County officials headed to Italy last week to finalize a partnership with BTS Bioenergy, a company that specializes in natural, industrial-scale food waste processing, to bring its North American headquarters to Howard County.
Six officials traveled to Verona, Italy for five days to sign the deal, including County Executive Allan Kittleman, Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Lawrence Twele and Mark DeLuca, chief of the bureau of environmental services in the Department of Public Works. The trip was funded by the Economic Development Authority and cost $22,000, according to county spokesman Paul Milton.
Twele said the group traveled to Verona so that they could visit some of BTS Bioenergy’s existing sites, which he called “amazing.”
“The reason we went was to get a first-hand look at the technology [and] understand it so that we could support it,” Twele said. “We wanted to make sure it was something that we could stand behind and endorse.”
The agreement with the Italian-based company includes up to $40 million in investment for two processing facilities the company plans to open in the county, as well as the addition of up to 20 jobs. BTS has not yet announced where in the county the facilities will be located, or the size of the potential sites, but Twele said they expected an announcement on the locations in the coming weeks; he said sites for bio-digestion facilities are usually less than two or three acres.
BTS Bioenergy uses a process called anaerobic bio-digestion to break down natural food waste in a sealed fermenter without air. The process produces methane, which can be used for energy such as heating and electricity. Anaerobic digesters are the constructed systems, such as tanks, that manage organic waste, produce gas and digested materials and reduce solid wastes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The company currently operates hundreds of locations across Europe and Asia, and was looking to expand into North America, said Shawn Kreloff, executive director and CEO of the Americas for BTS. Kreloff said that when looking for potential sites, BTS administrators found Howard County to be the most receptive to the idea, as officials were looking for ways to better deal with food waste in the county.
“In the U.S., we saw all this nice organic material going into landfills; why are we throwing this stuff away if we could be processing it and returning these nutrients to the soil?” Kreloff said. “It really does help the planet a lot. It’s nature’s way of dealing with this stuff and we just happen to do it on a large scale.”
Kreloff also said that Howard County is an ideal location for their facilities because of the high number of food processing plants in the county, giving the bio-digestion systems the material they need to operate. Howard is home to 59 food processing facilities, ranking eighth in the state, according to state data.
The independent state agency Maryland Environmental Services has been involved in the planning of the partnership over the last several months, said Director Roy McGrath. Moving forward, the agency will help BTS Bioenergy ensure its facilities comply with state and local zoning and environmental regulations.
When choosing locations for the facilities, Kreloff said the company looks for land that can be industrially zoned. The county’s Department of Planning and Zoning does not have existing regulations for anaerobic recycling facilities, according to Deputy Director Amy Gowan.
Such a facility could possibly be zoned similarly to a solid waste facility, Gowan said, which are allowed in areas zoned as manufacturing districts in the county. Once BTS Bioenergy submits a preliminary development plan for its sites, the department will evaluate the plans and complete a zoning interpretation, according to Gowan.
Anaerobic digestion facilities do not fall under composting regulations, including the mulching regulations bill that is currently before the County Council, as that bill regulates aerobic decomposition processing, Gowan said.
The EPA states that properly maintained anaerobic digesters are safe, but do need to use proper gas-handling precautions as the process produces methane and hydrogen sulfide.
Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said facilities like those proposed by BTS Bioenergy would typically require an air construction permit and an air operating permit for the equipment used in the facility. The department is in the midst of conducting a review of the process to permit anaerobic digestion facilities, and will release a draft of recommendations for improvements to the permitting process by July 2018, with a final report slated for July 2019, Apperson said.
While a more common practice in Europe with thousands of sites spanning the continent, bio-digestion recycling is a newer practice in the United States, with only 103 in the country as of 2016, according to EPA data. Howard County’s facilities will be one of only a small handful in the state.
“We deal with food processing materials, and Howard County happens to be a food processing center. All these materials being processed in Howard County were being thrown away,” Kreloff said. “And we figured this would be a great place to put a plant so we could help reduce the environmental issues associated with dumping food processing waste in landfills.”