd thing about this land is that although it was in the middle of Silicone Valley, it had no utility infrastructure to it. So although it was across the street from our wastewater plant, it had no sewer infrastructure, no power, no water, and no run-off system set up on it.

Q: So you had to start from scratch here…

JZ: Yes. It was almost a green field in the middle of Silicone Valley, and it was a very difficult site to develop just from the issue of the environmental sensitivity, plus it was on a closed landfill. In order to make sure anyone who was interested in looking at that site as projects for the green vision, we actually ended up doing a request for information to open up the opportunity, but we didn’t get any other project interest except this project from one of our current, privately owned recycling haulers.

So that was going on, and we ended up taking their official request for interest, and ended up a due diligent process to see if we could begin this project. And then concurrent to that, we had been planning for several years to do a complete, evolutionary change to our commercial solid waste system. As I’ve mentioned before, anyone could pick their own hauler, but the problem with that is that they could lose a customer in thirty days – the city ordinance allowed them to get out of an existing hauler contract with thirty days notice. And the challenge with that is that haulers can’t finance infrastructure development to recycle without a guaranteed customer base and revenue stream, because as you know these facilities are very expensive.

So, unlike our residential system where we had three big recycling facilities in San Jose set up to serve our residential customers, there was no infrastructure investment to serve our commercial customers in the last twenty years. So we decided to start the process of looking at making the system exclusive. It was a very, very long process; in the state of California, if you make a system or hauling contract exclusive, you have to give all the current haulers a seven year notice. So we did that. We did extensive stakeholder outreach, both with the hauling community and the customers. We had customers from everything from mom and pop restaurants and small service shops to Adobe and EBay and Cisco – so just a huge range of customers here in San Jose.


Success in Changing The Waste Hauling System


Q: And when you were interviewing all the commercial businesses, what kind of things were you asking?

JZ: We asked how was their existing service; if we were to make the system exclusive, what things did they want to see, what things did they not want to see. And then we also provided some information on how the current system is really inefficient – not only was it not recycling that much, all the haulers that collected from commercial businesses would basically go to every street every day because there was no routing efficiency, so it was creating a lot of issues.

And in some respects (especially for small or medium sized businesses), they really weren’t getting rates that were that inexpensive because there was no efficiencies captured in the system, and the small businesses didn’t really have  as much leverage when it came to bargaining for their rates as larger businesses did. So, it was really small and medium sized probably received the largest benefit. And then the larger businesses – because especially high tech firms, they have such a strong sustainability component and that’s important to their customers.

So we got enough support to move forward, and that was a big step for us, because other cities have tried to go from a non-exclusive to exclusive system for the very same reasons, and had more of a challenge. I think in the pacific north-west, including Portland, as of yet hasn’t been able to convince communities to be willing to give up that kind of decision making power to do an exclusive system.

Q: That’s a shame, but perhaps what happened in San Jose has been a bit of an inspiration or an example.

JZ: Yeah, and it has been. Los Angeles was able to use ours as an example and I think just four months ago was able to get their council to approve a district system. New York City and San Diego is also looking at our system, so we’ve definitely been able to show we can get the high diversion, and I think we’re one of the – if not the highest diverting commercial system in the country right now, because all the waste no longer goes to landfill: it’s either direct hauled to the Zero Waste facility if it’s clean enough, or it goes first to a recycling facility near the Zero Waste facility for pre-processing and then the organic stream goes to Zero Waste.

So, concurrently to that, we developed this whole request for proposals process for our commercial system. Zero Waste was already doing their due diligence on the site to build the facility, which they could use for residential or commercial organics. But they did end up bidding on the project to take commercial waste. So, the opportunity of being able to submit a bid for our commercial organics – as they were looking at doing their du diligence on the side and economics – obviously was a huge lift for the project, because it meant they had the possibility of having a guaranteed feedstock if they were to build the facility. So even though they were happening on parallel tracks, that helped.

So we ended up awarding the collection and non-organics processing contract to republic services, which used to be Allied and VFI. And the organic portion went to Zero Waste (the Zero Waste Energy Development Company), so that gave them the feedstock to build the facility.


Developing The Anaerobic Digestion Facility: The City’s Role


Q: How did the partnership with San Jose city shape the process, and in what ways did it speed the development of the facility along?

JZ: So to bring that closed landfill site up to being able to be built upon (which was an extremely expensive proposition for Zero Waste), what the city did to help share the risk a little bit (and also benefit from this) is that we gave them credit. I think it’s a thirty year lease with a ten year extension option, and they don’t have to pay rent; they get credit each year against the cost they had to spend just to bring this site up to a developal condition, which is about eleven million dollars. So, bringing the power and the sewer and the water; officially closing the state of California ; doing the storm water run off system…those costs were roughly eleven million dollars, and so they have a rent they have to pay to us, but they get to the eleven million dollars and don’t have to start paying us until that eleven million dollars is paid off.

And we benefitted from that, because we up-sized some of the infrastructure that Zero Waste put in, so if we wanted to do additional development in the area, the city could do that. So, we paid for that differential and that was a benefit – plus, if they ever leave, we get a site that’s much easier to develop that it would have been prior to that.

And the other thing we did, which was very unusual for the city (and I worked on this lease with our economic development department – is that the lease they have to the city means that instead of them just paying us a flat rate, once that eleven million dollars is paid off, Zero Waste is going to pay us four dollars in change for every ton of organics that goes into the facility. And that’s  unique for us: it helps the city organisation have some skin in the game in their success. So, completing that expansion of an addition two ninety-thousand tons means the city has an opportunity to make more money. So it kind of helps get my own organisation managing up and, if you will, have some skin in that game to want Zero Waste to be successful and expand.

Q: Very good approach!

JZ: Yeah, and now, to fund the expansion, California is using some cap-and-trade funds to help AD facilities, and we are looking at that expansion as maybe one of the first projects to use California’s new funding source for these types of projects. And the benefit, obviously, of the Zero Waste project is that it’s shovel-ready, so it makes it hopefully very competitive for this round of state financing because we have the permits, and we have the plans, and it’s very, very difficult to be in that position unless you started four years ago!

So, we’re hoping phase two and phase three are just much simpler projects.

Q: When it comes to financing for the facility itself – it is quite a unique project – was it easier for it to get capital financing at the start due to the secured feedstocks and the partnership with the city?

JZ: That helped. Some of the funding sources, (i.e. the California Pollution Control Financing Authority), I don’t think they’re quite as designed for emerging technology. And because this first phase was so new, I think the partners of the Zero Waste Energy Development Company really had to bring their unique financing relationships that they already had to the table. They were also able to get some Federal money – I think it’s the Department of Treasury 1605 fund tax credit money. But I don’t think they could count on typical financing that’s available for tried and true technology.

Because of their position – they have done a lot of innovative recycling facilities. Another one in San Jose that processes all our waste from our multi-family housing apartments. They were able to leverage some relationships that they already had, but I’m not sure it would be as easy for a company that didn’t have their relationship to start this one. That being said, we built the first on in California, so the second one – now that banks and regulators can tough and feel and hug this one – is going to be infinitely easier than this first one.

So, I think the next one – wherever it is – is just going to be easier and maybe would have an easier time getting access to typical financing vehicles that these companies use.


Struggles With Permitting


Q: Let’s talk more about the permitting process itself and the city’s role – what was it like, and was there any struggles you faced?

