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Firm's support of renewable energy no wasted effort

Garb-el Products is not one to waste a good opportunity.

The Lockport company makes equipment that grinds up and disposes of waste for customers like supermarkets and restaurants. But Garb-el over the years has always embraced finding expanded uses for its equipment, and the renewable energy field presented just such an opening.

"Our equipment is ideally suited for the processing and grinding," said James M. Carbone Jr., 35, Garb-el's president. "It's been doing this for 60-plus years. It's just a different application, a different market. On a larger scale, but still you're dealing with the same waste stream."

Garb-el's willingness to adapt also means the company does not become overly reliant on any single type of customer. Carbone estimates he has been writing two to three business proposals a day for the past six to eight months for potential projects involving renewable energy.

"If the stumbling block isn't initially financial with a company looking to put the project together, it's what technology we're going to use and how's it going to be implemented," Carbone said. But as more projects use Garb-el's products, other companies decide they want the same equipment, a "copycat" effect that Garb-el naturally welcomes.

The company was founded in Lockport in 1950 and remains in an expanded version of its original home. Carbone's father, James Carbone Sr., bought the business in 1983 and is chief executive officer.

Garb-el does not disclose its sales figures or identify its customers -- some of which it says are large retailers -- citing confidentiality agreements. Garb-el has five permanent employees, and brings in more workers, such as welders, on a part-time basis at especially busy times.

For projects involving renewable energy, Garb-el's organic feedstock grinders play an important supporting role. Its equipment processes material like food waste that is fed into an anaerobic digester, which in turn produces methane-rich bio-gas, facilitating the generation of renewable energy.

The approach benefits the environment in a few ways, Carbone said. Organic waste like food scraps is kept out of landfills, where it generates harmful methane gas emissions. The system also cuts down on truck emissions, since fewer regular pickups are necessary to haul waste to a landfill.

Renewable energy is produced, and companies involved in disposing of their waste this way burnish their "sustainability" credentials with customers.

A couple of weeks ago, Garb-el was preparing to ship an organic waste grinder, capable of processing 80 to 90 tons of waste per day, to a customer in California. The equipment will process cardboard waste for the customer, as well as food waste from retailers in the area. After processing, the waste will be carried into a holding tank and then anaerobically digested.

Carbone said in cases where there is a central processing site for waste, a large Garb-el grinder can be installed to serve multiple users. Waste from supermarkets and plants that prepackage food, for instance, can be brought in on delivery schedules.

"As one of the engineers on a project recently told me, 'You're the smallest footprint in this entire process, not only financially, but you're the No. 1 showstopper as far as creating energy and our ability to do it efficiently,' " Carbone said. "Which is huge, when you're talking millions and millions of dollars going into these facilities.

"And you've got a piece of [grinding] equipment that a lot of times engineers will overlook, because their main concern is energy creation," he said. "And they know the inherent value in food waste and all the different feedstocks that will be entered. But sometimes they have a tendency to overlook, 'How's it going to get broken down into the consistency that we want and the speed at which we want it?' "

Garb-el is part of a renewable energy pilot project in Albany County. One of its partners, Spectrum BioEnergy, is converting wastewater sludge, food scraps, fats, oils and grease into renewable energy, with the help of a Garb-el grinder.

Sludge from a county wastewater treatment plant and food waste from the city of Watervilet and Bimbo Bakeries USA will be ground into a fine slurry before being fed into the digester. The Garb-el grinder will operate on gas from the digester, making for a "closed loop" and energy efficient system.

Spectrum determined Garb-el's grinder was the best fit. "Since installing the Garb-el grinder, we've been very pleased and have realized increased feeding efficiency of our waste streams," said Spectrum's president, Ramu Ravipati, in a statement.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is providing financial support to the pilot project.

Back in Lockport, another element of Garb-el's strategy involves the community where the company was founded.

"We try to use as much in Lockport, in this area, that we've used for a number years to make certain parts for us," Carbone said. "So it really does help out a lot of different companies."