Massachusetts Steps up in Food Waste Diversion

By George Stubbs

The amount of food we don’t consume, but rather throw in the trash, is staggering in proportion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2012, food waste accounted for about 36.43 million tons, or 14.5%, of the 251 million tons of municipal garbage generated in the United States. Yet of the 87 million tons of this 251 million tons that was actually recovered and recycled, food waste constituted only about 2%, or 1.74 million tons.

Clearly, there is a huge need to expand the nation’s capacity to divert food waste from landfills and into such beneficial uses as composting. Fortunately, Massachusetts is stepping up to the plate in big way.

This past summer, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and the editors of Biocycle magazine released a report updating the state of composting in the United States. In addition to making a comprehensive case for the environmental and social virtues of diverting our yard trimmings, food wastes, and other organic materials to composting applications, the report, titled State of Composting in the US, told the story by the numbers—who is doing what, where, and how.

What the numbers show on a national level is that composting is making steady progress as a choice for the management of organic waste. Of the more than 4,900 composting facilities nationwide (the data is based on 44 states reporting), just over 70% are yard-waste-only facilities, and about 70% are what are regarded as “small” facilities, accepting 5,000 tons of waste per year or less, whether they take yard waste only or combinations of yard and food waste.

The diversion of food waste—or “source separated organics” (SSO), as it is called in the business—from our landfills is progressing, but slowly. Leaders in this effort over the past decade or so have included the cities of San Francisco and Seattle, and Hennepin County in Minnesota. But over the last two to three years, three New England states—Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts—have joined the club of those jurisdictions that are taking a big whack at food waste.

All three states have passed laws that require SSO diversion from landfills to beneficial uses. The Massachusetts law was enacted early in 2014 and took effect on October 1.

The Connecticut and Massachusetts laws cover commercial food waste, while the Vermont law covers commercial food waste initially but will pull residential food waste into the system in phases going out to the year 2020.

A more interesting difference among the three laws is the inclusion—or lack thereof—of a “distance” requirement. The Connecticut and Vermont laws require commercial entities to divert their food waste only if a facility for handling such waste is located within a certain distance. Such facilities could be farms that will take other entities’ waste, dedicated composting facilities, or even wastewater treatment plants, which are increasingly accepting SSO to supplement the organic material in wastewater. These “biosolids” are treated to produce biogas that can then be converted into energy.

In Connecticut, generators of 104 tons per year (tpy) of SSO material must divert that material from landfills if an authorized commercial or municipal facility is located within a 20-mile radius of the generator. The volume requirement ratchets down to 52 tpy by 2020. The Vermont law also has a 20-mile distance requirement that sunsets for generators of food residuals in progressively smaller amounts over the next six years.

Massachusetts does not have a distance requirement. The reason why is that the state has done a fairly good job of signaling to cities, towns, and businesses what’s coming up in the realm of new waste diversion requirements, and then helping to ensure that the necessary management infrastructure is in place before actual landfill bans are enacted. That was the case with yard waste, electronic discards (“e-waste”), and construction and demolition (C&D) waste, and that’s now the case with food waste.

A look at the ILSR/BioCycle report shows that Massachusetts has done a good job in building out a food-waste diversion infrastructure. The state has 27 facilities that can accept food waste, third nationwide after New York (45) and Washington (29). The majority of the Massachusetts facilities are small, however—accepting less than 5,000 tpy—and with state officials estimating that the new law will lead to the diversion of an additional 350,000 tons of food waste per year, there’s an obvious need for more composting and other facilities, including perhaps some industrial-scale organics management operations.

Massachusetts also ranks high among all states in terms of the support it provides to help promote composting. This support includes grants, loans, technical assistance, and outreach and education programs. All of these will be deployed as the state moves to increase food waste diversion to 35% by 2020.

Massachusetts has set this target because our environmental officials understand the benefits of composting. It protects the climate by sequestering carbon in soil and reducing the disposal of organic materials in landfills, where it biodegrades and generates methane. Composting produces a soil amendment product that can be used on agricultural land to replace fertilizer, reduce soil erosion, increase water retention, and improve soil stability and structure. Obviously, diverting organic materials to composting reduces the amount of waste communities generate—a bonus on those trash bills—and it can create jobs, both directly at the composting facilities themselves and indirectly in the deployment of the end products in agriculture and “green” infrastructure development.

Finally, when done locally, composting can build communities in several ways. The ILSR/BioCycle report puts it best: “Locally based composting circulates dollars in the community, promotes social inclusion and empowerment, greens neighborhoods, builds healthy soils, supports local food production and food security, embeds a culture of composting know-how in the community, sustains local jobs, and strengthens the skills of the local workforce.”