JZ: The onus was on the developers, Zero Waste, to get the two permits, but there were some issues the city had to work through. And the thing that made this project tricky was that it was on a closed landfill in an environmentally sensitive area, so that in and of itself took a long time to resolve. And we had to come up with the monitoring plans; so we have testing wells to make sure there’s no contamination in the groundwater, and the whole site is at sea level next to the sea, so infiltration underground is an issue. So, Zero Waste now does that on behalf of us. And that required a solid waste facility permit from the state.

Because the state had never seen or touched a dry AD facility like this, it was complicated. I think the state ended up subcontracting with a firm on the east coast to evaluate the permit. Some of the designs we got, because it was a German technology, came to us in German and I think they had translating issues. Even the facility now, some of the software that monitors the environment for the microbes still reports in German and  know they have to use Google Translate to translate it! But everything is to keep those microbes happy.

So that was challenging, and there were a lot of questions, and a lot of them had to be answered by the German technology firm and then translated back to English. So that was challenging and that process ended up taking two years to get the permits done. And then the building permit itself, which the city issues…so, the state issues the solid waste permit, and the building permit is issued by the city. But I know we had extensive back and forth which required hands-on meeting with a lot of city officials, Zero Waste, and the contractor to figure out whether those composting cells, where the anaerobic digestion was actually taking place for twenty-one days, had to be fit for human habitation or not, and that had a significant difference on how they were constructed. So that took months and months to work through.

So again, the second facility will just be so much easier than this one. It was a lot of work and a lot of educating everybody on what this was, and what it wasn’t, and it was big effort.

Q: Would you have any words of advice on this whole topic for those our there who are now thinking of starting the next one?

JZ: I think definitely being able to do a demonstration phase. If your permitting agency is just not familiar with it, getting a demonstration project is probably simpler than starting off with a commercial scale facility like we did. It just requires a lot of determination, and getting your organisation, especially your government organisation comfortable with taking thoughtful risk I think is just a shift that you have to make.

You know, we’re working on another demonstration project with a different German technology on biosolids. And the first technology provider went bankrupt so we had to find another one who also ended up being a German company. But getting your organisation comfortable and just that that’s normal – if you’re looking at doing cutting edge things, these companies will go bankrupt, they will take a year or two to permit even a demonstration project. So just make that part of the culture, because that’s just how it is when you try to do new things in this space.


Californian Policy: How Can It Help Other Organics Recycling Facilities?


Q: In terms on policy, is there anything you would like to see changed or brought in to help make the development and running of similar MSW AD and composting facilities easier?

JZ: Certainly at the regulatory level, getting a unified approach to how to permit these facilities, so each jurisdiction isn’t stuck starting from scratch with each similar facility. So, we had been working with the state of California on a standard EIR process for different organic technology types, like anaerobic digestion, and this is very helpful because it’s just too difficult for cities and jurisdiction’s that want to build these things from scratch.

Getting really clear permitting direction from the regulatory agency including, you know – in California the water and the solid waste aren’t in the same organisation on the state level, but the facility needs permits from both those arms, and getting them to work together and come up with a more uniform approach will help. If it’s known what the path is to get the permits, it’s just easier and more likely that both the private sector partner and the government agency will take the risk. But it’s the unknown – where you don’t know if you’re just going to be spinning for years and years trying to figure out what the permitting path is, it just doesn’t make the risk worth it.

So being able to have a uniform approach for the different types of facilities throughout the state I think would really help mitigate the risk. I think California is trying to do that with anaerobic digestion facilities, and we’ve been part of that process on the state level.

Q: It can be very tricky dealing with all the regulatory bodies and the permitting process of different agencies – we get stuck into this topic in Lesson 5 of our course, and talk about the best strategies you can use to get your project off the ground. So those who might be interested, head on over to the course section of our site and take a look.


Words of Advice: Demonstration Projects and Face-To-Face Meetings Essential


Q: And we’re running out of time now, so the last section, I’d like to get your words of advice for other cities out there looking into doing something similar – maybe some tips on strategy?

JZ: Yeah, I think it’s very important for the public-private partnerships for to get private sector partners to approach you, is to have some well-publicised successes that show your city is wiling to stick it out and be successful. So even if it’s a demonstration project, just taking that first step on a smaller project and then publicising the success of it, because it’s just such a big investment for a private sector partner, and they want to make sure that you have a track record. So, doing some smaller projects and then getting the word out that you mean business, that you’re in it for the long haul, and you’ve successfully implemented both private sector and granting agencies.

Because a lot of times these projects, including the gasification project that I’m talking about, we actually get funding for that through the state or federal grants, so it just really helps to do some smaller projects and being successful – both marketing yourself to a granting agency and a private sector partner.

We’ve really found it helpful to have on-hand meetings and getting everyone in a room when we discuss the permitting issues. Especially with the new project: a regulatory agency or a staff person in some permitting agency hears one thing, and then maybe comes out with a ruling that was based on a conclusion they decided that wasn’t accurate. Like, this issue we had with having to make the cells where the organic material spent twenty-one days with the microbes fit for human habitation, even though the only time people were in them was to put material in them – and then they sealed them up. And it really helped talking through it – face-to-face talking through, because the conclusions that were instantly or immediately drawn about what it was lead to an extremely difficult permitting hurdle to overcome. So just sitting them down and walking them through it really helped. And it was just a lot of that type of meetings we had to do to walk people through and get them over the conclusions they initially drew, which weren’t accurate.




Megacities Special #1: Rolling Out A Residential Organics Collection Program In NYC


This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 and Lesson 5 of our online course.

In this episode we take an in depth look into the expanding organics collection and composting program in New York City. We speak with Bridget Anderson, director of the Recycling Unit of the DSNY’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, in order to understand the unique situation that a megacity faces when rolling out such a program, the logistics and strategies for setting up the scheme, challenges in dealing with different building types, managing the collected organic material, and the vision they have for the future.

Thank you to IPL for making this episode possible

IPL is a leading North American manufacturer of injection-molded plastic products. The commercial success of products and technologies often depends on innovation, and IPL specialise in providing added value and expertise for all your projects. Their unique and innovative processes are tailored to design, develop, and deliver the best solutions for their valued customers. For more, visit their website.

Picture curtesy of DSNY.



The Story So Far


Q: Can you tell me how the program got started?

BA: Organics collection was a pilot that actually started in the schools, in the 2012-2013 school year. We started on a select number of schools and focused on school cafeterias and school kitchens; and it was really an effort that was spearheaded by a number of parent-teacher organisations. They did a great job and Sanitation saw what they did and decided that we would try in on a slightly larger scale.

Then there was momentum to try this in residences also – in homes. And we’re in all five boroughs: we have pilot areas in the Bronx, in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island – and then in Manhattan, which is a very dense area with lots of high-rise apartment buildings, we actually have selected apartment buildings that have volunteered to participate in the program. One of the challenges is to figure out how to do this in high rise buildings.

Q: How does the pilot program operate today? It is a voluntary program at the moment, correct?

BA: Yes, the pilot is voluntary. We chose the pilot areas in a combination of where, collection-wise, we thought it would work well operationally, and where there was interest among residents and among elected officials. We also looked for those low-density areas. So, it was voluntary and not everybody in the pilot areas chooses to participate, but everyone is given the opportunity.

We deliver a brown bin, which is what you set out curbside, and then in addition we deliver a kitchen container for each household, so that you have something you can use in the kitchen to collect the material. And then we provide a lot of education and outreach, and brochures…

What we do is we send a mailer to everyone in the pilot area, saying “this program is coming, this is what it is and you can expect to receive your brown bin”. Then about a week before the brown bin arrives, we do a door hanger. We go door-to-door and hang a door hanger and say “Your brown bag is arriving this week. As a reminder this is the program, it’s voluntary, we hope you participate, and this is how it works”. And then when the brown bin arrives, in that brown bin is the kitchen container and the brochure that gives details about what can and can’t be put in the bin – best practices for how to manage the material.

