Massachusetts Leads the Way on Food Waste

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Food scraps beware! That cozy retirement in landfills that most of your predecessors have had is quickly fading as your fate. A movement is afoot to make you work tirelessly to produce energy and give back your nutrients. 

Mayor Bloomberg is leading New York's move into separated food waste collection, and  just announced expansion of of this program, which will go from a few thousand households today to 100,000 in 2014. However, waste professionals across the country are all watching Massachusetts, who earlier this month became the first state in the nation to put forward regulations to ban businesses of a certain size from sending organics to landfills or incinerators. 

In fact, Massachusetts is home to a great many pioneers addressing our country’s monumental food waste problem. (Just how monumental? Americans waste a full 40 percent of the food we produce each year.)

The Big Y supermarket chain has been working since the 1990s to reduce food waste from its 30 Massachusetts stores. The management of Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox’s iconic baseball stadium, have been diverting their food waste away from landfills and toward commercial composting facilities since 2011, at the initiation of their chefs. The Boston-based food rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls weekly collects 8,000 pounds of perfectly good but unsaleable produce and prepared foods from supermarkets, farmers and others, and delivers it to soup kitchens, and homeless and domestic violence shelters to feed people in need.

Now, we can add to that list of pioneers the state of Massachusetts itself. The regulations recently put forward by the Commonwealth will help prevent food waste where it starts—at large food operations such as supermarkets, colleges, sporting and entertainment venues, hospitals, and large restaurants—and then will reduce the environmental impact of waste that can’t be avoided. These new regulations, scheduled to take effect July 1st, 2014, demonstrate a deep understanding of how to address our country’s $165 billion, 90 million metric tons of methane-generating food waste problem.[i] (Methane is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas, about 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide.)

These regulations are a model for the nation. And they work by moving down an inverted pyramid of solutions that international food waste experts agree represent the most effective course of action.

First and foremost, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection recommends producing less waste. A food waste audit is a good first step. Once there’s a baseline to improve upon, “By modifying your ordering/purchasing—both quantities and timing—you can greatly reduce the amount of surplus food,” Massachusetts DEP says in a guide to businesses and institutions.

Next, donate useable food to organizations such as Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Then, partner with farmers to feed excess food to animals; many will haul food waste away for free. Or, do as Big Y does: Deliver unused food to local zoos for use as feed.

Finally, the regulations require that venues producing a ton or more of food waste a week divert it from disposal by incineration or at landfills, where, while decomposing, it would give off the potent greenhouse gas methane. Massachusetts estimates the 1700 businesses or so covered by the regulations will annually divert approximately 200,000 tons of waste from landfills—the equivalent of taking more than 41,000 cars off the road.

Food waste that’s composted rather than dumped in a landfill can save almost a ton of greenhouse gases for every ton of landfill avoided. Under the new regulations, food venues can also send their waste to awkwardly named anaerobic digesters—facilities that use microbes to break down organic waste and create electricity and useable heat. Conservatively speaking, the AD process saves at least a ton of greenhouse gases for every ton of food waste diverted.

There are additional benefits in composting and anaerobic digestion: jobs. “This is an example of good government policy,” says CEO Paul Sellew, of the Waltham, Massachusetts-based anaerobic digestion business, Harvest Power. His company employs 50 in the state and 550 nationwide, up from zero only four years ago, thanks, in part, to local government policies.

In fact, for all concerned, the economics of food waste diversion are pretty good. “Per ton, our composting fee is the same as our waste-hauling fee,” says Chris Knight of the Red Sox operation. Big Y pays even less. Companies that donate to Lovin’ Spoonfuls get a tax deduction. Says John Fisher of the Massachusetts DEP, “Many of the businesses we’ve already been working with have been able to save money diverting their food waste. And that’s why we set the level at one ton—so businesses can do this cost-effectively.” To help create food waste processing infrastructure, DEP is providing $4 million in grants and loans for new or expanded anaerobic digestion facilities.

The one key consideration to keep in mind, however, is sizing these facilities appropriately.  Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the British subsidized anaerobic digestion so heavily that they are now growing crops to “feed the monsters.”  Whether true or not, it’s a caution to keep in mind as we begin to develop these systems here.  They’re great, as long as they are sized for the inevitable, inedible scraps and not creating demand for edible food  that could otherwise be going to Lovin’ Spoonfuls.

“The good news and the bad news about these regulations is that there’s so much food waste out there to address,” says Lovin’ Spoonful’s founder and executive director Ashley Stanley. “Such a big part of the problem is that we’ve lost the ability to place the appropriate value on food. These regulations see that and do something powerful.”

[i] Landfills generate 17% of U.S. methane. About 90% of this is due to the food scraps in landfills. Using data from the EPA’s 2011 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory, this translates to about 90 million metric tons in CO2 equivalents.