Vt. tries to lower emissions by keeping food wastes out of dumps

By Niina Heikkinen | 07/21/2015 08:39 AM EDT

Vermont is trying to revolutionize how the state, and perhaps the rest of the country, handles leftover food. Starting this month, any business, college or university, or other facility that produces 52 or more tons of food scraps per year (1 ton per week) and is within 20 miles of a composting facility is required to divert those scraps from landfills.

Second of a series. Click here for the first part.

Vermont is trying to revolutionize how the state, and perhaps the rest of the country, handles leftover food. Starting this month, any business, college or university, or other facility that produces 52 or more tons of food scraps per year (1 ton per week) and is within 20 miles of a composting facility is required to divert those scraps from landfills.

This new ban is part of a larger effort by the state to raise its recycling rates and, at the same time, decrease its greenhouse gas emissions that include methane from rotting food. Advocates hope the law will have the added benefits of increasing the amount of unused food that is donated to charity and cutting the energy and fertilizer needed to grow food through a greater use of natural composting.


"We have a need to manage our materials in a more sustainable way for environmental reasons and for future access to resources," said Josh Kelly, the materials management section chief in the Vermont Department of Environmental Protection’s Solid Waste Program, who is putting the waste restrictions in place. "While these materials are banned, the focus is to get people to do things better, and we are helping people to do that."

Vermont isn’t the only state changing how it handles food disposal, but its plan is the most ambitious. The ban is part of Vermont’s 2012 Universal Recycling Law, also known as Act 148. Among other waste disposal restrictions, it aims to ban landfill disposal of food scraps from all sources, including residential waste, by July 1, 2020. A year earlier, the state began implementing the ban with producers generating 2 tons of organic waste per week. Most of that food will instead go to one of the state’s 10 food scrap composting facilities, with some heading to anaerobic digesters.

The ban was motivated by shrinking landfill space and a decade of stagnant recycling rates that have stayed around 30 to 36 percent, according to the Waste Management & Prevention Division. It would also help to reduce the state’s carbon emissions. About 18 percent of all methane emissions in the United States comes from wastes decomposing in landfills, which are the third largest source of the greenhouse gas in the country, according to U.S. EPA. Because much of that methane comes from decomposing food scraps, more recycling means less greenhouse gas gets into the atmosphere.

In Vermont’s case, a 2013 report prepared for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources found that the amount of emissions from food scraps would be cut in half (from 3,009 metric tons of carbon equivalent [MTCE] to 1,575 MTCE) if all food scraps were diverted to compost.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, there is a growing awareness among state governments that sending so much waste to landfills is unsustainable and that diverting leftover food has other benefits like boosting soil health with more compost and preserving natural resources including water. Neighboring Massachusetts started regulating food disposal from businesses and institutions in October 2014, while Connecticut’s similar legislation went into effect in 2011 and Rhode Island’s version of a ban will begin next year. Both New York and Maryland are considering following in their footsteps.

‘Upstream’ efforts help the poor

While implementation of the commercial food waste bans has primarily focused on composting, food waste generators like grocery stores, colleges and food distributors are strongly encouraged to prioritize "upstream" solutions like reducing wasteful purchasing and production practices and increasing the amount of food they donate to hunger-relief organizations, as outlined in EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy.

The idea is to shift the perception of leftovers as food waste and to think of them as wasted food that has an energy value, said Christine Beling, a project engineer in EPA’s Region 1 office, which covers New England. "Nobody wants to waste food, right?" she said. "There’s a lot of really wholesome food out there that doesn’t need to go to composting."

City Harvest
Last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, volunteer groups and others rescued over 46 million pounds of food from landfills. Members of City Harvest, a group in New York City, pose with their daily haul gleaned from restaurants, grocers, hotel, bakeries and farmers markets.

But it may be some time before anyone will be able to tell definitively whether the bans are making a dent on hunger and poor nutrition, as Vermont and other states continue to work out the logistics of implementing the bans.

Alex Bornstein, the chief operations officer of the Vermont Foodbank, said he and his colleagues weren’t sure what to expect when the ban initially went into effect a year ago. It’s still unclear whether there have been more donations statewide because diverted food would be donated directly to the 225 local food shelves, meal sites, senior centers or after-school programs affiliated with the food bank.

"The amount of need is amazing," he said of hunger in the state, adding that as many as one in four Vermonters, roughly 153,000 people, use the food bank’s services.