Q: I also saw just the other day that the Mayor of New York and his family made an ad using the brown bin…

BA: Yeah, it’s interesting, they approached us. One of the pilot areas is where the mayor’s home is – this is the mayor’s home before he moved to Gracie Mansion, which is the official Mayor home. He actually approached Sanitation and said “I would love to do a video. My daughter Chiara is very interested in this program”. And so, we developed a script for them, which they took and then tweaked, and they created the video. And the video turned out beautifully – I thought it was a great video. And now they’ve moved to Gracie Mansion, and we had the organics collection program in Gracie Mansion with Mayor Bloomberg, and now we’re continuing it with Mayor de Blasio, so we’re very excited about that.



LOGISTICS of COLLECTING organic waste in New York City


Q: I want to ask you about the expansion on the program to high-rise buildings, because as you said earlier they can be quite a challenge. How did the DSNY decide to deal with all the different types of buildings?

BA: There are other cities in the United States that already do this organics collection program – cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto in Canada – and we looked at what they were doing, where they found success. Most of those cities are lower density and don’t have as many high-rise buildings. Toronto is maybe the closest to New York City in comparison to a place that already does organics collection. And we thought, let’s try this program in the lower density areas of the city – because that’s where there’s been a precedence set to have a successful program in other cities. So, we looked for parts of the city where we would focus on single family homes and small apartment buildings that are up to nine units – little town houses, brownstones, and then small apartment buildings. The pilot areas are primarily that size of building.

Then we said, if we’re going to make this a viable program, we have to tackle high-rise apartment buildings, because a significant portion of New York City’s recycling, you have to come up with an internal recycling program that then allows the building to manage the waste and get it out on the curb for Sanitation to collect. We have to do the same thing for organic material. So, we actually work with the building management and the co-op board, if it’s a co-op building, and come up with a system for how they’ll manage the organic waste inside the building to then get it out on the curb for us to collect

Q: And how many high-rises are you working with at the moment?

BA: We have over a hundred high-rises at this point.

Q: That’s quite a few. And what has been the DSNY’s strategy in dealing with the various building types? Do you have separate systems, depending on the high rise, or is there a single system that works across the board?

BA: I would say we service a different range of types of buildings – we have old, old buildings, we have brand new Leed certified buildings…a lot of it depends on the infrastructure of the building, where there’s space to put the bins. It’s very similar to recycling – where is there space to place the bins, either on each floor or in some sort of centralised area, where people can then bring their material to drop it off. And then the building staff brings it out to the curb.

So we have a few different strategies that are the most common. One is, if our large buildings tend to have chute where people will take their trash, and it foes down to the basement. In a lot of buildings there’s a little chute room where the chute exists. And if there’s space on each floor, and the building management are willing to provide the service, we recommend that both the recycling and the organics containers are put in those shoot rooms on every floor. It’s the most convenient for the residents.

That doesn’t exist in all buildings, so what’s also quite common is a centrallsed location on the first floor, possibly the basement or in the area nearby where there’s parking, where the recycling and organics bins are placed. And that’s more of a centralised area. It’s less work for the Super to service, because it’s only location – but it’s potentially a little bit less convenient for the residents because they have to go downstairs. We find with both recycling and organics collection, convenience begets participation. So if it’s easy and convenient, people will participate. The people who want to do it are going to do it no matter where you place your collection location; the people who are saying “well I’ll do it if it’s convenient.” If it’s easy for me to just throw it down the chute on my floor that to bring the organic material or recycling downstairs, then you may lose a few people in participation.

So, we have a lot of signage – signage is absolutely key to let people know on every floor where the collection location is in the building. And keeping the collection well lit, safe, secure is also key to having people comfortable with using those locations in the building.

Q: Another crucial part in organics collection programs is the collection times. How did you decide on collection times and are they different from place to place?

BA: We have a few different strategies. About fifty-thousand of the households are being offered twice a week collection, and that’s the same frequency as refuse collection. The idea is you just set out your material on collection day, but you separate the organic material from the waste and recycling. In the other half of the homes, we’re testing once a week collection. Basically, the way things work is that here you have twice a week collection of trash, once a week collection of recycling in most parts of the city, and so we’re either offering twice a week collection on the same frequency as trash collection, and the other half od the pilot, we’re offering once a week collection on recycling day. So, it’s essentially just another recycling stream to set out on your recycling day.

Q: Do you know which one is more successful, or which you’re going to pick in the long-run?

BA: We have one area of Brooklyn, where we started them in the Fall with once a week collection and switched them to twice a week collection in May, so we’re going to be studying that one. We don’t have any results yet, but we’re hopeful that that little neighbourhood – it’s called Windsor Terrace – will actually help inform us what the effect is of twice a week versus once a week.

Q: Was it difficult, in a city the size of New York, to plan collection routes and to cooperate with the haulers?

BA: So in New York City, the city actually has a municipal hauling workforce and we collect material from residences, agencies and institutions. And so, it was simply a matter of making the case to add some to add trucks in the budget to service the same routes. And we chose the pilot areas so they were co-terminus: they were the same areas as the regular routes, so there was no issue there. People were very positive about piloting the program.

Q: The ultimate goal is to make this a mandatory, city-wise curbside composting program. How are you planning to get there?

BA: The city council passed a law for us to conduct this pilot program, and the our mandate is a two-year program. And in the October of 2015, we will have to present a report to city council and say, this is how the pilot went, these are our recommendations moving forward. And so far we feel pretty positive about the participation, about people’s understanding of the program. We’re working right now to evaluate the pilot to understand what the best practices, what are the best collection frequency, what are the other aspects of the program that we’d want to take and scale up.

Scaling up city-wide is going to take quite a while. It’s not going to happen overnight; it will have to be a phase-in process. And part of it too is that what happens is if you separate the organic material and recycling fully, you don’t have as much refuse left. So, one of the big pieces is understanding how we reconfigure our routine and our truck routes so that we manage the material differently. So, maybe we don’t need as many refuse routes because there’s not as much refuse being set out as we add the organics routes.

So there’s a lot of operation pieces that we have to put into play. There’s also the aspect of geography – do we roll out district by district, which is maybe what happens. So, we’re basically in the planning process right now as we roll out the pilot, to figure out how we would do this city-wise, and I would say that it’s going to take ten years to probably get to the entire city.

Q: We tackle this whole aspect of organics collection programs in Lesson 4 of our online course on Compostory.org, so those of you listening, can go straight to the course on our site and take a deeper look at.



COMMUNITY COMPOSTING – A Critical Piece to the Puzzle


And now, I’d like to touch on the topic of community composting, because in our last episode, we were taking a look at the community composting movement in New York and we know that the DSNY has been quite involved in supporting this as well. Can you tell me a little about how you work with community composters in the city?

BA: Yes, we have a longstanding relationship – over twenty years – working with community composters. The New York City Compost Project is a group that we run and fund, and we have non-profit partners throughout the city where we provide education services – helping people to understand how to compost in your backyard, if you want to take your yard waste or your food scraps and do it yourself. We work with community gardens, and we provide finished compost from the material that they city collects and manages, and we provide tools and equipment, and technical advice for how to set up composting in community gardens.

We also work to provide drop-off programs. We have food scrap drop off programs throughout the city – we’ve about seventy in operation right now. And those drop-off programs are critical, because they get people in the mindset of “oh! this is what this is…I take my food scraps and I can bring them somewhere else and recycle it – have it be composted.” So, we see the community composters as absolutely critical to helping people understand the concepts of organic separation, what happens to it, what are the benefits to it – it’s an absolutely critical piece to the puzzle.

