RIDGEFIELD — The city is one step closer to establishing a closed loop composting system on the site of the South Street Recycling Center.

The Planning & Zoning Commission this week unanimously approved a proposal by Dwayne Escola to build a 12-foot by 14-foot ground-mounted solar array behind the facility. The panels will power an aerated static heap composting system that will soon be installed there.

The motion was accepted with the proviso that Escola could change the location through screening or other engineering means should the panels pose a risk to public safety once installed.

Commissioner Susan Consentino, who proposed the change, said she was concerned about drivers driving down the “steep hill” on Old Quarry Road, which could potentially be affected by the sun’s reflection off the panels.

However, Commissioner John Katz noted that it is the “nature” of the panels to absorb rather than reflect sunlight.

Escola, Chair of Ridgefield’s Environmental Action Committee, submitted the application on behalf of the city and the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority. The organization serves 14 communities in western Connecticut through waste management and recycling efforts.

Last fall, HRRA received a grant of more than $72,000 from the US Department of Agriculture. The money is part of a nearly $2 million USDA investment to develop and implement community composting plans and food waste reduction strategies nationwide.

The grant will help the agency manage food waste locally and establish a closed-loop/ASP composting system at the Ridgefield Recycling Center.

Residents are currently taking their leftover food there to be shipped to a local commercial processor and the compost will be returned in the spring. According to HRRA Executive Director Jennifer Heaton-Jones, once installed, the solar-powered system will reduce transportation costs as well as the region’s carbon footprint.

“We were one of the few (entities) in the Northeast to receive the grant,” she told commissioners via Zoom.

In a closed loop/ASP composting system, air is forced into an enclosed pile of food waste, causing the waste to decompose without releasing vapors into the atmosphere. The process speeds up the decomposition process by mimicking what nature does at a faster pace, breaking down whole foods in 30 days.

“A lot of people compost in their own yards … but there are a lot of people who don’t, and this is an opportunity to take your organic waste to the recycling center,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “If we can get people to take (their) leftover food and put it in a separate bin (for composting), that’s a big step forward.”

The grant also covers public education and outreach over a two-year period. The agency plans to partner with RACE to educate consumers about the importance of preventing food waste and donating food to local churches, pantries and community shelters.

In addition, the project will improve access to compost for residents, nurseries and local farmers, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers and further reducing the region’s carbon footprint.

“I think everyone can agree that this is a great project,” Commissioner Joseph Sorena said.

Although there is currently a $2 fee for recycling organic materials at the center, Marconi’s “short-term goal” is to eliminate the fee once the system is operational.

“We need to look at the revenue and see what we can do,” he said.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediat.com