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Vinnie Bevivino Grows Food Waste Recycling Infrastructure With Purpose and Direction

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Vinnie Bevivino, director of Organics, Bioenergy Devco has seen and done plenty from the time he started an urban farm to teach low-income immigrant communities how to grow healthy food. He eventually became one of Bioenergy Devco’s first employees, where he is now elbow-deep in developing food waste recycling strategies for some of the nation’s largest food processors.

In this Q&A the Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient tells of this work and some of his stops in between, including startup of a compost operation; how despite that he could only keep it going for a few years, it was a launching pad to as great, but bigger things, in the food waste and recycling space. He talks about where food waste recycling infrastructure is now and how he’s working to take it further.

Waste360: What’s the story about how you got into composting, went on to launch a nonprofit, and then start Chesapeake Compost Works?

Bevivino: I grew up in suburban Philadelphia where my family always kept a garden and food was very important.  I studied soil science in college.  I knew that soil was the key to our health and foundation to our environment, and thought this curriculum would lead me to a career in improving the health and wellbeing of our planet and people, though I did not know beyond that exactly what I wanted to do with it.

After college, I co-founded a non-profit urban farm that’s celebrating its 13-year anniversary this year.  Our focus was teaching low-income immigrant communities that have a rich food culture the business of growing healthy food in small spaces.  We collected food scraps and wood chips from our surrounding community to make compost, installed raised beds on compacted urban soils or even asphalt, and taught adults how to grow salad greens and other vegetables to be sold to restaurants and markets. 

While I had learned the science of composting in college and how to compost at this farm, I learned the demand for food waste recycling from the surrounding businesses that were more than willing to give us their food scraps because they would otherwise pay for their disposal.  I learned that I could be paid to take a waste material and recycle it into a valuable product, a theme that charted me on a career path that continues to this day.

I stopped working at this farm to start Chesapeake Compost Works, a large food waste composting facility in Baltimore, Maryland.  Operating this business was a labor of love, and I started with a comically small amount of capital and a lot of ambition.  It existed for four years; then I couldn’t keep it running because of mechanical issues that led to odor complaints.  But, I was able to attract the food waste to operate the facility at full capacity, and to sell all the compost.  This taught me the overwhelming demand for food waste recycling, but also that I couldn’t do this alone.  I needed to join with others with skills and resources that I didn’t have.

Waste360: How did you get started at Bioenergy Devco and what’s happened since? Tell how partnerships come into play.

Bevivino: I started working at Bioenergy Devco in 2018 as their third employee.  I now have about 60 co-workers, and we’re about finished constructing the largest food waste recycling facility in the mid-Atlantic.  I regularly work with our nation’s largest food processors and waste haulers to develop strategies for recycling their organic waste.  I’m proud of my work and the impact I’m making to solve the complex and massive problem of food waste, and credit the lessons I learned from my mom’s garden, my soil science professors, the urban farm community, and my composting facility to get me to where I am in my career today.

I spend my days developing and implementing strategies to separate and recycle food waste from the large food businesses.  Recycling brings lots of financial and environmental benefits, but it also brings challenges to a business that can be overcome with strong partnerships. 

Within Bioenergy Devco’s internal operations, I partner with co-workers with diverse expertise to accomplish our goals of developing, constructing, and operating large-scale and sophisticated anaerobic digesters.  I regularly partner with co-workers that are leaders in engineering and design, finance, contract law, construction, renewable energy, marketing, operations, and business development.  These partnerships and our team are vital to executing on the pipeline of unprecedented organic recycling facilities we are developing. 

I also value and foster partnerships external to our company.  Developing large-scale food waste anerobic digesters requires bringing together diverse stakeholders, and these partnerships make our work possible.  Everyone plays an important role, ranging from the operations manager at a food processing facility to the company’s CEO, from route managers of local waste hauling companies to national managers of the largest waste hauling companies.  We also work closely with our legislative and regulatory community to develop policies and incentives to make recycling easier for businesses, and the local environmental community to increase community support for our work

Waste360: Why is composting/organics recycling in general so important in your eyes?

Bevivino: Organic waste has such a negative impact on our planet and on our food industry, ranging from methane released by landfills and nutrients polluting our waterways.  The benefits of recycling that organic waste are so great— allowing us to rebuild our soil and generate renewable energy.  For these reasons, I can’t see myself doing anything else for the remainder of my career.