Q: So you agree with David Buckle, who we interviewed last week, that community composting is an essential part of creating a successful organics recycling system?

BA: Both programs are very important, yes.

Q: When speaking to David, it was clear that he had concerns about a lack of vision from policy makers in the city, that might not understand the importance of local collection and composting and wouldn’t necessarily prioritize community composting over other collection systems. What’s your take on this statement – have you seen this yourself?

BA: I actually have not seen that. We’re trying to position the city, in terms of organics waste collection, to fulfill a number of goals, and community composting plays an extremely important role in terms of introducing the community to organics and composting and the concept that you can recycle this other part of the waste stream, and to showing what actually happens to your organic waste, how it turns into compost; and creating a valuable product for the local communities.

The capacity for local, small-scale community composting is too small to handle the vast hundred and thousands of tons of material that we’re looking to divert through organics recycling. So, we as a city also have a parallel mission to find how we bring composting to scale and actually move major tonnage of material to recycling, to composting and to renewable energy. So, for us we see both as extremely important, because the local community composting creates beneficial use for the city. They have been critical to introduce the concept that this is a useful strategy but it’s not going to help us divert all of the waste. There’s so much waste in New York City, that we don’t think we’d be able to handle it through community composting. You have to have large, permitted facilities to really handle that quantity of material.

But there’s plenty of material to go around, and absolutely – this is why we fund local community composting operations – we see it as a critical piece to the pie, a piece to the puzzle.

We’re really focusing on [understanding] how we create this as a cooperative program. But it’s really tough, I mean, you have people who’ve been in the trenches for two decades working on local community composting, and I understand that maybe there’s a fear that if the city takes over this program that there won’t be a place for local community composting, and we do not at all see that as the case. They are both critical to achieving the city’s overall goal, which is diverting major tonnage of material, and creating beneficial use for local communities.



Compost Use & Compost Markets


Q: If the program is rolled out city-wide, you will have a lot of compost on your hands. What are you planning to do with the compost and what are you currently doing with it?

BA: We take the material from the pilot to local and regional compost facilities. With the material that’s taken to the regional facilities, we don’t actually take back the compost at this point. There may be a situation moving forward where we develop a relationship where we would have a certain percentage of the compost come back. With the material that’s processed locally, we turn it into compost and use it in street trees, we use it in parks, we use it in gardens. We have give-back programs for non-profits, schools and community groups, to use the compost for their greening projects. We also create a mulch product in addition to compost. And most of the material that we’re currently compost locally is yard waste, and that creates a beautiful mulch product as well as the compost. We also sell the compost to landscapers, so we do have a small revenue stream there.

Q: Are you involved in creating markets for compost, or encouraging market growth for compost?

BA: For the material we compost locally, we’ve worked on this landscaper market, and it’s really a bulk purchase type of situation. We have not gotten into the business of creating a retail market for the material – it just hasn’t been necessary to date, because we’re handling and selling all the material with the landscapers and with our give-back programs. With the regional composting facilities that are taking the material during the pilot period, we have not been involved in how they’re marketing the material, although we are evaluating with them the quality of the material we’re giving them, and the quality of the material that comes out, so we understand better what it is we can create from the material that would come out of a New York City stream.

Q: What is the quality like, and what contamination rate are you experiencing?

BA: The quality is quite good. In the residential program, our contamination rate is very, very low. It’s well below five percent. So we feel very good about that. It is a voluntary program, so the people who participate want to participate and try to do it right. That may change obviously when you make it mandatory.

Q: Is creating a market for compost something you’re looking at doing in the future?

BA: It would definitely be part of our larger plan. We want to ensure that the material is going to beneficial use – and is not just composting; we’re also looking into anaerobic digestion so we can create energy from the material. But creating a viable program, if there’s a way to generate revenue from it, that’s obviously a huge benefit, so it’s definitely something we’ll be looking into.

Q: Yes indeed, and we just released a new lesson – Lesson 5 – of our course were we take a detailed look at market creation for compost as well. And in terms of your aims or objectives with the organic material – as you said, diverting materials from landfill and supporting communities are on your list. But what about the organic material itself and what it’s used for? Are you focused solely on creating revenue streams, with waste-to-energy for example, or are you more concerned with creating quality compost to help replenish the soil?

BA: One of our biggest objectives is to find ways to reduce the material going to landfill, and the parallel objective is to create beneficial use. And obviously as a city we are concerned about being cost-effective in what we do, so any opportunities we have to market material and gain revenue streams is important. We are focused primarily at this point on the composting, because that’s a proven technology; we know there are existing facilities, we know that a useful product can be created and marketed.

Anaerobic digestion is a little bit newer of a technology for us in the North-East. There are wastewater treatment plants that have been using anaerobic digestion for a long time, and the question is: how viable is it to utilise AD for a municipal organics program? What we’ve learned is that the challenges are when you co-mingle food waste and yard waste, and food soiled paper, that can cause problems with anaerobic digestion, and so we’re trying to figure out if those energy conversion technologies (such as anaerobic digestion), could be viable with our waste stream. We won’t be able to collect yard waste separately from food waste, we really need the efficiency of collection to collect it all together , and so the question is: is there an option to utilise anaerobic digestion with that type of material streams.

On the commercial side, with businesses, we expect it’ll be food waste. So we think that there’s quite a good opportunity there for turning food into renewable energy through anaerobic digestion. But on the residential side, we think it may be more difficult.

Q: So you’re going to stick with composting, which is probably the most ideal option on many fronts.

BA: Yes. The challenges there of course is that you need a lot of space for composting – there are siting issues. For New York City, siting any new facility is expensive and difficult. There’s permitting processes, and because we’re right the confluence of three different states, each state has their own permitting requirements and procedures.



Closing the Loop


Q: And for our listeners who are rolling out similar programs, we strongly recommend fully integrating the multiple benefits of compost use in the program vision. Keeping organics out of a landfill and managing the waste streams is important – and it’s usually the main argument to be had in large cities – but then programs need to take into account all the benefits of compost use as well when developing operations. We’re finding out that many programs need to put more focus on end-product quality. So there’s a whole ecosystem involved here and it goes beyond just the ‘waste management’ side of things, so it’s very important to include that in the program vision.

And so Bridget, in terms of closing the loop as much as possible do you travel far to the composting sites you use, or?

BA: We have one composting facility on Staten Island, and that’s a great system. So, all the material that we collect on Staten Island, stays on Staten Island, so that’s a very closed-loop and successful system. For the other material that we have, everything is within a hundred miles of the city, but we do have to truck it outside the city. And so, we basically say it’s regional capacity. And we’re hopeful that once we position ourselves to go to scale, that we will be able to work with companies who will local themselves closer to New York City.



Organic Waste COLLECTION in A MEGACITY: Successes and Advice


Q: The project has been a great success so far and it’ll be exciting to see how it progresses, but already you’ve gained a lot of experience and tackled a host of issues. I’d love to know more about the pitfalls and successes you’ve experienced on your journey so far. How has it been?

BA: Yeah, so one of the best things that has happened is that we found these local resident champions of the program, and they are the best sales people. Having peer-to-peer interactions where people are explaining to their neighbours how great the program is, how little trash they have left, and how easy it is, has been incredibly helpful. And we found that it takes a lot of work, but the in-person interactions that we have as a program with the residents is really the most effective way to get people who may be a little bit shy, nervous or intimidated on board.

