The Value of Waste

In 2007, only 2.6 percent of the nearly 29.2 million metric tons of organic waste generated in North America was recovered, due to inefficient collection processes. Organic Resource Management in Ontario, Canada, is on a mission to make sure that waste doesn't go to waste.
By Khalila Hammond
In 1981, Charles Buehler set out to solve the "organics diversion" dilemma to find an alternative disposal system for liquid organic residuals rather than disposing of it in a landfill.

The alternative he sought would deliver cost-effective, environmentally sustainable solutions for managing organic residuals and provide efficient customer service. Eight years
later, Buehler established Organic Resource Management Inc. in Woodbridge, Ontario, which specialized in the infield composting process and direct-land application of processed waste, but he soon realized that the two processes were not enough to sustain the business. After attending a conference and tradeshow on biogas and touring an anaerobic digestion facility in Germany, Buehler decided to expand the company's waste management services. Since then, ORMI has pioneered the collection, processing and management of liquid organic residuals, and has developed proprietary systems specifically for preparing and optimizing the energy value of organic residuals for reuse.

Redirecting Organic Waste
While ORMI was one of the first companies to dispose of organic residuals using the process of direct-land application, the company found that the process incurred regulatory issues with odor management that made it difficult to sustain. ORMI soon turned to anaerobic digestion as a low-cost, long-term recycling solution for organic waste. The company has since grown and now specializes in the collection of nonhazardous liquid organic residuals for delivery to recycling facilities and anaerobic digester locations for energy production and composting.

Industrial food and beverage processors such as restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores typically generate large quantities of organic waste that must be removed from their wastewater prior to releasing it into the municipal sewer system. In most cases, grease interceptors and dissolved air flotation systems are not efficient enough, and other pretreatment technologies are required. ORMI provides its services to more than 8,000 food and beverage processing facilities in Ontario, Québec and Lower Mainland British Columbia that are challenged by managing wastewater effluent quality to meet sewer use bylaw limits.

Using a fleet of specialized vacuum trucks, ORMI collects and transports liquid residuals to recycling facilities on a 24-hours-per-day, seven-days-a-week basis. The residuals are taken to the company's processing facilities to remove any excess water and are then transported to recycling and anaerobic digester locations.

In 2008, ORMI successfully demonstrated the process of converting organic residuals into valuable high-energy feedstock for the production of biogas. Armed with its financially viable technology for handling organic residuals, the company created the Organic Resource Recovery System. The process provides on-site management of solid organic food waste, grinding the material into slurry. The residuals are then stored on-site where they are hydrolyzed and acidified in preparation for anaerobic digestion.

The system, which includes a mill, holding tank and vacuum truck, reduces total waste volume by an average of 5:1. Despite being developed and patented in 1995, the ORRS process is not yet fully commercialized. Buehler reports, however, that the ORRS system has been working well in terms of cleanliness and odor issues at its two generator locations at Loblaws grocery store and Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto. "ORMI has continued to grow its core business right up to and through our last quarter," Buehler says. "We felt that with the anaerobic digestion world starting to move, it was the right time to completely focus on our core business, [which] allowed us to strengthen our balance sheet going into these uncertain economic times."

On-Farm Contracts
ORMI has secured an exclusive 20-year organic residual supply agreement with four Ontario farm-based anaerobic digesters. The company supplies 5,000 metric tons per year of liquid organic waste to Clearydale Farms in Spencerville, Donnandale Farms Inc. in Stirling, and Ledgecroft Farms Inc. in Seeley's Bay. The company pays a "tip fee" that is adjusted based on the amount of gas generated. ORMI also supplies 4,500 metric tons of organic residuals to Fepro Farms in Cobden. Of the 19,000 metric tons of off-farm feedstock supplied, more than 2,000 kilowatts of electricity are generated. "We have worked with ORMI for about two years now," says Paul Klaesi of Fepro Farms who has owned and operated an on-farm anaerobic digester since the spring of 2003. "Before working with [ORMI] we were running on farm manure and producing about 700 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day. Now we produce nearly 1,400."

On-farm anaerobic digestion of manure creates biogas, which is composed of methane and carbon dioxide and can be used to generate electricity and heat. The liquid organic residuals collected by ORMI have helped produce four to 10 times more biogas than manure alone, and is an ideal feedstock when used with manure for anaerobic digesters. "An important concept to remember, and one that often gets overlooked or its importance underestimated, is that ORMI significantly improves the value of an anaerobic digester and the organic residuals it collects," Buehler says. "We are able to blend and control the type and quality of the feedstock, making the operation of the anaerobic digester much more efficient than if it were run using raw, unprocessed organic waste." Using anaerobic digesters to process liquid organic residuals helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the reliance on landfills. The process also helps reduce odor and pathogens and improves the nutrient availability in the digestate, which can be used as an organic fertilizer to spread on farm fields.

Remaining Competitive
According to ORMI's 2008 annual report, the company says it believes that anaerobic digestion has not emerged previously in North America primarily because of an abundant supply of relatively low-cost energy. Anaerobic digestion has been successful in Europe due to its appropriately priced energy markets that support the purchase of electricity generated by the system, positioning organic residuals as a low-cost recycling solution.

In Ontario, ORMI's market, pricing regime and operational policies are slowly changing in favor of anaerobic digestion, but much progress is still needed. Currently, two government incentive programs exist in Ontario to drive the development of anaerobic digestion. The Ontario Biogas Systems Financial Assistance Program encourages the production of clean energy generating systems such as anaerobic digesters for biogas energy production within the province. The program assists farmers and rural businesses in formulating feasibility studies for the installation of biogas systems in addition to covering a portion of the construction and implementation costs. The Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program encourages the development of small renewable energy generators of clean, renewable electricity to contribute to the Ontario power grid. Generators can receive up to 11 cents per kWh.

Much of ORMI's success depends on remaining competitive in the rapidly growing anaerobic digestion market. Competition in the nonhazardous liquid waste service industry has increased over the years from within the industry and other companies diversifying into the field. The challenge is for ORMI to overcome the capital cost of installing its ORRS equipment as compared with other collection alternatives. A lack of readily available, low-cost organic recycling alternatives in North America is another major constraint to the advancement of its system.

ORMI also continues to build its knowledge base on various types of recycling and disposal alternatives. The company is working with the University of Guelph through the Ontario Centre of Excellence to conduct a project titled, "The Economics and Feasibility of the Co-Substrates Anaerobic Digest for Farms in Ontario." The study investigates the costs and benefits associated with on- and off-farm waste streams and centralized anaerobic digesters, and helps determine strategies to control low-cost recycling and disposal alternatives within the organic waste market.

ORMI sees a tremendous opportunity in the diversion of organic residuals from North American landfills, which combines both the concept of recycling and renewable energy through the process of anaerobic digestion. "We continue to forge ahead developing systems and infrastructure to position ourselves to take advantage of what we believe will be an unprecedented growth opportunity as the biogas renewable energy industry emerges in Canada and the United States," Buehler says. "We believe that the convergence of organics recycling with renewable energy through anaerobic digestion will create an excellent opportunity [for the company as well as the biogas industry]."

Khalila Hammond is the managing editor of Bioenergy Canada. Reach her at or (519) 576-4500. This feature appeared in the March issue of Bioenergy Canada.