Massive Innovation: American Organic Energy Uses Anaerobic Digestion to Reduce New York’s Food Waste

American Organic Energy
Written by David Caldwell

On New York’s Long Island, the waste management professionals at American Organic Energy are implementing a radical new strategy to help curtail the Big Apple’s food waste, transforming it into clean, renewable energy and organic fertilizer.

As we search for ways to further limit our environmental impact, food waste remains a serious concern with a growing population. Americans produced 38 million tons of food waste in 2014, with an accompanying 34 million tons of yard trimmings, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

American Organic Energy has its roots in Long Island Compost, a firm with over thirty years’ experience managing Long Island’s and New York’s organic waste. Brothers Charles, Dominic and Arnold Vigliotti entered composting after successful careers in waste management. “This was a period of time prior to any material recycling in this country,” CEO Charles Vigliotti recalls.

As the company expanded, the brothers learned not only to compost properly but also to turn organic waste and lawn clippings into green products such as mulch and topsoil. To Vigliotti, it was a no-brainer to use the waste in this manner; “If you don’t have a use for it at the end, you’ve wasted your time.”

Out of space
The growing company began fielding new requests for food waste disposal, which, despite new state and municipal requirements on recycling in the 1980s, remained a problem. There was simply no space anywhere in New York to dispose of food waste, requiring it to be sent as far away as Virginia. “It is our feeling that that’s just crazy,” Vigliotti comments. “It’s the wrong way for a 21st century society to handle its waste.”

Despite the brothers’ expertise in composting yard waste, food waste was a new kind of problem, Vigliotti says. “We found that we really couldn’t handle meats, fish, oils, things like that with our existing outdoor wind-row technology approach.”

In search of a solution, the brothers learned about anaerobic digestion. This biological process uses bacteria to break down organic waste, producing biogas (which is mostly methane) that is then used to produce clean, renewable energy. Anaerobic digestion requires no oxygen or ventilation, so the heat produced by the bacterial breakdown creates a greenhouse effect. With enough insulation, the process becomes virtually self-sustaining and is unaffected by outside weather factors, unlike solar and wind power.

The brothers decided this was the way forward, and American Organic Energy was born.

Dedicated family
Today, both Long Island Compost and American Organic Energy remain family-run businesses, with Charles as CEO, brother Arnold as Senior Vice President and Director of Operations, and Charles’s daughter Gia as Director of Sales.

Long Island Compost provides the family with solid revenue streams from its fertilizer and compost, product lines the Vigliottis have offered for decades. Long Island Compost has been involved in such high-profile projects as the World Trade Center Memorial Garden and New York’s Green Roof Initiative, which installs green roofs, porous parking lots and green sidewalks throughout the city. When complete, these developments will recapture 40 percent of the city’s rainwater runoff and save taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion over the next twenty years.

But American Organic Energy is doing something even more ambitious.

The company’s objective is to build and manage an 11-acre anaerobic digestion plant. When complete, American Organic Energy’s new facility will process 180,000 tons of food waste per year, plus an additional 10,000 tons of yard waste and 30,000 tons of fats, oils and greases (known collectively as ‘FOG’).

Estimates indicate the plant will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the New York metropolitan area by 85,000 tons annually, eliminate an estimated 1.4 million miles per year currently travelled by trucks on Long Island Region roads, and produce over 500,000 mmBtu of renewable natural gas per year that will be used to help meet the natural gas shortage on Long Island.

Although similar plants do exist in other parts of North America – in Toronto, Ontario, Edmonton, Alberta, and San Luis Obispo County, California, for instance – nothing on this scale has ever been tried. As Vigliotti relates, the company needed to build on a massive scale if it hoped to have any impact on the Greater New York area.

“We happen to be geographically located in the heart of over 10 million people,” he explains simply. “Every single one of them eats food.” Anything smaller than the plant’s current scale would hardly make a difference in America’s most populous city. “If we were going to build a facility,” Vigliotti remarks, “we were going to make sure this would be a facility that could have a material impact on how much waste is going into landfills.”

Bringing the regulators on board
It’s been a long time coming, with this project having been in development since 2011. American Organic Energy has used the Vigliotti’s connections with private industry to form solid partnerships with other companies such as Suez, Air Liquide, General Electric, and Scotts Miracle-Gro. But the largest hurdle, Vigliotti relates, has come from getting all the various regulatory agencies on board with this idea, particularly on such a massive scale.

“They don’t handle ‘new’ very well,” he remarks. “They do what they do very well, but ‘new?’ You’ve got to bring them along, so it was a learning experience for everybody involved.” Groundbreaking is now scheduled for December 2019, with an anticipated December 2020 completion date.

These regulatory agencies are now providing significant financial and technological support. While most of the project development is being funded by Long Island Compost’s own profits, the project did receive $400,000 in state tax funds and a $1.35 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA). This was the agency which helped further Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal program.

The Governor on side
Having New York State’s government on side, Vigliotti remarks, greatly helped the project get going. “The support of the governor’s office was absolutely critical in us being able to move the other regulatory agencies,” he says, noting that this leadership was necessary to further this and other renewable energy projects. “Albany and the governor’s office have been extraordinarily supportive, and we are so appreciative of what this governor [did] on our project and environmentally throughout the state.”

Once it is properly harnessed, the possibilities presented by anaerobic digestion of food waste cannot be overstated. Far from simply providing renewable natural gas to the local pipeline to meet requirements on Long Island, the process can also provide vehicle fuel and clean, purified water. The primary by-product from anaerobic digestion, known as digestate, can be converted into organic fertilizer and compost. But perhaps most importantly, anaerobic digestion can significantly reduce methane emissions into our atmosphere and pollutants in our water. With a steady source of energy input through food and other organic waste, anaerobic digestion is a bold new step towards renewable, sustainable energy.

Getting it built
Once American Organic Energy’s anaerobic digestion plant is completed next year, it remains to be seen how this will affect renewable energy policy in New York and the United States as a whole. While the Vigliottis remain fully committed to this project, they also remain focused on the immediate future. “Let’s get the first one built,” Charles remarks, “and then we’ll see where we go with more.” Still, he remains cautiously optimistic. “We can get this one built, and show the world what we can do here, and look at exporting it to municipalities all across the country.”

However, Vigliotti makes it clear that the facility will be cost-effective, requiring neither significant technological advancement nor large government tax increases – thus refuting a common argument from renewable energy naysayers. “Our waste generators will not have to pay any more than what they’re paying right now to dispose of their material, even though it’s a very expensive proposition.” Once this facility proves anaerobic digestion is feasible for a large population, changing economies of scale will inevitably make future facilities even more affordable.

Poised for change
Vigliotti and his family all see the facility as a win-win. From reducing carbon dioxide and methane emissions to curtailing food waste and producing clean, renewable energy and water, the anaerobic digestion plant is poised to change how renewable energy is produced in the United States. While he remains noncommittal about the plant’s impact on energy policy, Vigliotti is adamant that the current system is non-sustainable. “Taking food waste and sticking it in a hole in the ground is a barbaric way for a 21st century society to handle its waste,” he says, regardless of its origin. “It’s a dumb way to handle things. There are better ways to handle it.”

This cycles back to the reason Vigliotti and his brothers entered waste management all those years ago. While he and his family consider that creating renewable energy sources is a meaningful goal in and of itself, they are also continually focused on improvement. “Every day, we’re striving to get better at what we do,” he remarks, “to process better, to be better neighbors, to be better citizens.”

With a simple paradigm shift, he and his company – and other similar companies – can view, handle, and use waste not as a burden, but as an opportunity to improve our planet. “We can all use that. That’s all good stuff.”

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