We get a lot of questions and concerns about rodents and pests, and they say it’ll be more work. Well, we say it’s the same amount of waste that you’re throwing out now, you’re just putting it in a separate bin. And the bin that we have has a lid and a latch, and so we’re able to explain to people that it actually reduces the potential for pest issues because you’re containing that waste. Right now New York City has primarily a bag program, so material is placed out at the curb in bags, and when you have a plastic bag, it’s much easier for a rat to chomp into the back and access the food. If the food is in a container, it’s much more difficult for them to access that meal. So we’re working with the Department of Health to study how the rodent populations are affected by the program.

We’ve also had some people say there’s been fruit flies and maggots, and those sorts of things. And it’s amazing because we use social media a lot in the program, and we often have residents providing best practices and tips to the people who have concerns about fruit flies and maggots before we even get to them. So, we have a list of best practices and tips, but we really do rely also on that peer-to-peer education.

Q: And finally, for our audience who might be wondering how to start a similar program in other large cities around the world, what advice would you give for rolling out a system like this in a large city?

BA: I would say that you need to have a plan for where you’re going to take the material. Don’t set up the front-end without the back-end in place – that’s critical. I would say the best way to roll-out the program is to do it so it follows the existing collection schedules and the existing behaviour patterns of people – so we said “add this to the recycling bay, they’re already setting out recycling” or “have them set it out on the same days as trash”. That way the behaviour is sort of the same, it’s just that you’re separating out the material.

The stakeholder engagement has been critical, so speaking with the elected officials and getting them on board – they can be your best advocates in their districts. We found that not only the elected officials, but the local civic organisations have been critical. You have these informal mayors of neighbourhoods that really understand the neighbourhood and understand what messaging will work in that neighbourhood; is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the fact that we’re trying to save taxpayer money? Is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the environmental message? That’s been critical for us to target our education and our messaging.


Generating Biogas in Developing Countries


This episode corresponds to Lesson 7 (coming soon) of our course.

This third episode of The Organic Stream is dedicated to biogas generation in developing countries. Eleen Murphy interviews Winfried Rijssenbeek from FACT Foundation to discuss the setup of anaerobic digesters in these regions where biogas generation is more than a source of energy. 

Thank you to ESCAB for making this episode possible.

QuantorXL® Drum Composting is a turnkey system that achieves full hygienization. Manure, sludge and bio-waste can be composted and turned into a resource, recycling many important nutrients back to nature. QuantorXL® is approved by the Swedish board of agriculture and fulfills EU regulations.



Hi there once again and welcome to the show. As always, I’m your host Eleen Murphy and today we’re in the Netherlands, talking to director and RE specialist of the Fact Foundation: Winfried Rijssenbeek. Winfried and the FACT foundation work closely with local partners all over the developing world to help set-up and educate communities about biogas systems. So for this show, we’ll be focusing solely on biogas in developing countries. Topics will include: the types of organics used for production, why biogas systems are not yet a staple in developing countries, and framing biogas as more than just a source of energy.

Lots of great topics to sink our teeth into, so stay tuned!

EM: So the FACT Foundation provides biogas solutions for communities in developing countries, but also provides training, knowledge and support. You have partners across the globe that you work with, and you’re based in the Netherlands, is that correct?

WR: That’s correct. And there’s the Wageningen University, it’s the Agricultural University of the Netherlands and it’s quite well known.

EM: Right and could you tell me a little more about FACT and the work that you do?

WR: I will. We started in 2005 and this FACT Foundation was established by the late Professor Kees Daey Owens, who was first a renewable energy specialist in the Netherlands. So he found out that, yes indeed, developing countries need energy as well. So he decided to establish a foundation, and so in 2009 after Kees has ceased, we got a program developed in which we tested many different types of bioenergy projects.

EM: Cool, and what kind of things did you test?

WR: We started with bioethanol, and we looked at residues (for example cassava peels) and turning that into bioethanol so that people could have either cooking fuel or transport fuel. So we tested bioethanol, we tested biodiesel based on vegetable oils, and we also tested gasification based on wood residues, and we tested biogas. About four technologies were into our portfolio in the Deon program, and we tested that with different partners. Partners in Panama, in Peru, in Uganda et cetera, et cetera. So then, after some three years of doing this, we came to the conclusion that if there’s anything ready for a market, then it is biogas. And biogas seems to be the most easy. The most in installing it, the most easy in operating it. And this is very simple, Eleen: biogas is all about life, and it’s a biological system and to be honest, everybody who can handle a cow, can handle a biogas installation.

EM: Hm, so if biogas is such a great solution, why isn’t it more popular or well known in developing countries?

WR: Why is it not happening there? Because you have a supply and demand, and in the case of developing countries, the suppliers – they are not well informed, because they use maybe obsolete technologies or they have no updated knowledge in many cases. And on the demand side the thing is even worse because many of these people that have the production of organic waste streams, they don’t know about biogas. So they have no idea of that solution, and this is really a struggle that we have. On the one hand, the suppliers are not really customising their systems for the client. And the clients on the other hand don’t know about biogas, so we have really a task. Now, you can say, “can it pay off?” so to say; is it a good investment?

EM: That’s what I just wanted to ask: is it worth setting up?

WR: That is the interesting part. If you look at the investment, it can be expensive but you can also reduce the cost of biogas systems. For example, by using a diesel generator that you add the biogas. So you reduce your costs of buying a totally new biogas generator. The other thing is, in Germany and the rest of Europe, systems have been made for temperate climates so you have insulated bowls, they are compact because the land is expensive, so you make a compact system. Then you have to heat it because if you don’t heat it you don’t get the right temperature. Labour costs are also very expensive in Europe. So we made systems in Europe that are high investments but low operation costs. Now the funny thing is, we have a slightly different situation in developing countries for biogas.

In many countries, you don’t have these high land costs; you don’t have these high labour costs. You have other temperatures. So it makes it all different. And we can show that, in many cases, these systems can be paid off in about three to four years, and the investments – they are relatively mild, depending on the technology, but…

EM: Hmm, interesting…

WR: Yeah so, the funny thing is: how is biogas portrayed in general? And in Europe, we always say that biogas is good as a technology because you have renewable energy coming out of it. But that’s it. Now, look at developing countries: what are the basic issues over there? It’s food security. What happens is that about twenty-five percent of the food production is lost in the stream of transport and logistics, and storage. So, if you energise the food chain

in the proper way so that you have energy to cool the products, or to process, or to stir the products, then you can reduce these losses. This energy is the beauty: biogas can deliver that.

You have a resource or an organic waste stream from the agro-processing and from that you make the energy to allow this agro-processing to happen.

EM: That’s actually what I was keen to ask you as well: since you have experience in this, it would be great if you could detail the different types of organic materials you can use to make biogas.

WR: Yeah. Things that you can use is, for example, organic waste streams like from the palm oil industry. Dairy farms is another sector. All these farms, they produce manure. And, again, when there’s agriculture and forestry, there’s always waste-streams, and it depends on the composition and the availability. For example, in Uganda we know that there is a lot of lakes that is are clogged with water hyacinth. But, if the lake is fully covered with water hyacinth, really you have a problem because then fish won’t be able to grow under it because it shades the water and you get all sorts of trouble. Now, water hyacinth: if you turn that into biogas, the slurry of the water hyacinth, you can take out that slurry and use it as a fertiliser.

EM: That’s an amazing way of dealing with the problem of water hyacinth then!

WR: Right, right. So there’s that sort of thing as well. And what I just mentioned before, we always portray biogas as an energy solution, well I tell you it is much more. It is about the food security. It’s about sustainable agriculture, because people can reduce the chemical fertilser and enhance the soil quality, because this bio-slurry is very good for the soil. And finally, it’s also about sanitation. I mean, if you contaminate rivers and then later on people take water from that river – well it’s not that nice. So for sanitation purposes it’s also good.