Collecting enough food donations is especially challenging in Vermont because the state doesn’t have many big-box stores like Wal-Mart that provide bulk donations in most other states. Distribution difficulties are also compounded by limited transportation and infrastructure, Bornstein said.

"What makes Vermont a great place to live also makes it really hard to run a statewide foodbank successfully," Bornstein said. "In Vermont, we’re really under-represented by major distributors. Because we don’t have those big distribution centers, we don’t have major corporations like a Kraft or a Nestle, we’re constantly having to be creative in bringing in food."

Passage of Act 148 could make up for that donation shortfall by encouraging more businesses and institutions to donate extra food. Bryn Oakleaf, an environmental analyst in the Department of Environmental Protection’s Solid Waste Program, said discussions about the need to donate food have "definitely been present" in the department’s presentations and reports on the law.

So far, though, Bornstein said many of the potential donors he has spoken to still don’t know that the law exists or don’t know that it applies to them. While he praised the Agency of Natural Resources for working closely with the food bank during the ban’s rollout, Bornstein said that he and his colleagues had not expected to have to explain the law as much as they currently do.

Reaching out to potential donors

"We find that potential donors have some idea of what their responsibilities are under Act 148, but more often than not we need to explain in detail exactly what they need to do to comply," he said.

Gabe Zoerheide, the newly hired executive director of the nonprofit Willing Hands, which delivers food donations to charitable organizations in the Upper Valley region, said it was still too early to tell whether the law would have an effect on food donations. The nonprofit charitable organization works with 22 local food donors and delivers mostly fruits and vegetables to 54 organizations every day of the week, all year long. Last year, drivers delivered about 190 tons of food.

"It’s a big question mark for us, it could be a really big deal," he said, referring to the ban.

The implications of the law are especially relevant to Zoerheide, who is looking for new food donors. In the last year or two, Willing Hands has experienced a dip in donations. He said the decline was due to more efficient purchasing by one of its main suppliers, Co-op Foodstores.

"One of the main questions I have is how many places are not in compliance with Act 148," Zoerheide said, adding that it isn’t clear how the state would enforce the ban.

Businesses and institutions are required to comply if they are producing 52 tons of food scraps or more per year and if they are within 20 miles of a composting site, which in practical terms means a lot of places could be exempt, according to some critics.

Kelly of the Department of Environmental Protection countered that most of the state, from Burlington down to Brattleboro, is covered by one of Vermont’s 10 composting facilities, though the Rutland area is still underserved. Starting on July 1, 2020, all food scraps will be diverted from landfills regardless of their distance from a composting facility.

"The goal with a phased in timeline was to incentivize the collection (hauling) and processing/use (facilities) of food scrap materials before the 2020 milestone takes effect," he wrote in an email.

Connecting food wasters with ‘food rescuers’

As for enforcement, Oakleaf said staff at the Agency of Natural Resources was providing technical assistance and visiting food scrap generators, haulers and transfer stations that they had received complaints about. Each complaint is entered into a formal enforcement tracking database that is used to show how the agency dealt with each problem. So far, the agency has issued some notices of alleged violation to municipalities related to the submission of their Solid Waste Implementation Plan, she said.

"As it relates to organics, we certainly are seeing proactive compliance even in the instance that the generator is outside of a 20-mile radius. It is not a large number, but we are seeing that happening already," Oakleaf said.

Part of the reason why there haven’t been more food donations is because the law was written to divert waste from landfills, not mandate food donation, said Rachel Carter, communications director for Vermont’s Farm to Plate Network, which is responsible for implementing the state’s 10-year food system plan.

One of the task forces within the network, the Food Cycle Coalition, is looking at how to connect food waste with food rescue efforts. It includes stakeholders within the Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Foodbank, as well as the public and private haulers responsible for picking up and delivering food scraps. So far, only one of those haulers, a private company called GrowCompost, has begun a system to pick up food for donation, according to Carter.

The state is also working to improve the law’s overall visibility. According to Kelly, Department of Environmental Protection staff is working on developing an education campaign to better inform the public. Part of that compaign will be the promotion of what Kelly hopes will become the new universal symbol of organic waste disposal, a white apple core on a bright green background. Then there is the Materials Management Map, which not only shows where obligated parties can send compost, but shows local food retailers where they can send donations. The new campaign will build on the Agency of Natural Resources’ outreach over the past two years, he said.

"Put simply, having three bins [recycling, organics and waste] is the future of solid waste. Meaning organics separation is happening, and it is not a matter of if, but simply when," Kelly said.

Tomorrow: Removing legal and financial obstacles for food donors.