TRENTON — A plan to increase the recycling of food waste in New Jersey, rather than send it to incinerators or landfills, took one step back and then one forward Thursday in the Assembly – with the likelihood of many more steps ahead for the long-debated issue to be finally resolved.

The issue – bill A2371/S865 in the current session – has been debated at the Statehouse since 2016. A version passed last year, only to be blocked by Gov. Phil Murphy with a conditional veto. The Senate did not concur with his changes.

Although the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee endorsed the bill again two weeks, it was returned to the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee for another vote Thursday. It’s on the board list for Monday’s Assembly voting session – but a handful of Democrats say they won't vote for it without more changes.

Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer, said the utilities committee wants multiple amendments to address “grave concerns” about the impact on landfill gas-to-energy facilities owned by nine counties.

“We don’t want to see this bill negatively impacting these generating stations, so I will be working with the sponsor to ensure that the bill as written will be getting amendments before it hits the floor to have my support and the support of many of the committee members,” DeAngelo said.

Counties worry that if food waste is diverted to food waste recycling facilities, it will undermine the quantity and quality of methane produced as food decomposes in landfills.

“Those counties have invested substantial property taxpayer dollars in terms of capital investments, subsidizing these operations every single year and also support to the local economy, in addition to producing the clean energy,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties.

Sandra Ayres, of the law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck, counsel for the privately owned Ocean County Landfill, said the landfill facilities create Class I power that is by definition renewable.

“Diverting food waste, which would substantially impact on them negatively, seems counterproductive,” Ayres said. “To the extent that the goal is clean energy, it’s there. These facilities have been in place for a number of years, decades in fact, and they’re reliable sources of clean energy.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said landfill gas-to-energy plants shouldn’t be considered Class I renewable power like wind, solar, geothermal or wave energy because the food waste is turned into biogas and burned, releasing carbon.

“And the concern I have is that we’re going down a slippery slope where we could actually be building major power plants and calling them renewable and the same as windmills and undercutting our wind and solar programs,” Tittel said.

There are publicly owned landfill gas-to-energy facilities in Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County; Bordentown in Burlington County; Pennsauken in Camden County; Woodbine in Cape May County; Millville in Cumberland County; East Brunswick in Middlesex County; Tinton Falls in Monmouth County; Alloway in Salem County; and Lafayette in Sussex County.

Combined they generated more than 80 megawatts of electricity in 2018 and resulted in 2.65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents reduced or avoided, primarily through direct reductions of methane.

There are also privately owned gas-to-energy facilities in East Brunswick, Edison, Manchester and Sewell.

Tittel said that about 40% of food is thrown away and that the bill’s focus should return from recycling waste by large generators of waste such as supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals and prisons to reducing it.

“Originally, the whole idea was to help reduce food waste and what wasn’t reduced goes to these anaerobic digesters,” TIttel said. “And I think that’s missing from the bill because our goal should be to reduce, not just to burn it or do something else with it or compost it.”

There aren’t many places to compost food or have it converted to energy currently in New Jersey, though the bill’s advocates hope that will change if the law is enacted.

The bill would require entities that produce more than 52 tons of food waste a year to separate it and send it to a recycling facility if one exists within 25 miles. If it’s further than that, and the cost to send it that far would be 10% or more above the cost of sending it to a landfill, they can apply for a waiver.

Mary Ellen Peppard, assistant vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Food Council, cautioned lawmakers not to give food waste recyclers an incentive to raise their prices.

“The members that have been recycling food waste now have been able to do it in a cost-effective manner. It’s important that it not be more expensive than the cost of throwing the food waste in the trash,” Peppard said.

New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan projects that biogas will provide 6% of the state’s energy supply in 2050. Wind power accounts for 42%, solar power for 36% and nuclear for 16%.

The amendments made Thursday would give large food waste producers 18 months to comply with the new mandate, rather than one year; require the Department of Environmental Protection to create the procedure required to obtain a waiver; and require new food-waste recycling facilities to try to employ women and minority job applicants who live nearby, when feasible.

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