I spent the first portion of my career composting because it is a relatively simple process.  It still amazes me every time I see the internal temperature of a pile.  If you have the right ingredients in the right proportions and come back in a few days, you’ll have an active pile.  While operating a large composting facility has its complexities, the basic fundamentals are that simple.  Therefore, composting at urban farms or my own facility was the logical entrance to organic recycling.

Waste360: What are your thoughts on where compost infrastructure is now, vs where it needs to be? What are barriers to getting there?

Bevivino: Our capacity to recycle organic waste is well below the demand for organics recycling, and Bioenergy Devco is leading in the development of infrastructure to bridge that gap.  It’s a challenge for a few reasons.  First, there’s been so many failed attempts to develop working solutions, and I include my composting facility in that.  This has made the public skeptical on placing organic recycling facilities in their communities, and businesses skeptical to put the work into separating their waste.  Second, a lack of capital or a lack of ambition keeps entrepreneurs from developing infrastructure at the scale of the demand.  You may have a composting company in your region, but it’s often so small and limited that building a meaningful organics collection system is not possible.  What we’re left with is a chicken-or-egg scenario in which organics recycling infrastructure won’t be developed without clear demand, and demand won’t be developed without the infrastructure to bring the material to for recycling. 

Waste360: How are you working to expand infrastructure to better address organic waste?

Bevivino: At Bioenergy Devco, I am part of a team that is developing organic recycling infrastructure to solve critical organic waste problems throughout the United States.  We’re nearly finished construction of a food waste anaerobic digester at the Maryland Food Center and a second anaerobic digester in southern Delaware to recycle organic waste from the poultry industry.  I’m particularly proud of these two facilities because they solve very important problems in the region of the country that I live – disposing of food waste in landfills and incinerators, and land applying poultry wastes and excessive nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay.   Not only are we able to recycle valuable organic matter and nutrients back to degraded soils, but via anaerobic digesters we can generate renewable energy. 

Looking forward, I am excited to bring the success of these two anaerobic digestion facilities to other regions in need of similar solutions. 

Waste360: What’s most interesting about your work?

Bevivino: I love seeing the scale and complexity of our food system and to participate in developing solutions that match the scale of the problem.  I’ve toured the food businesses that are responsible for keeping us fed, and advanced meaningful solutions to change the way they manage their waste away from disposal and towards recycling.  

Waste360: Have you had any surprises along the way in your career? If there’s a story behind this, what is that story?
Bevivino: I’m surprised, and delighted, by how private businesses have progressed on how they think about sustainability and making investments in reducing their environmental impacts.  When I started in organics recycling about 15 years ago, only companies with very public environmental brands were interested in separating and recycling their food waste; others saw it as an extra task and cost.  Food companies are thinking critically about sustainability, and now seeing investments and commitments towards more sustainable operations as not only benefiting their brand and image, but also as important to sustaining the viability of their business. 

This trend is exemplified by comparing Chesapeake Compost Works that operated about 10 years ago, with Bioenergy Devco’s Maryland Food Center’s anaerobic digester.  It took about a year of operations to secure the 15,000 tons of food waste that we composted at Chesapeake Compost Works, and the material was coming from the most sustainably-focused food businesses that opted into recycling their food waste.  Now, on the eve of starting operations at the Maryland Food Center anaerobic digester, we are nearly at capacity with committed tonnage from the area’s largest food businesses, contributing about eight times the food waste that was accepted at Chesapeake Compost Works.  Our region’s legislative climate, business interests, and environmental community are unified towards advancing organics recycling.

Waste360: I understand you also got into hoop houses and even wrote a book on them. Why?

Bevivino: It took me two years to permit and fund Chesapeake Compost Works, and in that time I started a construction company that built hoop houses on farms in and around the Baltimore area.  Hoop houses are low-cost structures that extend the season for farmers and, in our climate, allow for year-round harvesting of certain leafy greens.  They’re common on small farms because the farmer can have a return on their investment through increased sales and production.

When I wound down this construction company to start the composting facility, I wrote a book (available on Amazon) on how to build hoop houses from scratch.  My hope was to spread this knowledge that I gained and make it easier for small farmers to make this investment and strengthen their farming business.  

TAGS: Organics
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