So, it’s bringing this topic not as biogas, because if I tell about biogas only as a technology, people will say “well okay technologies, we’re not so interested – we’re interested in people”. Well, we’re talking about people, because we’re supporting food security, we’re supporting all these other benefits. If I talk about biogas only, well it will be a boring story. But if I talk about food security, and the link to the environment, and the link to all these other…sustainable agriculture, then people start to say, “hey, well damn it – this is interesting”.

EM: Excellent points. And if your opinion is that we need to raise awareness of all the benefits of biogas production – what are the things holding us back and where do we need to focus our efforts?

WR: So, this is where the story is very simple. Now, if everybody that is doing biogas is saying “No, you can do it with biogas but you should do it like this”, and the other one says, “No you should do it like that”. (If) there’s no standards, there’s no coherence in that group of alternatives, then the market, they will say: “this seems to be this, and the other one says it’s like that and you don’t know” and everybody says “okay well this is rubbish”. Now if you say – as all biogas-interested people – we form a platform and that platform sends messages always in the same form. And you explain about the advantages of biogas always in the same form, you might create a sort of advertisement to the customers that is coherent, and then maybe it will work.

Another thing is: if you’re working in a platform and you share information about your systems, again, that will help because you can learn much quicker from the other one that doing everything yourself. So, making a sort of platform is one of the things that we thought is necessary. So, the platform is basically about learning and exchanging information so that everybody has the same knowledge. And then it is about dissemination and advocacy.

EM: Aha, right…

WR: So that, basically, we said we should be doing, and in 2013, in the beginning of June, we started to launch this Global Alliance for Productive Biogas. And now we are with ninety-plus partners all around the world: in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. And we have been talking with all these local producers, research people, associations about biogas. So we have, Global Alliance for Productive Biogas has an international board. So we have been asking our members, our partners: “okay guys, this is what we plan to do – what’s your view on this, this and this and this?”

EM: So the important thing here is that you’re working closely with the communities?

WR: Right. And it made us realise, Eleen, and this might be the interesting thing, but: we’re not alone, because we see, for example, that there are a lot of libraries. And there’re libraries about biogas. There’s a few YouTube-like things or trainings – there is people doing that and that’s also how we came in contact with the Compostory organisation. And yeah we said okay well, if you’re already doing training modules through YouTube and sort of internet videos – that’s perfect so let’s push this thing forward. That’s what we think: we have to convince many people that this is the way to go forward.

EM: Great stuff. And finally, is there any advice you’d like to give to our listeners?

WR: Yeah, I would like to say that if people want to deal with this topic, just have them go to our website, and that website is productivebiogas.org. And we invite everybody to look at the waste operators, the sewage system operators, the agro-processing cooperatives, the agro-industries, and the farmers – to have a look and see what it can bring to them.

EM: Mh-hm. Well that’s great, great stuff. Thanks for your time Winfried.

WR: Okay, well Eleen it was a pleasure, and thanks a lot!


Small-Scale AD & On-site Composting in London


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 and Lesson 6 (coming soon) of our course.

In this second episode we stopped in London to talk to Clare Brass from FoodLoop and Rokiah Yaman from LEAP. Eleen Murphy  asked them about their respective projects: A small-scale anaerobic digestion system and an organics recycling program for an inner-city housing estate!

Thank you to BiobiN for making  this episode possible.

BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



EM: So Rokiah, I’ll start with you. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Community By Design and the project you’re working on?

RY: Okay. Community by Design is a social interest company – community interest company – and we are currently developing anaerobic digestion on a small scale. It’s looking to make the technology cost effective at that scale and user friendly. There’s not that much of it at the moment at the very small scale and what we’re doing is to see if we can spin out as many environmental, social and economic benefits as possible all in one go. So it’s a partnership project and we’re just one of the partners, and the other partners include Methanogen who is a supplier, a research engineer from a company called Alvan Blanch, there are other engineers involved, and also Leeds University.

EM: Right, and how are you funded?

RY: We’re funded by Camden Council, and they’ve been great because they’ve supported us through the initial two years and we couldn’t have done this without them. And their objective in funding us is to see if we can generate any employment and training opportunities. So the training side of things…we’ve had quite a lot of opportunity during the build and also at all kinds of different stages of the project. And by the end of this year we hope to do a bit of economic modeling and see where we can pull the income in from to take beyond the funding. But WRAP has also funding us: WRAP are Waste and Resources and Action Program, and they’ve given us funding for the next year to do the other sites, basically.

EM: Yeah that’s really cool. And I know that some of our listeners have not yet “graduated” from compostory.org, or are beginners on the anaerobic digestion topic. Maybe you can re-detail the process so we have everyone on board here.

RY: Okay, so anaerobic digestion is a type of composting that happens without oxygen. It takes place in a sealed vessel and it can break down any organic material, except for wood: it’s the lignin in the wood that it can’t deal with. And we capture the gas that comes from it, which is about 60 percent methane, 40 percent Co2 and then some trace elements of other gasses. And the waste itself turns into a pretty liquid fertiliser: that’s what happens when we use food waste as the main feed stock. It’s a good compliment actually to compost that’s generated through an aerobic process, so they compliment each other pretty well in terms of nutrients.

EM: Brilliant stuff. And I was looking at how you use the biogas that you trap, maybe you can explain that a little bit?

RY: Oh right. So the biogas: the 60 percent of it which is methane is pretty much identical with what comes out of your mains gas, so that’s the bit that we can burn and generate heat and electricity with. It can also be used as a vehicle fuel. So we basically have got funding for the next year to set up three sites, and one of them has just been set up and been commissioned already. That one is going to be generating electricity and heat using something that looks like a boiler – it’s called a Combined Heat and Power Unit. It’s a micro-scale unit and the electricity and heat will be used for the building that we’re attached to.

At the other sites we’re going to just generate space heating, so use it as a normal space heater. And that will be in polytunnels and greenhouses. It’s quite nice because we don’t need to do anything to the gas before we do that. Some of the other sites, we’re cleaning the gas, taking out the Co2 and various other things. But the one with the polytunnles and greenhouses, you can just heat it up. The Co2 in the gas then comes out in the atmosphere and it helps plants to grow. So you get the heat, and the Co2. And then the third site is where we’re going to clean it really well, and compress it to about 200 bar or something like that and that will be used for vehicle fuel.

EM: And I was just wondering now as well, I was very curious to know how you go about collecting all the organic waste. I saw on the website that it’s bicycles that you use?

RY: Yes, that’s right, we’ve got a cargo bike. At the moment the digester that’s up and running is 2 cubic meters, it’s not massive, and it’s to demonstrate the technology can work, and we are collecting about 100 kilos a week at the moment, which is…depends on what size you are whether that’s big or small. But we’ll probably go up to about 250 kilos maximum, once we’re fully up and running. But you have to treat the digester as a stomach and keep it warm and stirred, and start to feed it slowly basically, so it doesn’t get shocked.

EM: Oh right. Okay, okay so it’s a very gentle process?

RY: Yes it is, exactly.

EM: And are businesses happy or is it businesses that you collect from, or where do you collect it?

RY: Yeah, mainly local businesses. Everything’s within a 1 mile radius area and we really want to demonstrate the benefits of doing it all very locally. And with bicycles and trailers it’s obviously zero carbon. If we had a bigger network, let’s say, we could maybe move to a small vehicle and that we could covert the engine to run on biomethane, which is the gas once it’s been scrubbed and compressed. So you then kind of would be demonstrating a closed circle within the local area with the vehicles that go out, and the signing on it.

