Michigan sent nearly 52 million cubic yards of waste to landfills in 2022. It landfilled over 76% of its waste compared to 5% in other states. Waste recycling efforts in Michigan have faltered, with the state recycling only 19% of all waste generated, which is well below the 32% national average.
After years of fanfare and talks about new recycling laws to reverse these disappointing trends, the Michigan legislature finally passed a sweeping reform package in December 2022, establishing the lofty goal of a 45% recycling rate by 2030. Within that package of bills were numerous incentives and tools to spur the necessary activity and investment in recycling systems—clearly indicating legislators’ intent for massive investments and support for accelerated efforts to reach their recycling goals.
One of the many solutions and technologies ready to serve the state is anaerobic digestion, a powerful tool for not only recycling food waste but all organic waste—while also displacing synthetic fertilizers and creating local renewable energy. Yet, leaders of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) have proposed new permitting that would end food waste recycling using digestion in the state.
Anaerobic digestion is a simple, biological process of breaking down organic waste, as old as our universe. Organic material is typically mixed and warmed in a closed, airtight tank while microorganisms break down or “digest” the organic material, without the presence of oxygen. The residual material is a mixture of water and fiber, similar to compost, known as digestate. The EPA recognizes digestate as a valuable, nutrient-rich material that can be used as a fertilizer and a soil amendment, increasing the productivity of crops and replacing chemical fertilizers. Bagged digestate is sold in home and garden stores across the U.S. The nutrients in digestate are bio-available, thus more easily absorbed by plants—allowing farmers to minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and protect Michigan’s vital water resources from unnecessary nutrient runoff.
Despite these benefits, and historical data demonstrating the value and benefits of digestate when applied at agronomic rates, EGLE’s water resources division has taken a recent U-turn and is now making it almost economically impossible to recycle food waste with anaerobic digestion. EGLE has decided that digestate from food waste is no longer allowed to be land applied using agricultural standards and practices that have been used for decades. Instead, both existing and new systems recycling food waste and land applying digestate are being forced into onerous groundwater discharge permits, as if they were discharging industrial wastewater instead of the natural, microbial recycling process that’s in use.
This new permitting requirement has been implemented without the public notice and comment period expected of such an impactful change in regulation. If allowed to continue, it will have lasting negative impacts on food waste recycling in the state of Michigan and existing food waste recycling systems will be forced to shut down and instead send their food waste to landfills.
In many cases, permit requirements will double the already sizable operating costs of food waste digesters. But, more absurdly, not allowing land application of digestate leaves few options for reuse, which could ultimately lead to the food waste or digestate being landfilled—the opposite outcome sought by the legislature in the recycling laws the state has passed.
A secondary benefit to recycling organic waste in anaerobic digesters is the added value of renewable energy production. Organic waste produces methane as it naturally decomposes, which can be repurposed to produce renewable natural gas (RNG), or renewable electricity. Because of this benefit, the EPA ranks anaerobic digestion as the highest priority way to recycle food waste, slightly above composting. Michigan has ambitious clean energy and climate goals, which would both benefit from these systems.
Digesters provide a win-win for the State’s sustainability goals. Michigan should be incentivizing investment in these goals, reducing cost and regulatory burden, not creating an unreasonable, costly environment to do business—if it has any hope of meeting these goals.
In addition, achieving Michigan’s recycling goal would support 138,000 new jobs in Michigan’s Recycling, Reuse & Recovery Industry, providing $9 billion in annual labor income and $33.8 billion in economic output. Recycling all of Michigan’s organic waste would generate at least $1.25 billion in local capital investment and more than 10,000 construction jobs and 700 permanent jobs.
The anaerobic digester and biogas industries are ready to build the necessary infrastructure to help Michigan reach its energy, recycling and economic development goals. But today’s regulatory environment contradicts science and ignores a commonsense approach for companies looking to invest in the state’s recycling infrastructure. Michigan stands on the cusp of transformation, armed with the potential to combat food waste through anaerobic digestion, but, due to nonsensical, unilateral decision-making, is now hindering and, in this case, disincentivizing food waste recycling through unclear and unnecessary new permitting requirements. Michigan should instead embrace and encourage this anaerobic digestion to unlock a more sustainable future, drive economic growth and investments and protect the environment.
Originally published on LinkedIn here.