Bruised apples, stale corn muffins, and souring milk that would otherwise go to landfills or incinerators will soon be helping to power a supermarket warehouse in Freetown through a clean energy initiative.
Stop & Shop is preparing to construct a resource recovery plant to convert foods that cannot be sold or donated to an odorless gas that will produce electricity for its regional warehouse, processing, and distribution center off South Main Street.
The 12,000-square-foot facility will be only the second in the country to use the innovative system developed by a Concord-based firm, Feed Resource Recovery, that turns food waste into a fuel for renewable energy.
State Department of Environmental Protection officials, who recently awarded Stop & Shop permits for the project, are praising the company for helping to blaze a new trail in resource recovery. About 95 tons of used items are expected to be processed daily, supplying about 40 percent of the distribution center’s electricity.
“I am delighted that Stop & Shop has been able to . . . put forward a cutting-edge project to tap into the hidden energy value of unsold food,” DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell said in a prepared statement. “This project is forward-looking and a good model for other institutions seeking to find productive uses for their organic materials. The creation of renewable energy from organics is an exciting growth industry within the Commonwealth.”
The project, expected to create eight to 10 jobs, is also being warmly received in Freetown, where it has earned approvals from the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission.
“Stop & Shop is a great business in town. They are obviously a large employer and a large taxpayer. We enjoy being able to host them, and this makes their presence in Freetown that much stronger,” said Town Administrator Richard Brown.
Stop & Shop, the town’s top taxpayer, this fiscal year will pay $875,238 in property taxes for its existing South Main Street facility, plus $5,144 for an adjoining parcel, according to Karen Mello, the town’s assistant assessor. There is no estimate yet of added tax revenue from the new plant, which will be built on a tractor-trailer parking lot next to the distribution center.
“It’s an investment in Freetown but also an investment that is green. We are enhancing the environment, so we are pleased from that point of view, too,” Brown said.
Opened in 2004, the Freetown distribution center serves Stop & Shop’s 213 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island with dry grocery, produce, meat, deli, and dairy items. The 24-hour operation has more than 1,000 full- and part-time employees, according to Greg O’Brien, a Stop & Shop consultant.
Currently, many of the food items that it determines will not be sold prior to their expiration dates are donated by Stop & Shop to food pantries. In 2013, the company made donations with an estimated value of about $12 million.
A small portion of foods that are past expiration, overripe, or damaged are currently donated to farms as animal feed, or to composters. But the vast majority is disposed of in landfills or incinerators. It is those perishable items that will be processed in the new plant, said O’Brien, adding there will be no reduction in food donations.
The recycling process involves putting the items into a blending system that removes any inorganic packaging material and liquefies the food. The organic material is then placed into an oxygen-free tank filled with microbes that break the food down, producing an odorless biogas and a mix of nutrients and minerals, a process known as anaerobic digestion.
As with natural gas, the biogas is combusted to power a generator for electricity and heating. The 1,137 megawatts produced in Freetown will all go to electrical power.
The nutrient-rich material that remains after the anaerobic digestion process will be donated to composters to use in soil supplements, according to Ryan Begin, chief executive officer of Feed Resource Recovery.
In addition to supplying the technology, Begin’s firm will oversee plant construction and operate the facility for Stop & Shop.
Currently, there is one facility making use of the Feed technology. In 2012, Kroger Co. opened a plant that converts 150 tons a day of organic food waste from 350 stores into power for its Ralphs Food 4 Less distribution center in Compton, Calif.
Begin said there are some farms that use anaerobic digestion to convert liquefied food waste into energy, but he said his firm, which operates the California plant, is the only one to devise a convenient system for supermarket chains.
“For Stop & Shop to take this initiative I think shows their passion for sustainability. They are making an incredible investment in that, so they are certainly proving to be great stewards of the environment,” he said.
O’Brien said the environmental benefits include reducing the company’s overall truck usage, noting that instead of having to be hauled away for disposal, the food can be brought to the processing plant aboard trucks that are already traveling empty to the site for food pick-ups. He said the project will also produce renewable energy and supports the state’s goal of diverting organic materials from landfills.
Food and other organics make up 25 percent of the state’s trash stream, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The agency has set of goal of reducing the disposal of organics by 450,000 tons per year by 2020. As part of the effort, it has just finalized regulations requiring institutions that generate one ton or more per week of food disposal to divert those organics to productive uses.
The biogas exhaust that will be released to the environment in Freetown has some contaminants, but Begin said that they will fall within levels deemed safe by the DEP.
O’Brien said that in addition to saving money by producing a supply of energy and reducing truck mileage, the project is an extension of Stop & Shop’s ongoing efforts to be greener in its operations.
As an example, he said Stop & Shop was the only supermarket chain selected by the US Green Building Council to participate in a program for retailers to integrate green technology into existing buildings, such as using energy-efficient day lighting.
The Freetown plant, now fully designed, is targeted to open early next year.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.