EM: And have you got maybe an idea about how much biogas and fertiliser you can generate with a small system like this, how much it would be?

RY: Yes, yes we do. So, a 2 cubic meter system, running on food waste, you’re going to generate about twice that volume a day – that’s about 4 cubic meters of gas. And 60 percent of it being methane…that’s about 2.4 cubic meters of methane. So that’s the burnabile bit.

And I think I did some calculations a while back and it seemed to say that if you looked over a year, that system could produce enough energy for a household in terms of the gas and electricity production, using one of these CHP units. But when you look at your domestic usage of gas and electricity, it changes in the year because it’s colder in the winter obviously so you’re using more. But the digester itself would produce gas fairly constantly on a 24/7 basis, so one of the challenges is to how to manage that energy output, and how to use it when it’s summer or winter or whenever. So on each site we have slightly different solutions.

EM: That’s very cool. So where or in what context would it be beneficial do you think to roll out more of these anaerobic digestion systems, in schools maybe or? Where would be a good place to put them into?

RY: Well, we may have a school that’s interested so that’s one possibility. It would have to have space, and then it would have to have a use for the gas and you’d have to make sure that through the holidays and stuff…that there’s a use for it all through then.

We think that, having done a bit of research, the main market areas would be small businesses who produce waste. Because they have to pay for that organic waste to be taken away, it might make more sense for them to process it onsite and make use of the renewable energy and the fertiliser. Particularly if they grow things or have the chance to grow things on site. And one of our sites this year will be an organic wholefood manufacturer. So he’s got a factory with grounds, he’s a very keen permaculturalist. It’s Solara Wholefoods in Central London. And he’s already built a 50-meter forest garden, he’s got an orchard and he’s got a vineyard onsite. His digester is going to be 6 cubic meters, and that’s going to be big enough to produce enough vehicle food for his food delivery vehicle. So it’ll go around and deliver local food and run on the gas from his food waste.

So he produces enough waste…the factory produces enough waste to run that digester. And the fertiliser will be used onsite there, so it’s going to be pumped round in an irrigation system. So that will be a fantastic demonstration of closed-loop recycling.

EM: Yeah, it’s pretty perfect really.

RY: Yes it is, yeah.

EM: You said I remember, I was looking through some of your interviews on Youtube and stuff, and you mention that these very small anaerobic digestion systems are not very common here in the western world. But you would have known about…this would have been happening in other parts of the world?

RY: Yeah, so basically in the West we have quite a large number of industrial-sized digesters. And I think the incentives are mainly to do with the energy that’s produce, so there are green tariffs for the electricity or the heat that you produce using these systems.

In developing countries there are much more…many more micro-scale digesters. So they’re for maybe an individual smallholding or group of houses or something like that – similar to the scale we’re looking at. But because they tend to be in warmer climates, they need less technology, they don’t need to be heated generally. They’re often not stirred, whereas we have to keep it warm and keep it stirred and there’s other considerations in a cold climate.

So I think that what we’ve heard is that there’s more capacity in those micro-digesters in developing countries than there is in all the digesters combined in western countries. So there’s absolutely millions of digesters in China and India, for instance.

EM: That’s fascinating. And did you research about them to get started on your own or?

RY: We had a look at some of the designs, yeah. But they basically benefit because the labour there is a lot cheaper, whereas here it’s much more of the bill. And so in some cases…in China I believe they have somebody who’s trained to build these digesters and they build them into the ground – I’ve seen some built with bricks and cement, and they get the community involved in building it and that makes everything a lot cheaper.

So here, I mean it could happen in the same way here. I mean, we are developing a digester that is a lot lower cost than some of the others, just so that community groups can benefit from it. And one of the thoughts that we have is that we can troubleshoot the whole thing, get it to the point where it’s very robust and then have it is a kind of a kit that people can put together if they want so that would bring the cost right down again for them.

EM: Yeah that would be amazing.

RY: Mh-hm.

EM: So Clare, now on to you. I was very excited to read about your project Food Loop, a recycling project set up in Maiden Lane estates in London. I was especially taken by the idea of getting the community involved in the project itself. Maybe you could tell us a little more about that?

CB: Food Loop was born out of a DEFRA funded project. So DEFRA is the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. And the project was about looking into the barriers – what is it that makes it so difficult for people to separate their food waste and give it in a separated state? And we proposed to carry out this research project based on a principle that people don’t understand food waste as a resource. They look at food waste as a waste stream and they don’t see it as a resource, and if they were able to visualise that food waste is a biodegradable, natural, compostable product that turns into earth, then people would be able to associate that with the growth of new food and therefore, they would understand that it’s something precious.

We set out to explore, in very dense urban environments where food waste collection is actually very difficult, we set out to explore what the barriers were, and what might a community be able to do to in order to recycle their own food waste. This was together with Camden Council, the London borough of Camden. And the proposal was that we set up a machine to compost the residents’ own food waste, and we asked the residents to help us design a system which suited their needs. So we did that for two years: we set up the machine, a company was brought in to manage the actual collections…

We worked with the residents to design not only the communications but the whole system: how should it work, what do they thing the benefits might be…. And through talking to residents and working with them we kind of established that…we asked them what they thought would be a good idea to do with the compost. They said that they thought that it would be good to use it to – not only for growing food, we were thinking it would be about growing food – their idea was more about making the estate a more beautiful place to live.

So one of the things that came out of this project is that people who live in these, now this is quite a run-down estate, it’s quite a problematic estate and people have got more immediate problems than worrying about the environment in a wider sense. But the thing that they are very concerned about is: how they can improve their own local environment?

And now, two years down the line, it’s almost entirely run and managed by residents – volunteer residents. No one is paid, but we generate enough income. We get a little bit of money back through the North London Waste Authority, who reward community groups for biodegradable waste collection, and we sell a little bit of our product as a fertiliser and a slug repellant to urban food growers and urban gardeners.

EM: I’m just envisioning how it was when you started out and you went there for the first time and everything: how did you get the community involved – was there a lot of interest or?

CB: That’s a very good question. I think where the first issue is: how do you recruit people? Recruitment is still the most difficult thing with these projects and you need to get under the skin of the people, your primary stakeholders. Now, often the thing that is driving you, so in our case the environmental challenge of food waste, is not the thing at all which is maybe driving a resident of a housing estate.

The thing that works quite well, and I think this is a really good trick, is that we piggybacked on an event that was happening at the estate. Just when we started the project there was a barbeque event coming up on the estate. We went along to that event, and we set up a stall with a poster. All we did really was go along with a whole stall full of little tomato plants, a bucket of food waste and a bucket of compost, and just talked to people and say “did you know that your food waste can look like this one day, and then it turns into this?”. And most people were quite surprised, but it was an opportunity for us to start a conversation with them. And then we asked them if they’d like to be involved in some design work.

So lots of people actually said afterwards, you know, that they thought the design workshop was a cool thing (we were going to be designing the leaflets for the communication for this new project). So we had about 15…we had about 20 people sign up. Every time someone gave us their phone number or contact details, we gave them a tomato plant. And I think the key thing here is, if you’re recruiting, it’s to go to where people are already going to be going, and just give them a little, a little tiny reward. Just to have a first point of contact. After that we managed to get about 15 to come to our first workshop. So that was a really good way in.

We also had, which is not at all indifferent…because we were a funded research project; we also were able to give people a financial incentive. It wasn’t cash actually, but we were able to give them gardening related products when they spent a day with us in a workshop. So, it wasn’t really payment but it was again a little, little reward and that was quite lucky and I think, you know, it’s really nice to be able to give them something back.

EM: Yeah that’s a very clever point actually. That’s really cool. So Rokiah and Clare – I just asked you about your projects and now I’d like to ask the both of you: what barriers or roadblocks did you encounter when setting up? Clare you go first.

CB: Sometimes the bigger decisions take a long time, so even, for example, getting a memorandum of understanding which allowed SEED to run the project…well, we started running it anyway, but it took three months to have an actual piece of paper saying “Okay, you can run the project”.

RY: Yes, that definitely can happen. Our kind of barriers have been more in terms of legislative ones and the regulatory rules around animal byproducts in particular. So I know Clare, you’ve sort of sorted it out on your end, but we’re still a bit in limbo because the people who are deciding about anaerobic digestion at this small scale and whether or not it’s possible to distribute the digestate still haven’t really made up their minds.

So when we started the project they said, yes it’s fine to distribute, but we need an agreement with the people who are going to use it to say that they’re not going to put it near farmed animals. So we thought, okay that’s fine.  But now they’ve seemed to have changed their minds (laugh). So we’re in a slight quandary at the moment. iI’s something we hope we’re going to be able to work through, you know. It’s partly because it’s not really done that much at this scale, so everything’s a bit new.

CB: Yeah, we had similar issues, and actually we’ve only managed to have sign-off on distribution of the product (which is a critical part of the cycle, if you like)…. You can’t really make this work, this kind of project, unless you can close that loop by distributing the end product and (in theory) hopefully making some money out of it. And it’s taken us a good year and a half before we got that sorted and it’s partly as you say because the legislation is still slightly in flux and is still changing. We’ve managed to get away with quite a lot by being such a small scale that we fall under the radar.

So we, you have to…tick a certain amount of boxes, for example: you have to be producing less than a certain tonnage of compost per year, and you have to have a certain, less than a certain number of people working on the project, etc etc. And by slipping under that radar we actually have quite a degree of freedom – a much higher degree of freedom than a slightly bigger project might have like yours…

RY: Hmm…

CB: While you have the advantage of being a bigger project, in lots of ways that’s a good thing, but in lots of ways being small is an advantage too.

RY: It’s, I mean we are basically classified as the same scale as you guys, and it’s not so much to…we haven’t encountered the problems so much to do with scale, it’s more to do with the technology. So coming under the radar, we can also get the low-risk matrix position with the animal health, but because we’re not pasteurising, or we weren’t planning to, that’s the sticking point, basically. And they’re not happy for us to take it off-site at the moment. So that may change, but yeah…

And because your technology, the heat process is built in. And our process, the heat is built-in but it’s only to 40 degrees and to pasteurise it – to get it properly by animal bi-products regulations – you have to take it to 70 degrees for an hour and that kind of raises the energy costs, if you like, of the whole thing. So if we can prove we can kill off the pathogens we need to without doing that, we’re hoping that might be acceptable. But if we can’t, we might have to pasteurise, so that’s another cost on top of everything else.

EM: Right, and in a similar vein now, since this is going out to an international audience, maybe there’s some advice you might have for people who are started up something similar somewhere else? Or maybe there’s something you wish you’d known when you started out?

CB: When I started doing this stuff I really didn’t know anything about anything, and I had a hunch there was something in food waste but I didn’t really know any of the detail, or I didn’t really know where the clue was going to be. And it’s really important to do an initial phase of research. Research is really critical.

And another thing which I think is very important is not assuming that you know the answers and not being afraid to admit that you don’t have the answers, but to sort of state what you know and what you think the answers could be, and then use that as a starting point for a conversation with a whole host of experts who can set you straight.

So our project was kind of build on a vague notion: if you make the link between food waste and food-growing more evident, are people more likely to compost their food waste? That was the basic premise, and starting from there that was an idea that we visualised: our idea of getting people to collect and compost their food waste locally, and then grow things with the compost. And once we had done that we were able to use that basic visualisation as a kind of a starting point for a conversation with all kinds of different experts. Whether they were experts because they were people who lived on a housing estate, or they were experts within the local council, or whether they were from the waste management company that was sub-contracted by the council; we spoke to all these people and each of them added to our knowledge and slightly shifted our perception of what the solution needed to be. And that is a process that goes on I think continuously.

You need to continuously change and flex and adapt your thinking to accommodate your learning. But also, you know, things are in flux all the time and I think it’s about being very, very light footed and flexible and you know, keep going. You have to keep at it.

EM: Hm, that’s excellent advice.

RY: Yes, I would agree. I just probably add – and this is advice I probably don’t follow very well (laughs) but it’s really valid nonetheless: don’t try to take on too much. It’s easy to get over-complicated with things sometimes. And you’ll get a lot of positive feedback from people because it’s a concept (waste of energy, closed-loop cycles), it’s a concept that everybody intrinsically likes that, you know, makes sense to them. People don’t like waste and they don’t like waste going to waste.

I’d say…I think what the usual kind of thing, when you’re setting up a project is to look at things like how much waste you have, or how much waste can you get your hands on, and what are the logistics of that. And then what would you like to use the gas and the digestate for – and bear in mind that the digestate is as important, if not more important, than the energy when you’re talking about anaerobic digestion. So it’s not just like an add-on, it’s one of the primary outputs and it often gets a bit overlooked.

But with our kind of digester for instance, the logistics are…basically we’ve got a 2 cubic meter digester. Once we’re fully up and running we’ll be putting in roughly 40 to 50 kilos a day, and pretty much most of that will come out as digestate a day. That’s liquid digestate. So it’s a lot of stuff to use and you have to sure that you’ve got the channels to route this stuff to, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of surplus that you might end up having to put down the drain.

So, just work on developing the networks for using it, unless you can use it on site, which is perfect. And then think about – in terms of anaerobic digestion again – think about the gas use through the seasons, so not just a one-off use. Unless it’s vehicle fuel, which you can use all the way round the year. But heating you will need less of in the summer, obviously. So you could use it instead to heat hot water for teas and coffees or cooking or something like that. It could be a different use then.

EM: Well yeah, that’s great…great advice too.

CB: Well just building on Rokiah’s point though, I do remember one funding application that we did, which was all about closed-loop recycling, and the thing that they said was…they had three things you absolutely had to have nailed down in order to get this funding: you had to know where your feed stock was coming from, you had to know and have understood how you were going to process it, and you had to know what you were going to do with the output afterwards. So I think that what Rokiah said is absolutely critical, you know, if you get stuck with a growing mountain of, or you know, a waterfall of liquid compost you’ve got a problem (laughs).

EM: (Laughs) Oh my god…

CB: And it’s quite a big problem! Yeah, but if anyone is interested in the project, I’m always very happy to take people round to see our project, so you’re very welcome to pass that message on.

EM: Yes, definitely, anyone in London or England, please go check them out!

CB: I had two ladies come from Czechoslovakia, and they have subsequently set up a composting project and they’re in touch with me, and it’s always very satisfying, you know, because they came and took notes and everything and…. We are putting together a manual now because we’re…in the end of our project the idea is that we replicate what we’re doing, so we keep on developing these small scale recycling projects on housing estates.

RY: I guess I’d like to add, the same thing again: anybody who is interested in visiting our demonstration sites near Kings Cross is really welcome, and they could tie it in with, well they could visit both sites at the same time because they’re practically within walking distance so that’s really good.

CB: Oh yeah, they’re very close to each other, I completely forgot…

EM: (laughs) Right, cool. Okay guys it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show!

CB: Yes thanks, thank you for your interest!

RY: Thank you!